Somalia has been without effective central government since 1991.
Since then this semi-arid country of nomadic pastoralists has been torn apart by conflict. It has also suffered repeatedly from drought and famine.
Two decades of chaos and conflict have wrecked the country‟s education and healthcare systems. There has been a massive outflow of refugees and economic migrants to neighbouring East African countries and the Arabian peninsula.
The 10 million or so Somalis who have stayed behind face chronic economic and social problems and constant insecurity.
Somalia has disintegrated into a patchwork of constantly shifting and often conflicting regional administrations.
Yet the country has one of the most vibrant media landscapes in the Horn of Africa.
It also has one of the cheapest and most widely available mobile telephone networks on the continent. Some parts of Somalia are more stable than others.
Somaliland in the Northwest is the most peaceful and stable region. It declared independence from the rest of the country in 1991, but has yet to receive international recognition.
Puntland, an autonomous state in Northeastern Somalia, is relatively peaceful and boasts a functioning administration.
Unlike neighbouring Somaliland, with which it has a boundary dispute, Puntland does not aspire to break away completely from the rest of Somalia.
But in January 2012, the situation in Southern and Central Somalia remained very fluid.
A Transitional Federal Government, based in Mogadishu and backed by African Union peacekeepers, was battling against the Al Shabaab Islamist movement, which controlled most of the rural interior of this unstable region.
For many years, the civil war mainly featured fighting between clan militias led by regional warlords.