Photo credit: Jeffrey Onyango
Photo credit: Jeffrey Onyango

“Aqal marka la dhisayo, dusha sare lagama bilaabo” – “When you build a house you don’t start at the top”: Somali views on rethinking international strategy

Like the previous instalments of the ‘When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled’ series, this analysis was written and based on research conducted before the global COVID-19 pandemic. While the full impacts of the virus on Somalia and international involvement in the country are yet to be seen, it is clear that the dynamics described below will change. Saferworld will be monitoring the situation closely to ensure we can provide relevant support and analysis to our colleagues and partners.

In a country badly scarred by conflict over the last three decades, it’s hardly surprising that some Somalis fondly recall the years before Somalia’s civil war. Naima, an experienced women’s rights activist based in Mogadishu’s crumbling old city, is no exception.

“Life was good then and we were all brothers and sisters. We loved each other and went to watch movies at the National Theatre ‘til late at night. We were very safe then and we used to eat from any of our neighbours’ houses. We were such a social community and acquainted with one another. Now things are different, you hardly know your neighbour, and everyone is scared.”

At that time, she may well have crossed paths with Mustafe, then a rebellious student who had just returned from Germany when war broke out.

“It was beautiful, peaceful and secure,” says Mustafe. “I liked arts and I used to spend good parts of my time at theatres and football stadiums. No fear of moving around and going wherever you like even in the dead of the night. There were many nightclubs in Mogadishu if you like music or fun. Young people were well provided for and had plenty of opportunities to study, be successful and start a family”.

Both Naima and Mustafe have spent their professional lives trying to build peace among their fellow Somalis, many of whom have never seen their country at peace. Despite their deep commitment to the cause, it is difficult for them not to despair as their work is undermined by a combination of political instability and the counterproductive impacts of incoherent international interventions.  

Sitting in his office around the corner from the notorious K5 or ‘Zoobe Junction’, where over 500 people were killed in a bomb attack two years prior, Mustafe seems pessimistic. “Currently, the horizon for the future of Somalia is very dark”.

“The war against al-Shabaab seems to go nowhere”, he continues. “Somalis are disillusioned, demoralised and tired. They feel helpless because their role in what is going on is marginal. If this feeling of helplessness lingers, many will begin to support al-Shabaab as the best alternative. Peace for Somalia in the immediate future is highly unlikely because none of the major actors are interested in peace.”

For the first time in years, Naima is increasingly concerned about her own safety in the city: “I have come to know that I am not safe and secure in my own country. I am now very pessimistic about the security situation, unlike before when warlords were fighting in Mogadishu”.

With the warlords there were risks for us all, Mustafe says, but now civilians are in the line of fire from all sides and face violence if they are perceived to be supporting or collaborating with conflict parties:

“Some government militias are known to extort, loot, rape and torture civilians. Civilians avoid roads known to be manned by government troops fearing extortion, torture or rape in the case of women. Al-Shabaab militias are not known to rape or loot but for killing men and forcing women into marriage. These bad treatments can stop civilians supporting or cooperating with government troops.”

Women face additional risks in an already volatile environment, explains Mustafe. “They are the most vulnerable people who are displaced, they don’t get healthcare, and they are a soft target for robbery and revenge in the form of rape and killings. They lose their sons, husbands and fathers. They are even abused by those who should help them including peacekeepers and humanitarian staff who offer food aid in exchange for sex”.

Caught between government troops, forces from the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), clan militias and armed groups like al-Shabaab, the Somali people walk a tightrope to survive and build their lives and those of their families.

The resilience of Somalis is repeatedly praised by government officials and international dignitaries in the wake of each round of renewed violence or humanitarian emergency. Yet such praise often glosses over the very real and deep-rooted trauma many Somalis live with. The broad range of countries with a stake or involvement in Somalia must look to understand this trauma and continued suffering, and help Somalis themselves alleviate and resolve it. To do this, they must first not only seek out but also respect the views of Somalis themselves on how to restore peace to the country, including by dealing with the ongoing violence and addressing grievances of the past.

Most neighbouring countries, donor governments and multilateral institutions are well aware of the urgent need for peace and security in Somalia – and faltering progress hasn’t been for want of trying. Long considered the archetypal failed state in a fragmented and tense neighbourhood, Somalia has attracted immense resources from an international coalition with the aim of suppressing violence in the country and building a robust and stable government.

Yet despite these interventions, Somalia’s conflict remains locked in a stalemate. As the previous two instalments in this series – and past reports – illustrate, many approaches taken to try to defeat al-Shabaab and undermine its support base have not only failed, but have often proved counterproductive. While the group is undoubtedly an obstacle to peace in Somalia and the country’s most prolific orchestrator of violence against civilians, the preoccupation with defeating it obscures and often complicates the underlying conditions that allow it to thrive.

With no sign that the violence and suffering in Somalia might slow down, it is time for an alternative approach to the conflict in the country.

They must first not only seek out but also respect the views of Somalis themselves on how to restore peace to the country.

A new strategy: developed by and for Somalis and putting peace first

The most important and commonly mentioned – but least frequently realised – step for any peace initiative in Somalia is to let Somalis themselves lead the process and guide its direction, with coordinated international backing. Yet, in practice, this would be a far cry from the divisive geopolitical meddling we see from many foreign powers in Somalia. While some external support has positive benefits for some Somalis, regional competition in the Middle East has led to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates using Somali terrain as a new frontier for their rivalry – while Somalia’s neighbours have their own boots on the ground within and outside of AMISOM. The countries involved in Somalia’s conflicts have a wide range of motivations, from the pursuit of natural resources and shared economic opportunities, to the containment of both outward migration and al-Shabaab – and, for some, the genuine commitment to improving the lives of Somalis. This fragmented and congested international political landscape makes it difficult to unify around any given purpose.

Yet it also means Somalis have scant prospect of shaping their own agenda: “They have to help Somalis to sit at the driving seat and therefore support them to come up with ideas that could foster internal unity”, says Mustafe. Given deep problems of corruption and clan rivalry within Somali power structures, this isn’t as straightforward as untying aid to the government – though this has been proposed – but rather requires assisting a broader range of Somalis to get involved in processes for building peace and setting the future direction of Somalia.

If a broad range of Somali constituencies take the lead, the business of reconciling their society would open up a whole host of approaches to peacebuilding, justice provision and institution building – approaches that are creative, endogenous and driven by deep contextual understanding and values that resonate locally, rather than trying to force peace through external templates and frameworks.

“They have to help Somalis to sit at the driving seat and therefore support them to come up with ideas that could foster internal unity.” – Mustafe

Focusing security efforts on keeping people safe

If countries on the frontline of counter-terrorism efforts in Somalia were to listen seriously to Somalis, they would quickly learn that al-Shabaab is less a cause than a symptom of Somalia’s main problems. For this reason, fighting al-Shabaab or ‘de-radicalising’ young Somalis caught up in conflict will achieve little unless the governance failures and social grievances that it relies on are addressed. 

In this sense, domestic and international security interventions in Somalia should be re-oriented towards the primary goal of keeping civilians safe rather than merely defeating al-Shabaab. As we saw in the first paper of this series, the approach to degrade and defeat al-Shabaab can often catch civilians, their homes and resources in the crossfire, feeding anger and tensions.

To reduce distrust and fear of government or AMISOM forces that claim to be protecting civilians, all military force, including by US and AMISOM units, must be more transparent and must be accountable in relation to the civilian harm caused by them. They should also invest in accessible reporting mechanisms and efficient and fair investigations into allegations of abuse or harm related to the use of force.

More fundamentally, the focus of security efforts could be shifted to a more defensive posture with a concentrated effort to improve the safety of civilians, and such harms could be reduced, helping to reverse the all-encompassing impacts of insecurity on even the most mundane aspects of daily life.

Now operating a market stall in Bakaara in Mogadishu, Ducale fled to the city from Dinsoor when Ethiopian troops withdrew in 2009, allowing al-Shabaab to regain their foothold in the town. In his view, the inability of the government and its backers to keep Somalis safe gives al-Shabaab an opening to exploit. “Some people support al-Shabaab because of security. If government at all levels could provide security, people would not be scared by their threats. In other words, it is because of weak institutions that people do not support the government wholeheartedly”.

