A New Paradigm for Engaging Somalia

An internally displaced Somali girl receives food aid on Dec. 12, 2009, at a food distribution center in the Shangani District of the Somalia capital, Mogadishu. (Photo: Abdurashid Abdulle/ AFP-Getty Images)

The stakes are much higher than ever before. And despite the negative reports that dominate the news and thus perpetuate the sense of hopelessness, voices of reason are becoming more audible against the current senseless violence, chaos and extremism. More and more Somalis are coming to realize that the path ahead leads nowhere except the assured suicide of a nation.

In various circles—especially within the Somali Diaspora—there are lively discussions on the seemingly forgotten values of compromise, coexistence, collective security and common good. And the consensus seems to gravitate toward two particular priorities:

The first priority is supporting the unity government, despite its relative challenges, deficiencies and dysfunctions, so long as it puts reconciliation on top of its agenda and works toward the eradication of the clan-based appointment system known as "4.5" (four point half). 

The second is advocating the international community's direct involvement in solving the Somali political problem. Yes, that is the same political entity that has no transparent vision, mission or any form of accountability, as it has no physical office or address, no overtly known leader or board of trustees, no telephone number or email address. And yes, that is the same political powerhouse that prematurely used the military option against the Islamic Courts Union and supported Ethiopia in its brutal occupation of Somalia, and abandoned Somalia for two decades to descend into the lowest of the low. After all, it is the only thing that makes pragmatic sense.

On their part, as was reiterated in the 16th meeting of the International Contact Group recently held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the international community is committed to take a more active role in the Somalia issue.

The December 3 atrocious bombing that killed 22 people including cabinet ministers, graduated medical students, faculty and parents during a graduation ceremony is now recognized as the tipping point of two decades of violence in Somalia. Since that horrific event, there has been anxious maneuvering on the part of the international community to accelerate its involvement and take direct sustainable actions that help stabilize the situation. 

Though the international community's interest in Somalia is broad, here is some of the oft-cited strategic rationale:

• Preventing potential spread of transnational terrorism;
• Preventing radicalization of Somali Diaspora youth;
• Finding a home for the floating Africa Command Center;
• Controlling the Indian Ocean and thus controlling the lifeline of China's energy security as its oil imports from various African nations travel through that route;
• Protecting one of the world's most critical commercial arteries from piracy;
• Monitoring and stabilizing the threat coming from a volatile geographical area that the Pentagon refers as The Arc of Instability (Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Yemen, and Kenya); and
• Providing access to the identified but unexplored natural resources.

The U.N. economic sanctions imposed on Eritrea for its role in funding the militant Al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam against the unity government is seen as the first step toward the reinvigorated commitment. Meanwhile, within the international community, more specifically the U.S. policy that functions as its moral compass, is relentlessly pushing the military option—including the use of private security contractors—as they claim that al-Qaeda has already set up an active terrorist franchise in Somalia, though there is hardly convincing evidence to confirm that.

As was learned from the Iraq war, if you draw the devil in the walls long enough, the devil will eventually appear in person. Claim that Al-Qaeda has found a base in Somalia long enough and that will surely become the case in due course; and that could ignite new problems and disasters in Somalia.

If there is any wisdom to be gained from this young 21st century, it has to do with the costly lesson that "hard power" (mainly military, technological and economic) alone cannot sustain peace or political influence. Any effort intended for effective political problem-solving and conflict-resolution must be made of a mix that includes "soft power" (public diplomacy, humanitarian and development aid, strategic educational campaigns, and political/economic pressure). China uses this latter approach to expand its political influence around the world.

If military power alone could stabilize Somalia or in any way solve its political problem, it would have happened when thousands of U.S. Marines were stationed in Somalia between 1992 and 1994; or when the late General Mohamed Farrah Aidid assembled the largest-ever clan coalition between 1995 and 1996; or when Ethiopia unleashed its brutal two-year occupation between 2007 and 2009.

So, any effective engagement on the part of the international community would require an approach that is radically different from the one applied in the last two decades; and this, needless to say, would require new thinking. The all-too-familiar kneejerk reactions when it comes to dealing with "Islamists" have proven counterproductive. Relying solely on violence will only make matters worse, especially for the estimated 3.5 million people on the verge of starvation.

And since all other things have failed, it behooves the international community to try soft power while expanding the African Union-mandated AMISOM into a U.N. operation—adding forces from Muslim countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Pakistan and keeping the frontline states such as Ethiopia and Kenya out.

Soft power is by no means cheap; however, it is much cheaper than wars and their destruction of lives and properties. 

Therefore, the international community should flood Somalia with food and medicine—an amount that far exceeds what would eventually be stolen and end up in the wrong hands. The supply should be so abundant that the biggest problem becomes keeping pace with storage and distribution of these essential human needs. Despite the seeming humanitarian extravagance, this approach is likely to be much cheaper than the military option.

The international community could also invest in a national disarmament project wherein people are offered to sell their weapons for highly competitive prices and all disarmed individuals are offered training programs such as micro-enterprise (small businesses to sustain themselves) and perhaps offered small grants after completing such programs. 

Another option would be to start a massive reconstruction project to build a safe haven for essential institutions and provide jobs to many who currently have to do the unthinkable to feed themselves and their families. With the right training and funding, some of these organizations could play pivotal role in paving the way for a viable organic reconciliation process, promoting inter-Somali dialogue and building bridges of understanding, collaboration and forgiveness.

A cross-generational rising political consciousness is gaining traction. Its motto is "enough is enough." This rapidly growing segment of the population is ready to welcome any new idea or initiative that is different than the rackets of the past two decades. They hinge their hope on President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, whose vision, charisma and moral balance radiate promising optimism.

Abukar Arman is a widely published writer who lives in Ohio. This article is based on a presentation he recently delivered at the United States Institute of Peace.