Pacifying Somalia: Internal Threats and Emerging Opportunities

Published on 24th March 2014

Somalis celebrate their independence

The Somalia conflict is complex and has gone through considerable transformation since Siad Barre’s takeover in 1969. It has changed from coup deta’t in 1969 through religious fundamentalism to what it is currently; a mixture of terrorist activities informed by insurgency. In all the phases of the conflict, there have been numerous attempts to resolve it.  Many of the attempts failed, but in the recent past, there is optimism that the current government elected in August/September 2012 is making concerted progress towards pacification of Somalia.The present leadership in Mogadishu is one and half years old in March 2014 and has been working in an environment which is hostile and unwelcoming at best. The leadership is advantaged with a homemade provisional constitution adopted on the 1st August 2012, just before the presidential elections. The current Federal parliament inaugurated on 20 August 2012, boasts of being the first ever institution to carry out elections in Somalia soil in the last 42 years. The parliament elected the current Federal Government of Somalia-(FGS) president, Mr. Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was consequently sworn in on 10 September 2012.

President Hassan Mohamud took leadership from an over eight year old Transitional Federal Government (TFG) outfit which was not willing to hand over power initially but later succumbed to pressure from the international community. The President was immediately faced with deep rooted legacy of institutional corruption, weak and almost non-existent political institutions, as well as a country with no capacity and effectiveness in the liberated areas.  His leadership was to immediately address issues of state legitimacy since on the ground, the situation was one of state collapse, clan factionalism and war lordism. Somalia was reeling with conflict; political power was at best characterized as local, fragmented, violent, heterogenic and based on hybrid structures, of formal and informal institutions controlled by clans or militias.  Faced with an anxious, local population, and an international community that wanted immediate solutions to the conflict, Mr. Hassan had to think fast and set priorities right.  His term of office is four years and therefore, March 2014 gives him one and half years in office.

This article presents some of the persistent internal threats to the pacification of Somalia that are more likely to derail progress made by the leadership and proposes opportunities of how to mitigate possible relapse into conflict.

Internal threats to pacification of Somalia

As the Federal Government of Somalia moves into the middle of the second year in office, and remaining with only 30 months, 12 of which will be designated for constitutional referendum, it is important to take stock of the likely internal threats to the pacification of Somalia at large.  The situation in Somalia cannot have a clean-shave solution.  It requires a deliberate priotisation with a concerted effort from all players.Somalia hereafter, has to deal with, foreign fighters, high expectations from the local population and international community and weak governance.  Also, the FGS has to address issues of federalism, former and potential warlords, undisciplined armed forces, land issues and conflict triggers.

Having experienced conflict for over 25 years, Somalia has a large population which has never witnessed peace. Most of the population has never experienced the benefits of functional government offices and departments.  Majority of the population believe in anarchy, disorder and lawlessness. Indeed, the majority of the population who are below 25 years and have never left Somalia do not have any experience of a functioning government. In that case, when they are told that there have been elections and a government is in place, they expect the government to deliver services immediately and perfectly. In reality, delivery of services and opportunities cannot be done immediately. This high expectation therefore has to be managed or else likely hood of relapse to conflict due to societal disgruntlement is possible and is likely to degenerate to conflict.

The conflict in Somalia has many foreign fighters consisting of Al Qaeda, global jihadists, east Africans and other regions of Africa.  These fighters normally have divisions among themselves over tactics and overall objectives. Some foreign fighters in Somalia participate in conflict in order to acquire skills and return to wage Jihad in their home countries while others use Somalia as a safe heaven and hideout.  While these foreign fighters think they are helping Somalis, they are always disagreements between Somalis and foreign fighters.The estimated number of foreign fighters in Somalia is extremely high; there are recruits from countries such as Britain, Australia, Sweden and Canada.  There are also many fighters from the regional states of the horn of Africa such as Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Pakistan. More lethal are the Somalis from the Diaspora who come to support the al Shabaab course. The question is, what does the FGS do with the foreign fighters, when in fact the Somalia fighters also need to be disengaged and accepted back into the country’s armed forces? This is big future challenge.

A weak governance structure poses the most daunting challenge to the future of the FGS. Currently, institutions are concentrated in Mogadishu; and there is non-existence of FGS government in the newly recovered areas; but even where there are government officials, there is evident lack of capacity across the board.  There is deliberate resistance to central government bringing in leadership to the local areas and this has led to directed assassinations. This issue is closely related to federalism. FGS cannot wish away federalism. One of the key challenges facing the Somali government is how to streamline its federal structure, which is mandated by the draft Constitution. Many regions are vying to become more autonomous from the central government but the government in Mogadishu is nervous about the prospect of states that are practically independent. The case of Jubbaland is illustrative of this tension. The issue of federalism has created mistrust among the regions and the central government.

Towards alleviating the problems of federalism, FGS is in negotiation with the Somalia land and Puntland. Unfortunately Al-Shabaab is exploiting the regional enmity by taking advantage of the vacuum, by demonstrating that, under their rule, (Al Shabaab) intra-clan wars were contained.

Uncertainty about the future of security apparatus makes the former and potential warlords continue to influence the situation in Mogadishu. Although they are nearly powerless now, they remain capable of exploiting conflict opportunities. The warlords are likely to exploit circumstances where there are inter-groups’ grievances; and thus collaborating when under collective threat (or incentive) but compete, and even fight, when there is no motivation to team up.  Currently, a close examination of warlordism reveals potential warlords, who remain a threat in Mogadishu. They can be divided into two types; the discreet yet dangerous former warlords and the warlords in the making. All these are a threat to the future of peace in Somalia. Their presence notwithstanding, the government is faced with the arms that these warlords have and how to guarantee security to the extent that these arms can be mobbed up. Closely related to warlordism is the issue of security sector reform and indiscipline in the armed forces. Somalia needs a well-disciplined armed force that follows fair rule of law. The current Somalia security forces are indisciplined to the extent that they mount illegal checkpoints, extortion, rape and carry out infighting.

