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Beyond good versus evil: fighting Somalia’s perpetual war

The country has suffered de facto secessions, appalling destruction and humanitarian disasters – but still both the war and the Somali people march on. Can the international community help find a way out of conflict in Somalia, or is it blundering into yet another category mistake?
Jort Hemmer
11 October 2011

In the world of international affairs Somalia has earned the unenviable title of king of failed states, topping the Fund for Peace’s Failed States Index for four consecutive years. Since the implosion of central governance in 1991 and the demise of the long-standing President Siad Barre, Somalia has become a global synonym for urban devastation, a source of continuous existential danger for many of its citizens, and an acute headache for international policymaking, state building, conflict resolution and development aid.

It seems as though everything that could occur to derail peace and stir conflict in the country has already happened. Two decades of state collapse and clan-based infighting has produced staggering poverty and underdevelopment, humanitarian emergencies, economic stagnation, terrorist activity, and a steady increase in organized crime, such as piracy and human trafficking.   

Severe drought followed by the alarming spread of famine has again pushed the North-Eastern stretch of the Horn of Africa into the spotlight, with the lives of 750,000 people at risk.

In search of ‘Somalia’ 

Despite over a dozen attempts by donors to help institute a centrally-run government apparatus, success has repeatedly proved elusive.

Somalia is a deeply fractured country and society. The 1990s saw the quasi-secession of Somalia’s northern regions of Somaliland and Puntland, in which local elites negotiated political settlements and laid the groundwork for their own governance and security structures. The two regions now function as autonomous ‘states within a state’, hosting approximately two thirds of the Somali population.

These regional authorities are certainly not perfect. While Somaliland is fragile but relatively stable, the massive inflow of proceeds from piracy in Puntland could disrupt the delicate political balance between clans at any point. For most people residing in these regions, daily life may be peaceful, but it is far from carefree. Anyone who has spent time in Somaliland or Puntland would nevertheless question the Hobbesian stigma that Somalia has acquired.

At first glance, the situation in south-central Somalia appears more in tune with the negative stereotypes. Across this patchwork of territories, hopelessly divided clan-affiliated groups run the show, backed by their private security forces. Violence has become the norm for settling political differences. At the same time communities have managed to organise themselves to provide some services and meet the most basic needs of local populations. Contrary to its anarchic image, private schools, rudimentary medical care and water management facilities, flourishing economic enterprises and efficiently run money transfer systems can all be found in south-central Somalia.

With all the will in the world, the multifarious sub-state pockets that formally constitute Somalia cannot be glued together to form a unified polity, even if Somali leaders demonstrate the necessary courage and vision. Yet donors have persisted in their focus on reconstructing a centrally-run state.

Islamist spectres

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Graduating marines, Demotix/Jacob Simkin

One of the more recent attempts to promote a unified Somalia has involved major political and financial assistance to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Like its predecessors, the TFG has been less than impressive, and has shown a propensity for chaos and corruption. Its authority is confined to the country’s capital Mogadishu, from whence it fends off armed opposition with the help of an internationally-backed military mission of the African Union, AMISOM.

Without the support provided by the donor community, the TFG would probably be ousted within days. Indeed, the lifeline extended by external actors does little more than put off the inevitable crumbling of a government that represents no one but itself.

However, donors stubbornly hang on. They feel they do not have a choice: if the west abandons the current government, they fear Somalia will fall prey to Islamist fundamentalists.

Al-Shabaab is the main source of anxiety. Since 2007, it has established a firm presence in Somalia’s south-central region. These self-proclaimed al-Qaeda enthusiasts have executed a precision insurgency against the TFG, and a twin suicide attack in July 2010 in neighbouring Uganda – whose troops form the backbone of AMISOM – further boosted Shabaab’s reputation as a significant armed force.

Shabaab’s behaviour in some areas under its control has strengthened concerns about its extremist tendencies. Local Shabaab commanders have banned western clothing and music, dancing and watching television. Those violating its strict rules and regulations have sometimes received severe punishments. Reports of public lashings, amputations and executions have made world headlines.

