The al-Shabaab Distortion: Somalia’s Real Challenges Lie Elsewhere

first published by the Fair Observer, 19 July 2014

Given that fighting al-Shabaab does little to advance Somalia’s state-building, other approaches need pursuing.

Al-Shabaab’s attack on the presidential palace in Mogadishu on July 8 is the latest in a string of violent assaults that have afflicted Somalia and neighboring countries. The militant Islamist group’s ability to penetrate the heavily fortified presidential complex is a testimony to the movement’s potency to disrupt reconstruction efforts of the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS).

This is particularly striking against the backdrop of enhanced security precautions the FGS had recently taken, and the military offensive the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali National Army (SNA) had launched on March 5. As with the assault on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall in September 2013, there is a risk that al-Shabaab’s “Ramadan offensive” will trigger a predominantly military response by the FGS and its international allies.

Distortion at Play
However, as argued in a study by the Life and Peace Institute, dividing Somali political actors into a binary dichotomy of extremists and moderates has produced a distorted understanding of the conflict. Partly rooted in the prevailing counterterrorism narrative, this distortion goes in tandem with a one-sided perception of al-Shabaab. Yet as rightly pointed out by the International Crisis Group’s latest policy briefing on Somalia, the group is multifaceted and constitutes much more than an armed insurgency. Unfortunately, simplistic portrayals of both the Somali conflict and its most prominent fomenter have significantly hampered the country’s prospects for conflict resolution and state-building.

Simultaneously, there is another distortion at play when it comes to al-Shabaab, namely the ubiquitous proposition that the Islamist movement constitutes the greatest challenge to peace and stability in Somalia. However, this is questionable for two reasons.

First, at the grassroots, al-Shabaab offers practical solutions and benefits for numerous communities, including the mediating of clan disputes, establishing local governance arrangements and providing basic services. Second, despite popular claims to the contrary, defeating al-Shabaab is not a precondition for advancing Somalia’s state-building project. For one, a victory over the extremist movement is likely to catalyze local clan disputes. For another, the historic track record of state-building shows that the creation of governance structures has, for better or for worse, generally been accompanied by violent contestation, particularly during early phases.

Somalia’s obstacles toward peace, stability and prosperity lie beyond the challenge posed by al-Shabaab. Just as has been acknowledged in the case of pirates, the Islamist movement constitutes more of a symptom of underlying discrepancies rather than an insurmountable core problem in and of itself. Consequently, the FGS and its international backers should not exhaust themselves and their scarce resources in hopeless military operations against al-Shabaab which, if anything, have encouraged it. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and the international community should consider devoting more attention toward tackling Somalia’s more fundamental problems, which would allow them to kill two birds with one stone: rebuilding a functioning state and, thereby, draining al-Shabaab of its fertile soil.

Somalia’s Real Challenges
There are four key challenges facing Somalia. First, the fragmentation of clans not only challenges prospects for peace and stability in the country, but also provides fertile soil for al-Shabaab. That this dynamic has seen a revival with the rolling out of a federal agenda is evidenced by the increasing tribal tensions in southern Somalia. Rather than curbing such fragmentation, the military advances against al-Shabaab appear to have furthered it by establishing a power vacuum. While al-Shabaab has frequently exploited resulting clan competition to its own benefit, such fragmentation is poisonous for Somalia’s state-building endeavor. Hence, the FGS needs to successfully forge social cohesion on a national scale, if it wants to establish peace and stability.

Second, the FGS needs to come to grips with the lack of a political vision. As of today, the government has failed to put forth a tangible plan on how to move forward in newly liberated areas or with regard to federalism. Against the backdrop of remaining social fault lines involving clan identity, the recommendation of “facilitating local clan dialogue and reconciliation” is generally advanced. Yet its relevance is not only questionable in an environment of constantly shifting alliances, but it is also backward-looking and divisive in nature. What the FGS needs to come up with is a common vision that paints a tangible and realistic picture of the future. Such a vision could bridge clan divides, implement a political agenda for action, and provide an ideological framework that allows the FGS to mobilize popular support for state-building and, therefore, challenging al-Shabaab’s hegemony in terms of vision.

