This piece was published in The National on 22 December 2009.
At the beginning of this year, Somalia was experiencing a rare moment of optimism. The desperate country looked as if it might just start to turn itself around. The disastrous Ethiopian invasion and two-year occupation were ending, and the new president of the transitional federal government, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, had broad Somali and international support. The hope was that he would be able to form coalitions with other moderate Islamists and isolate the extremist al Shabaab elements.
Now, at the end of the same year, all traces of optimism are gone. The civil war is increasingly brutal and destructive. Almost half of the population, 3.6 million people, are dependent on food aid, and half a million refugees are scattered across the Horn of Africa.
Sheikh Sharif’s government forces control only a few city blocks of the capital Mogadishu. International efforts to prop up his side, including military training, US arms shipments and cash, have not been effective, but abandoning the transitional government now would hasten an al Shabaab takeover.
The only thing preventing that is the 5,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force, AMISOM. The hope is that in the long run the transitional government’s newly trained troops will change the balance of forces, but the government lacks the command and control structures to utilise those forces effectively. Regardless, military might is hardly the solution for Somalia.
Unable to conquer the capital, al Shabaab instead has carried out a series of assassinations and suicide attacks targeting AMISOM and government leaders. The latest attack on December 3 killed 20 people, including three government ministers, two journalists, one doctor and a dozen medical students, and left 60 others injured.
In short, no side in Somalia has a determinative strategic military advantage. Every faction – the transitional government, al Shabaab, the group Hisbul Islam, led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former ally of Sheikh Sharif and later of al Shabaab, and countless shifting clan interests – has fundamental weaknesses and is incapable of uniting even its own members, let alone the country.
The government and its international backers are preparing a new offensive, and al Shabaab is reinforcing its position. But no one in Somalia or abroad has been able to achieve anything except a continuation of the miserable status quo.
Finding a way out of such long-term anarchy is fraught with difficulties, and even getting to the beginnings of a viable peace process would be a gargantuan diplomatic task. Still, some elements of a solution are clear.
The involvement of both Eritrea and Ethiopia on opposing sides – the insurgents and the transitional government respectively – amounts to a proxy war in their struggle over their disputed border. Binding rulings by the international Boundary Commission need to be implemented so that both countries disengage from Somalia.
The role of Arab countries – Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Yemen – is also important, because of their potential to act as mediators or spoilers in any peace process. US policy in Somalia has to broaden its narrow focus on short-term counter-terrorism to long-term stability that makes terrorism less attractive and less likely.
But most importantly, Somali leaders and their international friends have to start in earnest what they should have begun a year ago, in the more hopeful days of Sheikh Sharif’s tenure. They must foster an engagement process, led by the Somalis themselves, capable of forging a broad domestic consensus – similar to the models of the more peaceful regions of Somaliland and Puntland – with the first job being to create a list of neutral mediators and possible interlocutors from the insurgents’ ranks.
The international community has to completely rethink its approach to make this work, fostering support for a political process rather than any specific political actors or predetermined outcomes. Rather than reflexively refusing to deal with al Shabaab, it must recognise that the insurgency is a loose coalition and many elements could be safely brought into the government, while isolating the small, irreconcilable group of hard-core extremists.
There is no guarantee that it would work, of course. Somalia has been good at defying solutions over the years. But if the only other option is further violence in a no-win military stalemate, it seems the right time to get back to the negotiating table.