In the last days of his presidency, George H.W. Bush dispatched the U.S. Marines to Somalia for Operation Restore Hope. One of the defining cases of humanitarian intervention, the U.S. action was intended to stem the violence, looting, and famine that had emerged after the 1991 collapse of the Siad Barre regime.

The Marines landed in Mogadishu in December 1992 and at peak strength numbered over 30,000. In April 1993 the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) took over command with a multinational force including troops from every continent, but the United States continued to make key decisions, especially military ones. The urban war against insurgent General Mohamed Farah Aidid’s militias started in June and ended in October of that year, when 18 American soldiers were killed in a daylong battle in Mogadishu as they pursued Aidid and his leading lieutenants. U.S. forces withdrew just a few months later, and in March 1995 the last UN forces left.

Shortly after the fiasco in the streets of Mogadishu, President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council embarked on a “lesson-learning experience” that was even more disastrous than the decision to fight Aidid. Rather than analyzing why Operation Restore Hope went so badly wrong, the administration shifted blame everywhere but where it belonged: on a poor understanding of the Somali crisis, a failure to appreciate the central historical role of the United States in that crisis, and the arrogant assumption that overwhelming power compensates for ignorance. The result was Presidential Decision Directive 25 (PDD 25), which placed immense restrictions on future U.S. military interventions, including support for UN interventions that involved no U.S. troops. Washington’s studied inaction in the face of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide grew directly from PDD 25.

Some analysts have sought to generalize from the Somali failure about the prospects for successful humanitarian military intervention,1 but few have examined the consequences of humanitarian intervention by studying the aftermath in Somalia—where centralized political authority has never reemerged and intermittent hunger afflicts many. Conventional wisdom holds that the country faces these troubles because its clan system of politics cannot provide the basis for a modern state, but the real story in Somalia is not about the limits of clan politics. Instead, it is about political conflicts over the control of basic resources, both before and after the collapse of the state. In the 1980s—in part because of Somalia’s role in Cold War conflicts in the Horn of Africa—control of the state became the most valuable prize in the country. Somalis continue to kill each other to win it.

Conflict and State Collapse in Somalia

At independence in 1960, Somalia was regarded as one of the few true nations on the African continent. Much more than a colonial concoction, Somalia had a shared language and culture and a 99 percent Muslim population. But the history of the next 30 years has shown that common language, culture, and religion do not suffice to make a state.

Somalia is poor. In much of the country, where the climate is semiarid, the only way of life is herding livestock. Two rivers—the Jubba and Shebelle—divide the southern part of the country, providing irrigation for agriculture along their banks. Somalis are famously enterprising and have long been traders, exporting livestock and engaging in all manner of business throughout East Africa, the Middle East, and increasingly further afield.

Somali society is organized according to the principle of descent: every Somali is supposed to know his or her lineage right back to the sheikhs who founded the four main Samaale clan families: Darood, Dir, Hawiye, and Isaak. These clan families further subdivide, in theory making for as many subdivisions as there are generations. By custom, some of these subdivisions are more politically significant than others, providing for a nomenclature of clans and subclans. There are also significant minorities, both the Saab Somali (Digil and Rahanweyn clans), who live a mainly agrarian lifestyle in the south, and non-Somali minorities of traders, town dwellers, riverine farmers, and former Bantu slaves from East Africa. Somali ideology values the “pure” clanism and nomadism of the Samaale clans.

Somalia has faced a series of hurdles to unification. During the colonial era the Somali peninsula was carved into five pieces by imperial powers. The Italians occupied the larger part of the coastal littoral including the future capital, Mogadishu. The British annexed the coastline opposite the port of Aden. These two parts came together to form the independent Republic of Somalia. Further to the south, the British took additional Somali-inhabited territory as part of Kenya, while in the north, the French occupied Djibouti. Meanwhile the interior of the peninsula, known as the Ogaden after its principal clan, was conquered by Ethiopia.

