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A Failed State No More: Somalia’s Waning War

Image credit: Haruko Ayabe

Sleek Boeing 737-800s operated by Turkish Airlines fly into Mogadishu’s gleaming new international airport as patients flock to the recently refurbished Erdoan hospital, the best-equipped medical center in East Africa. Al-Shabaab, the Al-Qaeda affiliate that has terrorized Somalia for eight years, is in tatters and on the run from a legitimate federal government that is expanding its writ across the country. Welcome to Somalia in 2015, a far cry from the stereotypical failed state that the international community has known for the last 24 years.

Ravaged by civil war since the collapse of Mohamed Siad Barre’s dictatorial rule in 1991, Somalia spent the 90s embroiled in a conflict between vicious warlords, a period immortalized by the hit blockbuster Black Hawk Down. The war took a turn for the worse in 2006 when previously disparate warlords united their forces and founded the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a jihadist group intent on overtaking the weak transitional government. In response, the government allied with the Raskamboni movement, a warlord militia from southern Somalia, as well as Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a (ASWJ), a Sufi militant group opposed to the ICU’s Salafist ideology, to combat the ICU’s attack.

With the help of Ethiopian intervention, the ICU was defeated in 2009, as many of its warlords agreed to join the transitional government in a power-sharing deal that  guaranteed the same number of seats in parliament for each of the country’s major clans. However, one splinter group, al-Shabaab, instead decided to embrace a violent fundamentalist ideology and to embark upon a wider war against the state. The militant group’s onslaught of coordinated assaults and terrorist attacks led to its conquest of almost all of southern and central Somalia by 2009.

Fast forward three years to 2012 and Somalia held an indirect presidential “election” on its soil for the first time in its history. The last election, in 2009, was conducted in Djibouti; while only one candidate—dictator Mohamed Siad Barre—contested the 1986 election. However, much like in 2009, the election was decided by newly appointed, unelected members of parliament. Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, a prominent political activist, defeated his opponent and former leader of the ICU, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, in a resounding second-round victory with 70.6% of the votes. Since his election, Mohamud has re-established a banking system that Somalia had lacked for decades, convinced the UN to end its 21-year arms embargo on the country, and armed the Somali military to effectively combat militants. He has also forged a host of bilateral agreements that have yielded tangible results, such as the Turkish-built airport and hospital in Mogadishu.

The years since the election have transformed Somalia from a lawless country governed by Islamist terrorists to an increasingly stable state close to ending a seemingly endless civil war. Al-Shabaab, which means “The Youth” in Arabic, is at its lowest point since its inception in 2006. An American drone strike killed the group’s leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, in September 2014, and Zakariya Ismail Hersi, its Chief of Intelligence, surrendered to federal police last December. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a coalition of Ugandan, Burundian, Ethiopian, Djiboutian, and Sierra Leonean armed forces, has battled al-Shabaab since 2007. In 2011, Kenya intervened unilaterally against the group, before joining AMISOM in 2012.

In 2011, Mogadishu was recaptured by government force and Kismayo, a large port city in the south and the former headquarters of the insurgency, was liberated in 2012. That same year, the transitional federal government approved a new constitution and established a permanent government in the capital. Operation Indian Ocean, launched in August 2014 by AMISOM, seized almost all of al-Shabaab’s coastal territory and decimated its leadership, aided by U.S. drone strikes operating from neighboring Djibouti. As of February 2015, nearly all of the group’s leaders are either dead, captured, or have surrendered.*

AMISOM is a case of how close regional cooperation can achieve consistent military success against powerful and long-lasting insurgencies, while also building up the policing capacity of the nation that is being aided. All of Somalia’s neighbors have an interest in its stability, especially nations such as Uganda and Kenya who have suffered horrific terror attacks at the hands of al-Shabaab. AMISOM’s campaigns have had realistic and defined targets: rolling back al-Shabaab’s rule first from Mogadishu, then from major cities, followed by the coast, and finally the countryside.

At a time when leaders around the world are struggling to devise strategies to defeat the brutal militants of Boko Haram in Nigera and the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, Somalia’s ongoing success is a useful lesson on how to breathe life back into a failed state. Much like other war-torn countries, Somalia has consistently been divided by clans and warlords—many with competing ambitions for power. The government’s decision to bring several warlords into the fold from the ashes of the ICU helped bring swathes of warlord-controlled territory back into government hands. Specifically, the government’s alliance in 2006 with the Raskamboni movement and the ASWJ gave the government both territorial and religious legitimacy as the former’s leaders held sway in the Islamist-controlled regions and the latter provided pious Somalis an alternative to the poisonous fundamentalism of al-Shabaab. The intervention of AMISOM also gave the then-failed state a professional fighting force that pushed back the insurgency, while Kenya’s entry in 2011 dislodged the terrorists from major cities.

UN Special Representative Augustine Mahiga with African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces in Mogadishu, Somalia. Source: AU-UN IST Photo/Stuart Price
UN Special Representative Augustine Mahiga with African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces in Mogadishu, Somalia. Source: AU-UN IST Photo/Stuart Price

Since the start of the civil war, Somalia has been divided into numerous autonomous entities. Today, all but one recognizes the federal government and has agreed to a federal structure for the country. Moreover, as the central government has regained control of the south and center of the country, so too have corresponding state authorities. For example, the state of Jubaland, formerly dominated by al-Shabaab, was established and recognized in August 2013. While this is another mark of Somalia’s recent success, the exception to the rule is Somaliland, an unrecognized de facto independent country that split in 1991 as war engulfed the rest of the nation. Somaliland has long been more stable, prosperous, and democratic than Somalia, though it is currently at war with Khatumo—a constituent state of Somalia—and continues to refuse any proposal to rejoin the Somali federation. Somaliland has even been accused of supporting al-Shabaab to undermine its rival in Mogadishu.

Despite its considerable success, there are still several challenges Somalia must confront before it can cast off its turbulent history. Somaliland’s place in the new Somalia is yet to be determined, and could still lead to further war and destabilization. Militias such as the ASWJ and Raskamboni, while currently allied with the government, could split and return to war against the state once the common enemy of al-Shabaab has been defeated, as happened with militias in Libya after the fall of Gaddafi.

With its recently appointed cabinet of ministers, Somalia will have to face all of these challenge, among many others, before it can return to complete stability for the first time in the 21st century. However, its trajectory in recent years gives hope that the country will finally shake off its status as the world’s quintessential failed state.

President Mohamud’s ambitious Vision 2016 project calls for a constitutional referendum and free and fair elections by the end of 2016. This task is achievable, but the vote could still be disrupted by remnants of al-Shabaab who will seek to intimidate voters if they are still active when it is held.

Next year, Somalia could hold its first democratic election in history as  bloodstained buildings may give way to ink-stained fingers in a country that has for too long been trapped in a cycle of violent conflict. After fourteen years of ceaseless bloodshed, Somalia is finally emerging from the shadows of failed statehood to reclaim its place among the nations of the world.

* List of incapacitated al-Shabaab leaders: