In days of old when knights were bold and Nationalism was in flower, the sociologist Max Weber defined a State as a government that maintained law and order within the borders of the country, provided basic services to citizens, managed the economy, and dealt with foreign countries. Some countries do this really well. Who wouldn’t want to be a Canadian, eh? Other countries do this less well. Weber was discussing European countries at the end of the 19th Century.
However, in the 19th and 20th Centuries Western imperialism gobbled up a bunch of territories that had never been countries (notably in Asia and Africa), then divided them in to “nations” when the tide of imperialism ebbed after the Second World War. The imperial powers had not had the time to do very much to turn these places into “nations,” so some of them have come unglued in the years since independence. Tribal or religious loyalties may be stronger than patriotism; corruption may be so bad that the government can’t provide adequate public services; or rebels, war-lords, or terrorists can operate without much hindrance from the government. When these things happen, a country can be called a “failed state.”
The ten worst-off countries in 2011 were: Somalia, Chad, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Iraq, and Cote d’Ivoire (Coat Dee-Vwar). Most of them have made the Top Ten list since 2005. (See: rut.)
You know how people try to cheer you up by saying that there’s somebody in the world with worse troubles than you? Well, Somalia is the last guy in that chain. Somalia is in the “Horn of Africa,” on the east coast across from the Arabian Peninsula. It is close to the equator, arid, with very little land to farm. Herding and fishing are important to the economy. Britain, Italy, and Ethiopia all conquered chunks of the territory in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Mogadishu has some Art Deco buildings worthy of South Beach.) Much of it became independent in 1960, although Ethiopia held on to important chunks. An army general named Siad Barre seized power in 1969. He became a Communist, started a war with Ethiopia, and ran the economy into the ground by 1990. Just to get even, Ethiopia stirred up various tribes against the government. Siad Barre got chucked out in 1991, but no one could agree on who to put in his place. Northern Somalia declared its independence, various soldiers tried to seize power elsewhere, and civil war broke out.
The war caused a famine, bandits (called “technicals”) molested the humanitarian aid workers, and the US sent troops to stop the parts of the violence that might accidentally get on American television. This didn’t work out and left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth about intervening in humanitarian crises. (See: “Black Hawk Down”; see: Rwanda a little while later.) Civil war dragged on to the point that government just disintegrated; after 9/11 the US got very hostile to “Islamists,” of whom there are a great many in Somalia and encouraged people to fight them; many Somali fishermen and soldiers turned to piracy on the Indian Ocean; and drought hit the country in 2011. There are probably a million refugees and internally displaced people. Curiously, it has some of the best internet and cell-phone service in Africa. What about Nigeria?