Somalia for dummies

By Simon Allison 27 October 2011

Between pirates, terrorists, kidnappings, a failed state and now a Kenyan invasion, it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on in Somalia, and why it’s going on. To help you distinguish your sea rats from your Al Shabaab, here’s an introduction to the wild world of Somali politics. By SIMON ALLISON.

The news coming out of Somalia can be confusing. Just this past week, there’s been the ongoing Kenyan invasion, ostensibly sparked by a few kidnappings on Kenyan soil. There’s been violence in the capital, Mogadishu, where the official government is trying to push a rebel Islamist militia out of the city, the same militia that Kenya is fighting, except the Somali president says they’re not working together. There’s been a double kidnapping of aid workers from their demining operation in Puntland, which has absolutely nothing to do with the kidnappings that the Kenyans are worried about. And, in South Africa, Wednesday marked a year exactly since a South African couple have been held hostage by pirates, who captured them off the dangerous east coast of Somalia and are demanding a huge ransom. To make sense of all this, it’s worth taking a look at the structure of the Somali state, as baffling as it may first appear.

Kenya troops move supplies from a helicopter at the Garrisa airstrip near the Somali-Kenya border on 18 October, 2011. Reuters.

A good place to start is with the official government. Not that this will get us far – after all, the government of Somalia has definitive, unquestioned control of an area just a few kilometres square around Mogadishu airport. But the Transitional Federal Government, as it’s known, is Somalia’s recognised leadership. It participates in international forums and attracts international aid money. Led by President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the TFG has been in place since 2007, kept – for the most part – safe and secure in Mogadishu’s presidential villa and government compounds by thousands of African Union troops, under the banner of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom). It’s a little disingenuous to label these troops as African Union, as they’re from only two African countries, Burundi and Uganda; but they do have the AU’s blessing.

Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed. Reuters.

The TFG’s ineffectual, unrepresentative nature has its roots in one of the international community’s most disastrous international relations blunders in the last decade. After more than a decade of civil war across much of Somalia, a strong, unifying government emerged in about 2006. The Islamic Courts Union was a relatively moderate Islamist group, and soon began to impose some kind of stability in Somalia, starting with the rule of law. But this was only a few short years after 9/11, and the US was terrified of anything even remotely associated with Islam – all Muslims were radical, and had to be anti-US. Tacitly the US encouraged Ethiopia, which had its own domestic motivations, given the separatist leanings of Ethiopia’s Somali province, to sort out the Islamic Courts Union. Which they duly did, invading Somalia and effectively destroying the first stable government the country had had in nearly two decades. The TFG, operating in exile since 2004, was established in Mogadishu as a replacement.

Islamic Courts soldiers stand on guard during a protest rally against the US in Mogadishu’s stadium on 4 December,2006. Thousands of Somalis chanted anti-American slogans at an Islamic protest against the US-backed plan to send foreign peacekeepers to prop up the country’s tottering interim government. Reuters.

The invasion caused a deep division within what remained of the Islamic Courts Union. One faction, the moderate one, chose to keep negotiating. Some have been incorporated into the TFG. The current TFG president is in fact the former head of the Islamic Courts Union. It’s impossible to overlook the irony that the international community deposed Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed when he was head of a government that effectively controlled most of Somalia, only to support him just a few years later when he controls barely a suburb of Mogadishu.

Another faction of the Islamic Courts Union, not unreasonably disillusioned with the response of the West to attempts to introduce moderate Islamic law in Somalia, turned radical. They looked to the Taliban and al Qaeda as models of how to stand up for their beliefs. They called themselves Al Shabaab (the Youth), and found that their fundamentalist message resonated with a population that just wanted peace and security. They swiftly gained control of vast swathes of southern Somalia, with their de facto capital in the port city of Kismayo. They immediately introduced harsh and strictly enforced Sharia law, and banned all Western humanitarian organisations from the territories they controlled. Their reach extended to the real capital, Mogadishu, while the TFG sat around the airport, for most of the last five years Al Shabaab has controlled Mogadishu’s crucial Bakara Market, with far more direct influence on the lives of citizens there.

Al Shabaab’s military spokesman Sheik Abdul Asis Abu Muscab issues a statement south on 19 October, 2011. Reuters.

In 2010, Al Shabaab formally aligned itself with al Qaeda, a propaganda move more than anything else, but one that did influence its tactics. Al Shabaab has been behind a number of suicide bombings that have claimed the lives of hundreds, most notoriously the twin bombings in Kampala during the Fifa World Cup Final in 2010 and killed more than 70. It is also supposedly behind the kidnapping of tourists and aid workers in Kenya, which prompted the Kenyan military’s major offensive.

So the TFG controls a fraction of the country, and Al Shabaab a fair bit more, but the majority of the country is governed by neither. Instead, traditional clan structures, still strong throughout all the instability, have replaced a conventional government. Clans had to remain strong, because they were often the only institutions left. There are a number of clans in Somalia and the interplay between each is beyond the scope of this article, suffice to say that in many communities clans were able to imitate the functions of government. They could provide rules, organisation and leadership for places that had none. One example: when a young man marries, he pays in a specified sum (often in the form livestock) to a central fund controlled by the clan; think of it as a membership fee. This money is kept safely, and when one member of the clan is ill, he can draw upon the fund for his medical fees. An elegant solution to the problem of having no banks or insurance.

The clans are, inevitably, deeply entrenched in the politics of the region. Some are pro-Al Shabaab, some are pro-TFG, some want to be left to their own devices and some are deeply divided. But they provide a semblance of governance in areas where neither Al Shabaab nor the TFG can reach.

Residents ride on vehicles as they flee from renewed fighting between Somalia government forces and Islamist militants in Daynile district in the outskirts of Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, on 21 October, 2011. Reuters.

Even in a failed state, life goes on. But let’s not forget that not all of Somalia has failed. There are two regions in the north which operate almost completely independently and have put together functional governments of varying respectability. Less respectable is Puntland, straddling the Horn of Africa. This is pirate country. Its economy is almost entirely fuelled by the proceeds of its modern-day buccaneers and the influence of the pirates spreads deep into the government.

Pirates operate with impunity from its ports, holding ships and people hostage until ransoms are paid. It’s become a sophisticated operation; there’s even a pirate stock exchange, where unscrupulous investors can put up the capital needed to launch a raid. This is where the South African couple, Bruno Pelizzari and Debbie Calitz, have been kept hostage and it’s where the two aid workers were kidnapped this week. Puntland considers itself an autonomous entity within Somalia, but doesn’t much like the government in Mogadishu. Al Shabaab, too, holds little sway.

Even more isolated from Somalia proper is Somaliland, which, thanks to Somalia’s dog-leg shape, doesn’t even share a border with southern Somalia, just with Puntland. Somaliland is a great success story in the Horn of Africa. Ever since its unilateral declaration of independence 20 years ago, it has built a stable democracy and a government that does what a government should do – build roads, facilitate trade, invest in healthcare and education. It’s no surprise that during the recent famine which affected southern Somalia so badly, Somaliland was not only unaffected, but also able to donate supplies to the relief effort. However, its success remains largely unacknowledged by the international community, which refuses to recognise it as an independent state and continues to invest resources in propping up the TFG in Mogadishu.

Members of the Somaliland community in London celebrate the 20th anniversary of its declaration of independence from Somalia during a demonstration on May 18, 2011.

This, then, is Somalia: a fractured, fighting and confused collection of various groups that happen to fall within the geographical boundaries of a supposed state. As a state, it has failed, there’s no doubt about that; but failed differently in different places, and for different reasons. And perhaps in this realisation is the solution. To solve the problem one has to address the causes and until it is recognised that Somalia is a multiplicity of competing problems, each with its own solutions, then the problem of Somalia can’t go away. DM


Read more:

  • Somali president Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, in Time;
  • Profile: Somalia’s Islamic Courts, on BBC News;
  • Somalia chronology, on BBC News; and
  • Somalia then and now, in Granta.

Main photo: Displaced women wait to receive non-food items from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees at the Maajo settlement for the internally displaced people in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, on 31 August, 2011. More than 800,000 Somalis are refugees, according to UN estimates, while up to 1.5 million are displaced within the Horn of Africa country. As the relief operation to reach some 3.7 million Somalis at risk of starvation is ramped up, aid groups want to focus on stemming the latest exodus. Reuters.


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