Somalia: A case for (very) cautious optimism

Somalia: A case for (very) cautious optimism

Mogadishu International Airport illustrates how much has changed in what was once described, by former British foreign secretary William Hague, as the world’s “most failed state”. Among other notable changes, a scheduled Turkish Airways flight stands in front of a spanking new charcoal grey terminal. But Mogadishu’s airport also illustrates how much remains to be done before Somalia fully escapes the reality of being a failed state. By GREG MILLS and DICKIE DAVIS.

In large part the country’s transformation is down to the fighting role over the past seven years of the African Union Mission, AMISOM. With 23,000 troops from Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Djibouti and Ethiopia, AMISOM has demonstrated real staying power in the face of the Islamist enemy Al-Shabaab’s fight – losing perhaps over 4,000 troops in the process.

Mogadishu’s relative prosperity is also down to a combination of $1 billion in annual international aid and investment by returning Somali diaspora – in addition to the estimated $1.2 billion in yearly remittances from the 1.5 million Somalis living abroad.

In a similar positive vein, the Somali National Army (SNA) is finally being stood up as a 22,000-strong force, with funding and assistance for half this number from a variety of donors. On paper at least there is, too, a 7,500-strong Somali Police Force (SPF). In this the international community is trying to apply many of the lessons learned from recent conflicts, including Afghanistan.


Photo by Greg Mills.

There is still more good news, even if it’s at the expense of others. Somalia has now slipped outside the UN Security Council’s top-five most discussed topics, these being Sudan/South Sudan, Syria, the Middle East, Ukraine, and the Central African Republic.

But Mogadishu’s airport also illustrates how much remains to be done before Somalia has escaped the reality of being a failed state.

The Bad News

On the far side of the apron one of the morning Khat flights was being unloaded, the brown hessian bags brimming with the leafy green twigs laid out neatly in rows for dispensing and sale in Mogadishu’s markets. The annual trade in the stimulant is worth over $200 million. Chewing is a way of life for many, and its effects cost the economy.


Photo: A khat farmer packs his crop at a collection point near his plantation in Maua, near Meru, eastern Kenya August 20, 2014. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Somalia’s exports centre on the livestock and charcoal trade. With a GDP of around $1.6 billion, the country has every sort of poverty imaginable and few of the tools to address it.

There is little formal employment, and literacy rates are pitifully low, around 15 percent. This has a direct security implication. Most of the estimated 6,000 Al-Shabaab (meaning, Mujahidin Youth Movement) fighters signed up because “they are in debt and needed the income”. Once in, they can be radicalised; mostly, at least according to the 3,150 in demobilisation centres and prisons, they just want out.

Taxes and duties will bring in little more than $110 million this year, the budget overall is just $260 million. Around 40 percent is to be spent on the security sector, an unsustainable burden. Despite such a paltry amount spread among seven million Somalis (another 3.5 million inhabit the breakaway republic of Somaliland in the north), it is estimated that up to as much as 70 percent of aid is taken out of the country by politicians.

Politics, it seems, offers Somalis a stake in business.


Photo by Greg Mills.

Underlying reasons for optimism include the fatigue after a quarter century of civil war, the realisation that the underlying problem is political and thus demands a political solution, and that both the international community and the Somali diaspora are committed to help things along.

Let’s do the Clan-Clan

The core historical problem of Somalia has been the virtual impossibility of governing Somalis, from both without and within. The 19th century traveller Richard Burton’s famed comment on the Somalis, “every man his own sultan”, expresses the rejection of that obligation to obey that underlies the institutions of governance. This is a society with little respect for authority or conception of a common good. Somalis have been ruthlessly opportunistic in exploiting both one another and outsiders.

There are other bad habits. Somalis retain a mythology about the era of Mohamed Siad Barre, the dictator forced to flee Mogadishu on the last operational tank in January 1991 after more than two decades of rule. The preference for big government and the mystique of Somali nationalism over clans are two which don’t sync with current realities.


Photo by Greg Mills.

Just as the Somalis retain a mythology of a strong centralised state, the international community perhaps unwittingly perpetuates the belief that Somaliland is part of a greater Somalia even though it has operated as a de facto independent state for more than twenty years. Focusing on the reasons for Somaliland’s comparative success – where the locals own the solution, the clan system is a force for cohesion, and where democracy has worked on a one-person-one-vote basis – may be instructive, for Mogadishu as much as Brussels, London and Washington.

All this is complicated by a heavily armed population. “AK-47s are as numerous as umbrellas in London,” says one expert. Hence the ebb and flow between armed militia, Al-Shabaab, state police and army, and criminality.

The challenges facing the new army and police forces are formidable. Both are starting from Ground Zero with bad habits.


Photo by Greg Mills.

Local ambitions for the embryonic SNA are not matched by capabilities or money. While donors are eager to engage to help build capacity, the Somalis have various imperatives – including using the army as the government, as a welfare agency, a means of patronage and political support. That’s one reason why the army is 22,000 strong on paper, but funded only to the extent of half this number. Siad Barre’s armed forces were at peak around five times this number – one way of keeping the clans happy and opponents suppressed.

Of course, the game of padding numbers and ghost-rolls is an old funding technique, where each member receives $160 monthly. This is easier to do where donors are not always entirely joined up. Washington is behind a multi-clan strike-force concept, known as DANAB, where funding and training is channelled through private contractors. SNA are also trained in Uganda Turkey, Sudan and, recently, China. Some donors work together to provide a package of support from logistics to light-weapons. Others won’t provide weapons. And some work to cut bilateral deals from hospitals to rations.


Photo by Greg Mills.

SNA relations with AMISOM, while cordial, are hardly functional. “They write letters to each other,” as one advisor put it, “but will meet only out of necessity.” The police are little more than a guard force for elites, unable to operate freely outside of Mogadishu and scarcely move with safety inside the city limits. Endemic corruption and chronic dysfunction means they lack the respect and confidence of more than 60 percent of the capital’s population, who prefer traditional (elder) dispute mechanisms.

The formation of an effective police force is a “long, long way off” in the words of a Somali police veteran. The reason for this is a lack of resources, and a lack of training. “Lots of police officers were brought in through tribal nomination who lack expertise and know-how”. Rather than a “serious movement to tackle the problems we face, the approach is to fill the top while hollowing out the bottom”.


Photo by Greg Mills.

In both the case of the SNA and SPF, creating capacity is going to take a very long time; it is a generational activity.

All of this is complicated by a where loyalties lie. As the headquarters of both “battle to get beyond Mogadishu”, clan loyalties trump those to the centre.

Much the same could be said for government per se. Diplomats routinely paint a picture of a disjointed and fragmented government, of widespread corruption as a way of political life, and of clans intent on fighting over economic space and political influence. Rather than seeing the donor-government New Deal and Compact as a fresh start, a reflection of Somali unity and ownership, the leadership prefers to view them as “documents”, and as “conduits for money”.


Photo by Greg Mills.

From the time of the US-led Operation Restore Hope twenty years back to today’s AMISOM adventure, in Somalia foreigners have quickly been factored by the locals as just another warlord, albeit a powerful one – to be dealt with accordingly as a source of threat, power and opportunity.

Today the state operates as a clan-based mafia, where entwined business and political interests feed off each other. Its less organic, however, than carefully organised. Little wonder the president has been at war with his various prime ministers (Somalia has had ten PMs in a decade) and is reluctant to open up the political process and finalise an electoral system, preferring ‘election by selection’, essentially where nominated MPs choose the leader. It’s no surprise that Mogadishu’s political elite are sceptical about devolving power to the regions – why do that when you will lose the means of patronage?


Photo by Greg Mills.

With the international community pushing for a new, federal constitution and one-person-one-vote electoral system, these then are key issues in the run-up to the scheduled 2016 election. Together this menu will require a breath-taking task of political engineering.

In this environment, where systems are weak and group identities pervasive, democracy is difficult to engineer. Furthermore, where there is a disjuncture between political power and wealth, the scene is set for corruption. In Churchillian logic, the alternative, thus, to democracy is far worse.


Photo by Greg Mills.

For clan dynamics are seen as every bit as much a threat to the sovereignty of the Somali nation as Al-Shabaab, where national institutional interests and functions are simply trumped by blood ties. Fixing policing, for example, is not as simple as training, equipping and providing infrastructure. It requires elites to change. Conduct, mindset and behaviour are, in this reform process, more important than skills: that moral is to physical in state-building is as three is to one.

This requires fresh narratives of development from inside and outside government, from the media and other parts of civil society, and also what is means to be Somali. The overall aim is to get away from the mentality of ‘what can I get out of this’ to one of public service, and away from loyalties to clan over state. These loyalties are not just cultural but are rooted in systems of patronage; this change is, once more, a generational endeavour.

Herding the good shepherds

Despite the best attempts of the United Nations to co-ordinate efforts, herding the international good shepherds has proven a challenge.

Different players have various priorities and ambitions. For most of the Western actors, investing in Somalia’s stability and building a state is means to counter terrorism. The initial involvement supporting AMISOM financially proved the catalyst a ‘cascade of little successes’. Mogadishu was finally taken in March 2011 and the southern port of Kismayo 18 months later.


Photo by Greg Mills.

Others have a more mercantilist agenda. Questions are regularly asked for example about why a Dubai-based firm lost the airport contract to the Turks, described as the ‘Istanbul lobby’, or about which firms dominate the all-important gas bottle business and their relationship to the main political parties. It is also risky for contiguous countries to be involved in peacekeeping missions, given the inevitable extent of vested interests. For Kenya, Djibouti, and Ethiopia a sizable chunk of their defence budget earmarked for the protection of their own borders is met by an international mission.

For all of these failings, without AMISOM, Somalia would likely remain a mess.

Still, the success of any peacekeeping mission like AMISOM or its UN counterpart, UNSOM, lies ultimately in the manner of its exit. And that depends in turn on the ability of the Somalis to own and accept the solution so that when the foreigners depart, it can stand on its own two feet.

Accepting past failure

State building is a very difficult business. The modern, externally-supported version has bleak military-run bases lodged behind Hesco blast walls bit-by-bit, yard-by-yard sweating at incrementally expanding positive control and influence, restoring a functioning government and basic services.

The solution, as is the problem itself, lies with the locals. This is difficult where the external life-support systems are more powerful than the domestic patient.


Photo by Greg Mills.

Somalia is depressingly familiar in this regard, another international mission trying to move the locals to a ‘better’ system; the locals, in turn, reluctant to accept responsibility for failure of the past ones, willing to admit technical rather than fundamental political problems.

The security situation remains fragile. While Al-Shabaab has been squeezed into an arc into the middle of the country and have resorted to terrorism in the cities, a tactic of the weak, the Islamists are still able to operate in groups up to 400-strong. Hence the role of foreign mentors and planners in trying to stand up a shaky Somali National Army and keep it standing.

The economic piece of the reconstruction puzzle is even less certain, a potpourri of international and local interests intent on making deals, and some nest feathering. Corruption may be the oil that greases the current wheels, but it will prove a cancer that undermines both internal consent for the government and international trust and partnership.

Some believe, however, that whatever the setbacks and challenges, the international mission will chug on because it’s cheap and the options to dealing with the terrorist threat posed by Al-Shabaab other than attempting Somali state-building are unclear. AMISOM troops cost less than other peacekeepers – from their daily rates to their tired-looking ex-SADF Casspirs. Westerners are largely out of harm’s way as advisors in headquarters.


Photo by Greg Mills.

At some point the international community will have to remove the props. The big test on the horizon is whether Somalia can agree a new constitution and then go on to find a solution to the basis on how the 2016 election will be run without slipping backwards, possibly into more violence.

This process may be hastened if Al-Shabaab declines as a force for concern. Even today it does not appear an existential fight, one between radical ideologues and secularists. Like much else in Somalia, opportunism seems a primary motive.

Overall, trends in Somalia show some cause for optimism. Continued progress will require the locals to do more, perhaps enabled by the international community doing less. DM

Mills heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, and is the author most recently of ‘Why States Recover’ (Picador); Davis is a retired Major General in the British Army. Both have just returned from Somalia. Photos are by Mills, unless otherwise indicated.

Photo: A man performs a traditional dance in celebration after attending Eid al-Fitr prayers to mark the end of the fasting month of Ramadan in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, July 28, 2014. REUTERS/Feisal Omar


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