In terms of security and stability, there has been some improvement over the last few years in Somalia but gains are fragile. Life has not returned to normal yet and, bar a few pockets of economic activity, deep poverty is widespread. The national army, backed by peacekeepers from the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) force, has managed to dislodge many Islamic fundamentalists of the Al Shabab movement from many towns and cities, including Mogadishu and the strategic port town of Kismayo. The situation remains highly unpredictable, however: Al Shabab groups still control swaths of the country and remain very active. They regularly launch guerilla-style attacks and assassinations in the capital in order to destabilise the fragile Somali government, which has a devastating effect on economic development. Al Shabab militants have also proved resilient, adapting their destructive operations to the new context; instead of trying to retake the city centres, Al Shabab rebels seek to control neighbourhoods and suburbs.
Politically, some progress has been made in reestablishing viable and stable state structures and a central government – no mean feat after three decades of conflict and lawlessness. The African Union and UN have played a key part in revitalising institutions. Somalia turned a corner in 2012 when the first presidential elections were held, but voting took place only in Mogadishu. Another breakthrough took place in February 2017, when Somalia's MPs elected Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, a Somali-US national, as the country's new president; the vote was held at the heavily guarded Mogadishu airport. This vote is seen by the UN and the African Union as a milestone towards a stable democracy, in the hope that the next president will be chosen in a one-person one-vote election. Farmajo's challenges are enormous, and he has pledged to tackle corruption during his term in office.
Somalis all hail from the same tribe, which is divided into four main clans and loads of subclans. The clan in particular, and genealogy in general, is hugely important to Somalis, who are more likely to ask a stranger ‘Whom are you from?’ than ‘Where are you from?’ This interclan rivalry has fuelled two decades of conflict.
Saving face is important to Somalis, so indirectness and humour are common in conversation, along with enthusiastic hand and arm gestures. Somalis can be quiet and dignified, with a tendency to ignore strangers, but have a tremendous oral (often poetic) tradition. Poetry recitation is the premier art form. It's often accompanied by an oud (a lute-type instrument). Visual arts are quite developed, especially in the form of brightly painted murals.
Written Somali is a very young language – spelling variation, especially for place names, is very common. English is widely used in the north, while Italian remains the foreign language of choice in the south.
Well over a million Somalis are scattered across Europe, North America and the Middle East; together they send hundreds of millions of dollars back to Somalia each year. In addition, there are Somalis in Djibouti, Ethiopia (in the Ogaden region) and Kenya.
Africa's easternmost country, Somalia is bordered by Djibouti to the north, Ethiopia to the west and Kenya to the south. It is characterised by desert or semidesert terrain and is distinguished by three main topographical features: the Oogo, a mountainous highland region in the north dominated by the Gollis Mountains; the Guban, a relatively barren, hot and humid coastal region (dominating southern Somalia); and the Hawd, a sweeping area of rich, rainy-season pasture prone to overgrazing and desertification. Serious drought continues to plague Somalia's south. Such a harsh environment is only suitable for nomadic pastoralism; agricultural production is limited to the southwest, where there's moderate rainfall. Livestock (especially camel) rearing is the most important type of farming.
Unfortunately, the civil war that's been raging for more than 25 years has overshadowed Somalia's great natural wonders. There are thousands of kilometres of pristine beaches along the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. The islands off Zeila, close to the Djibouti border, are also completely unspoilt and ablaze with technicolour tropical fish. The wild expanses of the Sheekh Mountains (Somaliland) have a rugged beauty and afford stunning views over the coast, as far as Berbera.
Before civil war, Somalia boasted national parks with cheetahs, leopards, lions and antelope. Today you’d be lucky to see any predator bigger than a mongoose.
Feature: Somaliland, the Country Nobody Knows
It has a parliament. It has a broadly representative government. It has a capital. It has a flag. It has a currency. It has a university. It has an army. It has multiparty elections. But nobody recognises it. Welcome to Somaliland, the country that does not exist.
The self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland was formed in 1991 after the collapse of unitary Somalia. Although its leaders desperately struggle to gain formal international recognition, Somaliland is still treated as a pariah by the international community. It does have political contacts with a few states, including Ethiopia, Djibouti, France, the UK, the US and South Africa, but it is not recognised as a separate state. The main reason why the world is reluctant to accept Somaliland's independence is that the rest of Somalia does not want it, and other nations prefer a unitary Somalia instead of a split country. Somaliland Somalis from the diaspora keep doing their best to influence diplomatic corps in Europe, in East Africa and in North America – in vain, so far.
As recently as 2013 Somaliland was a Shangri La for the savvy travellers who wanted to break the rules of conventional travel. While the rest of Somalia had been a travellers' no-go zone for three decades, Somaliland had managed to restore law and order within its boundaries and the safety of Westerners was taken very seriously. The local authorities were so protective of foreigners outside the capital, all travellers were assigned an armed bodyguard (US$20 per day), the price to pay for being a special guest. However, the threat of terrorism and kidnap has risen to such a level that travel to Somaliland can no longer be recommended.