Beza Tesfaye, MPA
What is the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Somalia? Failed state. Sadly Somalia is indeed the epitome of what state failure entails—a weak government with power limited to the capital Mogadishu, a famine that threatens the lives of millions, rampant piracy and lawlessness, and an amorphous militia claiming to control most of the country under a strict version of Sharia Law. Yet Somalia’s recent and historical problems can only be fully understood in light of external involvement in Somali politics. The recent move by the Kenyan government to send troops into Somalia to fight Al Shabab warrants a brief discussion of how foreign invasions contribute to the perpetual crisis in Somalia.
Many of us vaguely remember seeing images of dead US soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu on the evening news. Before this decisive turning point, a UN humanitarian mission backed by US forces was involved in a large-scale humanitarian intervention to bring famine relief to starving Somalis. At the time, the US made an imprudent decision to kill and/or capture Somalia’s most powerful warlord, Mohamed Farrah Aidid. The mission ended in failure and embarrassment for the US government and with a tacit agreement to no longer directly interfere in the volatile nation’s affairs.
Some time passed and it seemed Somalia had fallen off everyone’s radar, with new crises emerging in other African countries like Rwanda, Liberia, and Congo. The popular image of Somalia remained, a “basket-case” country without a fixed state and governed by clan-based warlords. However, it was during this time that a semblance of stability and governance began to emerge under a network of Islamist courts known as the Islamist Courts Union (ICU). This loosely-organized group was able to bring peace and began to provide basic social services such as education and healthcare that had been non-existent for years.
Despite this brief window of stability in the early 2000s, the situation in Somalia has deteriorated far worse than anyone could have imagined. For reasons that have never been well articulated, the Ethiopian army – with financial and military support from the US – invaded Somalia in 2006, destabilizing the ICU. Three years later, the Ethiopian forces gave up the intractable military mission having achieved nothing and inadvertently fueling the growth of an unmanageable force that has since consumed Somalia—Al Shabab.
Less than three years after Ethiopia’s failed invasion and departure, Kenya has now joined the class of nations that try to “fix” the Somali problem through force. On October 16th, Kenya launched Operation Protect the Nation, sending hundreds of troops across the border into neighboring Somalia. Despite the Kenyan government’s rationalization that sending troops into Somalia was for the purpose of maintaining territorial sovereignty after a recent string of kidnappings within Kenya, this action has been met with mixed reactions. Below I highlight a few issues of concern that question the rationality of this decision:
1) First, it is important to note that Al Shabab has not claimed responsibility for the recent kidnappings of foreign tourists and aid workers along the Somalia/Kenya border (a rare precedent for an organization that has never shied away from limelight when it comes to acts of terror it has committed—e.g. the July 2010 bombings in Kampala, Uganda). More likely, the crimes were committed by Somali pirates or bandits seeking ransom rather than any type of political statement. This raises the important point that the problem with Somalia is not just Al Shabab—it is also lawlessness, underdevelopment, poverty, and a lack of institutions to effectively govern the fragmented society. A foreign invasion, even if it is able to rid Somalia of Al Shabab, is probably unlikely and unwilling to address these deeper-rooted structural sources of conflict and instability in Somalia that have inevitably spilled over into neighboring countries like Kenya.
2) The Kenyan government for some time has maintained a hands-off approach towards Somalia, seeking to secure its porous border areas, rather than involving itself directly in Somali internal affairs. Kenya has also been accommodating towards hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees and the beleaguered transitional government of Somalia. It is surprising, then, that Nairobi should suddenly make such an unpredictable policy change at this point—possibly opening the nation up for retaliatory attacks from aggrieved extremists. It should be noted, for example, that northwestern Kenya has been plagued for years by attacks from Ethiopian Toposas and Merrile cattle raiders, but the idea of invading southern Ethiopia to stop these killings has never been entertained. Succinctly put, Kenya is not an aggressive nation, and the recent declaration of war raises important questions about what or who urged the Kenyan government to invade Somalia.
3) Most importantly, what will this new foreign intervention mean for Somalis who are already suffering from the worst famine to hit the region in 50 years? The implications are hard to predict but what is certain is that fighting between Al Shabab and Kenyan troops as well as Kenyan air raids are likely to result in civilian casualties. Inevitably, this is a common cost of any armed conflict but one that is often justified by clear positive outcomes. In this situation, it is unclear what end results the Kenyan government seeks to achieve. If the aim is to completely eradicate Al Shabab, then Kenya is setting itself up for a long and potentially unwinnable conflict against a militant group that may be able to diffuse into Somali society and remerge even stronger. This is particularly likely if Somalis perceive the invasion as an unwelcome foreign incursion on their homeland, as was the case with the Ethiopian and U.S. military interventions. By attacking Somalia when Al Shabab was beginning to lose legitimacy and control in the country (having retreated from Mogadishu just this summer), Kenya may have grant the extremist group an unexpected lifeline. Without speculating too much of what will happen in the coming months, it suffices to say that war is detrimental to Somalis, especially a poorly-planned invasion with only vague objectives.