"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


is somalia unsolvable?

My students are fascinated by Somalia. Anytime I use it as an example, their hands shoot up with question after question after question. I haven't pinpointed the source of their interest, but it might have something to do with the idea of unmitigated disaster. How do you solve a problem like Somalia?

The African Union, which sponsors the only peacekeeping force that's actually attempting to do anything in Somalia at the moment, thinks more weapons (for their soldiers) is part of the answer. The 5,000 person force of Ugandan and Burundian soldiers is woefully underequipped. Some soldiers actually starved to death earlier this year for lack of rations. The mission will theoretically be taken over by the United Nations. Someday. For the moment, the AU soldiers are unable to do much to restore order, and their efforts to help the Somali government secure more of Mogadishu have not resulted in much success. Meanwhile, Al-Shabaab militants killed seventeen AU peacekeepers last week, leading the AU to request more weapons for Somali government forces:
"The AU envoy to Somalia made the plea in the wake of the suicide attacks in Mogadishu in which 17 AU peacekeepers were blown up by the al-Shabab group.

"'If we go after Shabab, we'd destroy them in no time,' said Nicolas Bwakira.

"He said the attacks should not deter countries from keeping to their promises to bolster the AU force."

I've argued before that it's a bad idea to inject even more weapons into the mess that is Mogadishu (primarily because they're more likely to end up in the Bakaara Market than in the hands of government forces). But it's easy to see why the AU believes they don't have much of an option. The government can't even control its own capital city, much less defend its borders, tax its population, or ensure basic order in the countryside. How do you begin to fix it?

In most failed states (Somalia, DR Congo, maybe Afghanistan and a few others), the solution to every problem often seems to be contingent upon the solution to every other problem. You can't have an economy without basic security. You can't have basic security without governance. You can't have governance unless you have an army that can secure the territory. It goes on and on and on.

The first "states" as we now understand the term weren't formed through peace building and power-sharing arrangements. Those states that didn't have the form superimposed on their territory by the colonial system came about through the process of power consolidation. That type of power consolidation almost always happened through nasty, unmediated warfare. There was a winner and there were losers. Somebody's army had to be strong enough to take over in order for "the state" to become real and for peace and order to be imposed. Legitimacy was conferred upon these nascent states through a semi-formal process of international recognition, most well-specified at Westphalia.

Unfortunately for American policymakers, the strongest army in Somalia right now isn't that of the so-called government. Al-Shabaab is far more powerful than the peacekeepers and the Somali army combined; they control most of the south and a good portion of Mogadishu. Interestingly enough, the areas al-Shabaab controls are apparently more orderly than is the norm in most of Somalia.

This order comes at the cost of considerable freedoms, of course. Like most extremist Islamic movements who gain control of territory, al-Shabaab is imposing a very strict form of sharia law that doesn't exactly account for freedom of speech, the women's rights, or practices out of line with their interpretation of the Qu'ran. Still, if you're an average Somali who's lived more-or-less in a chaotic state of anarchy for the last eighteen years, you might be willing to trade some liberty for stability.

And therein lies the problem. It's not that Somalia is unsecurable. We now know that a force with sufficient manpower and weaponry can assume effective authority large swaths of the territory. Whether al-Shabaab could actually function as a state - not to mention provide vital social services - remains to be seen. If they continue to move towards taking over completely, we'll almost certainly see the effects of covert and overt military action by many interested powers. An al-Shabaab-governed Somalia is too much of a threat to the interests of Ethiopia and Kenya, not to mention the authorities in Puntland and Somaliland, to allow a real consolidation of power to happen without a fight. Oh, and pretty much all of the West. And Israel. And anyone who wouldn't benefit from al Qaeda having a solid ally on the Horn of Africa.

The dilemma currently facing policy makers in all of these places is this: how can one secure Mogadishu and the rest of Somalia to the extent that basic public order is restored while simultaneously preventing a hostile government from taking over? I don't envy those who have to figure this out. But I'm pretty sure that providing more guns to a small, incapable army or its well-intentioned but understaffed peacekeeping force won't do the trick.


Blogger Chris Waluk said...

A post about Somalia and no mention of pirates? I think the big problem in these failed states is the booming economy of militant forces. We had a big MOB problem in America before they end of prohibition and that made a huge difference. Pirating is big money. Opium is big money. If there's a group out there making more money illegally than the government can collect in taxes, you're going to have big problems.

I see you have Chris Marlow on your blogroll. He's my new neighbor, fresh from Austin. Good people.

Monday, September 21, 2009 11:14:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Right, but al-Shabaab, which controls a good chunk of Somalia proper, isn't engaged in piracy. Most of that activity is happening out of Puntland, a semi-autonomous region in the north, and in fairly isolated villages.

I agree that the fact that there's no real legitimate, taxable economic sector in Somalia is one of the roots of the problem. But you can't collect taxes without an army. And you can't fund an army without taxes.

Monday, September 21, 2009 12:55:00 PM

Blogger Dustyn Winder said...

It is impossible to simplify the failures of Somalia down to piracy. Somalia has been a failed state much longer than the US decided to start paying attention to piracy, and as Laura said, al-Shabaab has nothing to do with that sector of the current economy (and I use that term loosely). The largest problem is the policy of non-interventionism in the west that actually isn't that non-interventionist. The west, and specifically the US, don't intervene until it fits in with our global war on terror, and then we continue to "not intervene" while supplying weapons that, again as Laura said, end up in Bakaara.

The solution to Somalia is to work towards a solution to Somalia. Because so far, that hasn't been done.

Monday, September 21, 2009 3:42:00 PM

Anonymous Steve B said...

I know it's not ridiculously helpful to say 'I wouldn't start from here', but it's worth pointing out that the US blew the best chance of a governable Somalia in 2006 when Jendayi Frazer called the Union of Islamic Courts "terrorists" and helped Ethiopia invade.
Support for the Courts back then - whose main leader at the time was a certain Sheikh Sharif - could have ushered in the sort of moderate Islamist regime the West is desperately trying to prop up now.

Monday, September 21, 2009 6:40:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Steve, I am all about "I told you so's" when it comes to US policy in Africa. Sigh.

Monday, September 21, 2009 7:30:00 PM

Blogger Ben said...

I really, really do not believe this:

"Some [AU] soldiers actually starved to death earlier this year for lack of rations."

What's the source for that?

Some died from leptospirosis, however (http://www.irinnews.org/report.aspx?ReportId=85503).

Thursday, September 24, 2009 9:38:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

They apparently died of beriberi, which results from malnutrition. I should've used that word instead of "starvation."


Not sure if this is the same case, but if it was, could the leptospirosis have been a misdiagnosis? Notice that story was earlier than the LA Times piece.

Thursday, September 24, 2009 3:05:00 PM

Blogger Ben said...

Thanks for that link - had not seen that diagnosis.

Friday, September 25, 2009 10:50:00 AM


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