Global Policy Forum

Obstacles to Progress: Somalia’s Fault Lines

Since the civil war in 1991, Somalia has been plagued by state collapse as no central government has been able to control the entirety of the country. This Think Africa Press article argues that, if the new post-transitional government is to make a difference, it should transform Somali society politically, socially, and economically. This transformation poses considerable challenges given the number of alarming fault-lines in Somali. Clanism, interference from Kenya and Ethiopia, an extremely weak Somali National Army, the presence of US and South African private security contractors, increasing US drones attacks on al-Shabaab targets, and sectarian tensions are but a few of the many problems Somalia is currently facing.

By Abukar Arman

August 3, 2012

Somalis have largely been disillusioned with the various governments that have ruled over them for the past few decades. If the new post-transitional government is to break this mould, it must craft a viable strategy of reforming the function of the government and transforming Somali society politically, socially, and economically.

Transformation is not a random act. It is driven by vision, specific goals and objectives articulated and implemented by transformational leaders. It is by no means an easy task, nor is it one without serious obstacles and threats. Transforming Somali society may be particularly precarious given the number of dangerous fault-lines that run through Somalia’s political crust. Some of these are outlined below.

The blinding effect of clan-centrism

Though things have been getting better, it is no secret that ideologies of clanism continue to fuel Somalia’s political machine. Politics is often seen as a vicious zero-sum game in which another’s gain is one’s own loss and vice versa. There is a mentality that, regardless of how abundant resources are, others should always be kept in an inferior position. In recent years, groups have been carving and re-carving out their own clan-based fiefdoms, setting the stage for perennial zero-sum conflicts over power and resources.

This attitude, which gained prominence in post-civil war Somalia, is summed up well by the following fable: Satan visits a villager and says “I come to offer you a gift. Ask me anything and I shall give it to you on the condition that I will give your neighbour double of the same request”. Knowing his neighbour is from another clan, the villager thinks for a second, then answers, “Here, poke one of my eyes out”.

A self-defeating frame of mind

The growing attitude in certain circles is that the official end of Somalia’s transitional period on August 20 will be xiligii kala guurka (‘time to part-ways’), ought to be a matter of concern. In a clearly coordinated effort to inculcate a certain attitude of apathy toward nationhood and de-synthesise certain nationalistic sensitivities, xiligii kala guurka became the motto of a number of politicians and media groups. Make no mistake, language matters, especially in politics.

Influence of external actors

Front-line states such as Ethiopia and Kenya have security-related concerns in Somalia, and their political intentions are often thinly veiled. States who use their organised military machines, intelligence services, and individual political actors to advance their own strategic or proxy geopolitical objectives could make life difficult for Somalia’s leaders.

Command and control challenges

The Somali National Army is being rebuilt without much urgency, due to (among other things) lack of resources, friendly militia groups such Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama’ah (ASWJ), the Ras Kamboni, Azania, while several others exist and operate outside the official central command. The proliferation of small arms in Somalia means that some of these militia groups are well-equipped and are better funded than Somalia’s national army. A number of these groups have signed deals with the transitional government but should any of these groups decide that it is not in their interest to side with the government, they might become a destabilising factor.

Private security contractors

A significant proportion of the fighting in Somalia has been contracted out to transnational, often American or South African, security firms. Companies such as Bancroft Security Development (US) and Saracen International (South Africa) are employed by the US government to train Somalia troops on the frontline. Such companies insist that their employees are not mercenaries but consultants and advisors. However, their involvement is far from transparent. Lack of transparency and anonymity of personnel combine to make such private security companies hard to regulate and control. The cases of Sierra Leone and Angola have demonstrated that these kinds of contractors can operate with great impunity while they engage in various outlawed operations such as arms trafficking and acting as a proxy war machine in favour of one domestic contender or another.

US drone attacks

The use of drones to kill high-ranking al-Shabaab targets has increased in recent years. US President Barack Obama has been described as “a true believer in drones” and strikes look set to continue. Drone attacks not only hit targets, but can kill, maim, and terrorise local villagers. This could set the stage for what could be called Drone War Syndrome that would galvanise public outrage both toward the US and the government, not to mention provide significant propaganda ammunition to the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab.

Influence of the “ghost lords”

“Ghost lords” refers to certain elements of the NGO and international community involved in Somalia who are motivated by their own agendas. These groups are determined to see an entity they routinely refer to as “South Central Somalia” – i.e. Somalia minus the regions of Puntland and Somaliland – adopt its own constitution, hence ending Somali unity.

Recently, Ambassador Augustine Mahiga, the UN Special Representative to Somalia wrote in a letter to the Somali people that “the adoption of the provisional constitution will indeed be a watershed”. But crucially, Mahiga failed to mention that the constitution will not unequivocally delineate the territorial boundaries of Somalia. This leaves open the possibility of the balkanisation of Somalia.

Somalia already has a democratic constitution that was ratified in 1961. However, those arguing that a new constitution is unnecessary run the risk of being labelled a ‘spoilers’ of the peace process and having their assets frozen. It is worth mentioning that there are also those within Somalia who are pushing for the new constitution including some regional and national politicians with myopic interests who joined the bandwagon for political expediency.

Domestic profiteers and corporate freeloaders

Domestic profiteers are those who, through their fluid businesses or NGOs, have callously benefited from the status quo and lawlessness of the past two decades. Corporate freeloaders are those running unregulated business conglomerates which grew exponentially in the past two decades. Business can thrive but it will need to be taxed properly if it is to benefit Somalis. This is a significant challenge.

The Lower Juba enigma

Adding a layer of complexity to the matter in what seems like a haphazard effort to disturb the transition in this final period, representatives from several interest groups met and signed a document declaring what they describe as a “new democratic regional administration within the federation of Somalia”. In theory, this call for greater autonomy for Jubaland should allay Kenyan fears of al-Shabaab influence in the region. However, such devolved power also hinders the progress of Somali unity.

Threat of religious conflict

The more Kenya continues its contentious involvement in Somalia, fighting al-Shabaab and controversially occupying part of the Somali continental shelf, the more likely it is to exacerbate the newly-ignited religious sensitivities in Kenya. The recent attack by al-Shabaab on Christian churches in Garissa were thankfully defused by the local Christian and Muslim leadership who have a good relationship and used their instinct and prudence to avoid an escalation of the situation. Muslim volunteers, for example, were assigned to guard all the churches in Garissa to send a clear message to the extremists.


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