Let me take a moment to review the background to the current situation in Somalia. Somalia has been trying since the overthrow of the Siad Barre government in 1991, the same year Somaliland declared unilateral independence from Somalia, to remove itself from the status of failed state. After the fall of Siad Barre, a series of warlords quickly took control of different parts of Somalia and ruled fiefdoms by relying primarily on the support of members of the same clan.
The international community led by United States military forces intervened late in 1992 to end a humanitarian catastrophe caused by a combination of drought and the end of the Somali government. In early 1993, after alleviating famine conditions, the United States turned the humanitarian operation over to the United Nations, which tried to help recreate a Somali state.
The UN led effort soon became a hunt for one of the warlords, Mohammed Farah Aideed, and resulted in a failed political mission and the departure of all US troops after the infamous Blackhawk Down incident. The UN then pulled out of Somalia in 1995; its effort failed to create a new national government and end the reign of the warlords, who continued in power throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century.
The Islamic Courts briefly seized power from the warlords in Mogadishu and most of southern and central Somalia until they were ejected by Ethiopian forces at the end of 2006. Ethiopian troops remained in Mogadishu until early 2009 when the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which was initially composed of Ugandan and Burundian troops, were strong enough to replace the Ethiopians.
Ethiopian and AMISOM forces both struggled to counter an extremist group known as al-Shabaab, which developed as a radical splinter from the defeated Islamic Courts. AMISOM finally managed in 2011 to push al-Shabaab out of Mogadishu and other key towns, but al-Shabaab just moved its forces to rural southern and central Somalia. Kenyan troops entered southern Somalia in 2011 to remove al-Shabaab from the Lower Juba and formally became part of the AMISOM force in 2012. Ethiopian troops, who periodically crossed into Somalia from across the Ethiopian border, became part of AMISOM in 2013.
Since 2011, al-Shabaab has not successfully confronted AMISOM forces in a major battle, but it has conducted hit and run attacks, suicide bombings, and political assassinations, including in Mogadishu. In 2013, it also carried out the Westgate Mall bombing in Nairobi, Kenya. Al-Shabaab, in spite of losses caused by AMISOM, has adapted to its more limited role and can still field as many as 3,000 fighters.
After several transitional Somali governments failed to reestablish control over the country, Somalia created in 2012 the Federal Government of Somalia under President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who remains the current leader. While Somalia has made considerable progress, it faces severe political, security, economic, and humanitarian challenges.
The Current Political Situation
Let me turn next to the political situation. Somalia is working to create a federal-style government capped by elections no later than September 2016. Many Somalis, however, prefer a strong central government based on Somali nationalism. The reality is that Somali clans continue to prevail as the predominant political force, which will almost certainly result in some kind of federal system.
Two recent visitors to Somalia, retired British Army Major General Dickie Davis and head of the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, Greg Mills, concluded that the state operates today as a clan-based mafia where entwined business and political interests feed off each other. Others describe the current government as disjointed and fragmented where widespread corruption is a way of life.
There have been constant disagreements between the president and the prime minister. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is now on his third prime minister, Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, who was appointed at the end of 2014.
There has been some progress on agreements between the Somali Federal Government and local administrations in Jubaland, South-West State, and Central States, but local administration is far from complete and either not possible or threatened in some areas because of al-Shabaab’s control or influence. Somali Federal Government relations are especially difficult with local authorities in Puntland, and Somaliland is not part of the federal discussion at this point.
Work is behind schedule on developing a federal constitution, which is supposed to be ready by December 2015. Nor has there been much progress on establishing a National Electoral Commission, which must be in place well before elections can be held. There is no guarantee that the Somali Federal Government can agree on a constitution and move forward on schedule with national elections.
The most critical challenge facing Somalis today is agreement on and implementation of a political program for the country. Once most Somalis have reason to believe that the government is both willing and able to work on behalf of the people and begin to reestablish services such as education and health care, the country will finally be on the way to recovery.
The Current Security Situation
The continuing challenge posed by al-Shabaab complicates the task of the Somali Federal Government. Al-Shabaab has been squeezed into an arc in the middle of Somalia. It relies on terrorism, suicide bombings, and targeted assassinations in cities, including the capital of Mogadishu. Recent suicide attacks in Mogadishu have included the Presidential compound and Federal Parliament in July 2014, the National Intelligence and Security Agency prison in August 2014, AMISOM headquarters on Christmas day in 2014, and the Central Hotel in February 2015.
