Last week, the president and parliament speaker of Somalia’s struggling “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) signed an accord to temporarily paper over their differences, agreeing to a one-year extension of each other’s term of office as well as the dismissal of the prime minister, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, who objected to the deal. By and large, this milestone passed without much notice. After all, in the twenty years since the dictator Muhammad Siyad Barre fled Mogadishu as the last entity that could plausibly be described as the government of Somalia collapsed around him, the country has seen no fewer than fourteen attempts to reconstitute a central authority in what is the world’s most spectacularly failed state. The TFG is the fifteenth such internationally backed effort and, until this latest shakeup, was limping towards an August expiration date with no better prospects than its predecessors, so why should anyone care?
First, while the TFG has proven itself utterly ineffective—a report by the International Crisis Group earlier this year bemoaned the fact that the regime, which is confined to a small part of its capital, had “failed to achieve anything significant” during its tenure despite hundreds of millions of dollars in Western aid and the sacrifices of the African Union peacekeepers who have protected it from an Islamist insurgency—the absence of a governance in southern and central Somalia has proven a boon for terrorists and other extremists who have found safe haven there. The death in Mogadishu over the weekend of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the al-Qaeda operative on the FBI’s most-wanted list with a $5 million bounty on his head for masterminding 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, underscored this point. The extent to which violent extremism has gained traction on Somali soil was highlighted by the killing last Friday of the TFG’s interior minister in a suicide attack perpetrated by his own niece.
Moreover, not only has al-Shabaab, the Somali group spearheading the insurgency against the TFG, launched terrorist attacks elsewhere in Africa, including suicide bombings in Kampala, Uganda, last July that left 74 dead and dozens injured, but it has longstanding ties with the al-Qaeda affiliate just across the Bab al-Mandab in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In addition, Osama bin Laden’s purported successor, Saif al-Adel, has direct links to Somalia from years he spent there in the 1990s. With the future of Yemen still uncertain amid President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s evacuation to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment and ongoing violent demonstrations and civil conflict, continuing instability in Somalia is certainly not desirable from the regional-security point of view.
Second, coupled with a geography that puts the country astride the main trade route between Europe, the Middle East and Asia—waters through which 12 percent of total global maritime trade and 30 percent of the world’s crude oil shipments transit—the prolonged statelessness of Somalia has created conditions exceptionally favorable to piracy. While piracy is a complex phenomenon, the collapse of the Somali state, which took with it the last vestiges not only of any effective capability to impose a government’s writ on the Somali people, but also to assert its sovereignty over the longest coastline in Africa (some 3,025 kilometers) with rich fisheries in the adjacent territorial waters and exclusive economic zone, certainly facilitates its outbreak and continuation. In fact, notwithstanding the deployment of warships from two dozen or so nations, attacks on merchant shipping hit an all-time high in the first quarter of this year. During that period, Somali pirates were responsible for some 97 attacks, compared to 35 just one year before. Increasingly brazen, the marauders have been spotted operating as far eastward as just 30 nautical miles off the Gujarati coast of India.
While one should avoid exaggerating the dangers posed by weak states and ungoverned spaces lest they prove facile justification for endless interventions, armed or otherwise, Somalia is one case that where two decades of relative neglect have clearly proven to be less than benign. However, the repeated failure of such “top-down” efforts aimed at reestablishing a central government as have been attempted highlights the difficulty—if not utter futility—of outsiders trying to impose a regime on the Somalis. Rather, the only approach likely to yield even a modicum of success will be one that respects the diffuse nature of Somali society.