Mention Somalia and images of pirated cargo ships and the mutilated bodies of dead U.S. soldiers being drug through the streets of Mogadishu come to mind.
If ever there was a textbook example of a failed state, Somalia is it.
Born in July 1960 as the ill-conceived offspring of a unification of the British Somaliland protectorate to the north and Italian Somaliland to the south, Somalia set out with the lofty intentions of being a parliamentary democracy.
And in the beginning, it achieved that goal, briefly.
In 1967, it became the first African nation to witness a founding president hand over the reins of power peacefully to his successor after being defeated in a publicly broadcast parliamentary vote.
But from then on, Somalia’s history went quickly downhill.
An outcast nation within the Horn of Africa and the Organization of African Unity (precursor of the modern-day African Union) for its unrelenting territorial ambitions to assimilate Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti into its newly founded state, the young Somalia was both feared and disdained by its neighbors, who felt that Mogadishu would stir ethnic and religious tensions and unhinge the delicate balance of power in the region.
Somalia’s response to this marginalization was both to the point and bellicose: the creation of one of the largest armies in the continent, an army which had no qualms about imposing itself into the internal political struggles of already unstable neighboring states.
Ironically, it was that very army — which was intended to show Somalia’s military clout and earn it regional status — that led to its initial downfall.
In 1969, a military coup ushered a two-decade-long authoritarian socialist rule characterized by oppressive persecution and unabashed torture.
During that period, the Somali military, with Soviet backing, invaded Ethiopia in 1977, and would have completely absorbed the former Abyssinia into its territory had the Russians not decided to change sides in mid-war and back Addis Ababa.
When the military regime finally collapsed in early 1991, Somalia descended into a seemingly bottomless abyss of political chaos, factional rebellions, economic ruin and near-anarchy.
Warring clans and marauding bands of criminals plundered the countryside as famine and disease ravaged the population.
Those who could escape fled to Kenya, creating the world’s largest refugee camp in Dadaab.
Well-intended but futile foreign intervention (particularly by the United States) aimed at trying to stem the tide of violence and suffering only exacerbated the Somalian social and political landscape.
When then-U.S. President Bill Clinton finally withdrew his forces after the disastrous Black Hawk Down battle in Mogadishu, Somalia essentially became a no-man’s land, where foreign powers feared to tread and a pageant of inept and corrupt leaders took turns sacking the country and what little cash was left in its coffers.
In 2006, in a tit-for-tat aggression, Ethiopia decided to avenge the 1977 invasion of its territory with a similar assault against Somalia.
In the end, the Somalis were able to expel the Ethiopians, but at a cost of the last vestiges of social order in the country.
It was then that Somalia gave birth to a whole new kind of terrorism, the pirating of international maritime trade routes and the extortion of the global shipping industry.
In 2012, the world reacted by pumping cash and humanitarian aid into Somalia with the hopes of resuscitating democracy.
A carefully groomed new president, Hassan Shaikh Mahmoud, was instated and, with Western supervision and support, a tenuous peace was reached between the various warring clan leaders.
In August, parliamentary and presidential elections are slated, but there is no guarantee that they will not be bollixed by yet another round of political or sectarian violence.
The chances for democracy and stability in Somalia are slim, but not impossible.
It was a fragile dream that came to fruition in 1960, albeit ever so fleetingly, and it is now that dream that is the cornerstone for possible peace throughout the Horn of Africa.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected].