Somalia: Swimming with Crocodiles

The American air strikes on alleged terrorist hide–outs and training camps in southern Somalia on 8-10 January, has added another dimension to an already complex and protracted conflict. Somalia’s trajectory showcases how an intrastate conflict has escalated and been manipulated into an interstate and intrastate conflict, which has in turn been folded into a global conflict.

It is hardly a coincidence that the Ethiopian–US offensive occurred in the same week that President Bush formally announced the ‘surge’ strategy for the Iraq war. The Bush Administration also recently criticized Pakistan for failing to adequately police its borders against terrorism. Pakistan, which like Somalia and Iran, has had a turbulent relationship with the US, now fears that it too may be pushed by the Americans to become a much more active player in the War on Terror. The attacks in Somalia have raised a host of troubling questions.

These questions include, who rules Somalia, and how will the country be governed? Somalia’s image is that of a failed state, a chronic collection of anarchies. The view of Somalia as being a pot–pourri of violent warlord fiefdoms, reached its apex in the 1990’s, with the debacle of the US intervention in Mogadishu. It is this legend – of a chaotic Somalia being a wasp factory for Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism - which has provided the explanatory ammunition for the recent attacks. Certainly, by Western standards, Somalia has not been a cohesive, functional nation–state for nearly two decades. It is also true that the Union of Islamic Courts [UIC] was not universally popular in Somalia, it has been relentlessly hostile to the United States, and its intention to launch a jihad against Ethiopia was bound to make both these powers nervous. Yet, from a local perspective, the use of indigenous knowledge and social networking [clan] systems, allowed much of Somalia to survive – and in some areas to thrive. The UIC did not create order from chaos in Somalia; rather, they consolidated the centralization of power in areas where there was already some degree of local power sharing.

Also, contrary to its alternative image in the West, the UIC did not bring chaos to Somalia. On the contrary, it imposed a ruthless and often brutal, but workable form of Islamic cohesion to Somalia. So the chaos theory reason for foreign intervention fails. Also difficult to give credence to is the idea of the UIC being a monolithic Islamist dictatorship which had to be removed in the interests of promoting democracy in Somalia. In fact, the UIC was ideologically riven between hardliners and moderates, with the latter preferring a negotiated settlement with the transitional Government of Abdulahi Yusuf. 

The multinational intervention of Ethiopia, US ground/air forces and variegated Somali forces is about interests, not values. Ethiopia is the traditional regional hegemon. Therefore, a weak, divided and relatively compliant Somalia is a necessary bonus. A powerful and hostile Islamist regime in Somalia is perceived as a major security threat to a predominantly Christian Ethiopia which also has a substantial Muslim and Somali minority. For the US, the spectre of an UIC-led Somalia becoming a redoubt of Islamic extremism and terrorism, necessitated a direct intervention. Arguably more compelling, though, was the Bush Administration’s clear and present need for a victory – any victory - in an otherwise dire ‘War on Terror’. Ethiopia’s intervention and triumph in December 2006 was a victory by proxy, and it likely emboldened the US - which has thus found a major ally and regional mechanic – to become more directly involved in rolling back terrorism. In addition, various north African and Gulf states have a vested interest in Somalia.

What next for Somalia? The UIC forces have been routed. But whether it is a Parthian retreat, in which forces retire only to regroup and attack in a different place remains to be seen. The Yusuf Government lacks political legitimacy, and its survival is tied to Ethiopian support. The warlords and their militias have been resurrected, and will certainly want to regain power. Already, there have been clashes in liberated Mogadishu.  It is unlikely that the Ethiopians will withdraw after a few weeks – thereby risking a victory dividend – despite claims by Prime Minister Zenawi that they will do so. Also, the US Navy will remain off Somalia’s coast for the foreseeable future.

There are a number of possible future scenarios for Somalia. I will outline just a few.
First, a weak Somali government, bolstered by Ethiopia and the US, remains in power, and achieves some credibility through local power sharing agreements with clans and warlords. Second, a weak government wracked by internal strife is held hostage to both resurgent warlords and the Ethiopian forces. Third, the government becomes more nationalist, and takes on the Ethiopian forces and their cohorts; the various Somali armed groups remain divided in their allegiances. Fourth, the UIC regroups and launches an Islamist – nationalist insurgency, recruiting disaffected Somalis; the militias continue to broker their own deals, and there is regional and AU intervention. The ‘Iraqization’ of Somalia is a possibility.   

In Somalia, the only certainty is uncertainty. It is likely, however, that the Somali people will continue to be the hostages of fate as their leaders go swimming with crocodiles.

Knox Chitiyo
Nelson Mandela Africa Research Fellow, RUSI

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

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