Decades ago, most inhabitants of Somalia lived as nomads, relying on animals for sustenance. Even after independence, proportionally few Somalis settled in towns to benefit from modern education and healthcare. Somali nomads shared the same ethnicity, language and religion; though clan feuds and raids were a part of life, they had solid, intricate family systems, tried and tested coping strategies for the desert, and a complex oral culture.
The colonial times and the Siad Barre regime
By 1900, colonial Italy controlled the south central and north-eastern Somali regions, while the north-west was a British protectorate. These regions joined to create independent Somalia in 1960.
Resulting directly from differences in colonial rule and consolidation of power in the south, northern Somalia progressed slowly and was politically underrepresented. There were overall development successes after the socialist military government of Mohammed Siad Barre took control in the early 1970s, but the regime embodied strongman politics and tensions among Somalia’s regions and clan groupings grew.
In 1988, an alliance of armed rebel movements took on the administration, resulting in civil war, large-scale destruction, and the eventual defeat of Siad Barre’s government in 1991. The vast majority of Somalis at this time were affected by the war through direct violence, displacement, or famine.
Since 1992, rival strongmen have established fiefdoms in areas of the centre and south, and continue to fight over control of key towns and ports. Employing militias to enforce custom-made laws, these “local authorities” (together with clan elders) have often been the only source of security and economic development for local populations. However, their very nature and ongoing conflicts among them define these islands of stability as fragile and temporary.
Somaliland and Puntland seek peace
Somaliland declared itself an independent state in 1991, and the north-east region declared itself an autonomous area called Puntland in 1998. Somaliland explicitly seeks recognition as an independent country, while Puntland defines itself as an autonomous "state of Somalia".
In mid-2005, a newly formed Transitional Federal Government was established in the south, with very restricted influence. Though some real successes have resulted from this, it will no doubt take much more time and effort to set up and maintain a functioning central government.
The newfound stability in Somaliland and Puntland has meanwhile predictably resulted in significant economic growth and social development. Primary and secondary schools are growing, and both Somaliland and Puntland have established small universities. Taking advantage of the prevailing peace, 700,000 refugees have returned from exile to Somaliland, while 400,000 came to Puntland.
The Somali Urban Situation
The challenges for the Somali region as a whole are immense. Social and political instability and the overlapping of the clan system with a teething democracy make the Somali context a very complex one. This complexity is amplified by rapid urban growth, making it difficult to consolidate the potential advantages of a well-structured urban context to help activate the rehabilitation and development process. If developing Somali institutions do not attain self-sustainability, the entire society risks continued precariousness and the possibility of eventually sliding back into instability and civil war, a situation still largely existent in the southern regions.
Urban management and planning needs
The Somali urban landscape is largely ruled by unregulated black market principles. Almost everything is up for grabs (or at least for sale), and transparency, equitable access to services, and respect for human rights are the first victims in such a context. Towns are a bundle of casually, haphazardly laid-out buildings, and a multitude of users fight over the same unorganized public spaces. In the Somali region, as in any other post-conflict context, institutions have to be built again, and with them, the human capacity to manage and guide development. In this context, capacity development is not easy, but it remains the foundational activity for creating sustainable urban centres.
The current situation of displaced people in Somali cities
Fifteen years of civil war and severe droughts in the Somali region have caused the displacement of hundreds of thousands people. After many years in exile, returnees are generally choosing the opportunities offered by the city over their environmentally devastated rural areas of origin, but are often denied access to clean water, health facilities, proper shelter, protection, and security of tenure. This lack of integration into the city often leads to different forms of social exclusion and exploitation.
Authorities have little or no public land to offer, and limited power to guide and control the settlement process. The displaced are a substantial source of income for opportunistic landowners, who commonly charge high rents while waiting for opportunities to develop or sell their land. They are thus reluctant to allow improvements to be made on their property (e.g. sturdier shelters and the construction of pit latrines, piped water distribution points, and waste collection facilities), and the squatters live in "permanent transition", under constant threat of eviction.