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 reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war