It has been twenty years since Somalia had a functioning government that controlled the whole country. The ouster of Mohammed Said Barre in 1991 led to a descent into chaos and the rule of clan warlords.
Their rivalry eventually led to the rise of fundamentalist Islam and the birth of the Al Shabab movement. As a consequence, the country has become almost ungovernable.
The influence of religious radicals was expected, according to Said Samatar, a professor of modern African history at Rutgers University in the United States.
“When people suffer badly and live chaotically, as the Somalis have been living for the last 20 years, then it’s natural that salvationist or messianic movements arise.”
These fundamentalists, Samatar said, “promise redemption for the Somali people but they are not redeeming anything -- in fact they are wrecking the place.”
Al Shabab’s ideology is imported from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, which provide the money to support the jihadist movement, he said.
Samatar, originally from Somalia, said Al Shabab currently occupies a large swathe of the country, while the Transitional Federal Government controls only part of the city [Mogadishu].
“That situation is catastrophic. Neither side can defeat the other. It would have been better for the country if one side defeats the other.”
Samatar suggests that even if Al Shabab did win, its victory would be short-lived.
“America should let Al Shabab take over, and when they impose a barbaric form of Islam -- the medieval type -- the Somali people will chase them out.”
He offered several reasons for the group’s unpopularity among the public:
Samatar said unlike the jihadists, Somalis have historically practiced a mild, mystical form of Islam, Sufiism.
Also, he says, Somalis are too segmented into clans. That poses a problem for fundamentalist groups, who need total control, with their authority binding on everybody. “That can’t happen in the Somali social context,” he said.
In 2006, US-backed troops from Ethiopia invaded Somalia to help support a transition federal government and fight the Islamic Courts Union, which held large parts of the country. The Islamic government was driven from power, and the Ethiopians left in 2009.
Samatar decried the action, because “it made these Islamists respectable in the eyes of [some] Somalis.”
He said the radicals “were able to present themselves as defenders of the country from the invasion by Ethiopia, a traditional enemy of Somalia. In fact, that was manna from heaven for the Islamists.”
Samatar is pessimistic about the situation in his home country. “There is no way forward. The deadlock in terms of power between Al Shabab and the recognized government in Mogadishu is likely to continue. Neither can defeat the other. I expect more misery and more horrors,” he said.