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Time to be honest: Rethinking external engagement in Somalia

18 February 2016 - Sunil Suri

In the midst of continued attacks against African Union forces in Somalia, Sunil Suri explores the legacy of the US, UK and EU’s counter-terror, stabilisation and statebuilding approaches in the country and calls for a more realistic assessment of progress. 

Earlier this month, Saferworld released a new report, "Barbed wire on our heads", examining the impact of US, UK and EU counter-terror, stabilisation and statebuilding approaches in south-central Somalia since 2001. The report comes as al-Shabaab and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the Somali National Army (SNA) continue to fight for control of strategic locations such as the port city of Marka, which briefly fell into al-Shabaab’s hands in early February. This followed on the heels of an al-Shabaab assault on a Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) base in El Adde in mid-January, in which it was reported that as many as a hundred KDF soldiers may have been killed. From these two events, it is clear that al-Shabaab retains its ability to challenge the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) and its supporters.

Despite al-Shabaab’s resilience, Saferworld’s new report warns against the continuing tendency of the international community to frame the Somali conflict as one largely between the FGS and al-Shabaab, as it has locked external actors into an overly militarised approach and left few avenues for engagement with al-Shabaab to de-escalate the conflict. The continued focus on defeating al-Shabaab has had the effect of lessening attention on other important drivers of the Somali conflict, in particular, the divisions within Somali society, which internationally sponsored statebuilding efforts have exacerbated, and corruption. Notably, a UN report recently accused the FGS of diverting 70-80 per cent of the funds it had received to advance “partisan agendas”. The designation of al-Shabaab as a “spoiler” has also meant that al-Shabaab’s widespread popular appeal and ability to champion the genuine concerns of the Somali people hasn’t received enough attention.

The consensus on the need to “defeat” al-Shabaab amongst international actors has also provided opportunities for regional actors to pursue other objectives that greatly threaten any prospect of a peaceful Somalia. The US, UK and EU, for example, have generally backed sub-national actors that are loyal to the FGS, while Ethiopia and Kenya have supported sub-national actors with greater loyalty to them. Looking beyond their involvement in federalism processes, there are long-standing accusations about the role of regional actors in perpetuating the Somali war economy. In November 2015, for example, it was alleged that elements within the KDF, the Interim Juba Administration and al-Shabaab were profiting from facilitating and taxing the sugar trade in Somalia, which is said to be worth between $200-400 million per annum”.

It has proved hard for Western diplomats to challenge such negative behaviours due to their reliance on the KDF for access to military bases in Kismayo and elsewhere – a vivid illustration of how external actors have made counter-productive trade-offs between their security objectives and tolerance of a war economy in Somalia. Despite questions about the compatibility of Ethiopian and Kenyan objectives in Somalia with those of the US, UK and EU, these actors have provided substantial resources for AMISOM throughout its existence and in doing so have endorsed and legitimised the Ethiopian and Kenyan presence in Somalia.

Saferworld’s new report also poses questions about how sustainable current stabilisation efforts are and how effective they are in terms of ensuring the security needs of the Somali people are met. While AMISOM and the SNA have recovered territory, al-Shabaab has frequently simply retreated in the face of oncoming forces in order to retain its operational capabilities and surround AMISOM-controlled areas (in the words of one interviewee, AMISOM bases are like “marooned islands”). At the same time, these newly recovered areas are almost entirely dependent on AMISOM for their security, as demonstrated by the loss of the port city of Marka to al-Shabaab following the withdrawal of AMISOM and SNA troops. Following the city’s recapture by AMISOM, it was reported that at least one local who had been working with AMISOM had been executed, highlighting how the Somali people continue to bear the brunt of the shortcomings of the international community’s stabilisation strategy.

