In a state … but not

The problem with Somalia, as examined by Samantha Steele (2009)

Imagine if the only thing between you and a meal was a grappling hook and dirty rope.

The word ‘pirate’ is associated with curly beards, eye-patches and cutlasses. Not so anymore. The pirates of today are scraggly, hungry and desperate Somalis. And they, with small motor boats and nothing to lose, are taking on – and conquering – the goliath ships of the developed West. They are demanding enormous ransoms for the cargo and crew. The Gulf of Aden – pirate rich waters between Somalia and Yemen – is a crucial part of the international shipping lanes. “20 000 ships pass through the Gulf of Aden […] each year, transporting cargo that includes 12 percent of the world’s daily oil supply,” wrote James Kraska and Brian Wilson in the World Policy Journal.

But why have the waters around the Horn of Africa become such a maelstrom of violence and chaos?

It’s because the land the pirates call home is nothing more than that. It’s just earth – it’s not criss-crossed with networks, laws, norms and infrastructure. In short, Somalia is a failed state. Utterly, completely, totally, tragically failed. As Jeffrey Gettlemen describes in Foreign Policy journal; “The whole country has become a breeding ground for warlords, pirates, kidnappers, bomb makers, fanatical Islamic insurgents, freelance gunmen, and idle, angry youth with no education and way too many bullets.”

Map of Somalia
Somalia is a troubled region, defined as a failed state. PHOTO:

Professor Hussein Solomon, from the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria, is a political analyst and a specialist in Islamic movements. He describes Somalia quite brutally: “It’s a broken state. I think that fundamentally you must move away from the idea that Somalia is a functioning state. It’s a shell of a state. It doesn’t really exist.” Two regions – Somaliland and Puntland – have even seceded from the country.

This problem is not a new one. Somalia has been a lawless mess since 1991, when President Mohamed Siad Barre was removed in a coup. As the CIA World Factbook says: “After the regime’s collapse early in 1991, Somalia descended into turmoil, factional fighting, and anarchy.”

Factional fighting is right. Integral to this area is clan structure, a fact unacknowledged by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), installed by the UN five years ago. “Remember the major problems in terms of the government itself is that is was seen to be an external imposition,” explains Solomon. Although it is one of the few areas of the world that is homogenous in terms of race, culture, language (Somali) and religion (Sunni Islam), it nonetheless has deep divisions along clan lines. This is why the TFG – backed by African Union (AU) troops, mostly those from Somalia’s ancient enemy – Ethiopia – cannot and will not work. “The one thing which is working,” says Solomon, “are the clans. People owe their primary loyalty to their clan. Before they are Somalis, they are members of a particular clan.” This means that any attempt to restore a real, working government to the area needs to not only acknowledge, but also integrate, these very important loyalties. Furthermore, the clans do not exist in name only. “Because there is no strong and effective government, the clan leaders are playing the role that governments do,” explains Solomon.

But the clan leaders are not the only ones. Radical Islamic groups are also acting as de facto governments. Al-Shabab is both the most dangerous and the most powerful of these – and it is, methodically, step-by-step, taking over the country. Including the town of Baidoa – a TFG stronghold no more, after Ethiopia’s withdrawal from the country this year. Al-Shabab has links to both al-Qaeda and piracy. With the millions it is raking in from the hijackings of international oil vessels, like the “1000-foot supertanker Sirius Star” (write Kraska and Wilson) it is building socio-economic infrastructures. But al-Shabab is not doing this out of the goodness of their fundamentalist hearts. “Not only do they militarily conquer an area, they also set up an alternative government – setting up water, irrigation, health and educational facilities and so on,” said Solomon, “but remember that they are doing this for a particular political agenda. They want to see the transfer of loyalties from the average Somali citizen to themselves, by providing these socio-economic services.” And, Solomon continues, they are hardly unique in their method of undermining the government using illicit funds. Hammas (in Gaza), Hezbulluh (in Lebanon) and the Muslim Brotherhood (in Egypt) have done or are doing similar things. In fact, Solomon explains, “Al-Shabab is trying to drastically change the status quo from a secular government to one of a radical Islam.”

This, needless to say, is not a good thing. “Al-Shabab is a poisonous cancer,” describes Solomon. They are infecting Somalia in two ways. Firstly, any fundamentalist religious group has impossible goals. Solomon explains: “They want to create an idealistic Islamist paradise, which is not going to work. The Qua-ran is not a blueprint for how to run a government. Religion is not going to give you the answers for who’s going to pick up garbage on a Thursday morning, you know?”

Secondly, radical Islamism is highly contagious and will spread in and around Africa, as it already has spread down into the continent from the Middle East. Within South Africa, for example, the Somali diaspora (often living in townships) is converting the local population to Islam. “There’s no problem with that conversion,” Solomon explains, “but if the conversion is going to lead to a radical Islamist, who is prepared to strap himself with explosives and attempt to target the US and Israeli embassy on South African soil, it does become a security problem.”

But despite the variety of chaotic factors, and the inverse relationship between the strengthening al-Shabab and the weakening TFG, Solomon says that Somalia could be a real, working state in two to three years. Firstly, al-Shabab needs to be crushed, and secondly a functioning, representational democracy – working with the clan leaders – has to be put in its place. “It’s not going to be democracy like we know it,” explains Solomon, “but as long as people are happy with the system.” To get this off the ground though, we need international co-operation.

Ironically, this is something the piracy may have already started. The Gulf of Aden is being patrolled by NATO forces, as well as the Chinese, Russian, and Japanese navies; and the AU is working within the country. Solomon explains; “The funny thing about the piracy is that, for the first time ever, all of these different countries have some common ground.” However, in the current economic crisis, whether this new found commonality will result in action, is another matter all together.


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