Q&A: Somalia's conflict

Al-Shabab fighters photographed in October 2009

Somalia has experienced almost constant conflict since the collapse of its central government in 1991.

The Islamist insurgent group al-Shabab, which has links to al-Qaeda, controls most southern and central areas, while the UN-backed government only runs the capital, Mogadishu and a few small areas.

Who are the al-Shabab insurgents?

The group, whose name means The Youth, emerged from the remnants of the Union of Islamic Courts, which had managed to consolidate control of much of Somalia until Ethiopian forces, supported by the US, invaded in 2006.

It has imposed strict Islamic law, or Sharia, based on the Saudi Wahhabi school of Islam in areas it controls.

Some women have been stoned to death for adultery - including a girl who said she had been raped.

Thieves and drug dealers face having their hands amputated.

And in some areas, they have banned people from watching football or Western films.

But such punishments have not been universally applied - the group comprises many different factions and local leaders have a lot of leeway.

Hundreds of foreigners are believed to have gone to join al-Shabab, including ethnic Somalis who have grown up in the West.

In the years of fighting for Mogadishu, it staged several suicide attacks on government targets and assassinated ministers and other high-ranking officials.

Al-Shabab at a glance

  • Al-Shabab means "The Youth" in Arabic
  • Formed as a radical offshoot of the Union of Islamic Courts in 2006
  • Affiliated to al-Qaeda
  • Controls large swathes of south and central Somalia
  • Killed 76 people in double attack in Uganda during 2010 football World Cup
  • Estimated to have 7,000 to 9,000 fighters

What is the government doing?

Surviving but not much more.

President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed is a former Islamist fighter.

It was hoped that naming him president in 2009, along with the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces would take the sting out of the Islamists but they just labelled him a foreign puppet and carried on fighting.

In fact, his government would have been toppled long ago were it not for the support of troops from Uganda and Burundi in an African Union peacekeeping force.

The African Union wants the UN to take charge of the mission but there is little appetite for this - especially after the disastrous US intervention in Somalia in 1992.

Despite numerous appeals no other country has yet sent troops to Somalia - although last month Djibouti said it would some by the end of the year and Sierra Leone in the new year.

The government has also been beset by in-fighting and accusations that it is not doing much to help ordinary people beset by drought as well as the conflict.

Some well-trained Somalis living abroad have risked their lives to go back home and help the government but they have not been able to change much.

Some donors have lost faith in it but see little alternative.

What is life like for ordinary people?

Map

Awful.

After two decades of conflict, Somalia is the country most badly affected by the region's worst drought in 60 years.

Many thousands of people have fled the country looking for aid but millions remain at home.

Al-Shabab has imposed severe restrictions on aid workers in the areas it controls and as a result, some of these have been declared famine zones.

It fears Western aid workers could provide information to the US to launch air strikes on its senior officials and such raids have happened. It also says the scale of the drought has been exaggerated for political reasons.

Even in the capital, the constant possibility of an al-Shabab attack hampers the aid operation.

During the long battle for Mogadishu, tens of thousands of people fled the city for surrounding areas.

But faced with drought - and after al-Shabab said it was withdrawing its forces from the capital in August 2011 - many have now returned to the war zone in the hope of getting some food aid.

The constant fighting and lack of any effective government has also led many young Somali men to become pirates.

They say this is the only way they can earn enough money to support themselves and their family.

Amazingly, life and business does continue to some extent and Somalia has a very well-developed mobile phone and internet sector.

This is greatly helped by the advanced money transfer business which lets the large Somali diaspora send money back to their relatives still at home.

Young Somalis shelter inside a makeshift tent at a camp site in Doolow, south western Somalia - 2011 Tens of thousands of Somalis have been displaced by confilct and drought

What can be done?

Basically, until some kind of authority is established across the country, Somalia will be a disaster zone, where armed groups from Islamists to pirates can set up base with impunity and it will be difficult to help civilians caught up in natural catastrophes like drought.

But the outside world cannot impose such a government and there is little sign that the many different Somali factions will ever agree on sharing power.

The hope is that at some stage, they grow tired of fighting but the Somalis have a proud tradition of being warriors and there is little sign of that yet.

However, the neighbouring territory of Somaliland, which broke away from the lawless south in 1991, has shown that Somalis can live in peace. It even organises elections in which the incumbent accepts defeat and leaves office - still relatively rare in Africa.

But telling the power-brokers of Mogadishu to copy what is happening in Somaliland is unlikely to go down well at all.

East Africa drought map

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Somalia: Failed State

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