Defeating al-Shabab and dismembering Somalia

Will the current strategy of the Somali government and the international community bring peace to Somalia?

Although the Somali Federal Government controls Mogadishu, insecurity persists [AFP/Getty Images]

Two years ago, the African Union Military Force (AMISOM) liberated the Somali capital, Mogadishu, from al-Shabab. More recently AMISOM and the Somali Army declared victories over al-Shabab by capturing major towns. The international community which supports AMISOM has touted these advances, yet the Somali population is more circumspect about these victories given the resurgence of terrorist bombings in the capital.

At this point, it is important to examine whether the military and political strategy of the international community and the African Union to stabilise Somalia will advance the cause of peace and enable Somalis to regain control over their country or whether this approach will permanently dismember Somalia.

Al-Shabab’s agenda

The origin of al-Shabab dates back to the failure of secular politics to deliver peace and common belonging for the Somali people, particularly since 1991. Somalia’s brutal dictatorship decimated civic politics in the country in the late 1980s and fanned the flames of civil war by politicising clan divisions among the population. The regime used its security forces to collectively punish communities it deemed hostile and therefore sowed the seeds of national fragmentation. Such political dynamics shattered trust among Somalis and created opportunities for warlords, and others whose objective has been to subjugate Somalis to collect the spoils of the civil war.

After more than a decade of war, Somalis’ only remaining source of moral and political alternative to chaos was the population’s staunch adherence to Islam. Members of the Muslim community who were previously banned by the old regime regrouped and tried to restore peace. They had some success, but their rigid interpretation of the faith and crude political sloganeering, particularly after the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, attracted Washington’s attention.

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The Somali Islamic political project culminated in the rise of Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which liberated Mogadishu and several regions of the country from the tyranny of the warlords in 2006. The youth wing of the courts, then known as al-Shabab, was the most disciplined and effective force the ICU had.

ICU’s military success and its popularity among most Somalis immediately attracted the attention of the West, particularly the US, and their Ethiopian allies. Plans were laid out, using Ethiopia as a proxy, to crush the ICU. Unfortunately the ICU blindly fell into the strategic traps set for them. Consequently, Ethiopia invaded Somalia and drove the ICU into the bush.

As the Ethiopian military occupied Mogadishu, it became feasible for the internationally sponsored warlords-dominated Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) leadership to move to the capital under Ethiopian protection. A fierce war of resistance against the Ethiopian occupation ensued, which pinned down the occupiers. Through the war of resistance, al-Shabab became the dominant Somali force.

Ethiopian forces were finally holed in three small locations while Somali resistance controlled much of the country. Then the international community wooed the leaders of the ICU to jump ship and become the leaders of the TFG. From here on, al-Shabab declared its association with al-Qaeda and the US listed it as a terrorist organisation in 2008. Thereafter, Ethiopian forces withdrew and AMISOM forces were increased substantially. It took AMISOM three years to gain control of the capital.

Disabling Somalia

Once Mogadishu was formally liberated, the international community turned its attention to re-establishing a more permanent government. Here the international community went into cahoots with sectarian Somali politicians and organised a corrupt and divisive selection process – akin to apartheid – to appoint a new government.

The political system of choice for the dominant sectarian Somalis was a tribal-based federal system in this most culturally homogenous country in Africa. Despite the superficial appearance of a smooth transition to a more permanent government in 2012, the core political project was deeply fractured. It called for the creation of federal regions based on unrealistic and non-existent boundaries which instigated new and nastier political fissures within communities.

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The consequences of tribal identity becoming the grammar of politics in the country are already conspicuous. First, the requirement that every little tribe must be represented in parliament, cabinet, and various organs of the state has created an incoherent political authority.

Second, this rudderless political morass is matched by the dysfunctional bureaucracy that lacks the basic qualities of professional civil service. The arbitrary tribalism-based criteria used to select public service employees have produced a frighteningly incompetent order that has overwhelmed the few professionals in the system.

Third, political ineptitude and professional incompetence at the heart of the country in Mogadishu has become a model for the provinces. Consequently, a gratuitous and dysfunctional political order has engulfed the country, thus deepening mistrust among Somalis.

Fourth, the proliferation of arbitrarily defined regions with little guidance from the central government has induced competition between sectarian politicians who use tribal identity as a cover to establish their fiefdoms. This process has already generated tremendous conflict between and within communities and intensifies fragmentation because the country lacks a political centre of gravity.

Finally, neighbouring states, such as Kenya and Ethiopia, are deeply involved in the fracturing of the country. Kenya has unabashedly given resources to the leader who controls the so-called Jubaland using Kenyan defensive forces, nominally part of AMISOM. Similarly, Ethiopia recently joined AMISOM, and is using the pretext of al-Shabab to curve up areas in central Somalia to set up its own client provinces. The aim of the Kenyan and Ethiopian forces is to use these newly minted client regions as spheres of influences to enfeeble the central government. If successful, such clients in the provinces will determine the fate of the country. Meanwhile the African Union and the international community continue to provide resources and cover for the Ethiopian and Kenyan projects.

A bottomless pit

Two years ago, the senior Ugandan commander of AMISOM, in a confidential report, stressed that the tribal-based administration in Somalia will never become an effective government that can consolidate the peace and serve the Somali people. Despite such warnings, the African Union and its international partners are oblivious to the fact that their military presence in the country has not helped Somalis to take charge of their country. Instead, Kenya and Ethiopia, under the cover of AMISOM, have gained a free hand to support sectarian Somali clients to gerrymander the country’s future.

Consequently, aside from AMISOM’s claims that al-Shabab is on the run, the country’s political and social fabric is rotting, which does not bode well for the future of the Somali Republic. The government in Mogadishu, the only organised force which has the potential to inspire the population, is absorbed in sterile and regime-cantered politics. Al-Shabab might no longer have the capacity to control large areas, but its defeat will likely produce a failed country with a failed state vulnerable to foreign domination.

Abdi Ismail Samatar is a professor of Geography, Environment and Society at the University of Minnesota, a research Fellow at the University of Pretoria, and a member of the African Academy of Sciences.