It’s 1991. The location is Mogadishu. Somalia’s President Siad Barre has fallen from power. Armed groups fight for control only no group is strong enough to pacify the country. The ensuing civil war disrupts agriculture and food distribution leading to a food crisis, and ultimately famine. Images of violence and starving children compel the international community to take action. Eventually, the United States leads an international intervention force of more than 35,000 troops to restore order and ensure the delivery of food and humanitarian aid.
Fast forward to the present day. Somalia is again suffering from famine. Yet, analysts celebrated last month when al-Shabaab, a brutal militant group with ties to al-Qaeda, withdrew from Mogadishu suggesting it signaled the beginning of the end for the Shabaab. Then, donor governments applauded as Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and leaders from regional governments in Puntland and Galmuduug adopted a roadmap to establish a permanent Somali government earlier this month. Some claim these events offer an important window of opportunity and may even suggest times are changing in this archetypal failed state.
Unfortunately, optimistic predictions tend to gloss over important facts on the ground. The famine is spreading and the southern half of the country is devolving into chaos. Al-Shabaab may be weakening, but ironically this has had negative consequences for Somalia’s TFG, which relied on a patchwork coalition of armed groups outside the government to fight the Shabaab. The glue that held the TFG’s weak coalition together was a common hatred for the Shabaab, including its brutal tactics, radical interpretation of Sharia law and ties to al-Qaeda. The splintering of the Shabaab appears to have exposed political differences, and divided the coalition the Somali government built. As allegiances crumble, TFG and African Union troops have proven incapable of filling the security vacuum left by the Shabaab. As a result, southern Somalia is descending into a free for all. Fiefdoms are being carved up, and armed groups once united against the Shabaab fight amongst themselves. Unfortunately, rather than signs of progress, the political and humanitarian situation in southern Somalia looks much like it did in 1991. Indeed, it’s déjà vu in Somalia.
The question is why. Despite dozens of international peace conferences and hundreds of billions of aid dollars, Somalia has remain failed for more than twenty years. Perhaps one reason is that the international community’s vision of Somalia as a strong centralized state with its capital in Mogadishu is misguided. Instead, many have called for a “building block” approach towards Somalia, which would theoretically empower regional and local administrations, rather than trying to resurrect a centralized state all at once, if ever. Given that regional governments in Somaliland and Puntland have been more successful than the TFG, this approach has merit.
The U.S. adoption of a “dual track” approach to Somalia, engaging regional and local actors as well as the TFG, seems to be a move in this direction. Engaging actors actually exercising power and influence on the ground is a good approach, but the U.S. should be careful not to prize stability over human rights. The U.S. has worked with some unsavory characters in the past and looks to be doing the same today in pursuit of short – term security interests. But, just as in the past, empowering warlords with poor human rights records to pursue U.S. interests narrowly defined may undermine the international community’s ability to support peace in the long term. It’s true that violence rules in Somalia, and thus few if any of the powerful actors have clean hands. The challenge for the U.S. and international community will be identifying local actors that wield influence and power while respecting basic human rights norms. Are there any left?