The Obama Administration’s Somali Pivot

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U.S. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman recently announced that the U.S. will appoint an ambassador to Somalia for the first time in over 20 years. (Photo: USIP)

Somalia has been a trouble spot on the African continent for much of the past two decades, unable to meet the humanitarian and security needs of its own citizens, engendering regional insecurity, exporting massive numbers of refugees, and hindering the flow of international commerce on the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. An endless political conflict rages at all levels of the federal government and its regions that continues to dampen public aspirations for political stability and regional peace. Even after the Obama administration recognized Somalia as an “equal partner” in January 2013, the nation remains fragile and unstable.

In fact, political, humanitarian, and security conditions have not improved much since the adoption of a provisional constitution, the establishment of a federal parliament, and the inauguration of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in 2012.

After two years at the helm, the Somali government seems incapable of shaking off its failed-state status. The weak and ineffective central government has little practical control over much of its territory, and it provides little in the way of needed humanitarian services. There is widespread corruption and inter-clan warfare. A massive flow of refugees has moved in and out of the country, which continues to suffer intolerable rates of unemployment and economic hardship. International aid agencies deliberately sidestep Somalia’s nascent public institutions. The federal government, whose taxing authority is limited and generates little revenue, consequently looks weaker. It remains deprived of the international financial and technical assistance necessary to strengthen its coffers and enhance its stature locally and internationally.

Obama’s New Policy

On June 3, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman announced a new U.S. policy toward Somalia, shifting from what could be described as a tacit disengagement policy to full engagement. Outlining an intensified push to improve security, governance, and development in Somalia, the undersecretary unveiled the Obama administration’s plan to nominate an ambassador to Somalia for the first time in more than 20 years, signaling a clear departure from the Bush administration’s signature dual-track policy.

The U.S. objective, the undersecretary highlighted, is to enhance Somalia’s security and contribute to the country’s political and economic development. In essence, the new policy perfectly aligns with the four pillars that undergird U.S. strategy on the African continent, namely strengthening democratic institutions, supporting economic growth and development, advancing peace and security, and promoting opportunity and development.

The policy shift comes at a time when many African governments are seriously engaged in conflicts with terror groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia, and numerous al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Northwest Africa. Boko Haram’s recent abduction of over 200 schoolgirls is a clear example of a growing problem.

In general, the institutional weaknesses of African governments play a major role in exacerbating  the structural conditions that allow these nefarious groups to thrive in the first place. By strengthening governmental structures and the rule of law—and by responding to existing social problems through education and economic development rather than relying on sheer military might—the United States can augment the capacity of  African governments.

Stabilizing Somalia has been the primary focus of regional and international community organizations for a long time. To that end, the international community pledged over $2 billion last year for security and reconstruction projects, while the United States alone contributed more than $500 million in training, equipment, and logistical support for the Somali army.  Most if not all of these contributions fall into the hands of international security and developmental agencies working in Somalia, with scarcely anything reaching the coffers of the Somali government.

Despite all the foreign investment, al-Shabaab’s reign of terror continues unabated. Its forces roam freely throughout the country, causing havoc at will in and outside of Somalia’s borders. The recent shootings of Kenyan World Cup viewers, along with the 2013 attacks that killed scores of innocent shoppers in Nairobi’s upscale Westgate Mall and the bombing of a Kampala restaurant earlier in 2010, signal that al-Shabaab is a threat not only to Somalia but to the entire region. It also signaled its reach, flexibility, and the sophistication of its methods.

Despite the presence of over 22,000 African Union troops known as AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia), the Somali government and its allies seem incapable of securing even the most prominent national institutions such as the parliament, the courts, and the presidential compound, let alone expelling al-Shabaab from Somalia altogether in the foreseeable future.

Increased Polarization

Since withdrawing U.S. troops in 1993, the United States has engaged Somalia in a haphazard manner. With the end of the Cold War, the United States lost strategic interest in the Horn of Africa—that is, until the area became a safe haven for terrorists and a source of trouble for the entire region. A proxy war between Ethiopia and Eritrea intensified internal conflicts and supplied weaponry and ammunition to warring factions. The United States itself got a piece of the action when it imprudently bankrolled some Somali warlords to rid the country of Islamic organizations vying for political power.

