The Balkanization Of Somalia – Analysis


By Abdinur Mohamud

The debacle of the East Africa famine once again hit the international media in summer 2011. Television reports showed the emaciated faces of children, women, and the elderly who are encamped in refugee centers in Kenya and Somalia. The last time a devastating famine of similar magnitude hit the international media was in 1992, when tens of thousands of Somalis perished due to starvation.The recurring East Africa famine is the result not just of the natural, cyclical droughts in the region. Man-made reasons continue to exacerbate the effect and reach of the disaster. These reasons include political instability within Somalia as well as the inability of the international community to prepare and assist communities in advance to lessen the impact of the drought and prevent the development of a full-blown famine.

Political instability within Somalia and the actions of the international community are closely connected. By supporting regional actors inside Somalia, instead of supporting the federal government, the international community is contributing to the centrifugal forces that keep the country weak, violent, and in a prolonged humanitarian crisis.

Naturally Occurring Droughts

Seasonal and cyclical droughts occur frequently, every decade or so, in the East Africa region of Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, and Djibouti. This part of the continent is prone to famine. Improving existing political and social instabilities and long-term food production is key to averting future crises. The 1984 Ethiopian and 1992 Somalia famines produced an outpouring of international support that included the song “We are the World” and the deployment of U.S. and other international troops to Somalia in what was known as “Operation Restore Hope.” In both cases, scenes on television screens showing the plight of the victims including malnourished children literally dying on the screen forced governments and humanitarian organizations to act swiftly.

The troops sent to Somalia were mainly deployed to open food passages blocked by feuding warlord militia throughout the country and to get emergency aid to heavily impacted regions.  After the killing of 18 U.S. rangers by clan militia fighting for control of Mogadishu — made famous in the film Black Hawk Down, President Bill Clinton pulled U.S. troops out of Somalia, prematurely ending what could have been a successful humanitarian mission.

The current drought was predictable and, indeed, forecasted much earlier to hit the region. With a lot of preplanning and strengthening of local coping mechanisms, structures and institutions, most nations in the region were able to keep the crisis under control with some receiving assistance from international humanitarian organizations. Complicating aid efforts, however, have been the prolonged Somali political instability and the ongoing conflict between the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia and the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab (the youth), the latter controlling most of southern Somalia. The severe droughts turned into a devastating famine that effectively killed and/or displaced tens of thousands of men, women, and children. Kenya alone hosts many refugee centers close to its Somalia border with hundreds of families arriving on a daily basis.  As a result of a travel ban from al-Shabab, international humanitarian organizations stationed in Nairobi, Kenya found it difficult to send staff to affected areas and are depending on second-hand information from locally subcontracted organizations. For many years Mogadishu was off-limits to UN and other Western staff, and a visit by a head of state outside of the region was inconceivable.

The courageous visit to Mogadishu earlier this summer by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and members of his government opened Somalia up to the rest of the world and helped restore international confidence in the relative security of the city. The visit created more opportunities for other delegations to witness the crisis firsthand. The self-imposed UN travel ban outside of Mogadishu airport, limiting UN staff to a green-zone-type corridor around the airport secured by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), prevents UN international staff from going out of the compound to interact with the refugees, even in government-controlled areas.

Political Instability

Since the fall of the central government in 1991, Somalia has been engulfed in an internal civil strife that killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of people and destroyed public institutions, national infrastructure, and the machinery of the state. More than 16 international conferences failed to resolve the conflict and reconstitute the Somali state. Sensing the long debacle, the northern region of the country seceded from Somalia in 1991 to form a new governmental entity called Somaliland, an administration seeking but not receiving formal recognition as an independent African state. A few years later, the eastern region, observing the relative safety and nascent self-governance progress achieved in the north and the ongoing chaos in the south, formed a slightly different political dispensation called Puntland that decided to remain within the umbrella of the state but established a quasi-independent regional administration. Like Somaliland, Puntland was able to achieve relative peace and stability–two critical elements absent in the national government.

The Transitional Federal Government of Somalia meanwhile continues to struggle to maintain law and order and good governance in the face of a devastating famine and an ongoing deadly existential conflict with al-Shabab. Eight thousand African troops stationed in Mogadishu under the auspices of the African Union assist the government in preventing al-Shabab from a wholesale national takeover.  The politically and militarily fragile TFG has little if any of the political, financial, and social capital necessary to project the status of a sovereign state locally and internationally, or capable of protecting its borders from enemies, foreign and domestic. As a consequence, Somalia became dependent on regional and international actors including the United States, UN, and the EU. As such, Somalia today is largely governed by Ambassador Augustine P. Mahiga, a Tanzania-born UN diplomat and envoy who coordinates the political and security activities of diverging regional and international actors and literally holds the purse through the UN Development Program (UNDP) on all internationally funded projects in Somalia.

