Saturday, January 14, 2012

Quo Vadis Somalia?

Teddy Lishan Desta, PhD

Teddy is an Associate Editor for the Journal of the International Relations and Affairs Group (JIRAG). He has lectured at colleges and universities on International Affairs. He holds a PhD in International Relations from The University of Texas at Dallas, a Master of Science in Economics degree from Baylor University. He specializes in International Relations Theory, International Trade, Economics and the International Political Economy.

Since 1991, Somalia has been synonymous with chaos and anarchy. For the last two decades the country has seen endless civil-wars as various forces battled each other for the control of central power in Mogadishu. In recent years, the appearance and operations of pirates off the coast of Somalia, and the emergence a group with suspected links with al-Qaeda, known as al-Shabab have all exacerbated the security situation within Somalia, in the regional countries, and the maritime sea lanes in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. All these effects arising from chaotic Somalia have caused alarm bells to ring in regional capitals, and in many other which are concerned with regional security, international terrorism, maritime trade, humanitarian crisis.

The security implications of the long-standing crisis in Somalia are manifold. Not only Somalis within are affected by the crisis, but the turmoil in Somalia has also become a threat to regional stability, global security, and international maritime trade.

First, there is the case of the threat to human security. After the collapse of the central government in 1991, Somalis could not lead a normal life. Besides the hundred thousands who have lost their lives, millions of Somalis have been displaced internally and externally. In 2010, Somalia began to suffer its worst drought in 60 years. The crisis fully erupted in July, when the worsening humanitarian crisis reached a tipping point and the UN announced famine conditions across parts of southern Somalia. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis in famine-stricken areas fled to the capital, Mogadishu, and Kenya in search of aid. The famine crisis has been made worse when in 2009 al Shabab banned almost all international aid agencies, claiming that they were Western spies and that their food assistance was a conspiracy to drive Somali farmers out of business. The group not only prevented aid distribution but also forbade famine victims from fleeing to Kenya, even going so far as to deny the existence of a famine.

Second, Somali pirates have become a major threat to maritime trade, their threat expanding as far as the Persian Gulf. For example, in 2010, pirates took 1,181 people hostage off the Somali coast. About half were released after the payment of ransoms; a few have died of abuse or neglect. Often hijacked vessels are employed as mother-ships from which the pirates stage further raids. The problem has worsened sharply in recent years. There were 219 attacks in 2010 compared with 35 in 2005. Ransoms paid in 2010 climbed to $238m, an average of $5.4m per ship, compared with $150,000 in 2005. On UN report estimates the economic cost of piracy at $5 billion-7 billion a year. Currently many countries have stationed part of their navies in the Gulf of Aden and the environs of the Indian Ocean off the coasts of Somalia to thwart any sea piracy.

Third, the other major concern is the regional threat the instability in Somalia poses to neighboring countries. On July 11, 2010, the Somali terrorist group Al-Shabaab carried out multiple suicide bombings in Kampala, Uganda. An estimated 76 people, including one American, were killed and more than 80 injured. Units from the Kenyan army crossed into Somalia in October to create a buffer zone against al-Shabab, following a series of kidnappings by the militia in northern Kenya.[3] The US is also active in the affairs of Somalia, both in fighting the danger of terrorism and in averting humanitarian crisis. The US has launched attacks by unmanned drones and special forces looking for suspects of transnational terrorism hiding with al-Shabab. On May 1, 2008, American war planes reportedly killed Aden Hashi Ayro, the former leader of al-Shabaab. The U.S. backs the TFG, and supplies weapons and support to the AMISOM forces.[4] (CFR, 2011)

Just due to recent developments in Somalia, the lives of millions of Somalis have been endangered, international maritime commerce threatened, and the peace and security of regional countries severely rattled. In order to contain the security condition fast deteriorating in Somalia, regional countries and the international community have doubled their efforts to do something to realize a turnaround. For example, some regional countries have sent their armies into the south –western half of Somalia to fight on behalf of the weak transitional federal government (TFG). For the armies of Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Ethiopia, and now Djibouti (some of which are fighting under the AU peacekeeping mission in Somalia) their main target is the al-Shabab group which has been threatening the internationally recognized, but weak, transitional federal government of Somalia. What makes these countries and the rest of the world jittery about al-Shahab is its known links with al-Qaeda.

Turning a Corner?

Since January 2011, the TFG and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) have intensified their attacks against Al-Shabaab forces in Mogadishu and southern Somalia. As of June 2011, Al-Shabaab forces had lost a number of districts in Mogadishu to TFG and AMISOM forces. A number of Al-Shabaab fighters have defected to the TFG and a number of their senior commanders have been killed. In early August 2011, Al-Shabaab forces pulled out of Mogadishu.