Aspiring to bring the entire peninsula under one state, Somalia was the only independent African country to refuse to sign the 1963 charter of the Organization of African Unity. In the 1960s Somalia supported a guerrilla war in Kenya, hoping to bring northeast Kenya into its ambit. It also went to war twice with Ethiopia, most seriously in 1977 when President Siad Barre—well armed by the Soviet Union—saw what he believed was his best chance, with Ethiopia weakened by internal war. The Soviet Union, however, saw revolutionary Ethiopia as a bigger prize and in one of the Cold War’s most remarkable about-faces abandoned its former client and shipped a huge arsenal to Ethiopia, leading President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, to remark that détente “lies buried beneath the sands of the Ogaden.” Somalia was defeated and withdrew but America stepped into the breach and armed Siad Barre for a decade, making Somalia one of the world’s largest aid recipients. Somali markets were stocked with corn from Kansas; USAID Land Cruisers crisscrossed the plains carrying aid workers to development schemes, the ruins of which now litter the countryside; and affluent villas funded by diverted aid monies sprang up in south Mogadishu.

Over the course of the 1980s the divisive dictatorship of Siad Barre sparked a series of insurrections that gradually reduced the president’s power to the city of Mogadishu. The most serious rebellion was in the north, former British Somaliland, where the Somali National Movement (SNM) began guerrilla attacks in 1980 and briefly captured the two main towns in 1988. In a vicious scorched-earth counterattack, the government destroyed the cities and drove most of the population (principally Isaak) into exile in Ethiopia. Thus was born the separatist sentiment that caused the North to break away and declare itself the independent Republic of Somaliland in April 1991—a state that has yet to obtain international recognition. Despite government “victory” in the north, disintegration had set in and a host of other insurgencies sprang up, notably the United Somali Congress (USC), headed by General Mohamed Farah Aidid and based among the Hawiye clan, and the Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM) among the Ogaden.

In late 1990 the combined opposition forces converged on the capital and, after weeks of fighting, Siad Barre fled. The USC occupied Mogadishu, which was also largely Hawiye. But the USC had split into two competing factions, and Mogadishu businessman Ali Mahdi prevented General Aidid from going to Radio Mogadishu to announce his victory. The result was an intractable and bloody conflict, with looting and economic disruption that eventually created famine conditions in many parts of southern Somalia.

The suffering was intense, and the conflict prevented most Western relief agencies from operating safely in Somalia. As a result, the calls for a military humanitarian intervention intensified over the course of 1992. In their determination to bring in foreign troops, and thereby set a precedent for a new form of humanitarianism in the post–Cold War and post–Gulf War era, the heads of some relief agencies took liberties with the truth in their description of the situation. Figures for aid looting were exaggerated, the port was declared closed when careful negotiation could have readily reopened it, and figures for those likely to die from starvation were hyped, just as death rates due to famine were tapering off. But they got what they wanted: in November, a lame-duck President Bush dispatched the troops.

The U.S. Marines had the easy part: protecting humanitarian relief operations just as the famine was waning. In these circumstances it was not difficult to declare success. But the United States postponed the hard political work, failed even to begin the task of disarmament, and then handed over command to a smaller UN force (UNOSOM) in April—while asking it to do more. Under the command of U.S. Admiral Jonathan Howe, UNOSOM picked a fight with General Aidid and proved unready to take casualties. In October the United States made a truce with Aidid and scaled down the operation.

Since the withdrawal of the UN troops in 1995 Somalia has suffered an intractable low-intensity conflict, punctuated by explosions of violence in the southern cities of Mogadishu and Kismayo. Twelve years after the collapse of Siad Barre’s regime, Somalia still lacks a recognized central government. A succession of mediation attempts by Djibouti and Kenya so far has come to naught. The Transitional National Government (TNG) was formed in 2000, but it excluded key factional leaders, some of whom gained backing from Ethiopia, which suspected transitional government leaders of backing insurrectionary forces in the Ethiopian Ogaden. More recently the Kenyans have been leading a prolonged and thus far inconclusive round of peace talks. Meanwhile, the self-declared Somaliland Republic has enjoyed its de facto independence, securing (for the most part) internal peace.

Economic Roots of the Conflict

Why has the Somali conflict proved so hard to resolve? Intractable wars such as those in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo have been closely linked to struggles for economic resources. Lacking oil, diamonds, forests, or any other reserves of plunderable minerals, Somalia does not seem a strong candidate for a resource-driven conflict. As a result, conventional explanations have focused on the level of armaments in the country and political fragmentation produced by the clan system. Armaments, however, do not produce wars, and the Somali clan system is more a way of organizing Somalia’s political and economic life than a determining factor in conflicts. Instead, closer study of the conflict’s history suggests that control of resources lies at its heart.


