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Somalia: A Country in Peril, a Policy Nightmare

Date & Time

Sep. 3, 2008
10:00am – 11:30am ET


Somalia: A country in Peril, a Policy nightmare

On September 3, 2008, the Woodrow Wilson Center's Africa Program hosted a panel discussion on the current crisis in Somalia. Hosted by Africa Program Director, Howard Wolpe, the panel consisted of Ken Menkhaus, Professor of Political Science at Davidson College; Chris Albin-Lackey, Senior Researcher in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch; and Harun M. Hassan, a Somali journalist and writer based in Washington, D.C.

Humanitarian Disaster

The opening presentation was from Ken Menkhaus, who described the current situation in Somalia as "disturbing and disastrous." Somalia has been without an effective central government since President Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. Menkhaus believes that this has become a threat to the security of both Somalia and the United States. Menkhaus emphasized that thousands of people have been displaced in Somalia as a direct cause of the ongoing violence. While affected by the current global food crisis, Somalia's severe shortages of food are exacerbated by the ongoing security crisis. Several NGOs have made attempts to provide food and other humanitarian assistance to the displaced and vulnerable people; however, there have been several obstacles, including the interference of criminal gangs and rebel groups, which have rendered it almost impossible for international aid agencies to provide assistance to those in need. Chris Albin-Lackey concurred with Menkhaus' comments that the situation in Somalia has been disastrous and that "18 years without any viable government" has led to chaos in the country. He noted that over the past several months, thousands of innocent civilians have been killed, and currently, half a million Somalis are in need of humanitarian assistance. It is believed that by the end of the year, that number will increase to about 2.5 million if no proactive action is taken to bring about a dramatic change in the situation.

Armed Conflict

Whether it is the official internationally recognized TFG (Transitional Federal Government) or armed rebel factions like the Islamic insurgent group Al-Shabaab, violence is being perpetrated by all sides, with funding from a variety of sources including Ethiopia and the United States. Somali neighborhoods have been targeted by Islamic insurgents who use different tactics including but not limited to suicide bombings, assassinations and wide spread detentions. Image removed.Albin-Lackey also noted that assassinations carried out by both sides have added dramatically to the insecurity. Though a transitional federal government has been established, Menkhaus does not believe it exists in any important capacity because it hasn't demonstrated any ability to control the Islamic insurgents, Al- Shabaab, who are believed to be a main source of insecurity. The TFG has no control over territories, ministers rule the country from abroad, the government is badly divided, and no progress whatever has been made by the government to improve the situation within their supposed jurisdiction.

American Policies in Somalia

According to Menkhaus, the counter-terrorism policies implemented by the U.S. in Somalia have been problematic, pointing out that there has been poor analysis of the situation on the ground as policy makers are largely based in Nairobi, Kenya. The U.S government involvement in partnering with the TFG, to apprehend small numbers of Al-Qaeda operating in Somalia "has been working against America," Menkhaus stated, by radicalizing the non-Al-Qaeda Islamic population. The humanitarian and security crisis in Somalia has become increasingly desperate, and the population has become increasingly anti-U.S. To enhance the chances for the successful implementation of the Djibouti agreement signed recently, Menkhaus believes that it is only by involving and reinforcing the moderates that the international community and the U.S can help in the process of reconciliation in Somalia.

Like Menkhaus, Albin-Lackey believes that current U.S policies in Somalia have only exacerbated the situation and rendered it more complex rather than bringing a solution to the crisis. The third panelist, Harun M. Hassan, addressed the U.S policies in Somalia in support of the TFG indicating that the U.S government provides robust support to the TFG, but underestimates the real problem which takes place on the ground. According to Hassan, Somalis are ready to reconcile, but the international community remains reluctant to engage all Somalis in a peace process that has the potential to rebuild the country, but instead continues to support only one faction.