A large portion of the international funds is used for AU forces stationed in Somalia and for direct payments to Somali army and police bypassing the TFG. Rampant corruption and mismanagement at all levels of the TFG has allegedly caused the international community to circumvent the government altogether and deal with clients directly. For its livelihood, the TFG depends on revenue collected from the Mogadishu port and airport. These funds pay for public-employee salaries as well as other government-supported projects in areas under TFG control.  But progress toward functioning statehood in Somalia is hampered by widespread corruption in the Somali government and lack of initiatives to rebuild public institutions by the international community necessary to run the daily political, financial, and social affairs of the state.

The diverging interest of regional states and the international community is making it more difficult if not impossible for Somalis to resolve their longstanding conflict and allow a fully functioning Somali state to emerge. Regional states with their own security and strategic interests, particularly Ethiopia, Kenya, and Eritrea, often promote covert and sometimes overt policies and activities that continue to destabilize Somalia. Eritrea’s continued support of al-Shabab, for example, and Ethiopia’s endorsement of Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a (ASWJ), arguably the most efficient and organized militia opposed to al-Shabab, puts the two rival nations on opposite ends of the Somali conflict, essentially making Somalia their battleground. Kenya also is flexing its muscles with the creation of a buffer zone and a proxy Somali regional entity to manage the area called Azania. Thanks to released documents by Wikileaks, the world recently learned that the U.S. government strongly opposed the Kenyan plan behind closed doors, even though the Kenyans proceeded with it anyway.

U.S. Dual-Track Policy

Since pulling troops out of Somalia in 1993, the United States kept a hands-off approach, often using local warlords as proxies to enhance security and intelligence against religious extremists. This was part of the larger U.S. global policy on the war on terror.  With the conspicuous failure to stop the expansion of religious extremists throughout Somalia, compounded by foreign elements returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States slowly moved its support away from the TFG. Instead of empowering the legitimately and internationally recognized government of Somalia to establish the necessary political, economic, military and social intuitions  and infrastructure of governance, the United States adopted what it called a “dual-track policy.” While assisting the central administration, the United States was also planting the seeds to encourage the sprouting of quasi-independent local and regional administrations within and outside the government.

Critics argue that the policy lacks a third track that converges with the dual track to produce the desired result of a stronger and unified Somalia. Others contend that the policy itself is a culmination of recycled ideas, such as the so-called building blocs approach that recognizes Somalia as multiple, self-governing, independent entities rather than as a single state. Whatever its ultimate aim, the policy emboldened the formation of clan-propelled regional authorities, often creating sub-regions within a recognized region, ostensibly positioning them for funding support and power-sharing.

If Somalia is to become a federal state, like Nigeria for example, the center-periphery relationship must ensure socially stable and diverse regions. Generally, many Somalis prefer a unitary decentralized state, while others feel a federal system consisting of north and south is most suitable. A federal system consisting of the original eight regions of 1960 or the 18 regions during the military regime is also proposed by others to be more practical than the current chaotic ethnic-driven regional administrations. Some still contend that a combination of the eight regions of 1960 into four territorially larger entities ensuring diversity, stability and access to the sea may be the ideal regional components of a federal system that can sustain a strong central administration able to project national power, sovereignty, and prestige. A weaker central government, on the other hand, with stronger but erratic regional administrations (as some regional and international actors have promoted behind the scenes) will undoubtedly lead to new clan-driven regional rivalries that may continue conflict and human suffering.

The bottom-up approach of the dual-track policy would have worked better if it had encouraged the TFG to enhance the development of legitimate regional administrations, in accordance with the Somali national charter, establishing clear demarcations recognizing the diversity of clan composition within each distinct region. The policy, however, inadvertently propelled the creation of dozens of regional administrations, some with real control of people and territory, with others imagined regional states run from abroad.