The military interventions by the regional countries, whether operating under the umbrella of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) or acting independently, are greatly changing the military and political dynamics of Somalia. For the first time since its formation in 2006, the al-Shabab group seems on the verge of defeat. The group which has been in control of much of Somalia, even with a strong presence in the capital city, Mogadishu, now appears to be on the run as it comes under sustained pressure from the armies of the regional countries and the anti-terrorism and anti-piracy operations of countries such as the USA and France.

So what is the future for Somalia? Here, I entertain one scenario.

One Economist report gives the impression that Somalia is headed towards a new form of political arrangement.
[6] That is the possible prospect that (Mogadishu-) Somalia could be carved up into sphere of influences by three regional powers - Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia.(1) Each of these countries could likely end up setting up their "protectorates" inside Somalia. Each countries' efforts is expected to be helped by the cooperation and tacit acquiesce of local tribes and tribal leaders. These will likely lend their support because they are tired of civil conflict and all its attendant evils. It is also likely that regional bodies like IGAAD and the AU, and world organizations like UN will also support these interventions under the rubric of regional peace-keeping or fighting terrorism.

How does this scenario play out? At least, the resulting protectorates (mini-states) will serve each of the regional countries as buffer zones against classical chaos, or as control mechanism for the much feared regional jihadism of al-Shabab. If these "protectorates" succeed in providing safe havens for Somalis who have suffered depredation under warlordism, lawlessness, and al-Shabab's austere laws, then the rest of the world will be happy to lend its material support to the regional countries so that they could assist in the rehabilitation of the areas they have pacified.

However, any promise of support from the outside world would come under the tacit assumption that these "protectorates" will later be joined together to form a larger Somalia, a Somalia which will be at peace with itself and with its neighbors. Of course, this type of outside support for the regional countries subsumes the repeat of the German story at the end of WW II. This is the scenario where soon after end of WW II, the western allied powers pacified, stabilized and lent support for the reconstruction of the zones they controlled. Within a few years the allied forces have combined their respective spheres of occupied Germany into the W. German state. A German nation pacified and integrated into Europe came about only through the sacrifices and efforts of other great powers.

Such a rosy and probable outcome the world could expect from the African nations' foray into Somalia could be marred also by other efforts which support elements who oppose the presence of these regional countries in Somalia. For example other regional powers like Eritrea will attempt to have its own sphere of influence in Somalia through its alleged support for al-Shabab. Al-Qaeda as an organization with a deep going interest in Somalia will also do its best to thwart such an effort. Equally there may other Somalis which could oppose the idea of sphere of influence by the regional countries just for the sake of hard-core Somali nationalism.

However, there are a few major reasons to view the presence of the regional countries in Somalia with a positive light. If these the regional countries commit the necessary resources and implicitly work under the oversight of the international community, and work hard to win the trust of the local people, this scenario could prove to be a turning point for Somalia. The worst fear expressed has been that these countries as agents of their own national interests or as participants to some western imperialist conspiracy will remain in Somalia for many years or dismember the remaining part of Somalia for ever.
[7]But such a fear is quite misplaced, because:

i). There is little to keep these countries in Somalia except the overriding interest to bring stability to it lest they themselves become destabilized by spill-over effect from Somalia's unending turmoil.

ii). Long-term occupation (beyond pacification) of some other country's territory is not a sustainable proposition for these countries from the viewpoint of their own economic capability, their domestic politics, international opinion, and the backlash from Somali nationalism.

iii). The presence of armies from neighboring countries in a civil war-torn African country is not the first to happen. Based on the record we have, such presence has never mutated into a permanent occupation, or led to the dismemberment of the "occupied" country.

Somalia's greatest assets are its very resourceful people who will not need many years to build their country into a hub of economic activity and innovation once they are provided with peace conditions or economic assistance, or both thru the support of the international community. I choose to view the presence of east African armies in Somalia as part of this effort. Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, and Ethiopia's armies in Somalia should be viewed as necessary evil to bring long due pacification to Somalia. It should be seen as part of the effort to bring desired stability, and yes even ultimately that united Somalia.

Somalia will not be the first country where neighbors' showed up to extinguish a fire that is consuming the country and is also threatening their own survival. In all cases (I can recall) all these small countries go back to where they come from either successfully extinguishing the fire or reducing it to a very manageable level.

