The World’s Most Failed State: Somalia

By Federica Travaglio Romeo

Federica is a  degree seeking student in International Affairs from Worcester, Massachusetts. For a past comparative politics class, as a final paper, she was asked to research a compelling issue in today’s world. Federica decided to analyze the current condition of the state of Somalia and the factors that contributed to the failed state. This research paper gave her the opportunity to not only expand her knowledge of this country, but affirm why she loves studying international relations.


When examining any state, it is essential to first examine what kind of state is at hand. For a nation-state, the origin of its classification is widely held to be in what it provides the people, the type of government it carries, and the rule of law it promotes. There are three main types of states: an effective state, a weak state, and a failed state. The failed state of Somalia will serve as the focal point in this analytical piece.

According to, a failed state “can no longer perform basic functions such as education, security, or governance, usually due to fractious violence or extreme poverty.” [1]However, it is much more than that. Unlike an effective state, a failed state has no national government, rule of law, security, stability, or prosperity. The failed state Somalia currently embraces all of these previously mentioned aspects: no central government, rule of law, security, stability, or prosperity. However, some of these said aspects may be considered as effects of the real factors that contributed to the failure of the state of Somalia: warlords, a lack of revenue, and the rise of terrorism. These three main factors go hand-in-hand when analyzing why Somalia is the world’s most emblematic failed state. The conditions in Somalia have become so dangerous that it has resulted in the government’s inability to have sovereign control over its own territory.

Somalia, located in the horn of Africa, is a nation that has faced, and is arguably still facing today, extreme amounts of poverty, no central government, inability to control its own borders, rise of terrorist groups, and a severe lack of basic necessities to the people. All of these, of course, are the product of the three main factors mentioned above that will be further analyzed below.

    The Role of Warlords

To begin this analysis it is essential to direct attention to the role of warlords in Somalia during the 1990s. American Foreign Service officer, Robert P. Jackson, claims that in a “situation of state collapse, warlords attempt to re-establish stability through rebuilding patronage networks and enforcing contracts through violence.”[2] By creating their own self defining power and identity, the warlords of Somalia were able to rise and successfully overthrow former President Mohammed Said Barre in 1991. After the removal of the former president came the fall of the government, thus leading Somalia with no central government. This act of anarchy left Somalia in a problematic situation that is still being dealt with today. The dismantle of the government left the state weak and vulnerable. The warlords continued to rise in power and internal tensions also continued to increase and strengthen. Post 1991 collapse of government, the capital, Mogadishu (where almost 2 million Somalis reside)[3] was completely controlled and restrained by warlords. Different warlords and clans were attempting to conquer the entire collapsed state. Many regions claimed autonomy, such as the northern region of Puntland, which rendered the state no credibility or resistance against the autonomous groups/warlords. With this attempt came conflict that tore the country in pieces and created severe instability. The restoration of Somalia became an unattainable concept and only grew more difficult to achieve as time passed.

The internal collapse of law and order called for assistance from external sources. The once rich and abundant in natural resources state of Somalia was then facing a widespread issue of famine. According to, the increased conflict of separation of land between clans “consequently caused famine and the disruption of farming and livestock production.”[4] The lack of governance and direct human actions due to the collapse of the government has only created the situation for Somalis’ worse. Nearly half the population of Somalia is severely food insecure.[5] This statistic has only worsened due to the extreme drought West Africa is currently facing today. However, in comparison to other nations in the region, Somalia has it the worst by reason of no strong central government and the unfortunate inability to provide fundamental human needs to society to alleviate the harsh effects of the draught. [6]

 Lack of Revenue

To this day, the state of Somalia does not collect enough revenue to meet the country’s needs. The country relies directly on international support and foreign governments that collectively forms the only two main sources of revenue Somalia has: tax on seaports and tax on airports.[7] Somalia collects roughly $200 million dollars in taxes each year and spends almost all of it on members of parliament and the presidency.[8] The issue of the lack of revenue is extremely important. Upon analysis, one must consider that a government’s revenue should always in a way go back to the people through public aid programs, education, etc., However, because the government revenue goes back to elected officials, the people do not receive any benefits or aid from their government. While this is normal in the case of a failed or weak state, it is, however, unfortunate that basic fundamental rights are not being distributed, which renders the situation a humanitarian crisis. Some of the major problems Somalia faces today is due to a lack of revenue. Somalia has a literacy rate of 37.8%. [9] The illiteracy levels are at an all-time high which correspond to the lack of revenue and unstable government to provide these types of resources. This is a clear indicator in the inability to provide for the people, which translate the state to a failed one.

