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Somalia Remains Mired in Failure

March 23, 2009


I have posted a couple of blogs about Somalia in the past [Somalia — Poster Child of Failed States and More on Somalia]. In the first post, I talked about the piracy problem that originates from Somalia’s ungoverned shores. I noted that The Economist had declared Somalia “The world’s most utterly failed state.” I also noted that an entire generation has now grown up within this failed state and asserted that “this lost generation is perhaps the greatest tragedy of the entire Somali saga.” Although I noted that “Somalia would be a good test case for implementing suggestions on how best to deal with fail and fragile states (see my posts More on Dealing with Failed States and Fixing Fragile States].” My dark conclusion was that no approach would work “until the security situation is under control. With Iraq and Afghanistan grabbing all of America’s attention, I fear that Somalia will remain the world’s most utterly failed state for some time to come.” In the second post, I reported that radical Islamists are beginning to overrun Somalia making matters even worse. The only good news was that Muslim moderates, for the first time, were fighting back. But as I wrote, “the sad truth is that too often when moderates engage in conflict against extremists, the fighting turns all sides into extremists. If Somalia is to have any hope of a more stable and prosperous future, it needs help from the international community. It is also important that the moderates inside Somalia maintain their moderate positions while prevailing against the extremists.” I wrote that back in January 2009. As you can imagine, not much has changed in the intervening months.


On the subject of piracy, a number of nations have beefed up their anti-piracy forces in the area; yet the number of attacks has actually increased [“Somali pirates keep up attacks but seizures fall,” by Katherine Houreld, Washington Post, 12 March 2009]. As the headline for Houreld’s article states, although attacks are up seizures are down. One of the reasons is that people aboard the vessels are fighting back.

“A Chinese crew fought off Somali pirates using homemade Molotov cocktails while a Filipino crew showered the pirates’ path with old oil drums and wooden pallets. Another sailor aboard a ship being attacked simply pushed the pirates’ ladder off the side, sending them tumbling into the waves. … Sailors are taking measures like lashing high-pressure fire hoses into position so they point at vulnerable areas of the ship or blasting water across corrugated iron sheets to create a ‘waterfall’ that might flood a pirate skiff trying to motor underneath it. But most ships simply evade capture by speeding up and changing direction.”

Houreld reports that in 2008 Somali pirates managed to seize about 38 percent of the vessels they targeted. That number, she says, is down to 13 percent in 2009. Both an increased international effort and self-defense have contributed. Despite the increased risks that Somali pirates face (“121 pirates have been disarmed and released, 126 have been turned over for prosecution and three have been killed since last August”), they continue to pursue the only life they’ve known. They are members of the lost generation noted above.

“Piracy has long been a problem off the coast of lawless Somalia, located in the Horn of Africa. An entire generation of impoverished gunmen has never known the rule of law and half the population relies on foreign aid to survive.”

Somalia does have a government — it simply remains dysfunctional. Since my post in January, a new president, Sharif Ahmed, has been elected to what has been described as “the most treacherous job in the world” [“Somali President Courts Insurgents,” by Stephanie McCrummen, Washington Post, 12 March 2009]. During his first few weeks in office, President Ahmed has reached out to the Muslim insurgents that control the southern portion of his country. Ahmed is widely respected moderate Muslim according to McCrummen and he believes that the insurgents “have no option but to accept peace.” The insurgents to whom Ahmed is referring are known as the al-Shabaab (“youth” in Arabic). The group has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. Government. McCrummen asserts that Ahmed’s most immediate task will be “shoring up militia alliances in the event that al-Shabaab — his biggest military threat — does not back down. He has also taken charge of a country whose budget is almost entirely dependent on foreign aid and where more than 1 million people — including half the population of Mogadishu — are displaced, shell-shocked and weary of war.” Ahmed doesn’t underestimate the task before him. Yet he speaks with hope about Somalia’s future.

“‘To serve my people, you have to have a vision,’ said Ahmed, calm and studiously polite in a charcoal-gray suit. ‘What I will do is establish a stable and effective government by reconciliation.'”

In this case, the cure may be worse than the disease. Ahmed has recently agreed to introduce Sharia law into the country. Most observers believe this is an olive branch he is extending to members of al-Shabaab. Sharia law, however, has proven to be an uneven system of dispensing justice in most places where it has been tried. Under such laws, women and girls often find themselves treated as second-class citizens, are rarely provided educational opportunities, and often subject to brutal behavior. Al-Shabaab’s record in this matter is not good.

