Richard Burton, the explorer not the actor, went to Somalia in the 1850s. He got a spear through his face for his trouble. Things aren’t much different now. The British claimed the territory as part of their drive to protect the “lifeline to India” that ran through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. They never managed to turn its tribes and regions into a coherent country before granting it independence. The country disintegrated in 1991, with two regions (Somaliland, Puntland) seceding and the rest of the country falling prey to robber bands. The economy fell apart and over a million people fled their homes to escape danger or starvation. Nobody in the outside world cared very much about this catastrophe. However, international television journalists discovered the place and broadcast the human suffering all over the world. In 1992 President George H. W. Bush sent in some troops to try to restore some order. Then an international peace-keeping force came in. In 1993, under President Clinton, “mission creep” appeared as the Americans tried to batter the local war-lords into line. This ended in the “Blackhawk Down” disaster. Americans became very shy about intervening in tropical hell-holes.
Eventually, many people turned to radical Islamists who didn’t approve of robbers and had the guns to do something about it. The Islamic Courts Union established control of most of the country by 2005. However, in the wake of 9/11 the US had developed a strong dislike for radical Islamists. The intervention the 1990s hadn’t gone too well and American forces were busy with other wars (Iraq, Afghanistan). So, in 2006 the US encouraged Ethiopia, which had its own territorial ambitions, to invade Somalia and toss out the Islamic Courts government. Before pulling out its troops in January 2009 Ethiopia didn’t entirely succeed in getting rid of the Islamic Courts, but it did enough to wreck any the progress that had been made. Somalia is ungoverned and attracts anti-Western radical Islamists. A third of Somalis live from internationally-supplied food rations. A million people are in refugee camps or wandering around dazed.
Under these conditions, many Somalis living near the coast turned to piracy. The original British motivation to occupying Somalia arose from the important shipping route between the Persian Gulf-Indian Ocean and the Red Sea-Suez Canal. The British Empire is gone, but shipping still uses the route. Somalia is awash in weapons. Put merchants ship and automatic weapons together with poor people who know small boats, place in a law-less environment, and you get instant piracy. By early 2009 the pirates were seizing three ships a week and they made an estimated $100 million in ransom in 2008.
“Somalia: A state of failure,” The Week, 22 May 2009, p. 11.