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Rethinking stabilization efforts in Somalia

Rethinking stabilisation efforts in Somalia
A Ugandan soldier serving with the African Union (AU) Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) looks over an open tract of land from the roof of Mogadishu University. Photo: Flickr/UN Photo/Stuart Price.

Ahead of the 2019 Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development, SIPRI is pleased to share guest blog posts from partner organizations.

Since it emerged as a global policy paradigm after the terrorist attacks on the United States of 11 September 2001, the implementation of stabilization policies rested on a delicate balance between building a coherent long-term peace strategy and having a clear exit strategy, through the difficult sequencing of early interventions, transition and long-term recovery actions.

Theoretically, it is possible to differentiate stabilization from counter-terrorism, or state-and-peace building, by showing the different phases of the conflict cycle and a linear division of labour among different actors engaged in post-conflict settings. Yet, the boundaries between policy concepts become blurry when they are implemented on the ground, especially in countries like Somalia. Here, the dust of conflict quickly settles over policy frameworks, making it difficult to define with clarity what stability is, how to achieve it, how to measure it, or where transition ends and recovery begins.

International donors have provided large sums to support military and civilian-led stabilization in Somalia. Yet, a stable Somalia appears to be a distant dream, with a planned withdrawal of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in 2021 constituting a looming threat to all other stabilisation programs in the country. In 2018, violent conflict in Somalia accounted for 5,113 fatalities out of a total of 43,769 fatalities since AMISOM was created on 17 January 2007.

Why is it that despite international support, stabilization in Somalia appears so far away? And what are the lessons to gather from Somalia for international stabilization efforts?


Somalia’s conflicts today

There are three main forms of conflict in Somalia today: political conflict, communal conflict, and violent extremism. These conflicts, defined by Ken Menkhaus, overlap, fuel each other and are aggravated by some common root causes: systemic corruption, impunity in the country, and competition for resources.

Political conflicts relate to the control of rent-producing structures, including the federal government, regional member-state governments, municipalities, ministries and critical infrastructures such as seaports. Control of these structures is among the main rationales for competition among clans. The federalisation process—and associated competition over the distribution of resources and rents—is arguably the main subject of political contestation today. In addition, Somalia needs to undertake two other major political reforms that will likely be a source of contention. The first one is the revision of the provisional constitution and reforming the electoral system to allow 'one person, one vote' in the election in 2020/2021. Issues here include resource and power sharing, the status of the capital and the type—and form—of the Somali state (parliamentary or presidential). The second major political change that is needed is the reform of the electoral system, which entails moving away from the so-called 4.5 clan representation formula that has underpinned the political settlement in the country. While the federal government and the member states have agreed upon the principle of universal suffrage, provisions of the agreement—such as the type of electoral constituencies—are still disputed.

Communal conflict in Somalia accounts for the most violence: about 35–40 per cent of the total. There are two types of communal violence: first, localised clashes over access to and control over land or wells—which are typically sporadic but can spiral into a series of revenge killings that can trigger prolonged bouts of violence. Second, communal clashes engineered by political elites to advance their own interests or weaken rivals. The latter can be found in disputed areas such as Sool and Sanaag (the border area Somaliland and Puntland), and Galmudug and Puntland.  

The third form of conflict is violent extremism and predominately relates to al-Shabaab. The group has proven to be extremely resilient and adaptive. Since 2011, following offensives by AMISOM and Somali National Army (SNA) forces, the group has suffered several setbacks, including losses of the port cities of Kismayo and Barawe. However, it has stepped up its presence in the north, particularly in the semiautonomous region of Puntland. The group now controls more territory than at any point in time, though the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) insists the group faces collapse.


Stabilization challenges and costs

The basic premise of current stabilization in Somalia is that territories re-conquered should be stabilized in order to bring them permanently under government control, to prevent a renewed loss to al-Shabaab. The focus of stabilization is hence predominantly the fight against violent extremism. A general distinction between military stabilisation and civilian-led initiatives applies. The division of labour at the onset entailed that AMISOM engages in hot, military (also known as ‘hot’) stabilization whereas the United Nations (UN) supports civilian-led initiatives and act as guarantors of the political process. Nevertheless, over time this distinction has evolved, with mission mandates becoming multidimensional in response to evolving conditions on the ground and learning by doing.

The story of AMISOM is a case in point. The mission did not start out as a stabilization force. AMISOM began to take on various stabilization tasks in late 2011 and had to define its stabilization agenda on an ad hoc basis and learn through operating. AMISOM was first deployed to Mogadishu in 2007 to provide protection to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and began as a small protection contingent comprised of 1,600 Ugandan troops. However, it soon became involved in urban warfare. AMISOM troops were able to push al-Shabaab out of the city and beyond, and Ethiopian and Kenyan troops took control of other strategic towns in south-central Somalia. It was due to this military success that, in 2011, the African Union (AU) decided it needed to support the stabilisation of the capital city and address the security situation beyond Mogadishu, as well as assist the TFG in consolidating political control in areas recovered from al-Shabaab. From 2011 onwards, AMISOM started strengthening police and civilian components of the missions and slowly transformed from a purely military into a more multidimensional operation. It then defined stabilisation as activities undertaken to facilitate early recovery of the population and institutions in a locality recovered from al-Shabaab.

Women and children queue to enter a free medical clinic run by Ugandan and Burundian personnel of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in Baidoa, capital of Somalia’s Bay region. The clinic is open twice weekly and treats an average of four to five hundred people in a day. Photo: Flickr/UN Photo/Abdi Dakan.

The planned withdrawal of AMISOM in 2021 threatens all stabilization programmes in Somalia. Without substantial international support, the SNA will not be able to advance, or even maintain, its territorial gains. To mitigate these imminent risks, the government developed the Somali Transition Plan to guide a gradual conditions-based transferring of responsibilities from AMISOM to the Somalia security institutions. The Plan does not only cover the transition of military tasks, but has a civilian component including stabilization, local governance and state-building activities that include the expansion of local policing and justice. All are developed in connection with the new UN approach to stabilization and the FGS Stabilization Strategy, officially endorsed in 2017, which focuses on four components: community recovery; social reconciliation; local governance and rule of law.

In addition to the operational challenges, stabilization in Somalia comes with high financial costs too. In an aid mapping exercise conducted by the Ministry of Planning, Investment and Economic Development (with support of the World Bank and the UN), the amount of project financing for stabilization purposes stood at $378.1 million in 2017 ($108.1 million principal focus and $270 million significant focus), a mild increase compared to 2016 when it stood at $345.6 million ($82.3 million principal focus and $263.3 million significant focus).


How to rethink stabilization in Somalia

For more than a decade, international donors have provided a large portion of their aid to stabilization efforts in Somalia. Yet, the current academic and policy debates on Somalia highlight the risks of an exacerbating political conflict, dire security implications of the withdrawal of AMISOM, and a protracted humanitarian crisis. What is the future of stabilization in Somalia, and what are the lessons for other contexts where stability proves a mirage, such as the Sahel? The lessons are threefold.

First, politics. When speaking about stabilization in Somalia, all the emphasis is put on the territorial fight against al-Shabaab and countering violent extremism. Stabilization is implemented with a counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism mind-set. But, as explained above, this is just one aspect. Drivers of conflicts in Somalia are also political and communal. Neglecting these aspects in stabilization strategies and instruments would preclude sustainability of efforts in the long-term. The United Kingdom’s stabilization unit has, for instance, recognised the importance of elite bargains and political deals, including resource access and power-sharing. It’s time to reconsider stabilization as ‘redistribution of power’, paving the way for accountability and rule of law, rather than just the absence or mitigation of violence. This is particularly important to restore stability in areas where the local population sees al-Shabaab as the more effective provider of law and services to the society, and where countering violent extremism approaches may otherwise struggle to produce impact.  

Second, security sector reform (SSR). A sustainable and affordable plan to reform and finance the security sector is a key element of a transition strategy, though a difficult one to implement. In 2017, a first Operational Readiness Assessment (ORA) by AMISOM painfully lay bare the current state of the SNA. The number of soldiers on the payroll of the army is 26,000, but this figure includes old, retired and disabled soldiers. The actual number of soldiers on duty is far lower—possibly fewer than 10,000.  Furthermore, the ORA found that approximately 30 per cent of the soldiers in the bases do not have weapons. The ORA paints a bleak picture of the prospects of AMISOM withdrawal. Implementing it without a profound change of security assistance to the SNA, would be perilous. New tools for more effective SSR should therefore be applied to fill these gaps. Security and justice sector public expenditure reviews have been good practices, which may be expanded and used in more tailored ways.

Soldiers of the Somali National Army (SNA) walk at dusk under a rising crescent moon near the outskirts of Afgooye, a town to the west of Somali capital Mogadishu. Photo: Flickr/UN Photo/Stuart Price.

Third, early entry points for international development. Aid can connect the dots between political bargains, locally owned provision of security, and delivery of services, justice and jobs. By effectively bridging the gap between violence and recovery (the ultimate goal of the security-development nexus), development actors can set the tempo of stabilization. If too fast, stabilization actions could in fact create inequality and fuel tensions across communities. If too slow, it may be a wasted effort or could reinforce the status quo. Critical to the success of stabilization—in Somalia as elsewhere—is then the definition of the right type and sequencing of interventions, affecting the pace at which progress towards stability can be made.


Dr Giovanni Faleg is a Senior Analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS).