What to Do About Somalia

SomaliaNow that the violence of Somalia has spilled over into Uganda, western policymakers and pundits are suddenly all aflutter with the urge to ‘do something’. Exactly what that something might be is uncertain. Drone attacks, special forces, a Gaza-like blockade and even a full scale invasion have been suggested.

All of those are truly terrible ideas – and exactly the kind of legacy thinking that caused the US to hug the tar baby called IrAfPak. At best, they will generate yet another failure / quagmire, and expand the ever growing pool of pissed off people who want to car bomb Times Square. At worst, they could invite a ‘fifth column’ type of resistance on the part of the Somali diaspora and sympathizers, spreading conflict across the region and beyond. (Somewhere between 40% and 50% of ethnic Somalis live outside the country.)

Instead of pursuing the same old failed policies, the way to resolve intractable problems is to expand the ‘solution space’ – the range of available options. Solution space is determined by the perspectives – which we might also call beliefs, paradigms or ‘mental models’ – of the players involved. Because we can only act on ideas that get through our political / cultural / personal filters, the way to achieve breakthrough is to broaden our perspectives in order to see a wider range of possibilities.

Here are five perspectives that could begin to shift the situation in Somalia.

1 – Disaggregate It

Somalia is not really a country in the way westerners typical apply the concept. Like Afghanistan, it is a collection of tribes and clans that alternately compete and collaborate, spread across arbitrary boundaries imposed by colonial powers. (Somalia’s borders are a result of combining Northern Somalia, which was a British ‘trusteeship’, with Southern Somalia, which was an Italian ‘protectorate’, to form the Somali Republic. French Somaliland to the north became Djibouti.)

Even though lines on maps are somehow sacred to most policymakers, they should be ignored here. So long as the US and its allies see Somalia as a single, troubled country controlled by radical Islamists, they will suffer ‘path dependency’, stuck forever with only the limited range of lousy options noted above.

‘Chunking’ the issues – seeing Somalia as a diverse jumble of players, areas and interests – would allow adaptive responses based more on objective realities and less on stereotypes. It would also allow distributed, locally appropriate interventions and innovations that could be rapidly prototyped to see whether and how they might scale and extend.

Perspective 2 – Reinforce the Positive

There are areas of Somalia that work reasonably well (by local standards), and those should be engaged and fostered. The Republic of Somaliland, in the northwest, is relatively stable and continues to move toward a constitutional democracy, including holding what outside observers consider free and fair municipal, parliamentary, and presidential elections.

Puntland, which includes the ‘horn’ of Africa, declared itself an ‘autonomous state’ in 1998 and has been relatively stable since. (Again, by local standards. It’s not Sweden.) Puntland has worked to diversify its economy and made education a government priority, especially for girls and the nomadic clans that make up roughly half the population. Early childhood development is also a high priority.

Engaging these regions with targeted aid and development efforts would increase their stability, and demonstrate that westerners are not the enemy of Somalis. Even more important, it would demonstrate to Somalis in war torn areas that there is hope. Nothing is more destabilizing to a regime than rising or falling expectations, and increasing stability and prosperity in the north could provide a severe challenge to Al-Shabaab, the Islamist movement dominating south-central Somalia.

The reactionary, ‘crisis management’ focus on distressed areas in the south and center of the country causes neglect of the more stable north and west. That neglect creates openings for parasitic entities. Both pirates and human traffickers operate openly in Puntland, and can be displaced only by developing viable, alternative livelihoods.

Perspective 3 – Open Lines of Communication

Complexity science tells us that structures are relationships made visible. In order to create new structures – which will then generate new patterns of events and behaviors – the US needs to create new relationships.

Obviously, this can be difficult – especially for politicians who have staked out positions based on simplistic jingoism, like ‘Islamofascism’ and ‘Global War on Terror’. But it has been done successfully in equally difficult situations. When Nelson Mandela was criticized by members of his own party for talking to the de Klerk government, he said, ‘If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.’

Although the US despises the Al Shabaab movement, that entity currently controls much of the south and center of the Somalia. If the US truly wants to change the situation on the ground, it needs to get past its prejudice and work with Al Shabaab. Despite competing ideologies, both sides have some common ground and can find ways to work together. As trust and relationships grow, deeper issues can be addressed.

Perspective 4 – Think Governance, Not Government

Despite western claims, there is no legitimate government in Somalia. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has no writ beyond a few square blocks in Mogadishu, and would quickly disappear were it not protected by Ugandan and Burundian troops under the auspices of the African Mission on Somalia (AMISOM).

The TFG is the fourteenth attempt to impose a functioning government in Somalia since the end of the Siad Barre regime in 1991. Like many other iterations, it is largely seen by locals as a shill for Ethiopia and the US, and has been accused by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch of chronic rape, murder, looting and theft. Backing it lends no credence to western claims of promoting human rights and democracy.

Encouraging Al Shabaab to govern well – rather than attempting to subvert that governance – is a more effective strategy. If they succeed and bring forth order and development, everyone wins. If they fail and destroy their own legitimacy in the eyes of the Somali people, they will be deposed – without resentment against outsiders and the potential for blowback that engenders.

Perspective 5 – Get Over the Fear of ‘isms’

Just as America’s fear of communism stampeded it to make disastrous decisions regarding China, Viet Nam, Iran and a host of other nations, its fear of Islam drives stupid and self-defeating policy regarding Somalia.

It was this fear of Islamism that caused western nations to sponsor the 2006 invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia to defeat the relatively moderate Islamic Courts Union (ICU) when that group seemed about to consolidate power. By toppling the ICU, the US and its allies created a vacuum that was filled by the ICU’s military wing. Today that movement is called Al Shabaab, and America rails against the very situation it helped create.

The fact is, Somalia is a Muslim country, in a Muslim region. It is only logical that Islamic values and tradition frame discussions of the country’s future. (Even the TFG ‘president’ offers his degree in Islamic Law as a primary qualification for the job.)

If US policymakers truly want to help stabilize the situation in Somalia, they need to get past their pathological fear of all things Islamic. In fact, they should encourage all sides to practice fundamental tenets of Islam, including devotional activity, simplicity, charity, humility, patience, and consistency.

Muslims believe that through such practices believers become more whole, peaceful, loving and compassionate. These virtues, as they become living attributes, evolve into a state of higher consciousness called fana.

Somalia – and the world – should be so lucky.