Somalia is a Muslim nation that has been without an effective government since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. After Mr Barre’s ouster, clan-based faction leaders turned on each other, and with no single group able to dominate, carved the country into a patchwork of fiefdoms. US and UN intervention in the 1990s failed and the last international forces withdrew in humiliation in March 1995.
The nation, which has one of Africa’s longest coastlines, stretching from the Indian Ocean around to the Gulf of Aden, has a handful of major clans, each with numerous sub-clans, and has been plagued by clan violence and rivalry. However, the majority of Somalis share a single language and culture.
The northwestern area of Somali, known as Somaliland, has enjoyed relative stability, has its own administration and declared its independence. But it has not been internationally recognised.
There have been more than a dozen attempts to form a government. The last took place in Nairobi creating the Transitional Federal Government in late 2004. The meeting resulted in an administration led by Abdullahi Yusuf, president, who is a veteran warlord and ally of neighbouring Ethiopia. But his administration has been plagued by divisions and has exerted little influence outside Baidoa, a small town in central Somalia. It relies on Ethiopia for its survival and its own fighting force includes militia from Mr Yusuf’s home region of Puntland.
As the faction leaders fought during the 1990s an Islamist movement known as al-Itihaad al-Islaami was formed, but was defeated by Mr Yusuf’s militia and later by Ethiopian forces. However, Islamic courts, which provided security and justice continued to emerge in the capital, Mogadishu, and other areas, helping fill the void created by the absence of a state.
Early this year militias loyal to an alliance of the courts fought a group of warlords backed by the US. In June, the Islamists defeated the warlords and seized control of Mogadishu. The Islamists’ victory was welcomed by many Somalis who loathed the warlords and were tired of years of extortion and violence. It was the first time a single entity had controlled the capital since 1991. However, the courts’ alliance is not a monolithic group and includes both conservatives and militant hardliners, including a military wing known as the Shabaab, which is thought to include extremists.
The most prominent figure among the hardline element is generally regarded to be Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former army officer who was head of al-Itihaad’s military wing in the 1990s. The US lists him among a group of individuals associated with al-Qaida, and says the courts’ alliance includes and shelters terrorist suspects, including those wanted in connection with the 1998 US embassy bomb attacks in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. The alliance denies the charges.
The leader of the more conservative/pragmatist element within the courts is Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, who studied in Sudan and Libya and considers himself an intellectual.
The alliance is now known as the Council of Islamic Courts.
The group had increased its area of control throughout much of southern Somalia before Ethiopia’s recent offensive. However, analysts say many Somalis, who mostly follow a Sufi form of Islam and have a reputation for trade and entrepreneurship, would be unlikely to be content with a Taliban-style government. Their main desire is peace and stability.
Ethiopia has long history of Christian rule, but also has a large Muslim population including ethnic Somalis living in the southeast of Ethiopia.
The impoverished country, which has numerous domestic problems of its own, shares a porous border with Somalia and the two countries have a history of conflict.
The Ogaden war - a territorial dispute - erupted in 1977 after Somalia sent troops into Ethiopia. Some Somali nationalists believe in the idea of a “greater Somalia” which would include the southeastern region of Ethiopia, eastern parts of Kenya and Djibouti. The Somalia army was defeated after the Soviet Union, which supported both countries, abandoned Somalia and Cuban troops came to the aid of Ethiopia’s army.
In the 1990s, Ethiopia sent forces into central Somalia to defeat the Somali Islamist movement al-Itihaad. Throughout the 1990s up until today, Addis Ababa has supported various Somali warlords and has been accused of interfering in its neighbour and fuelling instability.
Ethiopia, which has a relatively well equipped military and is a key regional ally of the US, has backed the Transitional Federal Government since it was formed in 2004 and has long ties with President Yusuf. As the Islamists increased their area of control in southern Somalia and moved closer to Baidoa, the transitional government’s seat, Addis Ababa repeatedly warned it would intervene to protect the Somali administration and its own borders. Analysts say that while Ethiopia has legitimate security concerns about Somalia, it also has a history of meddling in Somali affairs and is bent on ensuring its allies retain control.
Eritrea backs the Islamists but has no ideological or religious ties to the group. Its backing for the courts alliance is believed to be purely motivated by a wish to counter Ethiopia, with which it fought a 1998-2000 border war.
The border dispute between Asmara and Addis Ababa has still not be resolved after Ethiopia refused to accept the details of an international boundary commission’s ruling. The situation on their border has been tense for several years and a UN peacekeeping mission along the boundary has been rendered impotent by Eritrean restrictions. Analysts fear that Asmara could see Ethiopia’s involvement in Somalia as an opportunity to grab back territory currently administered by Addis Ababa but which the international boundary commission has ruled as Eritrean.
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