Foreign Policy Blogs

Somalia’s Sullied Security


“We cannot have our right hand tied in our back and be asked to defend ourselves with our crippled left hand.” – Abdirahman Sheikh Issa

The recent al-Shabaab attack at the heart of the government’s compound, Villa Somalia, marks a turning point; both in terms of the audacity of the group’s militancy and the massive military campaign that the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) and AMISOM are set to unleash.

This may cause a considerable loss to al-Shabaab, especially in terms of territories and hardware, but to count the overtly advertised March campaign as the deadly finale in which these militant extremists would be buried is a quixotic wish, to say the least.

When a security failure of such magnitude occurs, the natural reaction is to ask: how did it happen and who dropped the ball? This type of crisis-inspired scrutiny and discontent often provides an opportunity to institute new policies, improve or overhaul strategies; but, only when natural reactions are not subservient to the politics of exploitation.

Relentless arrows

With lingering political polarization, damning report by U.N. Monitoring Group, and seemingly relentless media campaign, any kneejerk reaction to write off the current government — hence any opportunity to salvage the Somali state — is understandable, though not acceptable. Indeed, FGS has made some strategic mistakes and in the process drained much of its political and social capital, but throwing it under the bus, at this critical juncture, is not an option.

FGS has sent a detailed rebuttal to the U.N. Sanctions Committee chair to illustrate how political the latest U.N. Monitoring Group charges and their recommendation to re-impose arms embargo on Somalia are; and it is set to dispute the charges before the Security Council on March 6. One of the most outrageous things done by the Monitoring Group is revealing the clan affiliation of the government officials that they implicated. While it does not matter to the Security Council and U.N. Sanctions Committee whether implicated government officials were from clan X or Y, such revelation does matter to the Somali audience and could widen inter-clan divide and hostilities.

The shrinking nation syndrome

What do countries such as Somalia, Libya and Yemen have in common? Aside from being natural-resource-rich and having ample self-destructive elite who are willing to sell their proverbial farms for ego messages and a few pennies, they are three representations of an unfolding saga of bloody and clannish sectarian feuds fueled by hate narratives. They are set to turn their respective countries into chronically dependent para-states that are perpetually hostile toward one another, and are helplessly exposed for exploitation.

It is no secret that there are some domestic, regional and international actors who overtly or covertly facilitate, propel or manufacture the fait accompli in such countries. Security issues cannot be dealt with as though they exist in vacuum.

“I submit that Balkanized, Somalia represents a new and sizable experiment for privatization/globalization and enclave investment in a conveniently self-cleft society. Once this process truly begins, it will likely be irreversible and will signal the beginning of a new trend/policy for weak/failed states. It may create wealth for a few local elites, but will probably be to the detriment of all others,” argues Paul Camacho.

Against that broader backdrop, let me say this: Security in Somalia is, for lack of a more accurate description, a self-defeating apparatus of profound complexity. Within that framework, FGS — like the transitional governments before it — is left in a state of profound confusion, uncertainty and helpless dependency.

Everybody’s business is nobody’s business

In theory, AMISOM has the absolute authority in daytime (macro) security, and armed ghosts control the skies and grounds at night.

Virtually all monies donated to stabilize Somalia go to AMISOM and its multifaceted support security apparatus. Each component of this apparatus enjoys its own lucrative contract. Meanwhile, no serious attempt was made in the past decade to rebuild an adequately paid professional national army with its own barracks and warehouses, though each AMISOM soldier costs at least ten Somali soldiers. And no attempt was made to disarm.

Recently, a tentative bilateral agreement between Somalia and Turkey in which the latter was to help rebuild the Somali army was torpedoed in a number of different ways, including direct protest and pressure from certain influential members of IGAD that caused the previous government to cave in.

In the humanitarian and the development front, Turkey has been an effective outlier within a failed, but still glorified, international aid and development model. Under the latter model, security—like all other things—is outsourced, in-sourced, counter-sourced, and cross-sourced to various forces and political entities with regional and geopolitical interests that are often at odds with one another. These actors, a number of them being international nomadic mercenaries, are all protected behind highly secured camps and enjoy their Green Zone luxuries and, of course, impunities. Almost always, it is the $260 per month, under-trained and under-armed Somali soldiers — like the ones who foiled al-Shabaab’s mosque attack during Friday prayer — who are exposed to the greatest danger.

