My students are fascinated by Somalia. Any time 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 African Union soldiers are unable to do much to restore order. Their efforts to help the Somali government secure more of Mogadishu have not resulted in much success. Meanwhile, Al-Shabaab militants killed 17 African Union peacekeepers last week, leading the AU to request more weapons for Somali government forces.
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 African Union 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 Shariah, or Islamic law, that doesn’t exactly account for freedom of speech, women’s rights or practices out of line with their interpretation of the Quran.
Still, if you’re an average Somali who’s lived more or less in a chaotic state of anarchy for the last 18 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 over 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 toward 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 policymakers 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.
Laura Seay is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
Laura Seay is an Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College. She studies African politics, conflict and development, with a focus on central Africa.