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Teenage Al-Shabaab soldiers in training, Demotix/Abdulkadir Abdihraman

But a narrow emphasis on this disciplinary fanaticism has distorted the bigger picture. Shabaab’s rigid interpretation of Islam does not sit well with the majority of the Somali population, which in general favours a much more moderate Sufi tradition. Few endorse Shabaab’s radical rhetoric or approve of its harsh practices. So what is the source of its strength?

Not another cowboy movie 

A few factors are at play. Most importantly, for all their differences, Somalis share a fervent dislike of outsiders meddling in their affairs. Shabaab has been successful in mobilising widespread discontent against yet another externally imposed government, and tapping into public outrage over the presence of foreign troops from nearby states on Somali soil.

Aside from its appeal as an oppositional vehicle, for scores of young men deprived of livelihood alternatives, Shabaab’s cash payments prove an irresistible incentive to join its ranks. For several communities, the law and order and basic services Shabaab provided have represented a welcome change from instability and uncertainty. None of this is to say that Shabaab is in any way a benign alternative to effective government and peace in Somalia. The group hosts a relatively small but influential faction of mostly foreign fighters that has made no secret of its jihadi ambitions.

With such an obvious ‘bad guy’ in the eyes of the international community, the good guy had to surface, and unsurprisingly, the TFG has been more than happy to play this role. But, as the scholar Michael Weinstein aptly put it, Somalia is no cowboy movie and Somali politics does not allow for the neat, black and white storyline that has informed much of the international engagement in the region. By picking sides, donors have artificially tilted the balance in favour of a body that is neither willing nor able to rule Somalia by consent, thereby fuelling the ascent of armed oppositional movements, notably Shabaab. 

What the famine tells us 

Some observers believe that Somalia’s famine might be a game changer in this regard. To the frustration of many Somalis, access to humanitarian aid in regions controlled by Shabaab has been extremely limited. Patience with Shabaab indeed appears to be on the decline. It failed first to avert and then to handle the humanitarian crisis, which has severely damaged any credibility it might have gained as a governing authority.

However, donors and the internationally-backed TFG have not fared much better. The narrow, security-driven agenda that donors have been pursuing also failed to prevent and address the current famine. And, the TFG has not come close to meeting the needs of famine victims in the area that it controls, largely due to its own lack of control over corruption and looting.

Under mounting local pressure to act, serious divisions within Shabaab have emerged over whether or not to allow external humanitarian assistance. At the same time, its insurgency and overall performance on the battle field appear to be weakening. Recently it had to pull out of the economically strategic areas of Mogadishu, although a deadly suicide truck bombing on 4 October which struck the heart of the city and killed over 65 people, seriously calls into question the merit of this victory claimed by the TFG and AMISOM.

Encouraged by these developments, some observers predict that the group is on the verge of a split, or even outright disintegration. However, if this were the case, it would not necessarily be a cause for celebration or a light at the end of the country’s long and violent tunnel. Even with Shabaab out of the picture, there is a good chance that, in the short term, clan wars would simply replace the destruction and instability caused by the Shabaab-TFG stand-off.

Sensing these dynamics, fed up with the TFG and alarmed by the lack of progress in addressing the fallout from Somalia’s state failure, western donor policy appears to be shifting towards an increased willingness to work with regional administrations, such as those in Somaliland and Puntland. The notion of engagement with elements of Shabaab is also gaining ground in donor circles, and is even reportedly pursued quietly by some.

These are difficult, perhaps unpalatable, but definitely necessary steps. Somalia’s war-tired population is eager for stability and security. A loose, highly decentralised system that allows existing pockets of authority to manage their own affairs offers the best shot at achieving this. Somalia has long ceased to be a state in the conventional sense. Donors are right to try and build upon, rather than to close the eyes to, this reality.

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