A similar rapid collapse of state institutions awaits if Somali elites and Western governments don’t alter their approach.
By Omar S. Mahmood, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, and Abdihakim Ainte, a former advisor to Somalia’s government.
Police officers patrol by the wreckage of a car at the scene of suicide car bomb attack that targeted the city’s police commissioner in Mogadishu, on July 10. AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
SEPTEMBER 22, 2021, 7:10 AM
The Taliban’s swift capture of power in Afghanistan took the world by surprise and triggered considerable introspection in the West about a 20-year conflict waged at immense human and material cost. More broadly, the outcome raises serious questions about the viability of internationally supported state-building projects, especially in the absence of an inclusive political settlement. This experience has ramifications well beyond Afghanistan, but perhaps nowhere are the parallels as striking as in Somalia.
Somalia bears many similarities to Afghanistan. In both countries, an Islamist governance project took root after a lengthy period of conflict, only to be dislodged by outside powers within the context of the global war on terrorism (the United States in Afghanistan and Ethiopia in Somalia).
What ensued were externally driven state-building projects to replace the previous governance structures, as well as burgeoning insurgencies against those interventions (led by the Taliban and al-Shabab, respectively). The new governments were sustained by external security assistance but struggled to generate the required levels of local legitimacy to succeed. In fact, the Somali government’s own survival is heavily dependent on external troops, as it is unable to pay the salaries of its own police and military. With limited capacity in manpower, protective equipment, and training, the Somali national army is facing modern guerrilla-style warfare and enemy fighters hellbent on risking their lives at any cost.
Both situations resulted in fledgling governments dependent on external actors for their survival and which struggled to keep up with their enemies. In Afghanistan’s case, this project was incapable of survival once external actors drew down their support—in other words, despite the massive investment in billions of dollars of largely unconditional aid over a two-decade period, this never translated into the development of a political order that could sustainably stand on its own. Whether Somalia will become Afghanistan 2.0 is now very much a topic of debate.
Without a dramatic change, Somalia’s path could very well mirror the outcome in Afghanistan.
Still, there are significant differences between Somalia and Afghanistan. The al-Shabab insurgency is not analogous to the Taliban’s in many senses—it lacks the Taliban’s experience in government, still openly engages in regional attacks outside Somalia’s borders, and has not shown any desire for the level of international recognition the Taliban appear to seek. Al-Shabab also does not possess a safe haven outside Somalia similar to that which Taliban leaders enjoyed in Pakistan.
Moreover, the Somali government is different from the centralized system that existed in Afghanistan until recently. In Somalia, a federal system based on the country’s intricate clan system contains various levels of government. The system is designed to defuse tensions and is probably better than more centralized arrangements, even if the unsettled nature of a government still operating under a provisional constitution has exacerbated rivalries among centers of power that compete for resources and wider control.
Finally, the nature of external assistance also differs—security in Somalia is underwritten by Western financial contributions, but external troops are from the African Union, making it more of a regional project backed by actors with clear national interests in maintaining Somalia’s security. This in turn makes engagement less driven by a powerful actor like the United States; it is instead a more multilateral affair. Also, overall costs in Somalia are much lower than the reported $2 trillion the U.S. government spent in Afghanistan—meaning that maintaining the current level of engagement is less demanding.
Despite these differences, the similarities are striking enough to raise the question whether Somalia may yet follow a similar path. In large part, Somalia’s immediate future will be determined by three key factors: the strength of al-Shabab’s insurgency, the performance of a struggling federal government, and the patience levels of international partners. Unfortunately, the omens are bleak, and without a dramatic change, Somalia’s path could very well mirror the outcome in Afghanistan.
Al-Shabab has been resurgent in recent years. After losing large chunks of the territory it held a decade ago, the group adapted by projecting its power and influence, without the need to physically control urban centers, through a combination of coercion and administrative effectiveness. This has left the government and its international security partners scrambling to keep up.