Al-Shabaab, by contrast, regularly boasts about the safety it provides in its own strongholds, free from the bombings and assassinations it exports elsewhere. In Mogadishu, Bashir describes how people reluctantly accept the group.

“I don’t believe al-Shabaab provides anything I could describe as good. But compared to the government, they are better in areas they control. People are scared there, yes. But they feel they are safe as they are not in danger unless you are doing something against them. Government forces misbehave, so in comparison [al-Shabaab controlled areas] are more secure”.

While al-Shabaab itself should be held accountable for the excessive cruelties it inflicts across the country, donor governments must also expect more from their own members and allies, including government and AMISOM forces. Funding, training and equipment for these forces should not be taken for granted, but provided on the basis of human rights adherence and an improving record of keeping people safe.

“Some people support al-Shabaab because of security. If government at all levels could provide security, people would not be scared by their threats." – Ducale

De-escalation and possibilities for reconciliation among all groups

A peace strategy underpinned by a people-centred approach to security would help de-escalate the conflict by reducing the suffering and tension that result directly from the fight against al-Shabaab and the often devastating responses this elicits from the group. By reducing the imminent existential threat felt by leaders on all sides of the conflict as a result of the zero-sum approach to military victory taken by all parties, de-escalation can give oxygen to initiatives and voices pursuing genuine dialogue and inclusive reconciliation.

For Mustafe, al-Shabaab would also have to be included in such dialogues eventually. “Political dialogue is the way to go. The government has to accept that al-Shabaab is a real political stakeholder and hence open its doors to dialogue with them unconditionally. I am not sure whether al-Shabaab will be ready for dialogue, but the government has to make the first move”. 

Though there is little sign the group is willing to talk with the government yet, dialogue was the preferred way forward for most of the Somalis that Saferworld talked to across southern and central Somalia. For Faduma in Afgoye, dialogue is the only means of protecting young Somalis. “I want political negotiations and dialogue with [al-Shabaab] to form a peace agreement. I am a mother and I would want them to talk in a peaceful way and prevent our youths from dying in the war between al-Shabaab and the government. The youths are brothers but kill each other because of different ideologies”.

The challenges of such an approach are many, yet Somali analysts are increasingly exploring dialogue with the group as an option. As Mustafe notes, there are several obstacles: “The government seems to lack the confidence to adopt dialogue with al-Shabaab due to the fear from some of the international donors not supporting dialogue with al-Shabaab. They need to show courage and take that position with or without international support.”

Another challenge is that al-Shabaab may view the government as an apostate, illegitimate and unreliable interlocutor, says Mustafe: “Al-Shabaab doesn’t recognise the [Federal Government of Somalia (FGS)] as a legitimate government capable to take independent decisions and hence able to fulfil its promises. Al-Shabaab on their side needs to change that position and accept the government as a legitimate entity capable to enter agreements.” A careful process of persuasion will be needed to convince al-Shabaab to move from a violent to a political struggle.

Given al-Shabaab’s record, many Somalis won’t want compromise, but Mustafe sees a role for other governments in helping the government play the role of peacemaker: “The international community needs to provide all necessary support to the FGS to lead the process.” Admittedly, it is difficult now to see al-Shabaab tolerating – let alone cooperating with – the external powers that it sees as its mission to displace from the country. Despite this, international influence can be used to open and protect space for de-escalation and clear the path to the negotiating table in time.

Such distant possibilities have been realised in Afghanistan’s peace process. Despite its many frustrations and pitfalls, this would have been unthinkable a decade ago. With this in mind, international and Somali political players may soon realise that Somalia’s war, like most others, will ultimately only be ended through politics rather than on the battlefield.

Peace begins and ends with justice

The durability of any political settlement in Somalia will hinge upon how well it can deliver justice and resolve disputes that frequently lie at the heart of intercommunal tensions. As shown by the Islamic Courts Union in the mid-2000s, establishing viable and locally anchored means for citizens to defend their rights and hold each other accountable for their actions can be the key to developing a working social contract.

