A Failed State

It was not the first time that OCHA had been forced out of Baidoa. In fact, it had just returned to the war-torn city in April 2009 after a five-month absence due to violence. Somalia had begun its downward spiral in 1991, when clan-based warlords overthrew the regime of Mohamed Siad Barre, plunging the country into civil war. In ensuing years the country became increasingly lawless as struggles among rival clans gave way to armed insurgencies, piracy, radical Islamic offensives, and terrorism. Countless political coalitions and transitional governments were established over the years only to resign, collapse, or be overthrown.

Since 2004, a Transitional Federal Government had been the titular authority. Though the TFG had the backing of the UN and the international community, it was able to control only a small portion of the country. In fact, in 2008 and 2009, Somalia ranked first among 178 countries in the Failed States Index issued annually by the Fund for Peace, which cited the TFG’s inability to command authority, provide social services, or guarantee even basic security.[1]

For several years, the government had been based in Baidoa, a city of 480,000 in south-central Somalia, because the official capital, Mogadishu, was considered too dangerous for government operations. The government’s primary foe was al-Shabaab, an Islamist militant group that organized in 2006 and had grown steadily in strength and geographic reach. Top-level leaders of al-Shabaab, members of its Shura Council, were suspected of having ties with al-Qaeda.

2008 offensive. In summer 2008, al-Shabaab launched a sustained offensive against the TFG in Baidoa. The offensive was a fierce rejection of an accord called the Djibouti Agreement, brokered by the UN in June, which had given parliamentary seats to a group of moderate Islamists in exchange for a ceasefire, the gradual withdrawal of Ethiopian troops supporting the TGF, and other steps towards peace and recovery. In taking Baidoa by force, al-Shabaab hoped to end all efforts at power-sharing and pave the way for a Shabaab takeover of the country.

In January 2009, al-Shabaab captured Baidoa and the TFG retreated to Mogadishu. Insurgents now controlled almost all of south-central Somalia. The TFG, the official “host government,” had become irrelevant. If humanitarian agencies wished to work in the Baidoa region, they would have to negotiate access with al-Shabaab.

[1] The Fund for Peace, 2012 Failed States Index, released June 18, 2012, ranking Somalia first for the fifth year running. See: http://www.fundforpeace.org/global/?q=node/242