Somalia: In Search of a Foreign Policy

Published on 5th April 2014

EU Somalia conference          Photo courtesy
“What made him think he was an Arab?” some asked. Another, a Nigerian teacher in London, hastily put down the Somali leader and his entourage, including the Foreign Minister’s presence at a Pan Arab gathering to the belief that Somalis have always felt “superior” to their brothers in the continent and have aligned themselves with Arab interests over African ones. Being one of two Somalis at the event and alone in my respect and admiration for the nation, any rational argument I put forward would have been to no avail. So I found many polite reasons to quietly leave.

The idea that Somalis feel more ‘Arab’ than ‘African’ is open to debate. Somalis are of mixed heritage and many of them have strong links to the Arab peninsula and Arab nations as a whole. One of the primary reasons why Somalia first sought an alliance with the Muslim Arabic states was the way it’s so called African brothers, ironically hell bent on promoting pan Africanism, treated it after independence. Rather than welcoming Somalia with open arms, African states that had gained independence earlier like Ghana and Tanzania sidelined Somalia and openly preached hostility towards it in favour of Ethiopia, then governed by Emperor Haile Selassie, which feared Somali reunification with the Somali region of Ethiopia.

Emperor Haile Selassie and Adan Abdullah Osman (Caade), the first elected Somali Presdient, argued over the Somali region for which Siad Barre later went to war over. Joining the Arab league early on was a strategic foreign policy decision on the part of the Somali government as it sidelined hostile African neighouring states. Even as a member of the African Union the Somali governments of the past refused to sign the agreement like Morocco which aimed to keep African borders in line with the colonial maps as it favoured Ethiopia over Somalia. The very hostile beginning they experienced at birth as an independent nation is something the Somali people have not forgotten and one of the main reasons why they still vehemently distrust the African Union, Ethiopia and other neighbouring states today.

Somalia before the war enjoyed many global economic, political and social ties with most of the nations of the world that matter today such as Russia, America and the European Union member states such as Italy. Siad Barre, the last Somali leader before the outbreak of the civil war, was infamous for his promiscuous political alliances to bolster Somalia interests. He went from the dollar hugging capitalist to the image of Lenin himself in the embracing of the communist ideals that brought him head to head with the West and the religious leaders at home which he tortured and murdered when they refused to abandon the holy Koran for the Communist Manifesto. He was an African nationalist, a Muslim Arab brother and a global Socialist citizen. Despite all these contradictions under Siad Barre, Somalis still take comfort from the fact that at least then they mattered enough to have a position which super powers such as Russia and America attempted to exploit during the cold war with aid, trade and educational and cultural exchange.

The damage of foreign policy disasters such as the attacking the Somalia Ogaden region of Ethiopia in 1977 which eventually led to the Somali army defeat when Siad Barre’s earlier Socialist allies Russia and Cuba switched sides and supported Ethiopia were mitigated by the immediate American support that followed in 1978. However, today after many decades of temporary governments, led disastrously from Mogadishu through some of the most intense infighting the world has ever witnessed and the fragmentation of the Somali nation into tribal fiefdoms, Hassan Sheikh’s government has a greater mountain to climb as the first legitimate government of Somalia since the fall of Siad Barre.

The foreign policy of Somalia is not one it can shape on its own and the many visits of the Somali President and his key team abroad is the obvious indication of this. There have been early successes such as been the first Somali government to be recognised by the American administration since the collapse of the Somali State and hence the Liberal West as a whole, especially the UK where two major conferences have been held for Somalia so far. Hassan Sheikh and his friends have been welcomed in Washington, Brussels by the European Union and in Qatar and Kuwait by influential game changer nations which Somalia needs support from in all its forms to develop and progress. At all the events Hassan Sheikh and his government Ministers did themselves proud but there was always the realization that if anything can hurt the bourgeoning image of Somalia in the international community’s eyes, it was its own internal politics, insecurity and inability to convert foreign gains into home advantages.

All nations with strong Foreign policy presence in an age of interdependence and globalisation are economically, politically and socially very strong and self-assured at home. China, Russia, Brazil and even Saudi Arabia are challenging the old established order. This is possible for them because of their vastly improved economic might, internal cohesion and regional influence. Somalia might never be like any of these nations but there is much to learn from their history and development journeys especially when it comes to nation building and engaging with the wider world on their terms.

Somalia is at present aid-dependent and the limited peace the capital Mogadishu and the few areas controlled by the government enjoy are sustained by African Union troops under the banner of AMISOM. Aid agencies are the real institutions of government and providers of essential public services. Foreign diplomats are on occasions, more important than the President as they bankroll his administration. However, even with this as the Somali reality today, a future can be built where this is reversed. If this occurs, Somalia will be able to determine a foreign policy of its own and determine its path in the world. However, the question is, how can this be done in amidst the misery of poverty, internal fragmentation, continual negative regional interference and limited government and institutional capabilities?

Getting their house in order is the only hope Somalis have for a better future free of foreign meddling which they despise so much. Due to aid dependency, Somalia is pulled in different directions by donor nations and the competition to be the most visible presence in Somalia has escalated to the point where the ordinary Somali people have become excluded from partaking in the reconstruction of their future. This is dangerous and can be financially ruinous as development priorities are been set by donor nations in distant lands without the input of those they are meant to benefit directly.