Traditionally, riverine agriculture and pastoral husbandry have sustained the Somali economy. In the 1980s, as it became embedded in the global economy and the Cold War geopolitical calculus, these resources were supplemented by a substantial influx of foreign aid and currency. The social groups clustered around these resources have been the principal factors in the political conflict.

1. Riverine Agriculture: Three principal groups—farmers, landowners, and self-styled liberators—occupy the irrigable lands along the banks of the Jubba and Shebelle rivers. The farmers are members of minority groups—Digil and Rahanweyn, various Bantu groups, and others (the latter now much depleted)—who inhabited these areas fifty years ago and used simple cultivation techniques. Most of them are now farm workers who were forcibly evicted by the current landowners and own little or no land.

In the 1950s the landowning group began a systematic land-grabbing campaign designed to create banana plantations and other irrigated farms. But the biggest land grab was perpetrated in the 1980s by those closely associated with the Siad Barre regime. Sometimes the land was not even farmed, the title being used as collateral for obtaining loans from aid donors—which were then used for trade or consumption. The former farmers were reduced to landless laborers. Self-styled “liberators,” businessmen and soldiers associated with General Aidid’s USC, overran most of the riverine areas in 1991–92 and generally appropriated the land for themselves, rather than returning it to the original farmers. They were more cruel than the displaced landowners and exploited the original farmers with still greater ferocity. During the 1992 famine many plantations continued to produce bananas and sometimes corn, but most of the “liberators” banned the original owners from entering them—sometimes savagely punishing those who slipped through the fence to find food for their families.

2. Pastoral Husbandry: Somaliland (in the north and northwest) and Puntland (in the northeast) are dominated by pastoralism and the livestock export trade rather than agriculture and efforts to extract resources from the state. In the 1970s and 1980s traditional Somali pastoralism was completely transformed by the advent of large-scale commercial exports. In the early 1980s livestock exports through Berbera port in Somaliland provided over 75 percent of Somalia’s recorded foreign currency income. This export growth involved the establishment of a very complex trading and financial system based at Berbera, with a network of agents and brokers stretching throughout Somalia. In the 1980s these traders came into conflict with the Siad Barre government, which tried to control the livestock trade.

While the Siad Barre regime was less successful in these efforts than in its land grabs, the state did manage to penetrate the pastoral economy. Siad Barre used state resources (drilling water wells, establishing grazing enclosures, and sending in the army to impound herds) in support of its favored groups. The Hawiye of the central rangelands were particularly hard-hit because their neighbors belonged to the president’s Marehan clan. The losers in the dual processes of capitalist development and political favoritism were forced to become urban laborers or rural bandits.

In 1989, when General Aidid and the USC arrived in the central rangelands to begin the armed struggle, they found a de facto insurrection already in place. After the collapse of the state in 1991 and following a brief period of conflict, most of the former interclan conflicts over pastoral land were stabilized. With no state power to intrude, a relative equilibrium returned. The herders reestablished workable boundaries between their grazing lands and collaborative arrangements for access to water and markets. Conflicts have recurred but never to the devastating extent of the late 1980s up to 1991.

In the 1990s the leading export traders of Berbera played a key role in establishing and stabilizing the Somaliland state, while those in Puntland’s Bosaso played a similar role. Most Somali livestock is now owned or controlled by these trading networks.

3. Remittances: The remittance sector of the economy has become vibrant and vital across the whole country and forms the backbone of a growing financial services sector as well as offshoots such as telecommunications. Somalia has been a major labor exporter since the 1970s. By the 1980s, analyses of the survival of the Somali economy—and its perplexing prosperity in certain sectors—concluded that a huge unrecorded inflow of remittances was a key economic factor. Foreign exchange was in fact plentiful in urban Somalia, and those with access to it were able to survive lean times and even invest in housing and consumer goods. The breakdown of the financial service sector, already well under way in the 1980s, was completed by 1991. Thereafter, private sector international brokers established an extremely effective and efficient money transfer system, enabling Somalis working in East Africa, the Gulf, Europe, America, and elsewhere to wire money back home. By 2001 the leading Somali finance houses were multimillion-dollar operations, diversified into telecommunications, trade, and light industry.

The State

In the 1980s state power in Somalia was controlled by a cluster of military officers and businessmen associated with President Siad Barre and his Marehan clan. As it was not a traditional elite, this group made persistent efforts to insert itself into the different sectors of the Somali economy—agricultural, pastoral, and commercial. Beyond some engagement with pastoralism in the Gedo region (adjacent to Kenya and Ethiopia), it lacked an established niche in Somalia’s economy. So it embarked upon a decade-long attempt to concentrate power in its own hands, and use that power—particularly control of the army and security forces—to control a greater share of national resources.

But what was of particular importance for the emerging conflict was that this economic strategy coincided with a shift in Somalia’s geopolitical position. Somalia had become a prime target for foreign aid, both because of its unresolved conflict with Soviet-backed Ethiopia and its position adjacent to the sea lanes that brought oil from the Persian Gulf to Western markets. This rapid expansion of foreign economic and military assistance made the size and strength of the state grotesquely disproportionate to the national economy and social fabric. Two-thirds of the national budget was aid money, and the U.S. General Accounting Office found that more than 80 percent of U.S. assistance intended for refugees was being “diverted” (i.e., stolen) by the government and army. With aid and arms flowing in, the ruling group was interested not in fostering economic development but in self-enrichment. Although its efforts to break the hold of its major competitor (the northern livestock merchants) failed, Marehan control over the instruments of state power enabled it to acquire control over large areas of agricultural and pastoral land, as well as siphon off foreign aid. This strategy of seizure was economic madness that directly attacked the productive sectors of the economy, but it could be sustained so long as the flow of assistance continued.This experience—in which the struggle for control of resources became a struggle for control of the state—has played a decisive role in shaping subsequent conflict.

Conflict between landowners and “liberators” has dominated the Jubba and Shebelle valleys over the last 14 years. The landowners anticipate a return to “their” land when they produce their land titles for a new government, and the “liberators” fear this. Neither group has any intention of returning the land to the dispossessed farmers. Each area has its particular complexities of alliance across class and clan, but the general pattern of dispute is remarkably constant. Resolving these will require much legal archaeology into the provenance and status of land titles.

Finance acquired from the state under the Siad Barre regime continues to play an important role in the viability of the contending factions. Behind each faction is a business network with branches in Somalia and abroad. Many of these were built up under state patronage. Most importantly, competing political elites continue to expect that they will be able to use state power for economic advantage in the manner of their predecessors. So the stakes in the struggle for state power extend well beyond officeholding.

The creation of the TNG at the Djibouti conference of 2000 indicated just how little had been learned about the political economy of Somalia in the intervening decade. The TNG essentially promised a return to a rent-seeking patrimonialism, in which clans would turn shares of political power into resource claims. The viability of the TNG is premised on international assistance and coercion, rather than a mutually beneficial relationship between the state and the productive sectors. Businessmen from the livestock, agricultural, and (especially) the financial services sectors were undoubtedly influential in the process of forming the government. But they were unable to envision a government that would act as a servant to them rather than a parasite—perhaps anticipating major inflows of aid and sovereign rents. In addition, the business class was unable to impose such a mode of governance on the militia leaders. It has not proved possible to organize the productive sector into an effective political force sufficient to gain control over the state. Widespread rent-seeking, in search of diminishing rents, has proved more attractive than the more long-term prospect of building up a political economy based predominantly on productive activities. This conflict over the imaginary resources of a restored state has been sufficient to disable the establishment of an effective government.

Order and Fragmentation since 1991

If the roots of the Somali conflict lie in the struggle to control resources and the expectation that state power is the key to such control, clan divisions help to account for the ways that the conflict plays out in different places: in particular, its relative intractability in the south and the greater prospects for solutions in Somaliland and Puntland.

For much of Somali history, clan ties had a primarily social significance. Clan militarism emerged only with the creation of a police state in the 1980s under Siad Barre. Its effects were compounded by the destruction of civic organizations such as trade unions, which left the clan as the only basis for social organization and trust. The clan-based mobilization strategy adopted by the SNM—following the loss of nearly half its forces in the 1988 battles—intensified the shift toward clan militarism. Until 1988, the SNM was a multiclan army; thereafter it was a federation of clan militias, and its non-Isaak members and recruits were mostly encouraged to create or join other movements (notably the USC).

