‘Terror group’ Somalia’s only hope for peace and stability
By David Williamson
WHO can bring peace to Somalia after two decades of destructive civil war and cope with its worst famine in 60 years?
Could it be that Somalia’s only hope are the people we have been told to despise – the terrorists?
It won’t be US troops and experts with support of the Canadians and Europeans, that’s for sure.
There is no confidence in Washington that military intervention could rescue the 750,000 at immediate risk of starvation over the next few months, no mood in the US, Canada, and Europe for another intervention to solve Somalia’s serious problems.
The same follows for security sector reconstruction. The government of Somalia has asked Canada and other countries to deploy police and army trainers in Somalia. However, only the European Union has agreed and it only trains army personnel outside the country.
The West has been so stand-offish and mindful of its limitations for two reasons.
The first relates to Al-Shabab, the Islamist insurgency with al-Qaida links. Frustration over Al-Shabab’s obstruction of humanitarian relief is tempered by the knowledge that the famine is not about them but a disintegrated collapsed state awash in guns and misery.
That wasn’t clear back in 1992. When famine struck that year, shocking Western publics and governments, a US-led coalition intervened to protect UN and NGO deliveries of food and medicine. The coalition withdrew as planned months later, and was not supposed to focus on the wider issues.
The second is that the US priority in East Africa is the war on terrorism. It is able to wage and indeed escalate this war from outside Somalia. Drone aircraft have done surveillance missions, but now the US is deploying an armed model equipped with bombs and missiles.
The US is also relying on private contractors to train African troops to fight the Al-Shabab.
In addition to the legal issues and troubling implications for global order, notably whether states should be sending robotic devices over borders to kill perceived enemies, the war on terror is a blatant example of the West subordinating Somalia’s interests to its own.
It is small wonder, then, that the yield from the West’s and the UN’s political and military interventions in Somalia has been so meager.
Somalis want law, order and justice for their communities. They rallied in 2006 to the banner of the Union of Islamic Courts, the predecessor to the Al-Shabab, because it ended the petty corruption, criminality and hated ad hoc checkpoints of the warlords and roaming gunmen.
None of the many central governments brokered by the UN (14 in total so far) have been able to fulfil these basic needs. This includes the current Transitional Federal Government, installed after the US and Ethiopia destroyed the Courts movement because of suspected terrorist links.
The Transitional Federal Government took power in Mogadishu. It is allied with the US in the war against terrorism, but it is corrupt and propped up by African Union troops.
It is too weak to provide law and order. Often civilians are better off outside the capital, where Al-Shabab is in control.
Indeed, Al-Shabab is currently Somalia’s only hope for peace, stability and order.
The West must recognise that Al-Shabab is the only actor capable of setting up a system of governance and basic infrastructure in Somalia. The Al-Shabab are supportive of global and regional order, they ought to be seen as state-builders rather than as a group of terrorist extremists.
The media presents the Al-Shabab as a problem because they threaten Western foreign policies.
Kenya’s incursion to protect its tourist industry from Somali kidnappers is presented this way.
This is stupid. The terrorist label just de-legitimises and invalidates the Al-Shabab.
Use of this label hampers Somalia’s recovery and global order more than it helps.
To understand why this is so we have to look at the human behind the terrorist label. The Al-Shabab has not been allowed to participate in Somalia’s political process. Terrorist attacks like suicide truck bombings and recent Al-Shabab audiotape calling for attacks on the US, Canada, and other countries are the only tactics available to them to effect change and insert themselves into the debate about the future of their country.
The Transitional Federal Government has said it wants to negotiate with the Al-Shabab. It knows it cannot compete.
Like the Courts movement, Al-Shabab has the local contacts, support of the civil elites, grassroots leaders and bottom-up approach that Somalis respect and trust.
Turning to the Al-Shabab is not an ideal solution. But Somalia’s mixture of famine, conflict and state collapse is far from an ideal situation.
Al-Shabab will be able to provide peace and stability, and in a calmer and less confrontational atmosphere famine relief from outside should be acceptable.
Dr Grant Dawson is deputy director of the David Davies Memorial Institute of International Studies at the Department of International Politics of Aberystwyth University.