The usual military, financial and regional presence that defines a nation’s strength in International relations is something that Somalia does not have. Even the ability to influence through soft power such as culture, education, tourism and media is still missing and not in sight for decades at the present rate regionally, let alone globally. Somalia is like an international orphan with no one parent wanting to adopt it but is happily being brought up in a commune by many different foster carers with different agendas. This is something that Somalis cannot afford to look down on or feel proud about. The balancing act to be struck by Hassan Sheikh and the new Foreign Minister, Abdirahman Bayle, is to successfully communicate to the public that this arrangement is temporary and to work towards ensuring that it actually is.

A clear internal challenge that President Hassan Sheikh will face and has already encountered is that even if it is not clearly written on the aid package, there are always conditions of aid. The US and EU prioritize good governance, Human Rights and Security whilst the Arab States may be more forceful on the traditional Islamic values of the Somali people been maintained. The long established and surviving Somali institutions such as the mosques and tribes also have their own demands which often contradict international donor goals and ambitions for the country and region. This issue is Africa-wide since the continent is still aid dependent but what makes the need to strike a bargain between such various stakeholders more crucial in Somalia is that civil war and the resurgent AlShabaab, the violent, self-elected verifiers of the Islamic religion and practices are always around the corner. The headache for any Somali policy maker is that there is not the unity, security and finances for self-determination and there is limited appetite for international interference in many quarters of the Somali population especially by neighbouring African countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya and those who promote ideas which are the backbone of modern diplomacy globally such as Human Right which they feel is an encroachment on dominant and treasured Islamic values.

Many critical commentators and members of the public have pointed to the weakness of the Somali government in their failure to stand up for its citizens who are refugees and workers abused abroad in South Africa, Kenya and unfairly expelled from Saudi Arabia recently. However, in the absence of financial means, military capability and the opportunity to resettle and offer better opportunities to their citizens at present, all the Somali government could do was what it did: appeal to South African leaders as African brothers and Saudi Arabia as Muslim brothers who should treat their people better until such time as they can return home safely.

The Diaspora which blow everything out of proportion whether good or bad are a foreign policy blessing where they have achieved and settled in their host nations and a curse where they have failed and all they want to do is pressurize their government from the comfort of the European Union Member states or actively jeopardize Somali national unity and peace building by driving forward tribally motivated agendas in international summits in the guise of an official opposition to government. The political damage from this in America during President Hassan Sheikh’s first ever visit was mitigated with his jokes and the limited number of protestors outside the Hall where he spoke allowed for this. However, a more organized larger Diaspora tribal opposition with ulterior motives can dent any foreign policy aspirations if they are not tackled and managed well with internal cohesion and understanding within their tribal families in Somalia. If this does occur, the Diaspora who are ethnically Somali but have adopted the nationality of their host nation can be easily challenged even if they contribute enormous amounts of Remittance to boost the Somali economy.

The Diaspora for nations like the Israel, Philippines, India and South Korea have been brilliant ambassadors and advocates for their nations and the Somalis can be too. In order for this to happen there has to be Somali government led organisation, initiatives and incentives which inspire the Diaspora to lobby their host nation Parliamentarians, contribute directly to positive change at home and promote cultural and economic exchange. The Somali administration must think of constructing an enormous web of links between responsible Diaspora groups, their diplomatic representatives and the Somali state. One of the key obstacles to Diaspora unity is the 4.5 system of government itself as this promotes tribalism and creates a false sense of competition for resources, office and prestige. It may prove difficult, but addressing this at home in the long term will promote a sense of national identity among the Diaspora which then can turn its efforts from supporting their local village or city to their nation. The international community does not value tribes. If those that feel aggrieved in Somalia are deemed too small to be concerned about by policy makers, their friends and colleagues abroad with excellent political links will not when they bring the pressure of their host nation down onto the Somali government. Every member of the Diaspora who wants to promote their home nation abroad should be valued and led by the Somali government irrespective of tribe otherwise they can become a foreign policy disaster or danger.

Somalia is slowly improving and with every international summit, conference and meeting the Somali government grows in confidence, experience and strengthens its legitimacy abroad. What will make this even better is if they communicated with their people more regularly about their foreign trips, their achievements and how it fits into their policies for development for the country. Somalia today needs all the friends it can as it cannot afford another two decades in the political wilderness. Whether they are Socialists, Liberals, Conservatives or Islamists, all of them have something to offer Somalia and hence Hassan Sheikh needs to adopt a fluid identity to mix with them all. However, what he should not forget in the process is the Somali people’s hopes, aspirations and beliefs which should take centre-stage in all meetings.

Indeed all meaningful foreign Policies start with good governance and cohesion at home. With greater public engagement, institutional listening and aid ownership and coordination, the peace, security and regional integration Somalia needs to push its chest out in international conferences can finally come. Where there are difficult compromises to be made, and there will be many ideologically, dialogue, debate, and internal understanding will be more important than ever as international agreements can only be more valid at home this way. With British, Japanese, US, EU, Qatari and Turkish support, Somalia is already doing well, but in order for Somalia to achieve its overall goals, it must diversify even further and seek alliances and friendships wherever else it can.

By Liban Obsiye

The author libanbaakaa@hotmail.com welcomes feedback.


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