For example, al-Shabab’s sophisticated shadow governance structures provide a modicum of justice and revenue-generating streams, to the point where many interlocutors in Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu remark that they would not even begin to renovate their house without paying protection money to the group; otherwise they risk being attacked. One 2020 study put the group’s tax earnings at $15 million per month—with more than half of that coming from Mogadishu itself, where the federal government of Somalia, backed by AU troops, is technically in control. Determining the group’s total revenue is difficult, but many people interviewed by the authors in Mogadishu assert al-Shabab’s revenue generation outstrips that of the government itself.
Al-Shabab has also developed a niche in the provision of certain services, particularly justice. Mogadishu is full of stories of even government officials traveling outside the city to visit al-Shabab courts to process a land dispute or similar matter. This owes to the group’s track record of less corruption, more consistency, and greater implementation of its edicts than the government itself.
None of this is to say al-Shabab is broadly popular—far from it. But both its coercive enforcement approach and greater administrative capacity have demonstrated its effectiveness compared with the federal government. Al-Shabab’s presence in rural areas is entrenched, while its shadow administration touches nearly all urban centers of the country. Moreover, the Taliban’s success has only emboldened al-Shabab, judging by the enthusiastic coverage its propaganda outlets have accorded the Taliban’s months long offensive across Afghanistan.
Somali political elites focus on securing personal interests—often at the expense of the wider national interest.
Somalia’s federal government is failing on many levels. It has been unable to stem al-Shabab’s infiltration into urban centers, and the past few years have been marked by continued corruption and extreme political infighting between the federal government in Mogadishu and many of the member states within Somalia’s federal structures. As a consequence, key reforms—such as the implementation of a national security architecture, the finalization of the provisional constitution, and an advance to universal suffrage elections—have fallen by the wayside.
Sustained wrangling over elections that are well overdue (the president’s constitutional four-year mandate ended in February) is one of the more concrete manifestations of just how divided Somali political elites are and how their predominant focus revolves around securing personal interests often at the expense of the wider national interest.
The disputes among politicians have come close to triggering violence. After the lower house of parliament extended President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s term in office in April, the tussle between the government and opposition resulted in the reemergence of street fighting in Mogadishu with clear echoes of the 1991 civil war. The confrontation forced the president to drop his bid for a two-year extension to his mandate.
More recently, a power struggle between the president and prime minister threatened to erupt into further violence in the capital. This rift emerged after an officer who was working for the National Intelligence and Security Agency disappeared and was later pronounced dead without a plausible explanation. This resulted in the removal of the agency’s powerful chief spy by the prime minister, a move the president has rejected.
The electoral cycle has plodded along, but prospects of a smooth vote devoid of manipulation by elites remain distant. Elections for the upper house of the parliament, which began in late July, got off to an inauspicious start. Federal member state presidents who wield wide authority to nominate candidates have chosen to do so in a brazenly and egregious partisan manner by handpicking their favorite candidates and barring others. Many previous senators who had fallen out with their state president were denied the opportunity to run again, while in other races supposed opponents dropped out at the last second, ensuring an easy victory for favored candidates.
The forthcoming lower house elections are a more complex process: Each representative will be selected by a delegation of 101 members hailing from their subclan. These delegates are in turn chosen by elders and civil society groups from that subclan. Yet the level of manipulation apparent in the upper house is likely to occur in this race as well.
Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble took charge of electoral implementation after the April clashes; he subsequently oversaw an agreement with federal member state leaders in August that gives them substantial influence in the selection of the eventual representatives, who, along with the upper house senators, will go on to select the president. The accord has been controversial: groups from not only the political opposition but civil society organizations and some elders have criticized it. Indeed, the only ones who are happy with it are those who signed it.
This long overdue and highly manipulated electoral cycle is taking place against the backdrop of growing donor fatigue. Frustration in Western capitals has been rising in recent years, especially as key transitional milestones have not been achieved and the electoral process has proved so difficult to meaningfully get off the ground. The European Union, which provides the funding for AU troops, has signaled that its contributions will drop in 2021. (The exact amount has not yet been determined.)