As a result, as the war reached its crescendo in 1990, the contending armies consisted of large clan-family coalitions. Artifacts of the political-military conflict, these alliances were inherently unstable and fought one other as soon as the government had collapsed. When each failed to win control of the central state, the locus of conflict shifted to major strategic resources such as cities and ports, fragmenting the clan alliances. Thus the major battles of late 1991 and early 1992 were intra-USC and intra-SPM. These conflicts also remained unresolved, producing still further fragmentation—and also realignment, as fractions of each clan alliance allied with fractions of the other.

Two years of political turmoil deflated the value of controlling the central state. But this process was interrupted by the 1992 military intervention, which sharpened the political conflict (and later the military one) by re-increasing the stakes. The UN also tried to freeze the fragmentation of the factions by awarding representation to these existing factions. The rationale was to simplify the political process and create a stable basis for negotiation, but the effect was to preserve and give added weight to inherently unstable political entities. With a seat at the UN conference table came resources. Political organizations therefore coalesced around very weak socioeconomic bases used as vehicles to compete for external recognition and the resources that accompany it.

In the case of Somaliland, this impasse was broken, partly because the U.S.–UN intervention never reached the area. In 1991 the process of fragmentation there was more rapid and more complete than in the south. But the conflicts were resolved and a regional order finally reestablished with the 1993 Boroma Conference. The resulting national Somaliland government was founded on cooperation among the Berbera-based livestock traders, who were terrified by the commercially disastrous implications of an outbreak of fighting in Berbera port. They even extended credit to the government to finance a police force. Thus the Republic of Somaliland emerged as a profit-sharing agreement among the dominant livestock traders, with a constitution appended.

No such stabilization has emerged in southern Somalia. While most people want to see a stable and representative Somali government, each military faction fears that it will lose heavily if state control goes to a rival faction. So each has an interest in opting out of any proposed agreement. Until a government built on civic principles (rather than clan-faction agreement) is created, external pressure will be needed to form a minimal consensus. It’s a classic prisoner’s dilemma.

Meanwhile commerce progresses. Somali businessmen have proven themselves capable of continuing successful commerce without a state or regulatory authority. Moreover, in commercial districts such as Mogadishu’s Bokara market, merchants of different clans are ready to collaborate in providing joint security. In the wider Somali context, however, such local agreements have not enabled the consolidation of a dominant class that can stabilize the state. Mercantile interests remain divided. In particular, the issue of real estate ownership in Mogadishu is unresolved. Before 1991 Mogadishu attracted investment from all sections of the business class. Many businessmen aligned with the USC are in possession of property claimed by others (mainly Darood associated with the former regime). A parallel issue is the possession of farmland by Hawiye “liberators,” which Darood “landowners” want returned.

It is very unlikely that any future central government will have the same power to dispense resources that the Siad Barre government enjoyed. Far-reaching governmental intrusion into the economy has gone out of fashion, and Cold War–era distribution of resources to military allies can no longer keep regimes afloat. But this needs to be made clear to the factions. If the roots of the conflict lie in the struggle over resources, then authority over economic dispensation—control of the monetary authority, mechanisms for contracting, land tenure system—should be established prior to a political settlement. This would take some of the heat out of the current political competition in Mogadishu.

Operation Restore Hope and Its Impacts

The 1992–93 international intervention in Somalia revived the dream of a centralized state that would be a major recipient of foreign assistance. Accustomed to interpreting international interest in their country on the basis of its geopolitical standing and to conspiratorial realpolitik in the conduct of foreign relations, Somalis were reluctant to believe the humanitarian rationale for President Bush’s intervention. Most supposed that America had rediscovered a strategic interest in Somalia’s position at the tip of the Horn of Africa, or that vast reserves of oil had been identified beneath its sands. More immediately, Somalis assumed that international engagement in their country would revert to form, namely the generous sponsorship of a strong centralized ruler.

