Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Somalia’s political rights rating declined from 6 to 7 due to the consolidation of power—especially in Mogadishu—by the Islamic Courts Union, which was not a freely elected government accountable to the people and which worked to limit political participation.
For much of 2006, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an Islamist movement, expanded its control over southern Somalia and largely routed the forces of the internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government, which was based in the town of Baidoa. After months of speculation about the extent of Ethiopia’s military involvement in Somalia, Ethiopian leaders in late December declared that their goal was to crush the Islamists and support the transitional government. By year’s end, Ethiopian and government troops had captured Mogadishu, the capital, and driven the ICU to the southernmost portion of the country.
Somalia gained independence in 1960 as an amalgam of former British and Italian colonies populated largely by ethnic Somalis. A 1969 coup by an army general, Siad Barre, led to two decades of instability, brutal civil strife, and the manipulation of clan loyalties for political purposes. Somalia was also plagued by natural disasters including floods, drought, and famine. When Barre’s government was toppled in 1991, the clan-based militias began fighting each other, and Somalia has lacked an effective central government ever since.
Extensive television coverage of famine and civil strife that took some 300,000 lives in 1991 and 1992 prompted a UN humanitarian mission led by U.S. forces. The intervention soon deteriorated into urban guerrilla warfare with the Somali militias, and over 100 UN peacekeepers, including 18 U.S. soldiers, were killed. The $4 billion operation was eventually terminated, and international forces had departed by March 1995. Civil conflict continued over the subsequent decade with varying degrees of intensity.
In 2000, many of the faction leaders agreed to participate in a Transitional National Government (TNG) established at the Conference for National Peace and Reconciliation, hosted by neighboring Djibouti. The conference charter called for a three-year transitional government with a 245-seat Transitional National Assembly (TNA). In August, the TNA elected Abdiqassim Salad Hassan as transitional president. The TNG and more than 20 rival factions signed a ceasefire in Kenya in October 2002, an initial step toward establishing a lasting federal system. Serious fissures in the process developed over the next year, as some factions launched their own power-sharing negotiations in Mogadishu.
The political process was revitalized in 2004 at another conference in Kenya, which resulted in the establishment of a 275-seat parliament, the Transitional Federal Assembly, and a new Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The country’s four largest clans were each given 61 TFA seats, and an alliance of minor clans took the remaining 31. The members in October elected controversial Ethiopian-backed warlord Abdullahi Yusuf to serve a five-year term as the first transitional president. Yusuf had previously been the leader of the breakaway region of Puntland. A month later, he appointed Ali Muhammad Gedi as his prime minister.
Despite the political process, clashes between rival factions continued and hundreds of civilians were killed. The TFG moved from its base in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2005 and established itself by early 2006 in Baidoa, a town about 155 miles north of Mogadishu.
In 2006, a fierce battle for control of Mogadishu broke out between an alliance of warlords and the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a local Islamist group. Critics of the ICU, including Ethiopia and the United States, accused it of links to the terrorist network al-Qaeda. The ICU alleged that the United States was violating a UN weapons embargo by supplying arms to the anti-ICU warlords. By June 2006, the ICU had taken control of Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia, gaining a popular following for its promise to deliver law and order. The TFG in Baidoa feared it would lose any claims on control of the country and called for the intervention of East African peacekeeping troops, a move bitterly opposed by the ICU. Some Somalis warned that the involvement of regional troops would lead to a prolonged conflict, since neighboring states had supported different factions in Somalia, undermining their neutrality. There are credible allegations that Ethiopia’s enemy Eritrea supported the ICU by providing arms to the movement. The UN Security Council passed a resolution on December 6 calling for a force of regional troops to support the TFG, but the measure had not been implemented by year’s end.
Meanwhile, the ICU had taken control of the southern city of Kismayo in September and appeared poised to move on the small territory left to the TFG. By November, peace talks between the TFG and ICU had broken down. Ethiopia said it was obliged to repel the ICU threat, and in December Ethiopian troops were openly deployed in Somalia. A major Ethiopian and TFG offensive ensued late that month, and by year’s end the ICU had been driven from Mogadishu and forced to retreat to the extreme south of the country.
Somalia is a poor country, and the economic problems Somalis face are compounded by both civil strife and natural disasters. The majority of Somalis are pastoralists or subsistence farmers. In the cities, because of the lack of government regulation, businesses and telecommunications industry have continued to function with some success. The absence of central authority since 1991 left a void that allowed businesspeople to enter the market without bureaucratic hurdles.
Since May 1991, the northwestern region of Somaliland, roughly comprising the territory of the former British colony, has functioned with considerable stability as a de facto independent state, though it has not received international recognition. The region of Puntland, in the northeastern corner of the country, has also been relatively autonomous since 1998. However, unlike Somaliland, it has not sought full independence, declaring only a temporary secession until Somalia is stabilized.