Human Rights Abuses

Largely because of growing humanitarian problems and human rights abuses, vast regions of Somalia have been depopulated, including the capital city, Mogadishu. Albin-Lackey described many of the atrocities that have taken place in Somalia including killings, disproportional bombardments, and abuses of women and children. During the course of his research, Albin-Lackey interviewed several refugees in Kenya and was shocked by the numerous stories of refugees whose family members were murdered or raped and others whose houses were destroyed by bombardments. Innocent civilians have been victimized by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces' operations in the neighborhoods. These forces search people's houses with the intent of arresting suspected insurgents, and conduct widespread arrests, looting and physically abuse of civilians. Albin-Lackey contends that the trend of searching and arresting civilians has turned into an important source of income for TFG forces.

Indiscriminate Ambushes

While Ethiopian forces help to train TFG forces, they continue to use heavy military equipments such as Katyusha Rockets which indiscriminately destroy civilian neighborhoods as well as military or rebel group establishments. Ambushes perpetrated by TFG and Ethiopian forces have affected civilian populations at a disproportionate scale, with no evidence to suggest that non-military populations are being avoided. Also, Albin-Lackey pointed out that the atrocities committed by Islamic insurgents are not limited to non-affiliated people, but include religious leaders, human rights activists, reporters and human aid workers who denounce the wrongdoings of the insurgency.

The Emergence of Leaders in Somalia

Hassan focused his talk on different perspectives of the Somali population. Outlining the preponderance of leaders in almost every area of life in Somali society, he said, "In the history of Somalia, only those who have power have access to education, better life and financial means." While Somali leaders have traditionally been manipulative in misleading the people, Hassan believes that the emergence of independent thought is needed in this situation. It is the political indifferences among leaders that have pushed Somalis to align themselves with leaders of their clans. Thus, "clanism" has been a major problem in the ongoing violence in Somalia.

When the Transitional Federal Government was established, many Somalis thoughts it was the solution to challenges the country was facing but quickly realized that it wasn't delivering anything positive. Hassan stressed that the international community, too, originally believed that the TFG would bring stability and security in the country but that these achievements have yet to materialize.

Q&A Session

Following the three presentations, Howard Wolpe opened the floor for questions from the audience. A Somali participant and student at George Masson University expressed concerns about why fighting continues in Somalia and wondered whether they were directly linked to clans' participation in the conflict. Menkhaus concurred with the student and claimed that clans matter, and believes that the implication of clans in the conflict represents part of the problem in the continuation of violence. When asked by another participant about the best advice he had for the U.S government, Menkhaus indicated that on the humanitarian side, there is great need to maximize humanitarian space, and to ensure accountability. According to him, agencies operating in Somalia have not been held accountable. He also indicated that the U.S needs to have robust support for the Djibouti agreement which, according to him, "has been fragile" at best. Menkhaus suggested that the U.S needs to send a clear message to the Somalis showing their support for the Djibouti agreement which will encourage peace through reconciliation, power sharing and the reconstruction of the country.

As panelists discussed more about insecurity and other problems linked to the Somali conflict, a participant inquired about the situation in Somaliland, where the population enjoys relative stability in contrast with the rest of Somali territories where most of the fighting has been taking place. Albin-Lackey acknowledged that Somaliland has Jeffersonian democracy and believed that was the reason why it is making progress. He also indicated that it was part of the reason why the West has shown interest in this region. However, he warned that there is a need to watch out for the presence of China in Somaliland as it is vulnerable in its need for foreign direct investment.

In the end, the general question that remains is what can be done to bring about peace in Somalia after almost two decades of fighting between insurgents and forces loyal to the government. As in most cases, ceasefire agreements have the potential to put an end to lifelong conflicts; however, as Menkhaus concluded, unless the Transitional Federal Government has control over the Al-Shabaab and other insurgents, who represent a large source of insecurity, peace isn't likely to be found in Somalia.


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Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, including our Africa Up Close blog, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more

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