The Situation in Somalia: Still bad, but in a new way

Few places on Earth have as consistently dire news coming out of them as Somalia. (See, for example, our coverage here, here, here, and here.) This leads to a tendency to shake one’s head at the country’s seemingly perpetual misfortune, but to throw one’s hands up in the air when it comes to actually thinking about and addressing its problems. As a panel discussion — featuring a professor, a Human Rights Watch researcher, and a Somali journalist — that I attended today made clear, however, conditions in Somalia are not “merely” in their “usual” catastrophic state; they are even worse, and in new and potentially dangerous ways.

Briefly, Somalia is facing a veritable “perfect storm” of negative factors: a humanitarian crisis, mass displacement, drought, indiscriminate violence and banditry (not to mention pirates), plus clan warfare, insurgency, terrorism, and a host of other destructive influences. Moreover, many of the U.S.’s and other international actors’ policies are at cross-purposes with one another: American counter-terrorism efforts undermine its state-building program, which in turn damages the perceived neutrality of humanitarian actors, and, unfortunately, so on. Deeper analysis of these dynamics, and a more in-depth discussion of policy options, can be found in ENOUGH’s eminently informative new report on Somalia, written by panel participant Professor Ken Menkhaus.

While the panel did focus more on describing the symptoms of Somalia’s situation than on prescribing remedies for them, the participants all made the point about the need for a fundamental re-evaluation of U.S. policy in the region, particularly a recognition that well-intentioned policies may turn out to have significant negative repercussions. Some hope may exist, however, in the recently signed peace deal between the Transitional Federal Government and some Somali opposition groups. Though by no means a panacea for all of the violence and discord rife in Somalia, the accord — if implemented — could provide sway to moderate elements that are actually interested in coming together in dialogue.

So where does the UN fit in this? Well, for one, according to Menkhaus, the UN, by pursuing multiple priorities sometimes at odds with one another — political mediation, development assistance, peacekeeping — may be committing the same error as the United States.

[I]t is very difficult for U.N. Special Representative Ould-Abdullah to serve as a neutral mediator when a U.N. agency, UNDP, is being used to funnel direct support to one party in the conflict. The United Nations cannot have its cake and eat it, too: It cannot support state-building initiatives which strengthen the security forces of one side and simultaneously lay claim to the role of neutral broker. The Somali opposition simply does not buy it.

The UN does not exactly enjoy a glowing reputation among Somalis. The history of past peacekeeping missions weigh on its presence, as does the (misplaced) sense that the UN, along with all Westerners, are complicit with the United States in the much-detested Ethiopian occupation of the country. The extreme version of this proposition is believed only by the more radical elements of the Shabaab group, which responded to the U.S.’s killing of its leader by explicitly targeting Westerners, but many other Somalis also do not trust the UN — particularly when it appears to be choosing sides.

This difficulty is one of the reasons that if — and, with no sustainable peace yet taken root in Somalia, as well as a likely dearth of eager troop contributing countries, I stress if — a UN peacekeeping force deploys to Somalia, it must be given a reasonably achievable mandate, and one that does not put it in the cross-hairs of those intent to continue fighting. In Menkhaus’ words, its mandate must “afford[] it neutrality while expanding its responsibilities to include protection of civilians and humanitarian relief deliveries.”

Read the report for more in-depth coverage.