Conversations on Somalia
New York Center for Conflict Dialogue
The Association of the Bar of the City of New York Committee on African Affairs
New York City
May 21, 2009
The Current Situation in Somalia
Amb. David H. Shinn
Adjunct Professor, Elliott School of International Affairs
The George Washington University
These are especially perilous times for Somalia. The future of the country and, to some extent, Somali society, hangs in the balance. Most Somalis living in Somalia today have never experienced formal governmental institutions such as post offices, a functioning police force or road repair crews.
Although there is an overwhelming Somali desire to bring an end to the conflict, there is no consensus on what a future Somali government should look like. Should it be highly centralized, confederal or federal in design? There is no way to poll a majority of Somalis to find out. It is anyone's guess. Nor is there a consensus on the future of society itself. Should it be based on sharia law and, if so, what interpretation of sharia? Should it be a secular society and government or perhaps one that combines sharia and secular principles? Somalis are also torn between strong individualistic tendencies and loyalty to their clan, sub-clan or sub-sub-clan.
Add to this mix unwanted foreign involvement by international peacekeepers between 1992-1995, Ethiopian forces from 2006 until 2009, African Union peacekeepers since 2007 and now increasing numbers of foreign jihadis in support of the extremist al-Shabaab organization. Include in the equation one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters affecting hundreds of thousands of Somalis and you have a nightmare situation in Somalia. And if all of this is not enough, the international media (and to some extent the international community) are consumed with the side show of Somali piracy, which can only be eliminated when the governmental and security issues are resolved on the land.
Enough of the Past
This is not the time to dwell on the past. Somalis must break loose from the quagmire of earlier political failures and make those compromises that are necessary to permit the development of a broad-based and widely accepted government. The challenge is daunting, perhaps unattainable in the present environment. But the only option is to continue to try. For all of its weaknesses and faults, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) remains the only recognized government in Somalia; it has been accepted by the international community, including the United States.
There are organizations that are trying to topple the TFG. These include extremist Islamic groups known as al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam. Neither of these groups has proposed an agenda that the government of the United States finds acceptable. Al-Shabaab, by its own admission, has some contact with al-Qaeda and has welcomed into its ranks an undetermined number of foreign jihadis. I have heard estimates from knowledgeable sources of foreign jihadis in al-Shabaab ranging from 300 to 2,000. I have no way to confirm the veracity of this range of estimates.
Al-Shabaab calls for the expulsion of all foreigners from Somalia, except of course, those foreigners who are fighting along side it. Al-Shabaab is not highly centralized; it seems to have different factions with perhaps different ultimate goals. Some of the Somalis who joined al-Shabaab may not be committed to the organization's ideology but have been attracted by a combination of adventure and payment for their services. Nevertheless, al-Shabaab is well financed and seems to be disciplined. As a result, it constitutes a serious threat to the TFG.
Hizbul Islam also has a number of factions with Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweis playing a key role in the organization. Loosely allied with al-Shabaab in efforts to topple the TFG, it is less clear to what extent its agenda mirrors that of al-Shabaab. Nor is it certain that it maintains contact with al-Qaeda or draws support from foreign jihadis. Sheikh Hassan denies any link with al-Qaeda.
What is clear, however, is that both al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam want to seize power in any manner that they can. Both organizations refuse to engage in dialogue with the TFG and are highly critical of the African Union forces in Mogadishu. This is not surprising because these forces help to protect the TFG and to maintain control of the port and airport, effectively preventing them from falling under the control of al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam. As a result, African Union forces stand in the way of al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam from taking full control of Mogadishu.
Whither the TFG?
While there is significant Somali opposition to the jihadist element of al-Shabaab, this does not necessarily translate into support for the TFG. I believe most Somalis still live by a moderate interpretation of Islam, and Sufi beliefs remain strong in many quarters. Intimidation by al-Shabaab may prevail in the short-term, but ultimately most Somalis will object to the extremist al-Shabaab program. While it might be possible for the TFG to reach some kind of reconciliation with Hizbul Islam, it is difficult to envisage that happening with the hard-core leadership of the al-Shabaab factions.
The International Community and the United States
This situation leaves very limited options for the international community, including the United States. I would suggest the following approach for the international community.
The international community should not try to dictate the political process; only the Somalis themselves know how to do this — in their own time and in their own way. The international community needs to continue to provide humanitarian aid and, if the security situation permits, engage vigorously in development assistance programs. The international community should encourage TFG officials and all 550 members of Somalia's parliament to reside in Somalia; they do not serve as an example of a credible government if they remain outside Somalia.
The international community should fund and train TFG police and security forces only if it is clear the recruits will support and, if necessary, fight for the TFG. So far, it is not certain that this is the case. The international community must recognize that a larger African Union force is not the solution for ensuring credibility or success of the TFG. The TFG must earn this on its own. The small AMISOM force in Mogadishu plays a useful role in helping to protect the presidency and control the port and airport, but this may be all that can be expected of it. The international community should emphasize to the TFG that it is a transitional government and should be prepared to step down at the end of its mandate.
There is a tendency in the international community to identify and then support so-called moderate or pragmatic Somalis. While this approach may have some merit, it can also be dangerous as most outsiders, me included, are not very good at correctly identifying moderate Somalis.
As for piracy, while the international community should take a tougher position against pirates in international waters, it should ignore the advice of some who urge attacks on pirate bases along the Somali coast. It should also begin now to develop a program that ensures an end to illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping in Somali waters. Most important, the international community must treat piracy as a symptom of the governmental crisis in Somalia, not as a discrete problem that only diverts the attention of donors from the real issue.
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