Inside Story

Somalia: Arms race vs arms embargo?

We examine how the unrest in the Horn of Africa is being exacerbated and who stands to gain from it.
Last Modified: 12 Feb 2013 12:43

As the US pushes for an end to the arms embargo on Somalia, a United Nations monitoring team reports that a growing number of arms is being smuggled to al-Qaeda-linked fighters in the Horn of Africa. It points fingers at what it calls networks in Yemen and Iran.

"Somalia is a country caught between a transition from a war economy, dominated by warlords and other criminal networks, and a peace economy which is now beginning to evolve around the new government in Mogadishu. So what you see is not a coordinated process of exporting arms to Somalia, it is basically a way of networks of Somali warlords finding sources of arms and this is where Iran becomes one of the major sources. Iran is facing global sanctions and it naturally looks for whichever way is available to make a dollar or two in order to keep its economy soaring ... It's a natural trend by countries facing embargos or sanctions."

- Peter Kagwanja, the director of the Africa Policy Institute

The weapon shipments reportedly include machine guns and components for Improvised Expolsive Devices (IEDs).
Yemen has become an important hub for smuggling arms into Somalia.

According to the latest findings by the monitoring group, which tracks compliance with UN sanctions on Somalia and Eritrea, most weapons deliveries are coming into northern Somalia - that is, the autonomous Puntland and Somaliland regions - after which they are moved south into areas controlled by the al-Shabab movement.

Yemen is proving to be of central importance for arming al-Shabab, the monitors' reporting shows, both because it is feeding arms into northern Somalia and because it has become a playing field for Iranian interests in Somalia and elsewhere.

Last month, Yemeni coast guards and the US Navy seized a consignment of missiles and rockets that the Sanaa government says were sent by Iran, and it asked the UN Security Council to investigate the matter.

The Yemeni government continues to fear rebellion by groups in both the north and the south of the country, while the US fears that there are also large factions linked to al-Qaeda sheltering in the conflict zones.

So, can ending the 20-year-old UN arms embargo on Somalia be a solution or yet another problem in an emerging arms race in the region? And who stands to benefit from the turmoil?

Inside Story, with presenter Mike Hanna, discusses with guests: Peter Kagwanja, the director of the Africa Policy Institute; Roland Marchal, a senior research fellow at the National Centre for Scientific Research, at the Paris Institute of Political Science; and David Shinn, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia, and a professor of international affairs at George Washington University.

"It's a region which has been awash in arms for many decades. The difference today is that the source of the arms is changing somewhat. But you've had a long standing flow of arms from Yemen and particularly contact between al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the al-Shabab organisation in Somalia; that part is not particularly new. What seems to be wrong is the Iranian involvement; although I think there has been some Iranian engagement in the past, the focus on Iran now is definitely different from what I've seen in the last decade or two."

David Shinn, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University


  • Somalia has experienced more than two decades of uninterrupted conflict and has for much of that time been without a functioning, central government
  • In 1991, President Mohammed Siad Barre was ousted by rebels and fled the country; civil war broke out across Somalia
  • Between 1992 and 1995, the United Nations intervened in a bid to restore peace; the largely US-led mission ended in failure
  • More than than 10 years later, and following the September 11 attacks, the US opened a base in neighbouring Djibouti amid fears that Somalia was becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda fighters
  • In 2006, the US backed an Ethiopian invasion to topple militia forces that had taken control of much of southern Somalia
  • In 2007, an African Union force was deployed in Somalia
  • In 2012, Ethiopian and Somali troops began a coordinated offensive against al-Shabab; the group's grip on the south was largely broken
  • In August 2012, Somalia's first formal parliament in more than 20 years was sworn in
  • In January 2012, the US formally recognised the new government - and now we see diplomatic moves underway to end the arms boycott


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