Date: Fri Jan 30 2009 - 21:04:44 EST
Strategic Dialogue: Somalia
Francis Njubi Nesbitt and Hussein Yusuf | January 28, 2009
Editor: John Feffer
Francis Njubi Nesbitt
Hussein Yusuf's essay on the Obama administration's challenges in Somalia
argues that Somalia poses a grave danger to the United States. He argues
that piracy threatens "the supply of oil and commercial trade to the West."
I disagree. Piracy does not pose a grave threat. It's a distraction that
takes attention away from the tragic humanitarian crisis unfolding on land.
The anti-piracy campaign was perfect for the Bush administration's "shock
and awe" tactics. Flexing military muscle is always popular with voters and
television networks. This is why the armada of aircraft carriers,
destroyers, and helicopter gunships has gathered to fight a few Somali
fishermen in fiberglass boats.
The anti-piracy campaign epitomizes the misguided militarism and
profiteering of the Bush era. The campaign has already attracted private
security contractors — mercenaries — that seemed to follow the Bush war
machine like vultures. Blackwater and other mercenary forces quickly formed
anti-piracy wings that are available to shipping companies. It seems
logical to conclude that the death toll, which has been minimal to this
point, is likely to escalate sharply with the involvement of Blackwater's
Efforts to find a link between piracy and terrorism also threaten to
escalate the conflict. In a New York Times op-ed, for instance, Douglas
Burgess, Jr. claimed last month that piracy is terrorism because both
involve non-state actors and gangs of disaffected youth. But there's no
evidence of collaboration between Islamists and the pirates, let alone
evidence of ties to global terrorism networks.
It's important not to hype the threat pirates pose to the United States and
international security. Vice Admiral Gortney, commander of the naval forces
in the Middle East, estimated that only one-tenth of 1% of the thousands of
ships that use the Gulf of Aden are in danger of being hijacked. Analysts
estimate that piracy costs $1 billion a year in a global maritime industry
worth trillions of dollars.
In a deal with Britain and the United States, Kenya has agreed to prosecute
pirates caught off its coast. It isn't clear whether pirates captured in
open waters or off the Somalia coast will be tried. Meanwhile, 22 African
and Middle Eastern countries are meeting in Djibouti to craft anti-piracy
laws. This is a step in the right direction, as it seeks legal and
political rather than military solutions. In the final analysis, however,
only a stable state in Somalia can effectively deter piracy.
The Obama administration should adopt a multipronged strategy that includes
both traditional conflict management techniques such as peacekeeping and
other strategies, such as incentives and sanctions. Piracy in the Gulf of
Aden can only be effectively controlled on land. Thus, the most important
step is to jumpstart the peace process by removing obstacles placed by the
The Bush administration's call for a UN peacekeeping force for Somalia at
the eleventh hour seemed more like a publicity stunt than serious policy.
This cynical strategy is designed to fail, but it creates the impression
that something is being done. The Obama team will have to engage the
parties in the messy and protracted negotiations. This may not be as sexy
and media-friendly as mobilizing a peacekeeping force and launching an
anti-piracy campaign, but it's the smart option.
The administration could offer incentives like political and economic
support for governmental and nongovernmental organizations. Investment in
strengthening women's, youth, and public health-related groups could reach
people at the grassroots, where they're more amenable to change. Such
engagement at the local level can build relationships and reduce support
for radical Islamists.
These sanctions and incentives can be effective against regional players
such as Ethiopia and Eritrea, which support rival groups in the conflict.
The United States can no longer be held hostage to Ethiopia's ambitions in
the region. The team must stop the knee-jerk support for Ethiopia's
machinations. The breakaway regions of Puntland and Somaliland would also
have to be included in the conversation, but strengthening the borders of
these breakaway regions may be counterproductive.
Obama and his team have an opportunity to reverse the cynical policies of
the last eight years and demonstrate the effectiveness of "smart power" in
the Horn of Africa region.
Francis Njubi Nesbitt does a fine job cataloging the mishaps of the Bush
administration in Somalia. This is well documented, and he's very accurate
in his description. However, he misses the current political realities on
the ground in Somalia.
The way forward for Somalia, in terms of building a representative and
stable government, lies in the proper engagement with the Transitional
Federal Government (TRG), the country's tribal system, and moderate
Islamists in the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). The Djibouti agreement
between the leadership of the UIC and the TFG that Nesbitt wrongly brands
as lacking credibility is a peace process with potential to succeed and
save the country from more violence and, ultimately, disintegration. Hassan
Aweys, the militia leader, never said he was ready to talk with the TFG.
Aweys' vision of Somalia's future governance is deeply flawed and driven by
Nesbitt quotes Daniela Kroslak of the International Crisis Group saying
that "an Islamic republic is inevitable" in Somalia. He goes on to suggest
that the United States and Ethiopia should come to terms with this reality.
This is the most troubling aspect of Nesbitt's proposal. Somalis aren't
ready for an Islamic republic. Our culture, history, and governance are
deeply tribal and traditional, with strong Muslim roots that encourage
diverse expressions of faith and freedom. In the Gedo region, Puntland, and
Somaliland, Islam and governance have merged and are thriving. This is the
essence of Somalia's tradition of moderation and tolerance.
In addition, the International Crisis Group is an unreliable source. It
actively advocated for the independence of the Somaliland region and thus
has little credibility in the eyes of Somalis. It's unable to send
researchers into many parts of the country because of its ill-informed
In Somalia, Islamists divide along tribal lines. The management of the
tribal nature of the conflict is a key to peacebuilding and good governance
in Somalia. Nesbitt doesn't seem to understand the importance of Somali
tribal ties and how they affect religion, politics, and ultimately
peacebuilding in Somalia.
President Obama should directly engage the moderate Islamists while
carefully considering the tribal nature and bases of the people at the
regional level. Every tribe in Somalia has to feel included in the process.
Only when President Obama is able to engage both the moderate Islamists and
the traditional leadership of the tribes will peace be possible in Somalia.
Excluding the tribal system Somalis have used to govern themselves for
centuries is a recipe for disaster.
Hussein Yusuf is a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor and is a program
officer at the Engaging Governments on Genocide Prevention Program (EGGP)
at George Mason University. Francis Njubi Nesbitt is a Foreign Policy In
Focus contributor and teaches African politics and conflict resolution at
San Diego State University. He is the author of Race for Sanctions (Indiana
University Press, 2004) and is completing a book on peacemaking in the Horn
For More Information
To read the original essays in this dialogue, click here for Yusuf and here
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