Somalia: A Quagmire With No Solutions?

Ask most Americans what country is the biggest global headache, and the answer you are most likely to receive is Afghanistan. This is a fair point, seeing as troops from the US and her allies have been involved there for about a decade, but in reality the country that continues to have what seems to be the most insurmountable difficulties is Somalia. 

Somalia is a country that has not had a unified government since 1991 and barring some remarkable turnaround or large intervention is not likely to have one anytime soon.

In 1991, the totalitarian dictator General Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted by allied forces from the north and south, but since then numerous political groups and clans have been fighting each other over control of parcels of land. The disastrous results for the people of Somalia have been predictable. About 43% of the Somali population lives on less than $1/day. Famine is not unknown to the Somali people, with 300,000 dying in 1992 and a famine occurring in southern Somalia as recently as this year.

Just as predictable as the dire effects of a 22-year collapse of government on the Somali people is the rise of extremist and criminal groups. Al-Shabaab, or “The Youth," is an Islamic insurgency group that has been labeled a terrorist group by numerous Western nations and has pledged loyalty to Al-Qaeda. The Islamist group controls the majority of southern Somalia and has been known to enforce a brutally strict form of sharia, including stoning a 13-year old girl for alleged adultery.

On the other end of the spectrum is the rise of piracy in Somalia. As of October, Somali pirates are believed to be behind 24 hijackings, accounting for 2/3 of such incidents in the world. Piracy in Somalia was nearly non-existent before the collapse of the Barre government.  Now, it is a multi-million dollar industry supporting towns on the coast of Somalia. The direct and indirect cost of Somali piracy for the international maritime community and related industries now reaches well into the billions.

With so many problems, the clear answer is that Somalia needs a stable and working government to at the very least enforce a tenuous peace and then begin rebuilding a broken country. The currently-recognized government of Somalia is the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), but the actual power of the TFG is minimal. There have been successes, such as bringing in factions of the TFG’s former adversary, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), but there are many problems as well. Only recently was the TFG able to take control of Mogadishu, and it is unclear whether this is a lasting victory for the TFG or simply a temporary setback for Al-Shabaab.  The TFG’s control over southern Somalia is practically non-existent, and it is still unclear how the government could control Somaliland, a province in the north with secessionist tendencies. Even their long-term control in supposedly pro-TFG areas such as Puntland is brought into question by actions like piracy,
which is based primarily from this province.

The stability of Somalia is not likely to come from outside of the country, either. Western nations were scared away after the United Nations Operation in Somalia II (UNOSOM II), which ended in the infamous ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident.  Combined with the fatigue and unpopularity that have come with recent nation-building attempts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Western intervention seems highly unlikely. The African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) has been going on since 2007, but the effectiveness of these troops is unclear, nor have they been used as a means to reunite the country.

Somali neighbors have tried more unilateral approaches, but these actions have not helped to lead toward a untied Somalia, nor is any action in the future necessarily a positive step. A U.S.-backed intervention by Ethiopia in 2006 prevented the ICU from obtaining a dominant position in Somalia and paved the way for the return of the TFG. Their presence in Somalia, however, was not popular on either side of the border, and it is unlikely that any Ethiopian presence could bring peace in Somalia. Kenya has also recently entered Somalia to hunt down Al-Shabaab militants, but the size of the mission suggests it is only temporary. Their involvement in Somalia has also been questioned by the TFG, and there is a distinct worry in Kenya that Al-Shabaab will retaliate, if they have not already.

The difficult and consistent problems inside Somalia do not suggest that there is an easy solution. The only sure way of achieving any stability in Somalia is through direct and large-scale intervention, but this is not a politically viable solution, nor is this a task that anyone wishes to lead and operate. The most viable action available seems to be an increase in support for the TFG through information sharing and military, economic, and humanitarian aid. This is no guarantee of success in Somalia, and the TFG could disintegrate into a useless body, but for now, it seems that we must put our hopes in them.

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons

Click here to return to the Georgetown homepage.