The George W. Bush administration later proposed a so-called dual-track policy recognizing the fragility of the structures of the Somali state and the divisiveness of clan-based politics. The policy acknowledged the need for the United States to collaborate with the central authority on security matters while providing humanitarian assistance to stable regional administrations.

But dual-track led to unprecedented political and social polarization. The number of clan-based regional authorities mushroomed during this period, often with contested or overlapping territories, while the federal government failed to recognize the crucial importance of instituting national reconciliation processes. Such a process could have brought the Somali people closer together before embarking on complex national conversations around the completion of the provisional constitution and the implementation of federalism.

Somalia is politically more polarized today than it has been at any time in the past two decades. This is mainly because of the proliferation of myopic political narratives that pit one clan against another and deprive the general public of its citizenship rights.  By inadvertently playing off these deeply entrenched clan sentiments, the dual-track policy only made matters worse.

With piracy on the seas affecting the flow of commerce and contributing to deteriorating regional security in the Horn of Africa, some political analysts erroneously suggested that the United States should fight terrorism and promote stability in Somalia through “constructive disengagement.” The proponents of this strategy urged the United States to take a hands-off approach, though occasionally providing humanitarian and development assistance where necessary. This strategy, if followed, would have set the country up for failure by depriving it of the support it needs, effectively leaving it to its own devices.

Other analysts have similarly discounted the importance of central authority by promoting their preference for a balkanized Somalia through what they’ve called a “mediated state model” of governance. In this model, the central government ostensibly outsources its basic functions to the private sector, nonprofit organizations, and local polities, leaving only a negligible federal frame incapable of defending the country from its enemies, foreign or domestic. Fortunately, the new U.S. policy towards Somalia considers neither option.

Why the U.S. Policy Shift?

With the growing insecurity in Africa from Boko Haram’s skirmishes in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in West Africa, the new shift of U.S. policy toward Somalia recognizes the need to strengthen nascent governmental institutions and help fragile states like Somalia to stand on their own feet instead of depending on outside sources for survival. The United States clearly came to the realization that a stable and unified Somalia is more tenable and sustainable than a balkanized mini-state mired in internal conflict. The focus this time is developing a strong, legitimate, and sustainable central authority that caters to the needs of all of its citizens.

Moreover, the role of U.S. economic interests in Africa cannot be underestimated. The continent’s growing economies offer a burgeoning consumer market for trade and investment. China, India, Brazil, Russia, and Turkey are among other global economic giants angling for a piece of the African economic pie. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the continent within two weeks of assuming power signaled the region’s crucial importance to his country, while President Obama promised during his visits that enhanced U.S. investment would support local economies. On August 5-6, the United States plans to host African heads of states in Washington to further economic ties with the continent.

Whatever the motives for the American change of heart, Somalia today needs all the international support it can get to rehabilitate its fragile economy and institutions, and America’s renewed interest in Somalia bodes well for the entire continent. After 20 years of missed opportunities, Somalia cannot afford to squander this opportunity to steer its ship away from treacherous waters and into the community of nations. The sooner Somali leadership at all levels of government understands that, the better for the entire region.

Looking ahead, as Undersecretary Sherman aptly put it, “the pivotal test for Somalia will not be procuring more assistance from the international community or even defeating al-Shabaab. The truly defining test will be an internal one—Somalis have to decide whether they want to exist as disparate clans isolated from the world and in conflict with one another, or as a united country with all the attributes, benefits, and responsibilities that such unity brings.”

Whether the Somali people and their leadership heed this enduring advice remains to be seen.

Abdinur Mohamud is a former Somali minister of education and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. He now works and lives in Westerville, Ohio.
  • Ibrahim Mohamed

    Dear Dr. Abdinur,

    It might be the case that Washington’s change of heart is too little and too late. Unless of course the change of heart includes diplomatic pressure to the frontline states that are negatively impacting the situation in Somalia.

    There are other more engaging countries that are working to affect the post-conflict intervention in Somalia today. Turkey, Sweden and Norway are funding and implementing tangible projects, whether it is reconstruction, technical assistance or peacebuilding. Indeed as you indicated that “Somalia cannot afford to squander this opportunity to steer its ship away from treacherous” water.

    However, those who elect to navigate Somalia’s governance into a turbulent sea are doing so deliberately as they see those dangerous trajectories as their personal best interest or that of the
    foreign power whom they work for.

    Best regards,
    Ibrahim

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