The reliance of foreign aid in Somalia is extremely significant. Following the war with Ethiopia in the 1970s, Somalia turned to the west for assistance.[10] Although the United States created diplomatic relations with Somalia in the 1960s, they did not grant them aid until they were officially recognized as The New Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) upon the attempt to adopt a provisional constitution in 2012 after the establishment of a transitional government in 2004. [11] Under the new federal parliament and president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, the United States began working with the FGS in assisting them to achieve some sort of political and economic stability. According to, “the United States is committed to helping Somalia’s government strengthen democratic institutions, improve stability and security, and deliver services for the Somali people.” [12] This was a beginning for the people of Somalia and a real attempt at showing the world some form of legitimacy on the part of the Somali government. Since then, the United States has provided $1.5 billion dollars in humanitarian assistance.[13] The United States then granted Somalia “$240 million in development assistance to support economic, political, and social sectors to achieve greater stability, establish a formal economy, obtain access to basic services, and attain representation through legitimate, credible governance.” [14] However, evidently, this was still not enough. Hunger, illiteracy, and basic fundamental rights still remain an issue for the people of Somalia.

Somalia is the 171st largest exporter in the world and it has the fourth lowest GDP per capita. [15] Their only source of income is trading with only three other countries which account for 82.5 percent of all exports mostly in livestock: Yemen, UAE, and Oman.[16] With the rise of piracy, the practice of attacking and robbing ships at sea, on its coast, nations have been reluctant in trading with Somalia. The lack of stability and security of borders, and ports for that matter, drive economic forces elsewhere to trade. Furthermore, although Somalia’s main source of income is trade that does not mean the amount received is the amount needed. Admittedly, Somalia needs a lot more than revenue of exports and foreign aid to regain control of its country and become a functioning state.

The Rise of Terrorism

While warlord and clan tensions in Somalia have died down, terrorism has risen. More specifically, the jihadist fundamentalist group based in East Africa, Al-Shabaab, has emerged in the horn of Africa. Al-Shabaab, meaning “The Youth” in Arabic, “advocates the Saudi-inspired Wahhabi version of Islam, while most Somalis are Sufis.” [17] The youth group has lost power of most towns and cities, however still dominates most rural area imposing a strict version of Sharia in the areas that have remained in control.[18] Predominantly located in southern Somalia, al-Shabaab gained support by promising people something that they did not have – security. [19] According to BBC News, much of al-Shabaab’s credibility “was knocked when it rejected Western food aid to combat a 2011 drought and famine.” [20] However, the absence of credibility of al-Shabaab did not weaken the group, in fact, it created more violence and conflict.

Although al-Shabaab does not dominate the north, another terrorist group does. The rise of ISIS, the islamic state of Iraq and Syria, made its way to the northern and mountainous region of Puntland. While the mountainous regions create the Puntland territory easy to hide in, al-Shabaab is committed to destroying the emergence of ISIS. According to, “the emergence of IS factions represents a serious threat to jihadist unity in Somalia.” [21] In fact, “ISIS is considered to be a significant threat to the unity of the Jihadist insurgency in Somalia; due to this, al-Shabaab is actively trying to destroy the group.” [22] With this major split in terrorist groups and territory, tensions are rising. These strong tensions between the groups have only set back the Somali government in creating stability and peace in its territory. Ultimately, these terrorist groups have provoked groups of Somalis to flee. Approximately one sixth of Somali now live abroad. As for those who remain, life expectancy is only 55 years, a very low and devastating average.[23] Life in Somalia is clearly not a decent one due to many factors, including terrorism.

