Strategic Dialogue: Somalia

Francis Njubi Nesbitt

Hussein Yusuf’s essay on the Obama administration’s challenges in Somalia argues that Somalia poses a grave danger to the United States. He argues that piracy threatens “the supply of oil and commercial trade to the West.” I disagree. Piracy does not pose a grave threat. It’s a distraction that takes attention away from the tragic humanitarian crisis unfolding on land.

The anti-piracy campaign was perfect for the Bush administration’s “shock and awe” tactics. Flexing military muscle is always popular with voters and television networks. This is why the armada of aircraft carriers, destroyers, and helicopter gunships has gathered to fight a few Somali fishermen in fiberglass boats.

The anti-piracy campaign epitomizes the misguided militarism and profiteering of the Bush era. The campaign has already attracted private security contractors — mercenaries — that seemed to follow the Bush war machine like vultures. Blackwater and other mercenary forces quickly formed anti-piracy wings that are available to shipping companies. It seems logical to conclude that the death toll, which has been minimal to this point, is likely to escalate sharply with the involvement of Blackwater’s bloodthirsty employees.

Efforts to find a link between piracy and terrorism also threaten to escalate the conflict. In a New York Times op-ed, for instance, Douglas Burgess, Jr. claimed last month that piracy is terrorism because both involve non-state actors and gangs of disaffected youth. But there’s no evidence of collaboration between Islamists and the pirates, let alone evidence of ties to global terrorism networks.

It’s important not to hype the threat pirates pose to the United States and international security. Vice Admiral Gortney, commander of the naval forces in the Middle East, estimated that only one-tenth of 1% of the thousands of ships that use the Gulf of Aden are in danger of being hijacked. Analysts estimate that piracy costs $1 billion a year in a global maritime industry worth trillions of dollars.

In a deal with Britain and the United States, Kenya has agreed to prosecute pirates caught off its coast. It isn’t clear whether pirates captured in open waters or off the Somalia coast will be tried. Meanwhile, 22 African and Middle Eastern countries are meeting in Djibouti to craft anti-piracy laws. This is a step in the right direction, as it seeks legal and political rather than military solutions. In the final analysis, however, only a stable state in Somalia can effectively deter piracy.

The Obama administration should adopt a multipronged strategy that includes both traditional conflict management techniques such as peacekeeping and other strategies, such as incentives and sanctions. Piracy in the Gulf of Aden can only be effectively controlled on land. Thus, the most important step is to jumpstart the peace process by removing obstacles placed by the Bush doctrine.

The Bush administration’s call for a UN peacekeeping force for Somalia at the eleventh hour seemed more like a publicity stunt than serious policy. This cynical strategy is designed to fail, but it creates the impression that something is being done. The Obama team will have to engage the parties in the messy and protracted negotiations. This may not be as sexy and media-friendly as mobilizing a peacekeeping force and launching an anti-piracy campaign, but it’s the smart option.

The administration could offer incentives like political and economic support for governmental and nongovernmental organizations. Investment in strengthening women’s, youth, and public health-related groups could reach people at the grassroots, where they’re more amenable to change. Such engagement at the local level can build relationships and reduce support for radical Islamists.

These sanctions and incentives can be effective against regional players such as Ethiopia and Eritrea, which support rival groups in the conflict. The United States can no longer be held hostage to Ethiopia’s ambitions in the region. The team must stop the knee-jerk support for Ethiopia’s machinations. The breakaway regions of Puntland and Somaliland would also have to be included in the conversation, but strengthening the borders of these breakaway regions may be counterproductive.

Obama and his team have an opportunity to reverse the cynical policies of the last eight years and demonstrate the effectiveness of “smart power” in the Horn of Africa region.

Hussein Yusuf

Francis Njubi Nesbitt does a fine job cataloging the mishaps of the Bush administration in Somalia. This is well documented, and he’s very accurate in his description. However, he misses the current political realities on the ground in Somalia.

The way forward for Somalia, in terms of building a representative and stable government, lies in the proper engagement with the Transitional Federal Government (TRG), the country’s tribal system, and moderate Islamists in the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). The Djibouti agreement between the leadership of the UIC and the TFG that Nesbitt wrongly brands as lacking credibility is a peace process with potential to succeed and save the country from more violence and, ultimately, disintegration. Hassan Aweys, the militia leader, never said he was ready to talk with the TFG. Aweys’ vision of Somalia’s future governance is deeply flawed and driven by Islamic law.

Nesbitt quotes Daniela Kroslak of the International Crisis Group saying that “an Islamic republic is inevitable” in Somalia. He goes on to suggest that the United States and Ethiopia should come to terms with this reality. This is the most troubling aspect of Nesbitt’s proposal. Somalis aren’t ready for an Islamic republic. Our culture, history, and governance are deeply tribal and traditional, with strong Muslim roots that encourage diverse expressions of faith and freedom. In the Gedo region, Puntland, and Somaliland, Islam and governance have merged and are thriving. This is the essence of Somalia’s tradition of moderation and tolerance.

In addition, the International Crisis Group is an unreliable source. It actively advocated for the independence of the Somaliland region and thus has little credibility in the eyes of Somalis. It’s unable to send researchers into many parts of the country because of its ill-informed recommendations.

In Somalia, Islamists divide along tribal lines. The management of the tribal nature of the conflict is a key to peacebuilding and good governance in Somalia. Nesbitt doesn’t seem to understand the importance of Somali tribal ties and how they affect religion, politics, and ultimately peacebuilding in Somalia.

President Obama should directly engage the moderate Islamists while carefully considering the tribal nature and bases of the people at the regional level. Every tribe in Somalia has to feel included in the process. Only when President Obama is able to engage both the moderate Islamists and the traditional leadership of the tribes will peace be possible in Somalia. Excluding the tribal system Somalis have used to govern themselves for centuries is a recipe for disaster.

Hussein Yusuf is a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor and is a program officer at the Engaging Governments on Genocide Prevention Program (EGGP) at George Mason University. Francis Njubi Nesbitt is a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor and teaches African politics and conflict resolution at San Diego State University. He is the author of Race for Sanctions (Indiana University Press, 2004) and is completing a book on peacemaking in the Horn of Africa.