Somalia: ends and beginnings

Georg-Sebastian Holzer
18 December 2008

Much of the flurry of international media reporting on Somalia remains fixated on piracy-related stories. A previous article in openDemocracy argued that the root of the piracy problem lay in the collapse of Somali institutions as a result of war and ill-judged foreign intervention, and thus belonged to the land rather than the ocean (see "Somalia: piracy and politics", 24 November 2008).

Georg-Sebastian Holzer is a research assistant at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC. He focuses on conflict management with a regional specialisation on the Horn of Africa

Also by Georg-Sebastian Holzer in openDemocracy:

"Somalia: piracy and politics" (24 November 2008) A further illustration of this point is the political reverberations set off by Ethiopia's announcement on 28 November that it would withdraw its troops from southern Somalia by early January 2009. If this plan is carried out, it would end an occupation that has lasted since Ethiopian forces' lightning strike of December 2006-January 2007 which overthrew the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) regime then operating in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu (see Harun Hassan, "Somalia at the crossroads", 7 January 2007).

In addition, there are suggestions that the almost 3,000 African Union peacekeepers could follow soon after. In any case, the withdrawal of the Ethiopians would already be an effective deathblow to the already comprehensively discredited Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which has been kept alive largely by the Ethiopian presence. The infirmity of the TFG is symbolised by the dispute between Somalia's president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, and parliament over the president's sacking of prime minister Nur Hassan Hussein on 14 December. In all likelihood, the vacuum of power in southern Somalia left by the implosion of the TFG will be filled by radical Islamists of an even more hardline stripe than the ICU.

If this sequence of events does occur, where will Somalia be heading? Three scenarios are conceivable, although with different probability. What they have in common is that every scenario includes intense fighting, not the least of whose effects will be to worsen the already dire humanitarian situation.

A triple prospect

By now, most of the official Somali security forces have already deserted and taken their uniforms, weapons and vehicles with them, anticipating the effects of Ethiopia's full withdrawal. Ethiopia has already scaled down its troops in the September-December period, as they faced daily fierce attack in Mogadishu as well as on their supply-routes. The latest report of the United Nations Security Council Monitoring Group speaks of an 80% erosion of the Somali security forces, with as many as 15.000 soldiers and policemen having deserted.

These developments stand in stark contrast to the rise of the radical Islamist group al-Shabab, which at present basically controls the entire south of Somalia, with the exception of some parts of central Mogadishu (thus, the group commands more territory than the ousted Islamic Courts Union did at the height of their power in late 2006).Among openDemocracy's other articles about Somalia:

Peter Hurst, "Somaliland's democratic lesson" (4 October 2005)

Harun Hassan, "Somalia's new Islamic leadership" (12 June 2006)

Harun Hassan, "Somalia slides into war" (3 November 2006 )

Jawahir Adam, "Somaliland: a window to the future" (21 November 2006)

Harun Hassan, "Somalia: the way forward" (13 February 2007 )

Harun Hassan, "Somalia: Mogadishu's ghost days" (5 April 2007 )

Edward Denison, "The Horn of Africa: a bitter anniversary" (12 April 2007)

Tom Porteous, "Somalia: a failing counter-terrorism strategy" (13 May 2007)

Anna Husarska, "Water problems in Somalia: a photo-essay" (9 October 2007)

In this situation, three scenarios following the prospective withdrawal of Ethiopian troops are conceivable.

A best-case scenario

The first is that a unity government between the TFG and the Islamists' Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS) - brokered in the latest stage of the Djibouti peace process at the beginning of December 2008 - will occupy the power vacuum left by the Ethiopian withdrawal. The Djibouti agreement stipulates that the number of seats in Somalia's parliament will be doubled from 275 to 550, thereby pragmatically accommodating the Islamist opposition in a new coalition, with MPs' salaries paid by the United Nations.

This outcome is very unlikely, however. The ARS split into two camps over the process in mid-2008. The moderate pro-agreement group is led by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who was until recently based in Djibouti itself. The radical group is led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, and is based in Eritrea. Its military wing is the al-Shabab militia, which now controls most of the country. It has no incentive (as it has publicly stated) to join the peace process. Instead, it wants to take over the whole of Somalia. The current power structure in Somalia suggests that the odds are not good for such a moderate Islamist unity government to defeat al-Shabab.

A status-quo-ante scenario

The second scenario might otherwise be known as "the devil we know". The premise is that the Islamist movement will fall apart as it assumes power, fighting and collapsing over conflicting visions. The consequence is that Somalia would again fall apart along sub-clan lines into a bunch of fiefdoms, controlled by radical Islamists, warlords, and very localised forms of power. As no single actor is able to exercise its power beyond a very localised area, the probability is of a highly fragmented picture, resembling Somalia before the Islamist takeover in 2006. 

A worst-case scenario

The third is that al-Shabab is able to consolidate power and overcome internal struggles. The result would be to bring short-term internal stability to Somalia, albeit at a high cost and with possibly a return to more destructive policies in the medium-term. In this context it is important to understand that al-Shabab does not resemble the ICU of 2006 that the Ethiopians - with the help of the United States - invaded in order to suppress (see Harun Hassan, "Somalia's new Islamic leadership", 12 June 2006). 

It is one of the bitter twists of recent Somali history that the (overstated, especially by the US) Islamist "danger" and Washington's "counter-terrorism" policy in the Horn of Africa have now become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Somalia's contemporary radical Islamists are homegrown, but intent now on reaching out to their allies abroad. In their formation they rather resemble the Taliban in Afghanistan from 1996-2001. In this context, the stoning to death of a 13-year-old rape victim in the al-Shabab controlled port town of Kismayo may be just a foretaste of their rule.

Somalis are overwhelmingly moderate Muslims who reject al-Shabab's brand of salafi-inspired jihadism. They might give short-term approval to such law and order as al-Shabab can establish, but they will inevitably rebel against a strict regime of Islamist law. An attempt to impose the latter would mean a low-level war between the civil population and al-Shabab. Moreover, al-Shabab's ideology includes an irredentist claim on the Ogaden, the Somali-populated region of eastern Ethiopia. Any regime in Addis Ababa will resist an attempt to make good this claim, making a new intervention by Somalia's arch-enemy likely after a decent interval.

Through the fire

The major dependent variable in these three scenarios is the cohesion of the al-Shabab movement. The burden of governing will surely be different from the burden of fighting. It was internal power-struggles and conflicting ambitions that led to the downfall of the ICU in 2006, and today's al-Shabab inherits much of these fissures (as recent internecine recent fighting in southern Mogadishu indicates). But two years of fighting against Ethiopians and the experience of continuous missile-strikes have forged a new schism between the movement's military wing of hardened fighters and its political wing led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, sitting in the Eritrean capital of Asmara. It is not clear at present how this rift will play out if and when a formal Islamist takeover follows Ethiopia's withdrawal.

In the short term, events will be driven largely by fighting at the local or regional level, with little chance of influencing the political landscape for the better. But international actors - African states, the European Union, and a novice Barack Obama administration - still have crucial choices to make over who to support and what to do. In this context, it is depressing and (even given its woeful track-record) astonishing that the outgoing George W Bush administration might yet change the dynamics of the conflict for the worse, in seeking (as the Enough project says) to "hijack the incoming Obama Administration's policy prerogatives while leaving it with an even more intractable crisis in the troubled Horn of Africa."

Any such deathbed attempt by the Bush administration will present the international community with a severe challenge. But even assuming it fails,  a more immediate problem will be a humanitarian one: how to prevent widespread famine, starting with the Afgoye corridor and the Shabelle region. More than half the Somali population is in need of emergency assistance. In the light of targeted assassinations of aid workers, this seems to require not merely a logistical but also a political solution

Almost two years after the Ethiopians entered Mogadishu, with American support at their backs, Somalis are back to square one: in search of peace, security, stability, workable governance. The international community has to work with them to get it right this time.

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