The Somalia dilemma

Foreign intervention is not the answer, argues Josephine Whitaker. The solution to Somalia’s problems must be found at home.
Josephine Whitaker
22 November 2011

Residents of several remote Somali towns this weekend reported convoys of Ethiopian army vehicles crossing the porous border into their country, despite denials by the Ethiopian government.

Addis Ababa denies it has invaded its neighbour, saying that it will wait until an East African heads of state meeting on Friday to determine the best course of action. “We are waiting for what IGAD (the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development) decides and without that decision, Ethiopia is not going to act unilaterally," said government spokesman, Bereket Simon.

The Somali government is sending mixed messages in response to these rumours, with defence minister Hussein Arab Isse welcoming the move and spokesman Abdirahman Omar Osman denying that Ethiopian troops had entered Somali territory.

The allegations of an Ethiopian incursion come just over a month after Kenya, Somalia’s southern neighbour, launched a military offensive inside Somalia. The Kenyan intervention aims to drive the militant Islamist organisation Al-Shabaab back from the Kenyan border, and take control of the strategic port Kismayo. Initially said to be retaliation to the abduction of two Spanish aid workers from Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya, the ongoing operation was later reported to be part of a longer-term plan to prevent instability from spreading by invading Somalia.


The openSecurity verdict: Somalia’s neighbours certainly face a thorny dilemma: how to contain latent insecurity in Somalia without allowing their own peoples and economies to be dragged down into the quagmire? 

Both Kenya and Ethiopia are struggling against internal socio-economic and political challenges of their own. But on the doorstep they’ve got Somalia – East Africa’s basket case and world-renowned example of a failed state.

With a government that has control of just a few strategic blocks in the capital thanks mainly to 9,700 AU troops helping them, the ‘spillover effect’ – the possibility that Somalia’s violence and instability will wash across borders and bring its neighbours down with it – is a very real risk for both countries. The double grenade attack in Nairobi last month, and last year’s bombing in Kampala, have amply demonstrated the threat posed by Al-Shabaab to neighbouring states.

Aside from physical security, the economic stability of Somalia’s neighbours is under threat. This is especially true in Kenya, which relies heavily on tourist revenues and cannot afford the risk of bomb attacks in its beach resorts. The Kenyan government insists that economic imperatives were a primary reason for invading Somalia. One senior Kenyan official said “this is about our long-term development plan. Kenya cannot achieve economically what it wants with the situation the way it is in Somalia, especially Kismayo.”

More urgently, the food crisis in East Africa that has affected more than 13 million people in the region and left over half a million at risk of imminent starvation has been exacerbated by the instability in Somalia. Aid agencies have struggled to get aid to communities in remote areas, a problem compounded by Al-Shabaab’s initial reluctance to allow ‘western’ aid agencies to operate in areas under its control.

So what are the options open to governments in Nairobi and Addis Ababa? Although both seem to have plumped for the use of military force to impose stability, this approach carries significant risks.

The economic costs to both countries are likely to be huge. In the words of one Kenya specialist, the invasion was a “serious miscalculation” for the Kenyan government. It is likely to further disrupt the aid effort in the region, rather than facilitate it – which could increase the human cost of the famine.

More worryingly, the invasions could become a public relations own goal. Al-Shabaab’s ineffectual response to the famine lost it a lot of domestic support, and there is a risk that military operations will deflect attention from this. What’s more, an invasion by foreign ‘Christian’ troops could well be a propaganda victory for Al-Shabaab, particularly as it is likely to starkly demonstrate the Mogadishu government’s impotence.

Precedents for intervention in Somalia do not bode well. Ethiopia invaded in 2006 – and ended up occupying Somalia for almost three years. This did little to achieve the government’s stated aim of restoring order, and a lot for souring regional relations. The United States and the United Nations have both attempted interventions of one sort or another in the past, and both failed spectacularly.

As hard as it may be for Ethiopia and Kenya to accept, the answer to the Somalia dilemma must be found in Somali solutions. This is the tough option – because how can a country without stability or security make decisions about its future, when all energy is devoted to just surviving? Who will develop these solutions and how will they be implemented? But answers to these questions must be found because legitimacy is the key to stable, long-term government in Somalia – something that the Mogadishu government lacks.

If a Kenyan-Ethiopian invasion can create space for Somalis to organise themselves and make decisions about governance, then this could be the right way forward. But the motives of these countries are not pure – both appear to be more interested in covering their own backs and trying to ensure regional dominance than in the future of Somalia. So a neighbourly intervention to ‘contain’ Somalia’s instability isn’t likely to create this space – and is therefore unlikely to resolve the Somalia dilemma.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData