The consequences of a failed state

2013-10-18 00:00

AT the time of Somalia’s independence in 1960, British Colonial Office officials expressed doubt about its political or economic viability, and warned of the territory’s potential for subversion of east and central Africa. This prescience failed to save scores of people who died in Kampala at the World Cup final gatherings in 2010 and more recently in a Nairobi shopping mall.

Somalia, generally regarded as the world’s most notorious failed state, is a relic of Cold War meddling. Once supported by the USSR against United States-backed Ethiopia, the Soviets cynically switched sides after the fall of Haile Selassie in 1974, while the Somali-provoked Ogaden War of 1977−8 left Somalia shattered. Although his historical reputation is poor, the last effective Somali president, Siad Barre, who fled in early 1991, had made serious attempts to unify and modernise the country. But without any lasting, effective government or civil authority for nearly 25 years, it has exported refugees, piracy and, more recently, terrorism. Yet Somalia has an advantage possessed by few African nations — an ethnically, linguistically and religiously homogeneous population. But conversely, the effect of colonial boundaries was to excise and include in Ethiopia and Kenya land historically regarded as Somali, further encouraging ethnic solidarity around the idea of Greater Somalia that has exacerbated regional territorial tensions. However, homogeneity is discounted by often intense clan rivalry that has shaped Somalia’s recent history, largely defined by the shifting alliances of militias of various degrees of radicalism.

The country has fragmented. Somaliland (the former British protectorate whose capital is Hargeisa) is relatively stable, works with an interesting version of democracy based around local government and seeks sovereignty. Puntland has also prospered. But its income has been derived from piracy, for which the death of the local fishing industry as a result of Western trawling competition and alleged dumping of waste has been blamed. The Puntland government is now distancing itself from rapidly declining piracy revenue and publicising democratic aspirations, although elections have been deferred until next year. Like Puntland, the Galmudug and Awdalland regions also seek autonomy.

For a while in the mid-2000s further south around Mogadishu, the Union of Islamic Courts provided relative stability at the price of fundamentalist policy. But this collapsed when Ethiopia invaded in 2006 and a Transitional Federal Government, supported by the African Union’s Amisom intervention force (largely Ugandan and Burundian, but more recently Sierra Leone and Djibouti, troops), assumed authority. The upshot was the radical offshoot Al Haraka al Shabaab al Mujahideen, which is now on the defensive, partly because of a less well-known development — Kenya after its unilateral 2011 invasion has effectively taken over the southern province of Jubaland and its port, Kismayo.

This made a great deal of strategic sense as piracy and Al-Shabaab’s terrorist attacks were threatening Kenya’s coastal tourist industry, the viability of the port of Mombasa, and prospects of an economic development corridor from Ethiopia and Southern Sudan to Lamu port. Clan power around Kismayo rests with Kenya’s ally Ras Kamboni, which controls the port. Al-Shabaab is now trying to establish itself more firmly in Puntland, partly in order to protect its smuggling route from Al-Qaeda strongholds in Yemen. Kenya is effectively at war with Al-Shabaab in Jubaland, where it has 4 500 troops and is behaving in heavy-handed fashion. By favouring Darod groups, it has alienated all the others, which is fertile ground for Al-Shabaab. The shelling of Kismayo before its capture in October 2012 angered the local inhabitants. Kenya has, furthermore, defied a United National Security Council ban, and the Mogadishu government, by permitting charcoal exports from Kismayo to the benefit of local allies and Kenyan Somali businessmen.

Exactly a year ago, a new government under former World Bank adviser President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud took office in Mogadishu amid external pressure for a unified Somalia. The mandate of the notoriously corrupt TFG had ended. There are signs of renewed nation-building, albeit heavily subsidised by international agencies and other nations such as Qatar and Turkey, which have raised hopes of a Somali Spring. But a lack of inclusivity — as a result of clan behaviour, plus suspicions of Islamist influence and ongoing corruption — has undermined progress. Security in the capital remains tenuous as police and military units are paid by clans and businessmen, resulting in confused loyalties. Indeed, as Al-Shabaab’s influence wanes anywhere in Somalia, so clan tensions rise. The constitution of the new parliament defies the international agreement on the transition as it includes warlords, but insufficient numbers of women. Many of the seats have been blatantly purchased. The Somali national army is top-heavy with 50 generals and a dearth of middle-ranking officers.

The possibility of oil extraction in Somaliland and Puntland adds the resource curse to Somalia’s burden. While it would be unwise to simplify the Byzantine dimensions of the country’s clan dynamics, relations between two powerful groupings, Darod and Hawiye, are exacerbated by geography. Darod has a strong presence in Jubaland and Puntland, while Hawiye is more dispersed and without an obvious regional stronghold. This provides the Darod with strong potential for dominant influence in federal Somali politics if national elections are held in 2016.

Al-Shabaab has no interest in this particular version of national building and the TFG did it a favour as it stepped down by releasing many of its fighters under a traditional Ramadan amnesty. On Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s first day in office in Mogadishu, it nearly killed him in a bomb blast. And it has a strong and colourful line in lurid rhetoric and invective, describing Amisom as bacteria and infidels. It is increasingly encircled in southern Somalia, but managed a tactical withdrawal from Kismayo and extracted most of its equipment. In circumstances that remain obscure and contradictory, it managed to defy the Kenyan defence force in its capital for three days and now threatens further attacks. This followed a violent split in its ranks between nationalists keen to concentrate on Somali issues and its Al-Qaeda-linked international wing, possibly including Kenyan Islamists, which is intent on cross-border jihad. The leader of the nationalist wing was murdered and others escaped. Events at Westgate Mall suggest that the external faction is ruthless and organised enough to mount further operations, even on a global scale given the international source of its recruitment.

For South Africa, the significance of recent developments lies, in part, in its substantial Somali refugee population and the extent to which Al-Shabaab units may be embedded in local communities, using them as a base for operations elsewhere. The incidence of xenophobic attacks on traders, in particular, gives credence to the suggestion that Al-Shabaab has gained popularity by providing a measure of protection.

On the positive side, the piracy that once threatened the Mozambique channel and required a South African naval presence has declined sharply — partly because private marine security companies are guarding vessels and supplying themselves from floating armouries.

Nevertheless, the influence of the Somali diaspora is likely to remain significant until a modicum of stability is restored in the heartland.

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