Menu ENN Search

Analysis of looting in the Somali war

Summary of published research1

In an attempt to fill the academic void around looting, a recent paper has examined practices of looting in the Somali war. Somalia has experienced violent conflict and war since the end of the 1970s. The state collapsed completely in 1991 and southern parts of the country especially have since been characterised by intermittent violence, banditry and looting. This paper is based on field research but also relies on descriptions found in newspaper articles and academic literature on the Somali war, as well as on internet blogs. Field research was conducted between 2002 and 2005 in the Kismayo, Mogadishu, Bay and Bakool regions of Southern Somalia.

The author finds that rather than being inspired primarily by economic objectives, lootings are complex and ambiguous social activities, which are embedded in daily practices and the political rhetoric of the war. In Somalia, looting activities have been driven by a broad range of motives, including military-strategic considerations and/or desire to revenge past atrocities and (perceived) injustices, as well as economic interests. Furthermore, the organisational structure, the performance of actions and the main targets of looters have differed widely. Based on an empirical analysis of different waves and phases of looting in the context of war and state decay in Somalia, the paper identifies six types of looting (see Table 1). These types are not exclusive and different kinds of looting may occur simultaneously or at different locations. Types may also overlap or over time, change from one to another.

The most common is strategic looting, which remains embedded in the political or ideological programme of war actors and draws on the rhetoric of friend and foe.

Protest looting demonstrates a collective claim to common goods, levelling looting aims to balance social and material differences. In prolonged wars, poverty looting becomes likely. If organised looting materialises, violent actors usually cooperate with business people and regularly with local or national authorities and international partners. However, widespread looting leads to exhaustion. Outside input is required to sustain looting economies, which in Somalia took the form of humanitarian aid.

Although international organisations contributed to the prolongation of violence, they also stimulated the transformation of local security arrangements. Protection rackets promises to confine violence and looting, and therefore enjoy a certain degree of legitimacy. In Somalia, such rackets provided the basis for localised forms of domination, which emerged in the southern and central parts of the country in the second half of the 1990s. These arrangements were clan-based and relied on co-operation between clan militias and businesspersons and traditional authorities. Although violence continued, the new power arrangements enhanced security and stimulated economic revival.

The study reveals that looting is not an expression of political chaos, but rather is patterned by and rooted in local moral universes. These have been fundamentally transformed during the course of the violent conflicts in the country since the end of the 1970s.

Table 1: Cross over design of the trial
Type Objects Main motivation Actors Performance
Strategic looting Properties of enemies War strategy Militias, government forces Selective targeting, humiliation of enemies,
Protest looting Public goods Protest exclusion Mobs, masses, gangs Selective attacks on public facilities, often angry and aggressive
Levelling looting Properties of privileged groups Protest social injustices Mobs, masses Urban riots with festive character
Poverty looting Food, medicine Survival Gangs, urban masses, militias Raids on food stores, markets, harvests
Organised looting Exchangeable and sellable goods Material benefit Gangs, militias in cooperation with businesspersons Goal oriented raids, strategic planning
Rackets Sale of protection Material benefit, power and domination Violent organisations and business people Vigilantism, police functions, cooperation with population/business people/NGOs


Show footnotes

1Bakonyi. J (2010). Between protest, revenge and material interests: a phenomenological analysis of looting in the Somali war. Disasters, vol 34 (S2): S238-S255

More like this

FEX: Logistics: more than pizza delivery

The author of this article Geoff Loane spent 15 years involved in humanitarian assistance in east Africa, four of them in Somalia. This article arises from Geoff's experiences...

FEX: Sudan: The Perils of Aid

Edited from essay by John Ryle In the course of Sudan's long civil war it has become easy to create famine, easy both for the government and for factions in the south of the...

FEX: Making Famine in Sudan

Queueing in the Pakor Supplementary Feeding Centre David Keene, researcher and author of 'The Benefits of Famine' gives the political history and context surrounding the...

