Somalia Rebounds

Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images
Demonstrators at a protest against the Islamist militia al-Shabab, Mogadishu, Somalia, January 2016

For the past several decades, Somalia has been one of the poorest and most turbulent nations on earth. But in recent years the country has begun to edge away from chaos. Airplane passengers no longer fall silent as their plane descends into Mogadishu airport, which lies right next to the sea. They are greeted by a shuttle bus rather than a battered pickup truck filled with militiamen in threadbare camouflage. Neighborhoods heaped with rubble are sprouting new houses, new hotels, new shops, new roads, new solar-powered street lamps, and (once unimaginable) new cafés.

Though violence remains a fresh memory and still occurs, a growing number of Somali professionals and entrepreneurs have returned from all over the world to reclaim their old houses, old businesses, and old lives. They are determined not to let the occasional bomb or terrorist attack scare them off again. Diners in Mogadishu’s new restaurants and pizzerias look up for an instant when explosions rattle the windows but then go back to their plates. Of course, there is a limit to this. A double truck bombing in mid-October killed more than 250 people, deeply unsettling the city.

Once an Italian colony, Somalia had an odd history during the cold war, switching abruptly in the 1970s from a Soviet client state to a staunch American ally. When the cold war ended, so did American support for Somalia’s dictator, Siad Barre, and an alliance of clan-based faction leaders brought down Barre’s government in 1991. They soon turned on one another and none emerged strong enough to run the country. The modern nation-state of Somalia disintegrated into fiefs, with militias and warlords terrorizing the country, and a famine soon broke out. The United States tried to intervene, sending in tens of thousands of soldiers in the early 1990s, but the mission failed and Somalia sank into deeper disarray. Most of the people who died during this period were starving children.

From this upheaval, an Islamist movement gradually arose. By 2006 an alliance of Islamist sheikhs and militias had defeated the warlords. Somalia enjoyed a few months of relative peace but then was plunged back into violence when neighboring Ethiopia invaded, and, with American help, overthrew the Islamists and installed a puppet government that controlled no more than a few city blocks. The government essentially redeployed many of the same warlords who had destroyed Somalia in the first place. One of the Islamist militias, al-Shabab, emerged as a powerful insurgent force, exploiting the country’s widespread antigovernment feeling to recruit thousands of young men and vowing to turn Somalia into a strict Islamic state. Soon, with al-Qaeda’s help, al-Shabab began staging devastating attacks across Somalia.

Foreign powers, including the United States and the European Union, under the auspices of the UN Security Council,…

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