With no other force as socially anchored or able to protect but also threaten people in many parts of southern Somalia as al-Shabaab, community members like Sagaal, living in the contested town of Qoryooley, often rely on al-Shabaab to resolve disputes, punish criminals and provide some form of justice, however brutal. “Al-Shabaab has a justice system and troops that provide security and are supported by people in the area. There are no rape cases in the areas controlled by them and people do not commit murders apart from the killings carried out by them.”

For Abdow in the city of Baidoa, the choice between state-mandated courts and those provided by al-Shabaab could hardly be clearer. “There aren’t many al-Shabaab objectives that are supported by the people but many prefer their justice system over the government’s because it is fair and free from corruption, nepotism and favouritism”.

One elder in Berhani, a village in south Somalia which was recently occupied by government forces, agreed strongly:

“The thing about al-Shabaab is the way they judge among civilian conflicts. Traditionally, Somalis strongly believe in tribalism which means those in charge usually give support to members of their own clan. However, al-Shabaab took a different path in solving matters among people, judging cases among people objectively and irrespective of the clan people belong to.”

Without lending praise to a model of justice that can terrorise those who fall foul of its judgments, the fact that it is so relied upon and often preferred by Somalis testifies to the urgent and widespread need for courts that are reliable, accessible and, above all, fair. International supporters of Somalia should prioritise justice provision as a matter of urgency, but should do so in a way that is open-minded and creative and which builds upon the elements within the overlapping justice systems in Somalia that people see as fair and capable of keeping them and their property safe.

“I am always hopeful that peace will come sooner than expected. However, that doesn’t mean that I am belittling the gravity of the problem. The way to peace is always tedious and unpredictable but this hasn’t dampened most people’s desire for it." – Mustafe

Governing in the common interest

Creating a justice system capable and trusted enough to chip away at the many years of civil and personal grievances Somalis have borne takes patience, broad debate and creative local leadership. However, external statebuilding initiatives have tended to rush the development of a justice system, as well as other Somali institutions, in a bid to exclude al-Shabaab or similarly minded groups from any emerging political settlement.

Building the trust necessary to make progress on constitutional reforms, public services and reconciliation requires real international commitment to supporting inclusive Somali dialogue and deal-making without an externally imposed timetable, and with goodwill to understand and build up from the foundations of systems and processes that work well within Somalia.

It also requires a shift away from a divisive, clan-based system of government, which encourages politicians to enrich and protect their clan or sub-clan over compromise in the pursuit of the common good. Such a process must start from the bottom, however, with public consultations to determine the nature and form of public institutions and identify public service priorities, the form they should take and the level of government that should provide them. Civil society and media organisations should be encouraged to play a pivotal role here, bridging local communities with their authorities and with donors who can provide both technical expertise and funding. All states that claim to support the Somali people should support these processes, not as a means to combat support for al-Shabaab, but as an integral process to reformulate the stagnant political framework that has provided Somalis with little security or hope for the future.

Naima sees plenty of work to do for all sides:

“I would tell internationals that they shouldn’t do more harm than good. In particular, they should stop bombarding civilians in the name of fighting al-Shabaab. For the government I would tell them to give people basic services like education, health and giving more priority to security. They should stop corruption and embezzling the public resources. For al-Shabaab, I would tell them to spare the citizens and stop the explosions and killings of innocent people. They should instead sit with the government and work towards stability and development of the country.”

After almost 15 years of fighting al-Shabaab, it should be clear that current approaches have limits. Over the coming years, there may well be big opportunities to reset the dial, as international actors reassess their approaches. This should involve a change of approach for multilateral organisations like the African Union and United Nations, influential external stakeholders such as the US, neighbouring countries and the Gulf states, and donors to stabilisation missions like the UK and European Union. However, this will ultimately rely on political will from Somali elites and leaders to commit to leading and creating a new chapter in Somali history that brings the country out of conflict, and towards a peaceful society. Without these key ingredients, the experiences of past decades are likely to become the experiences of the future.

Mustafe, meanwhile, remains stoic about the prospect for peace: “I am always hopeful that peace will come sooner than expected. However, that doesn’t mean that I am belittling the gravity of the problem. The way to peace is always tedious and unpredictable but this hasn’t dampened most people’s desire for it."