The US, UK and EU have also been central actors in driving forward the implementation of the Somali New Deal Compact and its vision of a federal Somalia. Such processes have often exacerbated local divisions and excluded a host of key actors. Despite this, they have been endorsed by international actors who are pushing for political reconciliation to be completed this year. Exclusion of certain actors in the earlier processes can quickly become institutionalised. For example, the late January deal on allocating seats in the Upper House of the Federal Parliament means that 48 out of 54 seats are to be “be distributed equally among Somalia’s existing, emerging and prospective Federal member states”[i], with the remaining six seats divided between Puntland and Somaliland, “reflecting both their political status and maturity”. It is highly probable that a range of actors excluded in the original processes to form interim regional administrations will continue to be excluded, providing these actors with incentives to resort to violence as they contest the new governance arrangements.

Alternative Approaches

With the mandate of the FGS coming to an end later this year, there is a critical need for the US, UK and EU to reflect upon the lessons of past engagement as described above. While there are reasons to be optimistic about the country’s future, new approaches will be needed if Somalia is to move closer to lasting peace and stability. Saferworld’s new report recommends the following:

  1. Look beyond a simplistic framing of the Somali conflict and support dialogue among all Somali actors: The US, UK and EU should retire the narrative of a single conflict in Somalia between the FGS and al-Shabaab. This narrative belies the complexity of conflicts in the country and limits the space for approaches that contribute to long-term peace. As part of this, the US, UK and EU should step up their support for Somali-led efforts to resolve conflict through dialogue with as many actors as possible. Where possible talks should be attempted with al-Shabaab. This could become especially important if the rift between Islamic State and al-Qaeda supporters within the group widens. It is uncertain how events will play out, but talks should not be ruled out merely because al-Shabaab has been categorised as a “spoiler”. There is already a clear precedent in Somalia for talks, with the Islamic Courts Union’s Commander in Chief, Sheikh Sharif, becoming President after the Djibouti Peace Agreement in 2008.
  1. Consider how to reduce dependency on Ethiopian and Kenyan forces: The longer that Ethiopia and Kenya remain in Somalia, the worse the negative behaviours noted in this research will become – providing more opportunities for al-Shabaab and other armed actors to challenge the legitimacy of the FGS as a whole. With AMISOM already over-stretched, this is no easy task, but this could include the replacement of their troops by other nations in Africa and elsewhere. In the longer term, efforts have to focus on building the Somali National Army.
  1. Where harm to civilians occurs, ensure accountability: The Civilian Casualty Tracking Analysis and Response Cell is an important means for AMISOM to investigate and hold itself accountable – and is already showing potential. For example, an August 2015 investigation led AMISOM to admit that seven civilians had been killed in an operation, with three personnel set to face a “military judicial process”. International actors should increase their support for mechanisms like this.
  1. All countries should cease military engagements outside the African Union/United Nations authorisation: There is little accountability for these actions, which create grievance that groups like al-Shabaab and other armed actors can exploit.
  1. AMISOM should have a more explicit mandate from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to protect or provide immediate security to civilians in areas it takes from al-Shabaab: While a mission-wide protection of civilians strategy was adopted in May 2013, a greater emphasis needs to be placed on reinforcing people’s security first. This mandate can be included in the UNSC resolution authorising AMISOM’s presence.
  1. There should be less reliance on initiatives based on procedural top-down statebuilding with unrealistic deadlines: Instead, international actors should support experimentation by Somali actors and place greater emphasis on social reconciliation efforts. Opportunities are available to do this at present, with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) having an explicit mandate to “support local peace and reconciliation processes”.


Sunil Suri is Policy Coordinator at Saferworld.

Download "Barbed wire on our heads": Lessons from counter-terror, stabilisation and statebuilding in Somalia

Find out more about Saferworld's work on constructive alternatives to counter-terror and stabilisation

[i] These are Somaliland, Puntland, Galmudug, Hiraan/Middle Shabelle, South-West and Jubaland.

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The US, UK and EU should retire the narrative of a single conflict in Somalia between the FGS and al-Shabaab. This narrative belies the complexity of conflicts in the country and limits the space for approaches that contribute to long-term peace.

Sunil Suri