It makes frequent use of improvised explosive devices on supply routes to areas liberated from al-Shabaab and has stepped up the number of attacks it conducts inside neighboring Kenya. Just last week, al-Shabaab carried out a horrific attack at Garissa University, about 90 miles from the Somali border, killing 148 Kenyans, mostly students.
Al-Shabaab has the capacity to organize a force of as many as 400 fighters who can conduct occasional ambushes of government and AMISOM troops. It no longer has the ability, however, to confront AMISOM forces in a pitched battle and it continues to be squeezed into a smaller geographical space. It is also facing regular defections but, at the same time, is recruiting new followers. US air and drone attacks have eliminated several key al-Shabaab leaders.
There is some evidence that al-Shabaab is linked to the Kenyan extremist organization known as al-Hijra, a non-Somali Islamist group based on East Africa’s Swahili coast, which has long supplied recruits and financial support to al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab is conducting a dual-track asymmetric campaign focused on the targeting of vulnerable AMISOM and Somali National Army (SNA) defensive positions and terrorist attacks on soft targets.
On paper, the SNA is 22,000 strong but only half this number is being funded. On a positive note, more than 7,000 SNA soldiers are undergoing training in Uganda, Turkey, Sudan, and China. But relations between the SNA and the AMISOM force, while cordial, are barely functional.
Somalia has a police force of about 7,000. Due to lack of funding and resources, it is little more than a guard force for elites. It is unable to operate freely outside Mogadishu and sometimes cannot move safely within the city. Impacted by endemic corruption and chronic dysfunction, the police force lacks the respect of many Somalis.
For its part, AMISOM now consists of more than 22,000 troops and police. Most of the soldiers come from Uganda (6,200), Burundi (5,400), Ethiopia (4,400), and Kenya (3,700), with smaller numbers from Djibouti and Sierra Leone. The troops are assigned by country of origin and placed in charge of different sectors of the country. Small contingents of police come from Burundi, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. Without AMISOM, Davis and Mills concluded that “Somalia would likely remain a mess.”
Piracy was once a serious problem off the Somali coast. One of the security success stories in Somalia has been the significant decline in pirate attacks. In 2014, there were only 12 attacks off the Horn of Africa or in the Western Indian Ocean.
The Current Economic Situation
The gross domestic product of Somalia is about $1.6 billion annually. Current exports are mostly livestock and charcoal. The charcoal trade does serious harm to the environment and al-Shabaab, which controls some of the charcoal producing areas, receives an estimated 30 percent of its market value. More than 80 percent of Somalia’s exports go to the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Yemen.
Livestock, fishing, and agriculture have potential but are hampered by insecurity and the absence of a fully functioning government bureaucracy. Somalia may have oil and gas, but this has not yet been proven. In any event, there is not enough stability to exploit whatever might be present.
The Somali annual government budget is only $260 million and taxes and duties bring in about $110 million of this amount. This contrasts with at least $1.2 billion in annual remittances from well over 1 million Somalis living in the diaspora. This number excludes Somali refugees now residing in neighboring countries. Remittances from the diaspora are critical to Somalia’s development.
There is little formal employment in Somalia and literacy rates may be as low as 15 percent. Corruption continues to be a huge problem. The only thing that has held the economy together is the ingenuity and entrepreneurial skill of the Somali private sector. The business sector works in spite of obstacles and a weak government. Where there are basic services such as water, power, finance, and communications, they are provided by the private sector. Davis and Mills believe that the Somali business sector offers the greatest hope for Somalis to pull themselves out of crisis.
The Current Humanitarian Situation
Since 1991, Somalia has experienced a persistent complex emergency due to food insecurity, widespread violence, and recurrent droughts and floods. Despite improvements in 2014, malnutrition rates in Somalia remained among the highest in the world, and ongoing insecurity in the country—particularly in areas that lack established local authorities and where al-Shabaab is present—contribute to the emergency.
As of the beginning of 2015, an estimated 2.3 million Somalis (out of about 7 million Somalis living in the country) experienced stressed levels of food insecurity. Some 731,000 Somalis experienced crisis and emergency levels of acute food insecurity. More than 200,000 children under the age of five were acutely malnourished. There were 893,000 internally displaced persons in Somalia.
There were almost 1 million Somali refugees in neighboring countries, mostly in Kenya and Ethiopia. Yemen hosts about 238,000 Somali refugees. Ironically, the worsening situation in Yemen has resulted in Yemenis fleeing to Somaliland.
The cycle of violence, drought, and rising food prices in Somalia has had a devastating impact on the Somali people. Not surprisingly, the 2014 Human Development Index compiled by the United Nations Development Program puts Somalia near the bottom of the list.
US Policy on Somalia
The United States was deeply engaged in Somalia beginning in 1992 in an effort to alleviate a serious famine. This major engagement ended in 1994 when U.S. troops ended their participation in the United Nations peacekeeping operation in Somalia. The United States continued its humanitarian assistance program but otherwise largely ignored developments in Somalia until the bombing of the U.S. embassies in 1998 in Kenya and Tanzania. The embassy attacks were instigated by al-Qaeda and several of the perpetrators took refuge in Somalia.
The attack on the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001, added to U.S. concerns about the situation in Somalia. During the first ten years of the 21st century, the overwhelming focus of U.S. policy in Somalia was on counterterrorism. While counterterrorism remains high on the agenda, there has been a greater focus in the last five years on supporting efforts to achieve political stability and mitigating the continuing humanitarian crisis.
In 2014, Wendy Sherman, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, gave a major speech on US policy in Somalia. She identified six reasons for US engagement in Somalia. First, the US wants Somalia to be stable and economically viable. Second, a secure and united Somalia weakens the forces of extremism that threaten other countries, including the United States. Third, a stable Somalia would allow two million Somali refugees and internally displaced persons to return home. Fourth, government control over Somalia would help end piracy. Fifth, it would reduce the strain on Africa’s peacekeeping forces by allowing them to return to their countries. Sixth, it would send the right signal to the 130,000 Americans of Somali heritage.
The US strategy for helping Somalia defend itself begins with strong support for AMISOM. Since 2007, the US has obligated well over $500 million to support AMISOM and more than $170 million to train the Somali National Army. One piece of this support has been the training of a 150-person advanced infantry company known as “Danab” or Lightning Force. Much of this training has been done by private contractors such as Bancroft Global Development and DynCorp.
The Department of Defense has a team in Mogadishu to coordinate with the international community in helping AMISOM and the Somali forces. For the past several years, the United States has had special operations forces inside Somalia that occasionally attack al-Shabaab. The US also conducts air and drone strikes aimed at al-Shabaab leaders such as Ahmed Godane in September 2014 and, most recently, Adnan Garaar, the mastermind of the Westgate Mall attack, in March 2015. Both are now dead.
The goal of US military assistance to Somalia is to enhance security and defeat al-Shabaab. From the beginning, US naval vessels have been attached to the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden and Western Indian Ocean.
Since the United States officially recognized the Somali government in 2013, it has provided well over $300 million in bilateral aid aimed at creating jobs, building institutions, and strengthening the public and private sectors. Last year, the US renewed the disaster declaration for the complex emergency in Somalia. The US is by far the largest provider of humanitarian assistance to Somalia, offering $230 million during 2014 and 2015. Of this amount, $156 million went for in-kind food aid, cash transfers for food, local and regional procurement of food, and food vouchers.
President Obama named in February 2015 the first US ambassador since 1991 to Somalia, Katherine Dhanani. She will reside in Nairobi. Looking to the future, one of the major US concerns has been the lack of progress in developing a Somali government free of internal divisions, widely accepted by the Somali people, and able to deliver government services. Political turmoil came to a head in November 2014 during a vote of no confidence in the Somali parliament on the previous prime minister. A High Level Partnership Forum on Somalia was scheduled a few weeks later in Copenhagen. Washington pulled out of the meeting because it saw no utility in sending a delegation under these circumstances.
There is a new prime minister, but the United States is waiting to be convinced that this Somali government has the commitment and ability to make timely progress on the political process that will allow Somalia to move forward.
This article is adapted from a lecture originally delivered at George Washington University.