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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As the strangers approach the bed, I wonder if this could be a moment of great gentleness

I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do.

It’s 1.13am on an autumn morning some time towards the end of the 20th century and I’m awake in a vast hotel bed in a small town in the east of England. The mysterious east, with its horizons that seem to stretch further than they should be allowed to stretch by law. I can’t sleep. My asthma is bad and I’m wheezing. The clock I bought for £3 many years earlier ticks my life away with its long, slow music. The street light outside makes the room glow and shimmer.

I can hear footsteps coming down the corridor – some returning drunks, I guess, wrecked on the reef of a night on the town. I gaze at the ceiling, waiting for the footsteps to pass.

They don’t pass. They stop outside my door. I can hear whispering and suppressed laughter. My clock ticks. I hear a key card being presented, then withdrawn. The door opens slowly, creaking like a door on a Radio 4 play might. The whispering susurrates like leaves on a tree.

It’s an odd intrusion, this, as though somebody is clambering into your shirt, taking their time. A hotel room is your space, your personal kingdom. I’ve thrown my socks on the floor and my toothbrush is almost bald in the bathroom even though there’s a new one in my bag because I thought I would be alone in my intimacy.

Two figures enter. A man and a woman make their way towards the bed. In the half-dark, I can recognise the man as the one who checked me in earlier. He says, “It’s all right, there’s nobody in here,” and the woman laughs like he has just told her a joke.

This is a moment. I feel like I’m in a film. It’s not like being burgled because this isn’t my house and I’m sure they don’t mean me any harm. In fact, they mean each other the opposite.

Surely they can hear my clock dripping seconds? Surely they can hear me wheezing?

They approach, closer and closer, towards the bed. The room isn’t huge but it seems to be taking them ages to cross it. I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do. I should speak. I should say with authority, “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” But I don’t.

I could just lie here, as still as a book, and let them get in. It could be a moment of great gentleness, a moment between strangers. I would be like a chubby, wheezing Yorkshire pillow between them. I could be a metaphor for something timeless and unspoken.

They get closer. The woman reaches her hand across the bed and she touches the man’s hand in a gesture of tenderness so fragile that it almost makes me sob.

I sit up and shout, “Bugger off!” and they turn and run, almost knocking my clock from the bedside table. The door crashes shut shakily and the room seems to reverberate.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge