Your country gets an F.

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?

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Somalia a little while ago.

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.