Third, a fundamental obstacle lies in the void of local administrations. For one, the absence of formal administrative structures has provided al-Shabaab with the possibility to fill this gap. This has not only allowed the extremist movement to establish its presence in rural areas for the past decade. It has also enabled al-Shabaab to become part and parcel of political governance at the grassroots level. For another, it has deprived the FGS of the ability to control territory, provide basic services and gain traction among local constituencies. The arrival of ill-disciplined SNA troops and corrupt government officials in newly liberated areas soured rather than watered the population’s appetite for central government control. Therefore, the challenge of setting up functioning administrative structures needs to be embraced, in order to defeat al-Shabaab and build a viable state.

Fourth, the FGS must tackle concerns combating poverty, reducing vulnerability and providing livelihoods by creating employment opportunities. While poverty remains endemic, warnings of famine are once again on the rise. Yet creating loyal fellowship for its state-building project will be hardly possible in the absence of tangible improvements to popular livelihoods. Similarly, it seems next to impossible to create an engaged citizenship, without a productive economy and the ability for popular taxation.

If the Somali government and the international donor community continue to remain largely unable to reduce the multitude of risks the Somali population faces, the objective of building a viable state and defeating al-Shabaab will remain a distant dream.

Going Beyond Military Approaches
Clearly, insofar as al-Shabaab is an insurgency movement, it needs to be countered militarily. However, this should not lead the FGS and its international partners to become “locked” in a military response. Not only do continued military campaigns against al-Shabaab provide it with nurturing grounds, but they also divert attention from the underlying challenges for peace and prosperity in Somalia. Frequently heeded calls for “political inclusion” of the extremist movement are questionable. Not only do both sides of the table contain elements who reject political dialogue, but such a solution maintains the focus on al-Shabaab as the primary hindrance to stability and development in Somalia. Yet as this seems to be far from the truth, al-Shabaab should be given less rather than more attention.

Given that fighting al-Shabaab militarily does little to advance the fate of the Somali population and the FGS’ state-building project, other approaches need to be found. The most promising way forward appears to be a strategy that hones in on building a functioning state apparatus which, by consequence, renders organizations such as al-Shabaab irrelevant to the local populace. This is a long-term and difficult endeavor. Yet the FGS and the international donor community should consider such a strategic shift before President Mohamud’s term is up, and his empty-handedness triggers the international community’s retreat from Somalia.

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Somalia: Heading from Fragility to Fragmentation?

first published by AfricanArguments, 26 Jun 2014

Somalia has achieved important progress since the onset of the year of 2014. Most prominent among the positive developments is the push-back of al-Shabaab, realised by a joint military offensive of the Somali Armed Forces (SAF) and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). While security remains precarious, the territorial gains have provided the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) with an oppor­tunity to extend its administrative reach – a crucial precondition for its long-term state­-building project and endeavour to hold country-wide elections by 2016.

However, it remains questionable whether the govern­ment of Prime Minister Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed will succeed in reaping sufficient benefits in order to be able to propel the country’s state-building process. Although advances against the terrorist organisation are crucial, the fight against al-Shabaab constitutes only part of the equation. Another basic element lies in the process of erecting functional structures of governance in the context of Somalia’s federal agenda. Yet, recent quarrels at the sub-national level raise the fear that Somalia may be heading from fragility to fragmentation.

The EU-ISS policy brief ‘Somalia’s federal agenda: From fragility to fragmentation?’ takes a closer look at this proposition. The paper critically assesses the recent trajectory the country has embarked upon, putting a particular focus on Somalia’s federalism process and its implications for the state’s endeavour to establish lasting peace and stability. The paper shows that the political ‘transition’ that Somalia officially terminated with the formation of the FGS in September 2012 is in full swing, and that this process carries centrifugal tendencies that risk renewed conflict.

