Puntland Women's Minister Asha Gelle and Innovator Fatima Jibrell in Garowe. By Daniel J Gerstle.

Why Western Military Contractors are a Terrible Idea for Somalia

Puntland Women's Minister Asha Gelle and Innovator Fatima Jibrell in Garowe. By Daniel J Gerstle.

The Somali transitional government in cooperation with Western security realists is committing yet another dangerous political blunder in the African Horn by contracting Western paramilitary contractors, much like those which support the U.S. in Iraq, to enhance the government’s security forces.

The Somali government should direct new expertise and funding toward existing Somali reconciliation initiatives, women-led peacebuilding efforts, UN rule of law and security trainers, and local coast guard forces who have been working with far too few resources. Instead, the government is bringing into a crowded conflict a new, expensive breed of Somali gunman, the Western contractor.

Saracen International, which has associations with the Bush Administration, the C.I.A., Apartheid-era South Africa, and Blackwater, is just one of the groups entering Somalia as a for-profit independent company taking contracts to provide armed protection to government entities or company teams, or to train military forces in protection techniques. Pro-Saracen security realists believe that after two decades of failed state and failed intervention that there is demand for an additional external security group to professionalize Somali government forces for good.

But this belief is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the motivations and fears of Somalia’s conservative majority. The most powerful tool radical jihadist rebels including al Shabaab have to recruit people from this conservative majority is propaganda arguing that the government elite is, it alleges, conspiring with Western groups like the C.I.A. to control the country and subjugate its people. Any quick progress the contractors make supporting the fight against piracy and terrorism will be trampled under the feet of new recruits lining up to replenish those lost.

So what is the alternative?

There are promising Somali, Islam-friendly, and existing peacebuilding and violence prevention initiatives which could succeed if only they, instead, could find that magical donor, one willing to invest in the quiet force of reconciliation over the brawn of the paramilitary.

There are powerful women leaders in Somalia who could succeed with greater backing like Asha Gelle, the first Women’s Minister of Puntland (pictured above); Fatima Jibrell, founder of Horn Relief, Somalia’s first women-led international aid agency (pictured above); and the We Are Women Activists network. Gelle, in just one example, helped forge a ceasefire during the height of the war in Galkayo by rallying women from both sides to parade along the fighting line until shooting stopped long enough for humanitarian aid to make it through.

There are diaspora cultural forces like Abdi Shire Jama, singer of the band Qaylodhaan, who’s building a global family of Somali musicians and refugee leaders to rally Somali youth against violence. And more at the heart of local reconciliation efforts there are groups like Haqsoor, the Somaliland traditional elder’s cautious but successful initiative which works alongside aid agencies to repair aspects of the traditional dispute resolution system in villages across Somaliland and Puntland.

When Somali elders, moderate religious scholars, women leaders, and human rights activists gather to plan reconciliation, to hope, and to dream, they tend to wash meeting rooms out with frankincense smoke and prepare caldrons of camel-milk tea. They brainstorm how to achieve a kind of peace in which foreigners are not controlling their destiny and in which their family and clan relationships help protect them from misunderstandings and disputes without the use of weapons.

The answer they tend to come up with is to consolidate peace based on where it already holds and rebuild the country from there through reconciliation conferences in which opposing sides face the reality that they rely on each other economically, if not politically, for successful pastoralism, fisheries, and trade routes. Wooing local communities back to unified markets one by one, the group believes, will work more sustainably than hunting down the “enemy” and breaking markets up in the process.

If those wielding resources would take a moment from admiring external armed groups that show muscle and instead put more time into writing about, studying, and supporting Somali-led peacebuilding and reconciliation initiatives which quietly lure communities into conversations over tea and frankincense, then lasting peace and security will be more achievable in Somalia.

Photo: Daniel J Gerstle