One thing the presence of the regional countries can take advantage of in the case of recent developments in Somalia is the appearance of mini-state like political entities which are trying to take shape in areas vacated by al-Shabab. The appearance of such autonomous zones should not be viewed with undue alarm, but taken as an opportunity to create order out of chaos. These newly appearing cantons (mini-"states"), if handled correctly, can serve as critical stepping stones to pacify, build, and ultimately unite Somalia. However, this idea, if expected to work, has to fulfill a few key assumptions:

(i). No canton will have the motivation nor the power to try to dominate another mini-“state.”

(ii). Each of these cantons are the largest logical governance blocks that can hold and sustain on their own. Because of cultural and historical reasons - related to clan affinity and the bad experience the region has since 1991 – conditions make clan-based cantons fit for the political ecology of Somalia.

(iii). Regional powers exercising power within their respective spheres of influence will keep the balance of power among these cantons. The regional powers will thereby prevent any type of predatory or dominance-oriented activity arising from any of these cantons to succeed.

(iv). Another role of the regional countries will be to encourage good governance and normal economic activity in each canton. They will oversee the emergence and consolidation of a responsible leadership and normal economic activity in each of the autonomous zones they each control. They will censure among the canton leaders any tendency towards pillage, warlordism or the ideological dominance of other cantons. The local leadership will mentor and supported to focus on peace, stability and reconstruction of the zone under its management.

(v). Regional countries will empower the local population in grassroots democracy (a system to be rooted in the traditional culture) so that a leadership that does not perform as expected will be weeded out and replaced with an energetic and visionary leadership.

Hence, it is not a far-fetched idea to contemplate the emergence and sustenance clan-based cantons as the groundwork for the reconstitution of Somalia. One big reason in this regard is that these mini-"states" will be small and weak that they will be quite amenable to outside pressure and incentive to go in the direction mapped out for them. If there be a time where the adage of "divide and rule" could apply for positive results, then it must be now in a place called Mogadishu-Somalia.

As for the rest of the international community, it should exercise first oversight and secondly provide logistical support to make the regional countries as responsible agents to pacify, stabilize, and ultimately put together Somalia.

Moving Forward in Somalia
Today the momentum in Somalia favors the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) than its opponents, represented mainly by al-Shabab.

Since January 2011, the TFG and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) have intensified their attacks against Al-Shabaab forces in Mogadishu and southern Somalia. As of June 2011, Al-Shabaab forces had lost a number of districts in Mogadishu to TFG and AMISOM forces. A number of Al-Shabaab fighters have defected to the TFG and a number of their senior commanders have been killed.

Facilitated by the UN mission in Somalia, currently there is a concerted effort to give Somalia an elected parliament and broadly-based government by late 2012. In September 2011, Somali political leaders agreed a "road map" for the formation of a government to replace the TFG by August 2012. The adoption of the plan, which is based on four major benchmarks -security, the constitution, political outreach, and reconciliation and good governance -was the culmination of a three-day consultative meeting on ending the transition in Somalia. The “roadmap” was signed by the TFG, the Federal Transitional Parliament (FTP), the two autonomous regions, Puntland and Galmudug, and the pro-TFG Islamist militia, Ahlu Sunnah.[9]

Another new development on the Somalia political scene is the active interventionist role regional countries are playing to help pacify Somalia. And secondly, al-Shabab is showing signs of degenerating from its high-ground ideological and nationalist "purity" and military strength into becoming a band of predatory and criminal organization. These rapidly evolving changes call for a new assessment of the political and security situation of Somalia. One key step in such re-assessment will be to identify and categorize the major role players in the politics and security of Somalia. It is only from such understanding (and knowing the objectives of each major role player) that any meaningful analysis and recommendation can arise.

(i). Internal forces
These forces are purely of Somalia in origin and operate fully within. Some have international and regional legitimacy; some do not. Some are fully political; others are quasi-political tending on the criminal. Some have a pan-national objective; others are more local actors.

The variation in the internal forces ranges, say from the transitional government to the remnant of the "old-style" warlord type to al-Shabab to a band of pirates. Therefore, there is a need to create sub-categories in the rank of internal forces.

(ii). Internal-external forces
These political and social forces are Somali in origin, but reside or operate outside the country. These play a role in Somali politics by the kind of hard and soft support they provide or even deny to the various Somali internal forces active in Somalia. There is one additional fact why these forces are quite important in the dynamics of Somalia. These forces are indispensable to the international community which tries to bring order to Somalia through reconciliation or the setting up of a national government.