A key challenge Somalia faces lies in the ad-hoc nature of the process that underpins the formation of federal member states. While the evolution of regional tensions had to be expected, the resulting tug-of-war among Somali actors has hampered political progress. It also led to increased factionalism, propelling local tensions and clan-related cleavages. Somalia’s history provides ample evidence of the dangers this trajectory entails. Apart from compromising the state-building progress achieved to date, increased fragmentation could also lead to a reinvigoration of al-Shabaab, which has always been effective in exploiting local grievances and national disunity.

In order to prevent Somalia from sliding from fragility to fragmentation, the policy brief proposes that Somalia’s international partners may contemplate strengthening the central administration vis-à-vis the federal member states and supporting a just process by which federal polities are established. In part, this could be done by helping the FGS to institutionalise the process that underpins the formation of federal member states, and bolstering the Boundaries and Federation Commission that the Provisional Constitution tasked the FGS to create. This could be achieved by making it clear that international development funding to regional administrations will hinge on their prior approval by the FGS.

Moreover, the international community needs to ensure that its support towards Somalia’s national process of federalisation does not fuel internal conflict. One possibility lies in adopting a flexible process that provides the FGS with sufficient room for political manoeuvre, and hands ownership over the state-making process to the Somali people. Consequently, all donors should strongly adhere to the Somali Compact, as it continues to be the most suitable framework to assist the FGS in rebuilding basic and durable state functions. Even though the Somali Compact is not the silver bullet that will turn the long-time ‘failed state’ of Somalia into a stellar democracy, its principle tenets constitute an important step in reconstructing Somalia – not least by coordinating its international supporters.

More challenging, but of even greater importance, is the unification of the Somali people. For its part, the EU, in addition to its already significant contribution to the country’s security sector, might also consider the possibility of providing support for the establishment and the promotion of national political parties. Genuine political parties with convincing party programmes and an active followership that extends beyond a handful of Mogadishu-based politicians could prove to be valuable vehicles in attempts to transcend the sub-national purview of political entities, overcome age-old clan-based disputes, and provide viable platforms for national dialogue. Ultimately, a democratic trajectory for Somalia will be hard to achieve in the absence of both a unified national constituency and genuine political parties.

Not entirely unexpectedly, the advancement of Somalia’s federal agenda has proved to be a contentious process. The resulting fragmentation it has experienced, particularly in recent months, risks perpetuating and even exacerbating its fragility. In order to move forward constructively and overcome political instability, the country needs to start building institutions and identities that span regional and clan divides. Only then will Somalia stand a chance of achieving the ‘Vision 2016’ that the FGS devised last September.

Al-Shabab’s Kenya Attack – Avoiding the Pitfalls of a Military Response

first published by the United States Institute of Peace, 29 Oct 2013

An ill-conceived response by the Somali government and its international backers to the Somali militant group al-Shabab’s attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi last month carries immense risk of backfiring on Somalia’s fledgling state-making progress as well as regional peace and stability.

National and international leaders, including the Secretary General of the United Nations and his Special Representative in Somalia, have called for a surge of African troops to stem the threat of terrorism posed from within Somalia. But hastily increasing military and counterterrorism efforts risks generating a political backlash, not least by feeding into al-Shabab’s propaganda. History has shown time and again that military approaches do not solve, but rather exacerbate, the challenges Somalia has faced.

Instead, supporters of the fledgling Somali government should prioritize Somalia’s state-making endeavor.

Although many details of the Sept. 21 assault, in which a group of heavily armed gunmen killed at least 67 people at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall, remain to be clarified, speculation abounds on a number of questions. Which faction within al-Shabab was behind this act of violence? What were the underlying motives?