The intervention therefore sharpened factional conflict by increasing the rewards anticipated from controlling the state. This conflict initially took a political rather than military form, as none of the factions dared challenge American military power. But when forces under General Muhammad Sa’id Hirsi Morgan of SPM captured Kismayo from Aidid’s USC and its allies in February 1993, with American and Belgian troops standing idly by, the factional leaders learned that the international forces were not ready to risk casualties. The war was therefore reignited, and in due course U.S. and UN forces themselves became party to it.

The intervention also brought immense external resources into the country in the form of aid and commercial contracts. Those resources were destabilizing in several respects. In 1992–93, the flow of money resulted in major inflation and then depreciation of the otherwise stable Somali shilling. At the same time, the intervention recentralized the principal locus of conflict, with new attention focused on such increasingly valuable strategic resources as ports, airports, and roads. Even before the first Marines landed, the United States had inserted itself into the economic equation and thus into the political struggle. Aspirations to being a neutral, honest broker were naïve.

American and UN forces arrived armed with a simplified, clan-based analysis of the political crisis. Their formula was to get the clans to agree on power sharing. But this mechanical approach simply ducked the question of the nature of power in Somalia and why groups were fighting for it. Confused by the proliferation of factions—especially their ever-expanding number—the United States and the UN insisted on a moratorium on new political forces. They announced that they would award seats at the conference table only to a limited number of preexisting factions, all of them based on clan. These artificial entities, frozen at a particular moment of political evolution, suddenly gained huge and unanticipated significance—both as legitimate political actors and as conduits for international resources. The clan factions represented constituencies, but only insofar as those constituencies were candidates for external patronage.

Ultimately, Somalia’s political infrastructure proved too weak to sustain the claims and expectations laid upon it, and the United States and the UN were too slow and inept to make political progress. The intervention vanished, just as Siad Barre’s state had vanished a few years earlier.

In retrospect, the intervention, which cost billions of dollars, has left remarkably little political imprint on Somalia. From the outset, the intervention was based on a misunderstanding of the crisis in Somalia—and partly a deliberate misrepresentation. The initial humanitarian focus led to missed political opportunities, and by the time the American government recognized the need for a political engagement, it was too late. The political dynamics in the country, substantially altered and intensified by the intervention itself, were running ahead of the U.S.–UN capacity for response.

Above all, the United States failed to understand its own history as a major player in Somalia, though that history strongly influenced the way it was perceived and the role it could play. Unwittingly, the intervention worsened the underlying pathologies of Somalia’s political economy. But after the disastrous military confrontation with General Aidid, the United States focused its inquiries on command and control procedures, while blaming the UN for what was almost entirely a U.S.–designed debacle. The real lessons were not learned, and the wrong lessons were applied—even more disastrously—in Rwanda in 1994. For Somalia itself, the lessons remain unlearned.

Somalia is still living in the aftermath of the state looting of the 1980s, an unprecedented exercise made possible by a grotesquely overpowerful state. This in turn was the outcome of American political and financial patronage during the Cold War. The more the state and its coterie of businessmen and army officers intruded into local political and economic relations, the more difficult it became to reestablish local peace. Central state power in Mogadishu, precisely molded by this encounter, has yet to be reestablished at all. More than a decade of strategies meant to address the Somali problem—by settling on a power-sharing formula as a prelude to the formation of a national government—are leading nowhere. Imaginary resources, in the form of sovereign rents and aid flows, lie at the heart of the impasse. The U.S.–led intervention, with its unparalleled military and economic power, was unable to achieve peace and stability. Its political naïveté rendered it an impotent colossus. Attempts on the same template are similarly doomed to fail.

When Operation Restore Hope forces landed, skeptics asked whether the Marines represented the vanguard of the humanitarian international or the storm troopers of a new philanthropic imperialism. For Somalis, they represented another bewildering encounter with a powerful but ignorant America—an encounter that only reinforced a tendency toward a pathological political economy based on the illusory promise of an all-powerful central state. It was a waste of hope.


1 See Mohamed Sahnoun, Somalia: The Missed Opportunities (United States Institute of Peace, 1994); Refugee Policy Group, ”Hope Restored? Humanitarian Aid in Somalia 1990–1994,” 1994; W. Clarke and J. Herbst, eds., Learning from Somalia: The Lessons of Armed Intervention (Westview Press, 1997).