Like in many African countries, land in Somalia is an issue to deal with in future. Conflicts between returning Diaspora and those who have occupied their land, especially between refugees and IDPs are simmering and is likely to continue. During the long war, properties that have been grabbed have been sold to third parties without proper title deeds and this is exacerbated by no institutional capacity to arbiter land conflicts.  In most cases, the refusal by those who have occupied land to vacate properties they have been occupying for the last 20 years leads to fighting. Unfortunately, in all of these conflicts there are strong clan dimensions and each clan has a kingpin or set of militias.

Opportunities to address in pacifying Somalia

In order to resolve the Somalia conflict, the solution should be looked at beyond the military offensive. In managing the future of Somalia, and giving it hope, there is need to engage in politics of stabilization as an opportunity.  In its efforts, FGS and the international community are keen to defeat and dismantle Al Shabaab. FGS and partners look at Al Shabaab as a military problem, calling for international partners for more robust military assistance and lifting the United Nations arms embargo. But Al Shabaab’s resilience lies on the exploitation of political and social dissent, appropriating local grievances and aspirations in order to obtain support.  In such circumstances therefore, the military action simply serves to inflame the situation by conflating the legitimate concerns of given communities with the extremist agenda of the jihadists.  Instead the FGS must be prepared to engage in genuinely inclusive politics, persuading local leaders that their interest are best served within the context of state building process, not buying into Al Shabaab’s rejectionist tactics.  This is a tall order but it is manageable.

The leadership in Mogadishu has to free itself from the penetrating political economy of state collapse that has taken root over the past over two decades. The government must resist the hijacking of the state institutions and functions by narrow interest groups for personal or political gain, combat the massive and pervasive corruption that has long handicapped institution building; and defy the many ‘crisis lords’ -disaster entrepreneurs - both local and foreigners, who variously exaggerate, or manufacture crises in order to attract resources with which to resolve them. For the political and commercial elites who engage in such behavior, the perpetual weakness of the Somali state has become an indispensable lure to attract foreign aid, whether in the name of counterterrorism, counter piracy or humanitarian assistance.

While it seems that Somalia is working on reconstruction, it is still in “transition’ hence is creating a situation of perpetual political transition. Despite the FGS being the first elected government in Somalia, not to be qualified as transitional; it derives its mandate from a provisional constitution and is therefore provisional in nature, its term is ending in August 2016. The constitution itself requires substantive revision and many of the articles require elaboration through legislation. The legal framework, institutions and processes of the FGS system do not yet exist, but are already a source of grave controversy. And the FGS also inherited a number of other vital transitional tasks that its predecessors left incomplete, including the establishment of the various independent commissions and the statutory institutions, a referendum on the constitution, design of an electoral system, and conduct of credible elections in August 2016.
With one year of the government’s term in office already elapsed, much of the country increasingly unreceptive of the FGS leadership and apparent sense of urgency on the government to meet deadlines and put up frameworks in place. The FGS leadership is in fact an interim authority founded on a provisional constitution, and before its mandate expires in August 2016, it must complete the unfinished transitional tasks it inherited from its predecessors, particularly the development of a federal system, a constitutional review and referendum, design an electoral system and preparations of elections in 2016. Failure to accomplish these tasks on schedule would result into a political and a constitutional crisis, leading either to the unilateral extension of the current FGS mandate or an improvised progression to the ‘post-transitional’ government.  Both these scenarios would be fiercely contested, and would further delay - if not derail – the Somalia continuous transition to normalcy.  According to the new constitution, at least 12 articles must be amended and 22 laws enacted during the FGS parliaments first term. This has not been the case. Other transitional imperatives such as the foundation of federal governance, and the development of an electoral system, are to be entrusted to independent commissions that should have been established within the first sixty days of the formation of the FGS cabinet.  Achieving these tenets is doubtful as these is currently minimal debates on the constitution


Currently, the security role in Mogadishu is strongly supported by AMISOM. The government has made considerable achievements towards normalizing its activities. It has many steps to make for Somalia to function as a state. Indeed the achievements made by military operations are fragile and need to be consolidated and politically exploited. Moreover, Al Shabaab still has the capacity to cause damage through terrorist activities. For the international community, AMISOM and the FGS leadership, there is need to maintain the tempo of operations in order to defeat the extremists in Somalia. In the newly recovered areas, the vacuum has enabled the proliferation of armed actors linked to competing local interests increasing the risk of internal communal violence.  More importantly, Somalia is at crossroads, a point at which it can move forward to a peaceful environment and consolidate state building as a measure to come to its feet. At the same time there are numerous problems beyond what has been discussed above. So for FGS and its partners, conflict triggers; particularly over federalism, the completion of the constitution which will raise tensions over control over national assets still stand on the way. The FGS is likely to face long standing conflict drivers. There are high levels of displacement, food insecurity and unemployment that are still generating a large pool of vulnerable, frustrated and idle youths. In overall, Somalis and the international community should continue to be hopeful and work with others towards pacifying Somalia.

By Dr. Opiyo Ododa

The author  [email protected] is Senior Civil Affairs Officer currently Heading the AMISOM civil affairs unit and has lived and worked in Mogadishu, Somalia since 2011.

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