Islamic militant group al-Shabaab lost control of the capital city of Mogadishu in 2006 after being forced out by Ethiopian forces, a clear and significant step towards regaining control of the sovereign state. However, the threat al-Shabaab presents is still very serious. Referring to the United Kingdom’s public sector information website, the UK warns travelers that the threat in Somalia is very high. [24] In fact, they state that “Al-Shabaab, a proscribed terrorist group, and other groups opposed to the Somali government continue to carry out attacks in and around Mogadishu on an almost daily basis.” [25] These threats are extremely prominent and serious, especially towards westerners visiting the impoverished nation. Travelers are usually restricted to the airports or hotels, the threat of being kidnapped or killed is very high. [26] This lack of security is due to the absence of a government and a not well functioning cohesive force to protect not only the citizens, but the foreigners that visit the nation. Not only does this prevent any sort of development of tourism that could possibly add to total revenue but, the police commissioner does not ease fears by saying that his officers “cannot protect them (foreigners) they must have their own security.” This concerning statement only further reinforces the fact that state officials are clearly not secure or confident in their own protection systems. This statement additionally proves that the country is not stable, in or of itself.


While the role of warlords in Somalia has decreased, the threat of terrorism from alternative organizations has increased. This has thus created more difficulties for the Somali government to create a secure and established sovereign state for its people. With the help of external forces and peacekeeping missions through diverse international organizations, such as AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia), compared to a decade ago, Somalia’s problems are more contained – however, not resolved. In my opinion, in order for this to happen, control must be regained internally. The Somali government must liberate the nation from the hands of autonomous/terroristic groups to establish a secure, stable, and trustworthy system that will further help the people. With time and effort, the state of Somalia could shift from a very weak/failed state to a very effective one.


Works Cited:

“Disasters.” ReliefWeb.

“Government Revenue in Somalia.” Fortune of Africa Somalia.

Jackson, P., 2005, ‘Warlords and States in Africa’, International Development Department, IDD, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom

 James Paul – Global Policy Forum. “Global Policy Forum.” Failed States.

“Major problems facing Somalia today.” AFRICA W.

“Most-failed state.” The Economist. September 10, 2016.

Pike, John. “Military.” Somalia Civil War.

“Somalia.” Terrorism – Somalia travel advice – GOV.UK.

“Somalia.” U.S. Department of State. April 12, 2017.

“Ten Important Facts to Know About Hunger in Somalia.” The Borgen Project. November 27, 2017.

“The Islamic State Threat in Somalia’s Puntland State.” Crisis Group. November 17, 2016.

“The World Factbook: SOMALIA.” Central Intelligence Agency. November 14, 2017.

“Who are Somalia’s al-Shabab?” BBC News. December 09, 2016.

“2017 World Population by Country.” 2017 World Population by Country.


[1] James Paul – Global Policy Forum. “Global Policy Forum.” Failed States.

[2] Jackson, P. ‘Warlords and States in Africa’ (2005) University of Brigham

[3] 2017 World Population by Country.” (2017) World Population by Country.

[4] Pike, John. “Military.” Somalia Civil War. Global Security.

[5] “Ten Important Facts to Know About Hunger in Somalia.” The Borgen Project.

[6] “Disasters.” ReliefWeb.

[7] “Government Revenue in Somalia.” Fortune of Africa Somalia.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Major problems facing Somalia today.” AFRICA W. (2016)

[10] “Somalia.” U.S. Department of State. (2017).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “The World Factbook: SOMALIA.” Central Intelligence Agency. (2017).

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Who are Somalia’s al-Shabab?” BBC News. (2016).

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] “The Islamic State Threat in Somalia’s Puntland State.” Crisis Group. (2016).

[22] Ibid.

[23] “Most-failed state.” The Economist. September 10, 2016.

[24] “Somalia.” Terrorism – Somalia travel advice – GOV.UK.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.


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