Against that backdrop, FGS is projected and is generally seen as an incompetent crony serving foreign interests against its own. It is time to streamline security and build an effective command and control.

Ethiopification of AMISOM

Though some beneficiary elites across Somalia might disagree, bringing Ethiopian troops on board as part of AMISOM will likely undermine security in the long-run, create humanitarian disaster, and ruin whatever credibility is left for the African Union troops.

In two years of occupation (2007-09) has earned a horrific record that includes indiscriminate massive killing of civilians, use of white phosphorous bombs and human rights abuses that, according to Human Rights Watch, amounts to war crimes. It is hard to comprehend the naïve argument that the same soldiers who looted, raped, and confiscated pots and pans from families already on the verge of starvation are now so morally reformed that they came back to die in order to save Somalia.

Expectedly, some “experts” on Somalia are already making the case for such an argument. They point out the obvious that Ethiopia’s policy is “closely aligned with the aspirations of…Interim Jubba Authority, Puntland and Somaliland” while totally ignoring the fluidity of clan-based allegiance.

In the short foreseeable future, expect an Ethiopian general to take over AMISOM’s field command and for this controversial peace-keeping force to grow obese on Ethiopia’s field-tested Genetically Modified Intelligence. He who has the command of the data designs the strategy.

Status quo is an off-the-cliff option

Contrary to the conventional perception, Somalia is facing an existential threat that is more potent and more extensive than al-Shabaab. That is not to say that we should not worry about al-Shabaab, or, in any way, minimize the ruthless violence emanating from them, their deranged interpretation of Islam, and their campaign to radicalize the youth. At the end of the day, al-Shabaab is an overt threat; as such, it is as widely exposed as the warlords before them.

Despite the current threats, FGS should not be terrorized into submission. The top leadership must not take for granted the last chance afforded to them to save Somalia. Military solutions might seem feasible, but considering the threat at hand and the illusive security dynamic on the ground, it would snow in Mogadishu before that occurs. With Hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the mightiest nation and the mightiest military alliance on earth and billions of dollars in cash, victory could not be secured in Afghanistan and Iraq. The lesson learned is that asymmetric warfare requires tailor-made strategies and willingness to keep the diplomacy and reconciliation doors open.

So, what’s the alternative? Immediately after the end of the upcoming phase, FGS should demonstrate its sincerity and commitment to genuine reconciliation, and appeal to the Security Council to replace AMISOM forces with U.N. Blue Beret while the reconciliation is taken place. Meanwhile, it should negotiate a bilateral agreement with Turkey to rebuild the Somali National Army. Surely there would be new waves of objections, but this is a matter of existential importance.

  • xamar weyn

    Good article. Why did Abukar avoid naming the US in his reference to its failure in Afghanistan and Iraq? Your proposal to have UN troops to replace AMISON is not even a short term solution. Somalia needs all foreign troops out and only then will we know who will defend it from alshabab banu shaydhaan and foreign terror groups. Also brother Abukar forgot that the current gov can decide what it should do and does not have to comply outside demands based. They have to choose.

    • Abukar Arman

      Thank you. Please refer to my answer to “Frustrated Somali”. What is happening in Somalia is part & parcel of the failed ($$$ draining scam) called global war on terrorism. Though that is the default setting, it is becoming apparent that, at the end of the day, it does not serve the US strategic national interest.

  • Frustrated Somali

    Go ahead, tell all AMISOM troops, EU NAVFOR fleet, etc to all pull out of Somalia. Let’s do bets on how many hours/days it takes Al-Shabaab and pirates to retake control of Somalia. Then write another piece whining about the world ignoring Somalia.

    • Abukar Arman

      I am not a betting person; but I suspect serious betting requires real identities :)

      On a more serious note, I am familiar with the boogieman narrative that often justifies much of the current overpriced dysfunctional
      approaches to fix Somalia. Do you want to know how successful the current security approach is? I humbly offer two of my old article

      June 2006 Operation Dung Beetle

      January 2007 The Making of Another Iraq

      Now ask yourself: Are Somalia, the Horn, US and EU much safer as a result of the current counter-terrorism approach, or are they facing more danger? As the Somali state has failed, so did the international “fixers”.