“In the southern city of Kismaayo, a 13-year-old girl was stoned to death last year after reporting to al-Shabaab authorities that she had been raped, according to human rights groups. Ahmed said that in his view, sharia law allows for women to serve in parliament and that the democratic process — which al-Shabaab calls a ‘Western’ idea — ‘is not inherently against Islam.'”

Most analysts agree that Somalia sits on the cusp of change. The direction of that change, however, is not clear. If Ahmed can quell the insurgency and establish rule of law, life would immediately improve for most of Somalia’s citizens. That’s the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is that Somalia could be plunged into a religious civil war. Such a conflict would likely spillover into Ethiopia and Kenya. Either way, Somalia will not become a secular state.

“Ahmed’s January election by the Somali parliament reflects the apotheosis of political Islam in a country where religion has, until recently, been separate from a political process dominated by competing clan interests. Ahmed was among the founders of an Islamic movement that gained popularity by defeating the brutal and widely despised warlords who took over after Somalia’s last government collapsed in 1991. Some of the warlords styled themselves as anti-terrorists and secured the backing of the United States, which has been concerned that Somalia will become al-Qaeda’s East African base. Under Ahmed’s leadership, the Islamic Courts movement managed to transcend Somalia’s divisive clan politics and establish a brief period of peace and order in the seaside capital. But the movement ran afoul of the United States and neighboring Ethiopia for maintaining ties to al-Shabaab, which served as the courts’ military wing and whose leaders have claimed common cause with al-Qaeda.”

Hoping that Ahmed’s moderate views prevail, both the United States and Ethiopia back his administration. Such backing, however, comes with a price. Ahmed has been accused of being a puppet of the West.

“He reject[s] al-Shabaab’s accusation that he is a puppet of the West, saying Somalia and international players have ‘mutual interests.’ Asked whether his election represented a shift in Somali society toward a more political strain of Islam, Ahmed said that, on the contrary, it represented a shift in the outside world. ‘The way Western governments view religion’s role in society has changed quite dramatically because of the phenomenon of interdependence,’ he said. ‘Attitudes are changing.'”

Last week, Osama bin Laden claimed that President Ahmed had “changed and turned back on his heels… to partner up with the infidel” and, as a result, called for his overthrow. In response, Ahmed told Arabic television, “Somalia knows [its] future and who can involve, but it is not something for Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda either.” [“Somalis reject Bin Laden threats,” BBC News, 20 March 2009]. For its part, al Shabaab welcomed bin Laden’s message and “also said Shabaab would maintain its contacts with al Qaeda.” [“Shabaab leader admits links to al Qaeda,” by Bill Roggio, The Long War Journal, 22 March 2009]. The current exchange demonstrates why Ahmed will have a difficult time securing the peace. Extremists rarely change their attitudes or demands.


Another attitude that is not changing is the feeling of hopelessness among Somalia’s best-educated citizens. They are voting for the future with their feet [“In Somalia, an Exodus of the Educated,” by Stephanie McCrummen, Washington Post, 16 March 2009]. She reports:

“In the past year, more than 100,000 Somalis have fled the conflict in the Horn of Africa nation, a figure that includes a crucial subset of people who have been deliberately chased away — the professional class. During the past several years, professors, lawyers, doctors, engineers, journalists, businessmen, and human rights and peace advocates have joined an exodus that began when Somalia’s last central government fell in 1991 and has continued unabated. Even the newly elected president of Somalia’s fragile interim government, Sharif Ahmed, has spent more time outside the country than inside, mainly because of security concerns. Members of the educated elite have been hounded by all sides in the conflict. The government of former president Abdullahi Yusuf, backed by the military of neighboring Ethiopia, frequently accused them of supporting the insurgency. Young Islamist insurgents have accused them of backing the government or of being pawns for the United States and other foreign powers whose policies the insurgents often blame for wrecking the country. The result is that the people considered central to preventing the country’s total collapse are exiled in hotel rooms from Nairobi to Dubai, while others are joining the vast Somali diaspora across the United States, Canada, Sweden and other countries.”

Ahmed’s recognition of the importance of interdependence is a good sign. His inability to retain Somalia’s professional class is a bad sign. Let’s hope that he can convince them to return and, with other Somali’s, work with him to create peace. I fear, however, that al-Shabaab will generate the same kind of problems for Somalia as the Taliban have created for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its leaders are not seeking to lead Somalia into the future, but to plunge it back into the past. They would like to isolate Somalia so that their views of religion and social mores can be implemented without being subjected to the harsh light of international scrutiny. President Ahmed’s vision of a peaceful and prosperous Somalia will remain an elusive dream unless he can rally enough domestic and international support to defeat the insurgents.

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