NAIROBI — Somalia is the archetypal failed state. It has not had a functioning government since 1991 and has been plagued by waves of violence between rival warlords. In 1993, Somalia's spiraling violence engulfed United Nations and U.S. efforts to stabilize the country, leading to the "Black Hawk Down" incident in which 18 U.S. soldiers died. Four international journalists were also killed by violent Somali mobs in Mogadishu.
The country remains extremely dangerous as a result of fighting between the rival Islamic Courts Union and the more extremist Al Shabbab, which has links to Al Qaeda. The fighting has intensified since the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops in January. The new, moderate Islamic government of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed cannot operate in the capital, Mogadishu, so has offices in exile in Djibouti.
Somalia's strategic position at the Horn of Africa (see map below) has made it a prime spot for pirates to prey on busy shipping lines from the Gulf of Aden. Piracy off the Somali coast more than doubled in 2008, with more than 40 hijackings, according to the International Maritime Bureau, which has produced a fascinating piracy map. The ransoms paid are estimated to be worth more than $20 million and are believed to fuel the Somali insurgents.
Somalia's chaos has disrupted agriculture and the country has experience widespread food shortages for years. The UN's World Food Program estimates that 3 million Somalis currently need international food aid but it can only distribute food to less than half that number.
Hungry and terrrified, more than a million Somalis have fled their country, going to Kenya or Yemen. Others have received asylum in the United States.
Somalia's prolonged instability has created an opening for terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda. As many as 20 young Somali refugees in the U.S. have left their families in Minneapolis and have been radicalized by Islamist fundamentalists and possibly recruited to carry out terrorist acts, according to a report in the Washington Post. One young Somali-American was a suicide bomber in Somalia in October 2008. A U.S. Senate hearing on March 11 received testimony from state intelligence officials that the missing youths do not pose a threat to the U.S., but others criticize that view as wishful thinking.
No international journalists can safely operate in Somalia: In the past year, three Somali journalists were assassinated in Mogadishu.
GlobalPost interviewed Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst for the International Crisis Group who is based in Nairobi.
GP: How serious is the current situation in Somalia both for ordinary Somalis within the country and for the wider international community?
RA: The situation in Somalia is very serious. Over 1 million people are internally displaced; over 3 million are in need of food aid. [Meanwhile] the process of political, societal and sectarian polarization continues apace.
The prolonged conflict in Somalia — which has entered its 18th year — shows no sign of a resolution anytime soon. True, the country has seen remarkable changes in the last three months.
A deeply unpopular and ineffectual president has been forced out of office after sustained domestic, regional and international pressure. Ethiopia has drawn down the curtains on a disastrous military intervention. An Islamist leader has been elected president and is now
at the helm of a Government of National Unity, which enjoys solid international and regional support.
However, the opportunities created by these developments have so far failed to jump start the process of national reconciliation. The situation is as intractable as ever and there is little to indicate things may change for the better, at least in the near term.
GP: What steps can and should be taken to resolve the crisis?
RA: The first step needed is for President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed to prioritize the search for a political settlement with the armed insurgents. Without an accord with the opposition, Sharif’s prospects of creating a functioning government is nil.
Sharif has been trying to do just that in the last one month, but there are many obstacles in his path, principally the deep mistrust in his government felt by former comrades.
Sharif is using intermediaries — clerics, business leaders and clan elders — to rebuild the required trust, without which a political accord will be impossible. The international community must support these initiatives and step up its financial help to enable this government to become qualitatively different from the past failed transitional governments.
GP: How might Somalia break out of this terrible cycle of violence?
RA: The key to ending this cycle is the establishment of an all-inclusive peace and reconciliation process which could lead to the creation of genuinely popular, credible and legitimate government.
Other contentious issues such as shariah, federalism, clan and identity politics can only be tackled effectively once a consensual style of politics — if not democracy — replaces the current politics of clan quotas, ideological polarization, Islamism.
GP: Why should foreign powers, such as the U.S., care about what is happening in Somalia and are they doing enough to help resolve the problems there?
RA: The longer Somalia is left on its own the more Somalia’s crisis becomes globalized.
The pace of radicalization and youth alienation has grown to frightening proportions in the last two years in particular. Acts of terrorism are increasing and the fear is that the country is now
becoming a breeding ground for the pernicious “culture of martyrdom” and jihadism.
Even more troubling, the crisis in Somalia is radicalizing Somalis in the diaspora and this could create friction between the more than a million Somalis in the diaspora and their host communities.
As the problem of piracy has recently highlighted, the country is also vulnerable to becoming a regional centre for organized crime.
GP: How worrying and real is the threat of terrorist attacks launched from Somalia?
RA: The terrorism threat from Somalia is real. A tiny core of extremist and militant jihadists may harbour ambitions to “export” their violent brand of Islam throughout the region. These jihadists have been indoctrinating Somali youngsters. It is troubling to imagine what these brainwashed youth can do.
ICG report ‘Somalia: To Move Beyond the Failed State’ was published in December 2008.
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