      • gnycl

        I don’t dispute that this approach sucks. I would however always pick this flawed, corrupt route over a unilateral withdrawal and surrender to Al-Shabaab and their ilk any day.

        On your alternate solution, there were UN blue berets on the ground in the early 90s when I was born, and the whole world saw what happened. The fact of the matter is that your generation of Somalis blew it and managed to turn the world against Somalia forever with the horrible fiasco in 1993. And ever since, left to your own devices, all Somalia produced was warlords, pirates and Islamist terrorists.

        The bitter truth we have to accept is thanks to the sins of our fathers, Somalia is doomed to a hellish fate for a very long time. There’s no more white men in blue hats coming to the rescue after they saw what you did to them, Somalia’ll have to settle for the black men in green hats to keep its sorry excuses for citizens from butchering each other.

        Sarcasm aside, it’s really depressing the only solution you can come up with is white men in blue hats to replace the black men in green hats. The Ethiopian boogieman is still alive and well in the older generation’s psyche.

        • Abukar Arman

          Point well taken. My generation (and older) have ruined the country. It is time for yours to come forward. Never lose hope.

  • MohamedYUSUF

    Great article.But will the ruling elites digest and act on it? I don’t think.They either serve foreign interests or don’t have the sophistication to digest and understand the current situation or the implication of all these interventions.The current leaders are novices with only few years of teaching at local colleges or elementary schools in Somalia.They are not qualified to connect the dots and can be easily bamboozled.

    • Abukar Arman

      Thank you for the kinds words and feedback. BTW, I don’t mind our leaders serving foreign interests, so long as these interests are not zero-sum and these foreign entities are willing to genuinely reciprocate by serving our national interest. A relationship of mutual interest often leads to a win/win outcome.

  • Alessandro Bisogni

    Dear Abukar,

    I really appreciated this article and your prose. Thank you very much!

    Before I start commenting your piece I would like to clarify that not being a Somali I do not define myself as an “expert on Somalia”. I am just a graduated student deeply interested in your country.

    Moving to my comments, as everybody else I also consider the Ethiopification of AMISOM as one of the most unproductive and dangerous mistakes of the peace-enforcement missions’ history. Alike the Kenyan rehatting was a mistake… But as you stress in your article al-Shabaab has changed its own fighting strategy embracing a truly asymmetric warfare style. That being so I do not believe that a military campaign could be the solution to the al-Shabaab threat. In fact, I agree with you that al-Shabaab it is not the major threat for the Somali people. What I perceive as a threat is the social, political and economical marginalization of the Somali civil society. Furthermore, the Somali power-public space (the State) is –using a euphemism– still weak. The FGS it is not in control of its territory and of its people. This is why I don’t think that building up a Somali army (or security forces in general will be the best solution). My concern is to who those security forces will have to respond? I mean before building up a national force I would rather focus on fostering the social and economical Somali substratum.

    On the top of this, I also agree that the presence of the blue helmets would be and appear more neutral, but being realistic I don’t believe that this would be a feasible option. AMISOM is the emblem of the glorified motto “African solution to African matters” and no one, neither the donors neither the African would be ready to repudiate its assumptions. On the top of this, I don’t think that the International Community is ready to deploy its troops in a delicate scenario such as the Somali one.

    I think that the best way to fight al Shabaab it is not through the military means, but through the empowerment and the emancipation of the Somali people. For example from the part of the EU and US the de-freezing of all the Somali freezed assetts could be a good starting point (see: recent case of al-Barakaat).

    We all agree that the regional dimension of the Somali crisis it is inextricable since its beginning. That being so all the actors involved should not be excluded, but included into a broader dialogue process that should, first of all, include al Shabaab. I think that of the greatest mistake and lost occasion was the Djibouti Conference (2008) with its tragic exclusion of the ARS(Asmara branch) and of al-Shabaab.

    I have more questions to ask but I do not want to monopolize this space.

    Thank you in advance for your time!

    All the best,


  • Mohamed Abdullahi Aden

    Abukar you are doing a great maa shaa Allah.
    I totally agree with what you said.
    Evacuating Amisom from Somalia is the solution and that said the government needs to invest in our soldiers.
    You know one thing weird is our soldiers are trained by Amisom and we expect them to provide a fair and quality training?