(iii). External-internal forces
These are regional countries and other organizations which have made their foot-prints in Somalia. Some are there under the umbrella of the AU peacekeeping forces (Uganda, Burundi, and now Djibouti), and others have made incursions into Somalia to prevent spill-over effect (Kenya and Ethiopia). Currently, the number and clout of these regional countries in the affairs of Somalia has grown proportionally.

(iv). External forces
These are outsides forces, countries or organizations, with minimal political or military physical presence in Somalia. But they show attention and engagement with the local situations not to be considered or ignored. Their actions clearly show that they have some stake or interest in the present and future state of Somalia.

Some of the external forces lend support to the transitional government, and a few others to al-Shabab. Some are key because their diplomatic, financial and material clout is immense; they can bestow or deny international legitimacy to any of the forces operating within Somalia. Some others make a military impact; they either engage some of the internal forces militarily on occasional basis, or supply arms and others logistics to Somali combatants.

The identity and objectives each the major external force (i.e., what kind of Somalia they want to see emerge from the ashes) should be identified and understood for correct analysis of the situation, and even for seeking solution.

Simply put the politics of Somalia has many moving parts which each needs ample attention in order to the fix the broken place. In my opinion, today there is a shift that is developing in the affairs of Mogadishu-Somalia which if handed carefully could lead to positive results to pacify, stabilize and restore the place. Here are some reasons:

a). In the case where at least five regional countries (Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti) have made their presence felt in Somalia, it is quite difficult for any local Somali force to get the upper hand over its power competitors without the support of these countries.

Given there fire-power, resources and support they have from the international community, the role these countries could play in the political dynamics of Somalia, as by tilting the balance of power in favor of some of the internal forces, is quite immense. In this regard the probable winner seems to be the transitional federal government (TFG), at present whose power barely extends beyond the capital city, Mogadishu. Therefore, the fate of Somalia will highly depend what these countries will end up doing in the country.

b). In the case where al-Shabab because of its misdeeds and missteps is fast losing even its ideological justification and the nationalist mantle, it is proving itself as a less and less an attractive option even for its original Somali supporters. On top of the support it is fast losing within the areas it operates in, al-Shabab is coming under immense military pressure from the armies of the regional countries now operating in Somalia (as well as the direct military hits it is taking from other external forces). Therefore, al-Shabab is fast disintegrating; hence it is no longer able the feared unified armed organization threatening to take power in Mogadishu any time soon.

c). In the case where small bands of vice-based bands of operators (pirates, etc.) do not have any sort of political vision for Somalia, these could survive for some time until the place gets a normal life and economy. Of course, in this regard things could get a little worse before it gets any better. That is because as al-Shabab splinters and disintegrates, it will inevitably swell the ranks of small groups of “bandits” whose primary objective will be sowing chaos and earning a living from extortion.

d). In the case where mini-state-like zones are emerging in the spaces vacated by al-Shabab these developments allow for traditional Somali governance to take root among the people. These mini political entities will provide their local communities with a modicum of governance working as functional cantons, as they will be sensitive to their community needs, amenable to international community influence and incentives, and adverse to destructive forces. These even though they may look for autonomy as much as possible from the center, may not want to challenge the legitimacy of the transitional government as the war-lords or USC or al-Shabab did.

Carving a Role for the Somali Diaspora
Today millions of Somalis reside outside their country, and most of these have been forced to leave their native land due to the insecurity that engulfed Somalia after the fall of the Said Barre regime in 1991. Many of these have taken refuge in neighboring countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, and many others have settled as far away in the Middle East, Europe, North America and Australia. Wherever they may be, most of the Somali Diaspora maintains a very keen interest in what is going on in their native land, socially, economically and politically. For example, the remittances the Diaspora send home provides as a lifeline that sustains many families through the chaos and the hardship caused by the civil war and by famine conditions as the one which hit the country most recently. Remittances from the Somali Diaspora are forecast to remain steady at around US$1bn a year in 2012-13, as the impact of weak growth and the risk of another recession in the developed world is countered by improvements in money transfer technology.

Politically, the Somali Diaspora has played a key a role in post-1991 Somali politics in the form of hard and soft support they provide (or deny) to the various groups operating within Somalia. The Diaspora has also been one indispensable pool of human resource wherever the international community plans any form of political or humanitarian intervention in Somalia. In many instances exile Somali groups have been the main power brokers in the various efforts in peace negotiation among the warring factions, or in the attempts to give Somalia a central government. Such a close engagement is equally illustrated by the fact that the last two prime ministers, a host of members of parliament, and cabinet ministers hold dual US-Somali nationality.

Now as explained above the political and security dynamics of Somalia is entering a new phase where things are evolving very rapidly. So it is important to assess what role the Somali Diaspora play in order to capitalize on the developing situation, thereby assisting the long-term vision of stabilizing and returning Somalia to a normal life. What can actually the Diaspora do to help the forces of national and regional peace?

At this juncture the Somali Disapora has two main choices:
(i). Reject the intervention of the regional countries seeing it as a conspiracy to dismember Somalia. In this case the Diaspora will either back al-Shabab and reform it, accepting it as a nationalist block, or lend support to one or some of the canton leaders which may try to play the nationalist card more than any of their peers. Or, the Diaspora may come together to form a new nationalist party that will try to coordinate efforts to kick out the invaders from Somalia. This scenario looks unlikely at the moment though given that the Diaspora want to see a semblance of stability in Somalia, at least the Ethiopian and Kenyan armies have been given the benefit of the doubt but things might change in the future of these armies do not stabilize Somalia.

(ii). Accept the regional countries armies in Somalia as a necessary evil meant to bring peace and stability to the endless civil war that have wracked Somalia since 1991. In this scenario, the Diaspora will quickly recognize the regional intervention as a positive development and proceed to organize a committee that will allow the Diaspora to play its historic part in bringing stability to Somalia. . The London Conference on Somalia organized by the UK government could be a starting point for such an initiative and the UK based Diaspora which is already engaged in various initiatives can take the lead.

The Diaspora committee may need to make initial contacts with the TFG, regional and world organizations, and the rest of the international community, including some of the great powers in order to be accepted as a role player in the new effort to stabilize Somalia. The committee could easily be accepted by others because there are a few quite critical tasks it can realize. First, the committee can recognize and enhance the TFG, thereby giving it a broader legitimacy among all Somalis. Second, it can begin to provide the TFG with the critical manpower which can help the TFG run the country. Third, the committee can provide experienced interlocutors and diplomats for the TFG to represent the Somali interest abroad. Fourth, by working hand in hand with regional and world bodies, the Diaspora committee exercise oversight over the regional countries militarily active in Somalia. By ensuring the work of the regional countries in Somalia as a short-time mission, the Diaspora can minimize the risk of any Somali nationalist backlash against these countries. Fifth, by working the Somali community channels, inside and outside Somalia, the Diaspora committee can bring pressure on Somali forces working in the piracy, jihad or other forms of evil enterprise. And finally, the Diaspora can invest in development projects and social infrastructure in Somalia to foster a return to normal economic activities and to lay the groundwork for development projects and foreign direct investment by multi-national Corporation.

In short, the Diaspora committee can function as a complement to the TFG, by working as a shadow government from outside. Its endeavors will be directed towards supporting and enhancing the TFG work inside the country. The committee will also act as the diplomatic arm of the TFG, representing the Somali interest outside the country.

In all these, one big question remains to be answered: Will the Somali Diaspora view the military presence of neighboring countries as a colonial enterprise and a conspiracy to dismember Somalia, or as a golden opportunity to pacify the country? If the Diaspora chooses to ally itself solidly behind the regional and international forces, then the prospect of peace in Somalia will be brighter than ever. However, if the Diaspora chooses to reject the current regional and international effort, then Somalia will be destined for another cycle of violence. The future of Somalia heavily depends on the answer the Somali Diaspora will give to this important question. In all these indications are the majority of the Somali Diaspora are more involved in making the TFG work than supporting the al-Shabaab.


1). Foreign armies in Somalia and the appearance of state-like entities in Somalia.

2). How history affects the relationship between Ethiopians and Somalis

3). Al-Shabab becomes a danger to Somali culture

4). Sea Piracy

5). USA fights against terrorists and pirates in Somalia

6). Famine in Somalia

7). Country Report
Economist Intelligence Unit (2011). Country Report: Somalia.
Congressional Research Service (2011):

[1] Ken Menkhaus (2011). Somalia’s Starvation. Foreign Affairs. Available at:

[2] Economist (2011). At Sea. Feb. 3, 2011. Print. Available at:

[3] Economist Intelligence Unit (2011). Country Report: Somalia.
[4] Julia Hunt (2011). Terrorism Havens: Somalia. Available at:

[5] Ted Dagne (2010). Somalia: Current Conditions and Prospects for a Lasting Peace. Available at:


[7]Abdishakur Jowhar (2011). The End of Somalia: Scenario of Partition. Available at:

[8] Ted Dagne (2010). Somalia: Current Conditions and Prospects for a Lasting Peace. Available at:

[9] Economist Intelligence Unit (2011). Country Report: Somalia.
[10] Economist Intelligence Unit (2011). Country Report: Somalia.