Somalia: what is to be done?

The west must act carefully to stabilise the world's most failed state.

African Union soldiers fire off during heavy firefight with Al-Shabaab militants in May
Source: Getty Images

Somalia is a failed state, probably the most failed state in the world. While Somaliland and autonomous Puntland in the north maintain their own order, the south of the country has had no rule of law to speak of since the collapse of central government in 1991. Into that vacuum, an Islamist youth movement called Al-Shabaab has exploded, promising much-needed order but delivering only violence, repression and a particularly repellent form of Sharia law.

Al-Shabaab's edicts are as capricious as those of any psychopath autocrat. At the height of the famine in July they outlawed the eating of samosas because their tri-cornered shape reminded them of the Christian holy trinity. Bras are considered an offence to Allah. So is football.

More seriously, they turned this year's drought into one of the worst famines East Africa has seen, pushing hundreds of thousands to the point of starvation by closing roads and denying foreign aid teams access to territory under their control - the vast majority of the country.

Ahmen Abdi Godane, one of the founders of Al-Shabaab in 2006 and its de facto leader, has led them away from the nationalist promises on which they gained territorial control and towards what he sees as a global jihad. He cares nothing for his people, just his holy war.

Piracy is a symptom of desperation, not necessarily directly linked to Al-Shabaab; though much of the proceeds from this theft and kidnapping operation, a matter of hundreds of millions of dollars every year, will most likely find its way into their coffers. Like terrorism and fundamentalism, it has thrived on the chaos that engulfs the nation and, in the Gulf of Aden, we are spending vast sums on a losing battle. The EU's Operation Atlanta, the joint task force and NATO missions cost two billion dollers every year, and a December 2010 study by the think tank One Earth Future estimated the total economic cost of piracy at between seven and twelve billion dollars per year.

Kenya and Ethiopia, neighbours to the west and north of Shabaab-controlled territory, the victims, as well as Uganda, of numerous suicide and car bomb attacks, have had enough. 2,000 Kenyan soldiers are pushing north into Shabaab-controlled territory, fighting alongside Somali militias loyal to the struggling transitional government in Mogadishu. Ethiopia announced last week that it would deploy troops to assist the Kenyan mission.

But Ethiopia and Kenya's aims are mixed, their public divided, their resources limited. If Al-Shabaab is truly to be toppled, as it must be, the west needs to lend serious and careful assistance. Post-famine, support for Al-Shabaab is at a low ebb: they are vulnerable to pressure especially if humanitarian aid is coming too. The hearts and minds - and more importantly, the stomachs - of the Somali people have no instinctive loyalty to brutal fundamentalism and jihad. They want food, and safety.

But the consequences of a brief, abortive badly-funded revenge mission by Kenya and Ethiopia into Shabaab territory are not pleasant: large civilian casualties, leading to a consolidation of power for the terrorist insurgency, as was seen in Iraq. This situation must be avoided.

Instead, the EU and the US should offer logistical, consultative and financial help to the Kenyan and Ethiopian forces, and the struggling transitional Somali forces, as the US already is with the African Union mission in Mogadishu.

These things must be done carefully. Western financial backing can set up the government as a lucrative prize for the corrupt, and a revenge-led military intervention which sees civilians dead, raped or mutilated will drive people straight into the arms of terrorist recruiters.

But if the west is unwilling to invest in helping stabilise Somalia so that some sort of peace, stability, even democracy can grow, we will come to keenly regret it in the long run.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance journalist writing on politics and world affairs. He tweets at @NickyWoolf.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.