FEX: Food Kitchens in Mogadishu

Children in Hamar weyne This article was prepared by the ENN from information and resources available online. We gratefully acknowledge SAACID for allowing us to share their...

FEX: The Psychology of Food Riots: Why do price hikes lead to unrest?

Summary of research1 A vendor in Yemen, another country where there have been food riots A recent article published online about the psychology of food riots makes for...

FEX: Food security – protection links in Liberia (Special Supplement 3)

By Mary Atkinson, Oxfam Temporary shelters in Salala IDP camp, about 90 miles northeast of Monrovia where Oxfam was working. Direct effect of conflict on livelihoods and...

FEX: Deaths among humanitarian workers

Summary of published paper A group of researchers recently collected information from the records of aid agencies and other organisations on the death of humanitarian aid...

FEX: The 2011 famine in Somalia: lessons learnt from a failed response

Summary of published research1 Location: Somalia What we know: In July 2011, a famine was declared in Southern Somalia despite sufficient, timely and robust early warnings....

FEX: The Changing Nature of Livestock Raiding and its Role in Famine

Summary of published paper Turkana woman posing with the editor's son A newly published paper in 'Disasters' examines a specific form of conflict: livestock raiding in...

FEX: Conflict: a cause and effect of hunger

Summary of draft review1 The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) is currently working on a review of what is known about the linkages between hunger. Some of...

FEX: Using satellite imagery in conflict-affected areas in Mali to support WFP’s emergency response

View this article as a pdf By Laure Boudinaud, Nanthilde Kamara and Amadou Ibrahim Laure Boudinaud is a geospatial analyst for the World Food Programme (WFP), applying remote...

FEX: Postscript to 'Therapeutic Feeding in an insecure area'

We asked Yvonne Grellety of ACF to comment on this article. A summary of her comments follow: Rather than responding to the specific experience described in the article, I...

FEX: Mortality in the DRC

Summary of published research1 IRC mortality survey team in transit Since 2000, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has documented the humanitarian impact of war and...

FEX: A cash for work programme in Uganda

Summary of a mid-term review Oxfam have recently completed a mid-term review of a cash for work programme implemented in Eastern Kitgum in Uganda. The micro-projects involved...

FEX: An information system in exile - Is it working?

An Evaluation of the Food Security Assessment Unit, Nairobi The Food Security Assessment Unit (FSAU) is an information unit based in Nairobi, funded mainly by the EC and...

FEX: Famine in Somalia: Competing Imperatives, Collective Failures, 2011-12

Book review1 By Solange Fontana Solange Fontana is a DPhil candidate in International Development at the University of Oxford. Prior to returning to academia, she worked as a...

FEX: Food distribution in Mandera district (Kenya)

By Manuel Duce-Marques The author, Manuel Duce-Marques is a qualified nurse who spent several years working for MSF Spain in Mandera District, Northeast Kenya. He has just...

FEX: Women’s protection and empowerment programming for Syrian refugees in urban Jordan: challenges and lesson learned

By Melanie Megevand, IRC Melanie Megevand is IRC's Women's Protection and Empowerment Programme Advisor, and has worked in Jordan since May 2012. She established the IRC's...

FEX: Issues and challenges for livelihoods programming in emergencies (Special Supplement 3)

8.1 Introduction The previous sections of this supplement have highlighted various challenges in livelihood support programming in emergencies. Most of these are within the...

FEX: Targeting in complex emergencies: the cases of Somalia and Columbia

Summary of case studies1,2 An IDP camp in Somalia where the evaluation was undertaken. The World Food Programme (WFP) recently commissioned research to investigate the...


Reference this page

Analysis of looting in the Somali war. Field Exchange 39, September 2010. p21.



Download to a citation manager

The below files can be imported into your preferred reference management tool, most tools will allow you to manually import the RIS file. Endnote may required a specific filter file to be used.