Interpretations of the attack diverge, not least concerning the question of whether the assault indicates al-Shabab’s waning power and desperation. Even though it is too early to answer that question with certainty, that does not seem to be the case. Al-Shabab’s mosaic of violence already included the Kampala bombings of 2010 that resulted in a near-identical number of casualties; a spate of smaller attacks in Kenya and Ethiopia during the years since; and the June 19 assault against the UN humanitarian aid compound in Mogadishu. What the Nairobi attack made forcefully clear is that this extremist movement is neither dormant nor defeated.

To avoid potential pitfalls in any response, the international community needs to come to grips with the assault’s underlying logic and intent, and consider the possibility that the assault was intended, by its timing and framing, primarily to expose and exacerbate the vulnerability of the Somali population.

Rather than being timed to any increase in Kenya’s military engagement in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), or to growing international support during summits in London, Yokohama, and Brussels, the terror attack coincided with a renewed risk to Somalia’s financial lifeline. On Sept. 30, Barclays Bank was to close, amongst others, the accounts of Dahabshiil, the biggest of all Somali remittance companies, which would have had a devastating effect on Somalia’s economy and society. Given allegations that some of these remittances are used to finance al-Shabab, the Nairobi attack increased the risk that accounts used to channel remittances to Somalia would be shut down, as the assault stressed the negative aspect of remittance flows. Cutting this financial lifeline would have played into the hand of al-Shabab, whose propaganda centers on the threat posed by foreign actors to the Somali population.

Similarly, the framing of the attack exacerbated the vulnerability of Somalis in the region. More explicitly than any of their previous assaults, this one was portrayed in clear religious terms that pitched Christians, who make up the majority in Kenya, against Muslims. Victims cited in news reports said, for example, that the perpetrators ‘escorted Muslims out of the mall’ at the onset of the attack.

Portraying the assault as part of a larger ‘clash of civilizations,’ a term Samuel Huntington coined in 1992, serves al-Shabab a number of purposes. It sets al-Shabab’s struggle in Somalia into a framework of global jihad (‘holy war’), probably in an attempt to bridge existing gaps between itself and other extremist Islamic movements abroad. And al-Shabab likely also hopes to provoke retaliatory military measures that could feed its propaganda in order to regain the upper hand in its ideological turf war against the Somali government.

In order to thwart al-Shabab’s likely objective of heightening the sense of vulnerability among Somalis, Kenya in particular and the international community generally should seek to bolster the Somali population with steps such as ensuring the continuation of remittance flows, refraining from undue military retaliation within Somalia, and preventing assaults on Somali communities in Kenya.

Unfortunately, key policymakers quickly bought into a renewed military narrative of fighting al-Shabab. However, this is problematic in two ways. First, such an approach follows from and bolsters the assumption that al-Shabab can be defeated militarily, rather than recognizing to the deep political dimensions of this struggle. Second, as important as the fight against this extremist movement is, al-Shabab is a symptom rather than the cause of Somalia’s fragile statehood.

Consequently, the international community should firmly focus on the Somali government and its state-making endeavor. Apart from supporting processes of reconciliation and aiding in the reconstruction of a productive economy, international partners have to get their heads around the puzzle of how to best support their Somali counterparts in reviving a common political identity.

Fractured and constantly shifting identities have not only provided fertile soil for movements such as al-Shabab, who have recurrently been able to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of many fellow citizens. The Somali government’s inability to invigorate nationalism has also starved past efforts at reconstructing of a viable Somali state. Yet, state-building without nation-building is unlikely to succeed.

A renewed focus on reconstructing a viable Somali state would not only deprive the extremists of breeding grounds – namely state fragility, conflict, and insecurity – but also constitutes the best opportunity to create lasting peace and stability in the Horn of Africa.

Dominik Balthasar is a Trans-Atlantic Post-doctoral Fellow for International Relations and Security (TAPIR) at USIP. He wrote his PhD thesis at the London School of Economics on conflict and state trajectories in Somalia.