More than 20 “presidents” of so-called emerging regional administrations have just been elevated to the national scene by the international community attending a conference of their own in Nairobi, Kenya, inadvertently undermining and weakening the central administration thus complicating the already complex international quagmire that is Somalia. The mushrooming of regional administrations and the sidelining of the central administration by the international community are clear threats to Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

As an illustration of the effects of the U.S. policy, the Danish government is engaged in building a primary school in Mogadishu bypassing the TFG and taking the deal directly to the local community using AMISOM as its fiscal agent and local interlocutor. This act clearly demonstrates the endorsement of the U.S. policy by members of the international community.

The United States, UN, and regional governments handling the Somali case are quietly managing what ought to be called “trusteeship” in Somalia without the necessary obligations to take full responsibility for what goes wrong in their policies including widespread extremism, piracy, famine, and the other societal ills preventing peace and security in the region. As these international actors stealthily continue to chip away at Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity one piece at a time, Somali intellectuals watch helplessly as their country slowly fades from the map.

The Kampala Accord

The signing of the Kampala Accord concluding a political stalemate between the government and the speaker of the Somali parliament heralded infuriating reaction and criticism from many corners of the Somali diaspora, especially the intellectual community perplexed over the potential loss of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The UN, in fact, officially recognizes Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as a member state, even though practical interactions with Somalia by the U.N. and members of the international community indicate otherwise. The concern was mainly related to the following clause in the accord:

The Heads of State of the Region (IGAD and EAC) shall constitute a Political Bureau with participation of the UN (UNPOS) and the AU, similar to the Burundi Regional Initiative. The Bureau shall oversee and monitor compliance of the TFIs with agreed benchmarks and timelines to implement the transitional tasks and to advance the Somali Peace Process.

Sidestepping the national charter, concerned Somalis rightfully argued that the Kampala Accord moved Somalia over the cliff to a quasi-UN trusteeship whose monitoring authority supersedes the national charter.

With the Kampala Accord, U.S. dual-track policy, and the multitudes of diverging semi-independent regional governments blossoming all over Somalia, national sovereignty remains only on paper. Regaining it requires the recognition by Somalis and only Somalis that their destiny is intertwined and that breaking away from the pack makes all Somalis easy targets for selfish predators.

The sorry state of Somalia can be reversed if the Somali people wake up to the reality that their nation is worse off today than when the country liberated itself from colonial powers 51 years ago, and that this is simply their own doing and no one else is to blame. At the dawn of the 21st century where technological advances in science, technology and medicine are creating miracles, Somali infants and children are dying from basic health problems such as polio, malnutrition, malaria, and other diseases. Clan-driven politics, based on ignorance and a zero-sum-game, continues to destroy the political, social and economic fabric of the state as well as the communities themselves. Unending political rivalry mainly for meager natural resources and power is what motivates the continuous onslaught, instability, and conflict between what otherwise could have been peaceful, neighborly communities. External actors meddling in the affairs of Somalia only came at the behest of other Somalis seeking to outmaneuver each other politically and whose short-term political gains seem to justify long-term national losses. If and when Somalis unite and realize their shared common destiny, outside actors will find it difficult to continue business as usual.

The dual-track policy may be helping U.S. security interests in Somalia for the short term, but it is inadvertently helping the return of warlordism and clan-based regionalism more lethal to global peace and stability over the long term. The sooner the Obama administration realizes this, the better for all.

Abdinur Mohamud is a former Somalia minister of education and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. He now works and lives in Westerville, Ohio.


Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF) is a “Think Tank Without Walls” connecting the research and action of more than 600 scholars, advocates, and activists seeking to make the United States a more responsible global partner. It is a project of the Institute for Policy Studies.

2 thoughts on “The Balkanization Of Somalia – Analysis

  • September 28, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    This is an honest and thoughtful analysis – one of the best I’ve read, and I hope that policymakers take note of it. The only criticism that I can level is the article’s request that the US and other donors should continue to work directly through the TFG. When audits of the TFG have revealed that 96% of bilateral aid has been stolen, donors may as well pour money directly down the drain as write a check to the TFG. Likewise, donors cannot really “influence” the TFG – they’ve been struggling helplessly for years to persuade the TFG to implement a single one of the transitional tasks laid out in the charter. When years of effort have yielded a central “government” that entirely lacks credibility and is incapable of reaching out to real leaders on the ground, how can the donors be blamed for trying to engage pragmatically with actors who can actually deliver aid to the population? No argues that this is a GOOD outcome for Somalia – there’s just no other choice.

  • October 3, 2011 at 8:52 am

    It is very unfortunate to see the choice of comments the editor is making. This pure dictatorial “If you are not with us you are against us..thus an enemy” My comments the first day this article was published were not biased!!!!


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