Somalia is not an electoral democracy. The ICU, which controlled large swaths of the country for much of 2006, had not publicly committed to creating democratic institutions. Nationwide elections have not been held since the 1969 military coup, but 3,000 representatives of various clans and civic and religious groups chose an internationally recognized transitional parliament in 2000. A new, 275-member Transitional Federal Assembly was convened in 2004, which elected Abdullahi Yusuf to a five-year term as president. The transitional government controlled only a small portion of southern and central Somalia for most of the year. The country has no effective political parties, and the political process is driven largely by clan loyalty.
As in most countries experiencing long-term civil strife, corruption is rampant in Somalia. Transparency International did not rank Somalia in its 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Somalia’s charter provides for press freedom, but journalists face threats and harassment. In the second half of 2006, there was an increase in the frequency of attacks on journalists, both by the ICU and the TFG. After the ICU took control of southern and central Somalia, the relative freedom that journalists enjoyed when the situation was more lawless was replaced by an atmosphere of fear. In one case, award-winning Swedish freelance journalist and photographer Martin Adler was murdered in June while filming a demonstration in Mogadishu. Also that month, the TFG shut down local radio station Radio Shabelle after it reported that a few hundred Ethiopian troops had entered Somalia. In November, Abdulahi Yasin Jama, a journalist who worked for two private radio stations, was detained for three days after he also reported that there were Ethiopian troops in Somalia. The ICU in September began closing critical radio stations and detaining journalists. The private Radio HornAfrik and Radio Simba were both temporarily shuttered for their critical reporting. Radio HornAfrik was told it could resume broadcasting if it agreed to stop playing romantic music and refrained from critical reporting about the ICU.
In December 2006, the New York–based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) expressed its concern over the rising attacks on journalists as the conflict intensified. CPJ criticized the ICU for not permitting the head of the independent National Union of Somali Journalists to leave the country. At the same time, the organization also chided the TFG for shuttering Radio Warsan, which at the time was the only remaining private station in Baidoa, for its critical reporting.
Somalia is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, but there is a small Christian community and some followers of traditional African religions. Even before the ICU’s rise to prominence, religious freedom was limited, and it dwindled further after the Islamists took power in most of the country. While some of the ICU leaders stressed that their aim was to restore law and order in Somalia and not to impose a strict interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law), the courts acted with varying degrees of conservatism, and the overall effect on personal freedoms—particularly those of non-Muslims and secular Muslims—was negative.
Academic freedom faces some restrictions similar to those imposed on the media, and there is no organized higher education system in most of the country.
Xenophobic sentiment escalated after the ICU took power, increasing the operating risks faced by foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other agencies. In September 2006, an Italian nun who had lived in Somalia for decades was murdered in a hospital along with her bodyguard by unidentified gunmen. Even though the situation is dangerous and chaotic, there are still several local and international relief groups and NGOs operating in the country. The state of civil conflict has made broad economic and labor policies impossible to establish, but Somalia’s informal economy still functions and the country has an extensive telecommunications sector.
The ICU had dominated the judiciary in Somalia before it seized political control. Much of the popular support it built up was due to its ability to establish a semblance of law and order in the war-torn country. The courts of the ICU interpreted Sharia with varying degrees of severity, but some judges have been accused of supporting an al-Qaeda or Taliban style of leadership.
Prior to Ethiopia’s attack on the ICU, human rights abuses occurred on a regular basis in Somalia. However, the outbreak of more intense warfare raised the possibility of abuses on a larger scale. Extrajudicial killing, torture, and arbitrary detention are common. Under the ICU, residents faced imprisonment or more severe forms of punishment for ordinary activities that were considered un-Islamic. During the first few days of war with Ethiopia, there were media reports of high civilian casualty rates and the threat of a humanitarian crisis as residents fled the violence.
Discrimination in Somalia is generally clan based, rather than ethnic or religious, since most Somalis share the same ethnicity and faith. Clan loyalty means that the larger, more established clans are able to dominate political and social life and harass those from smaller clans.
Travel throughout Somalia is restricted by poor security, and the situation worsened as fighting involving the ICU, government forces, and Ethiopian troops intensified.
Women’s groups were instrumental in galvanizing support for Somalia’s peace process. The country’s new charter prohibits sexual discrimination, but women experience intense discrimination under customary practices and variants of Sharia. The ICU’s advances in 2006 threatened to amplify the influence of the latter. UN agencies and NGOs are working to raise awareness about the health dangers of female genital mutilation. Various armed factions have recruited children into their militias.