The United States in the waning days of the Trump administration also repositioned its forces out of the country, a move the Biden administration has not yet reversed. The EU further withheld budgetary support to the Somali federal government in December 2020 due to the prolonged election wrangling.
This growing donor frustration and fatigue raises the question of whether an Afghanistan-style pullout is in the offing—if international partners no longer find it useful to fund the Somali state-building project and the AU’s ability to maintain security in the country suffers as a result. Somali security forces are not ready to take on primary responsibility in the country, and any precipitous drawdown would certainly benefit al-Shabab. The interests of neighbors Ethiopia and Kenya mean they could potentially maintain an ongoing security presence bilaterally—a key difference from Afghanistan—though this is far from guaranteed, as the former is going through severe internal unrest and the latter faces an election next year where the presence of Kenyan troops across the border could become a campaign issue.
Such a pullout is all the more likely if partners view the return on investment in the federal government as yielding paltry results. U.S. President Joe Biden’s defense of his administration’s policy in Afghanistan was revealing, with him noting that “no amount of military force would ever deliver a stable and secure Afghanistan.” It could signal that the U.S. president, backed by much of the American public (as polls show), sees little value in continuing to support international state-building projects. Somalia clearly falls under this bracket.
These developments should be a wake-up call to the Somali political elite who have spent much of the past year bickering over the forthcoming elections and put all other crucial governance tasks on hold. They must demonstrate that their project is worthy of continued investment in order to avoid losing further external support and risking a swift loss of power when this support winds down.
A crucial first step would be to ensure a smooth and credible electoral process. This would help the country move on from the stalemated election cycle, produce fresh thinking and leadership to tackle the many urgent issues Somalia confronts, and pave the way for the necessary reconciliation in order to move forward. Without this, external actors will increasingly question their investment in the Somali state-building project.
Outside actors should deliver a clear message to Somali elites that further wrangling and an inability to move forward will mean a reassessment of their investment. They should press Somali political leaders to commit to letting the elections play out as much as possible without continued interference, which could risk again plunging the country into conflict.
Outside actors should deliver a clear message to Somali elites that further wrangling and an inability to move forward will mean a reassessment of their investment.
Small adjustments to the electoral process may yet improve the overall outcome, although time is running out to implement them. Ensuring the electoral dispute resolution committee is properly stood up and prepared to authoritatively hear election-related disputes is one; having a committee of civil society organizations serve a watchdog role by reporting on electoral irregularities and manipulation is another. These are small measures at this point in the cycle and are dependent on the political elite’s buy-in, which has been lacking so far. Yet the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban should provide some impetus and hopefully trigger the alarm bells.
A serious and long-term reconciliation project, spearheaded but not controlled by the government and reaching down to local communities and up to the federal level, is necessary. All actors involved must avoid the politicization that has marked past efforts. A compromise mechanism to regulate power and resource sharing between the federal government and member states is sorely needed, in addition to implementing the national security architecture that was agreed to in 2017, which would provide a blueprint for security cooperation between the federal government and member states.
Resolving these tensions will open the door to other steps, such as finalizing the constitution and laying the groundwork for a much more inclusive electoral process in four years’ time. These measures can have a double effect: increasing the government’s credibility while convincing the international community that Somalia’s state-building project is worthy of continued investment.
Ultimately, however, another lesson from Afghanistan is that securing an eventual victory over entrenched insurgent groups like the Taliban through improvements in governance and security forces’ training is—to put it mildly—an uncertain prospect. Engaging al-Shabab to lay down its arms will have to be part of the equation in Somalia, despite all the challenges and uncertainties this poses, given that an outright military victory is unlikely.
An Afghanistan-style implosion of state institutions is not inevitable. An improved electoral process that allows for healing rather than greater elite contestation would be a good starting point. Otherwise, the risk of another failed externally backed state-building project looms on the horizon. Al-Shabab, like the Taliban, is counting on the failings of the federal government and international fatigue as the group patiently eyes its path to power.
Omar S. Mahmood is a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. Twitter: @omarsmahmood
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