Beyond Good Versus Evil: Fighting Somalia's
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 categorical mistake?
By Jort Hemmer for openDemocracy
16 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
policy-making, 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
> 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
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
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 organize
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
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
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,
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 neighboring 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
ndup> Reports of public lashings, amputations and executions have made world
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 favors 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 mobilizing 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 favor of a body that is neither willing
nor able to rule Somalia by consent, thereby fueling 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
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
mb-kills-65-somalia> 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
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 decentralized 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.
Jort Hemmer is a research fellow at Clingendael's Conflict Research Unit
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Received on Sun Oct 16 2011 - 15:32:51 EDT