Somalia is understood to consist of three states of varying autonomy. ‘Somalia’, with its seat in Mogadishu, is frequently refered to as ‘South Central Somalia’, and while it alone has international recognition as a nation-state, the political forces that control the state by name in fact cling to a handful of Mogadishu suburbs, and not much else. Puntland, occupying the corner, or horn, of Somalia, is aligned with the Mogadishu government but has its own para-state structures and functions largely independantly. Somaliland, which makes up most of northern Somalia, is a semi-autonomous state that has recently celebrated its 20th anniversary since breaking away from Mogadishu, and continues to strive for international recognition.
For the last five years, al Shabbab has been growing into the most powerful insurgency group in south-central Somalia. A militant group which aligns itself with al Qaeda, al Shabbab is in effect in ‘control’ of the majority of territory in South-Central. There’s no simple way to explain the power dynamics within this portion (or any other) of Somalia. Its base is a nexus of clan affiliations and alliances of varying reliability and strength, and a combination of ideology, brutality, and ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. Its main opponent is the Transitional Federal Government (TFG)- ostensibly backed by western governments who are increasingly wary of the TFG’s corruption and incompetence, and supported by an Africa Union peacekeeping mission (AMISOM) staffed largely by longsuffering Ugandans. However there are plenty of groups opposing al Shabbab from within Somalia as well, including various clan-based rivalries.
Since 2006, when al Shabbab began to rise to the fore with the splintering of the Islamic Courts Union, it has waged war not just against the TFG, but also against targets it deems representative of western influence- much in line with other militant groups such as the Taliban, and various branches of the al Qaeda network (yes, I see the redundancy there). This has included aid agencies. Between 2008 and 2009 as many as 42 aid workers were killed by al Shabbab, and by late 2010, virtually no western aid agencies (including UN agencies) had any significant presence in south-central.
While al Shabbab does exert a level of civil control with para-state structures and local governance institutions, its reach is fragile and its support services largely ineffective, with its focus on warfighting and territorial control. The impact for the Somali citizenry in al Shabbab-control territories has been a dearth of basic services- education, health, infrastructure development- and it is not coincidental that the areas which the UN last week declared a “famine” (a technical term relating to surpassing a specific threshold of mortality and malnutrition in a given population)- Bakool and Lower Shabelle- are under al Shabbab control.
In a radio interview on the 5th of July, an al Shabbab spokesperson indicated that al Shabbab was commencing drought response activities, and that it would allow support from anybody, muslim or non-muslim, who only had a humanitarian agenda.
This implied a shift in position for al Shabbab, which had banned aid agencies from its territory since 2009. The implication of the message was that western aid agencies were welcome to begin operating in its territory again, and would presumably be safe to do so. The UN has already commenced drought response operations, and many other agencies are now considering their options.
But why aren’t aid agencies pouring into Somalia as we speak? If al Shabbab have said that it’s okay, what’s the delay? Surely the need of the Somali people on the ground is so urgent that it’s now time to rush in with all our resources and do whatever we can?
Well, in some ways, yes, it is. In others, not so simple. Here are some of the issues to consider that I understand many international organizations are currently wrestling with.
An invitation from al Shabbab central command may sound like a good enough reason to think aid workers would be safe re-entering south-central, but in fact it isn’t. Like many insurgency groups, al Shabbab is as much a network of affiliated warlords as it is a hierarchical paramilitary organization. Fighters on the ground- the ones with guns, grenades and IEDs- will align themselves first with their local commander, and only after that with al Shabbab central. Then there’s the assumption that the message is even getting down to those field grunts and their captains. Or the notion that some 16-year-old with an AKM, who’s never been to school but has spent the last ten years being told that westerners are pillaging his country and deserve to die, will pay any attention to some recent order from someone he’s never heard, when he sees an NGO Land Cruiser drive past.
South-central is heavily mined, and with shifting fronts and ongoing combat operations, new explosive devices are still being laid. Al Shabbab and AMISOM fight almost daily battles in and around Mogadishu and other locations, while rival clans with varying allegiances also struggle with al Shabbab fighters on multiple fronts around the region. Lawlessness and the gargantuan proliferation of small arms would make south-central an insecure prospect even without an ongoing civil war. Last I checked, the pirates who operate along Somalia’s coastline weren’t taking instructions from al Shabbab Central (admittedly they are mostly gathered further north now, in Puntland, but seriously, can anybody say “Open Season”?). Aid agencies who have had to pull out of existing programs (at al Shabbab’s instruction) may have left behind resentful community members or former staff in a culture where disagreements are often settled with firearms.
Finally, the statement- which was vague at best- comes at a time when al Shabbab continue to face uncertainty. Their territorial hold is weakening and they are increasingly being targeted by western intelligence, including drone strikes. The recent killing of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed at a security checkpoint in Mogadishu robbed them of a senior commander, in an organization that is rife with internal power-struggles. The authority behind the statement may be in question, and if, in the midst of a power struggle, different voices take control of the leadership, what will this mean for aid agencies who have returned to the field?
In short- the statement from al Shabbab does not guarantee that aid workers are going to be safe from indocrinated and hard-core al Shabbab fighters and commanders at the field level, never mind the host of other security risks that are on offer.
Logistics is a bit of a no-brainer. Somalia’s a remote, hostile environment where 20 years of civil war has been systematically destroying any real effort at building a local infrastructure. A network of airfields and roads (mostly unsurfaced) exists, but there are challenges which need to be overcome. Sourcing goods and supplies is hard when everything has to be flown in from outside (and recall that piracy makes shipping difficult), and agencies will have to staff their operations, many from scratch. This slows down any response, even if agencies are willing to step in.
For more discussion in a different context on some of the factors relating to why aid gets bogged down (some of which apply here), see this post on aid arriving in Haiti from last year.
Al Shabbab isn’t very popular. The TFG doesn’t like it. AMISOM is fighting a war with it. The CIA keeps bombing it. Most thinking people with a moderate worldview villify it. And now, with a famine in their back yard, most local Somalis are pretty unhappy with the way they run things too.
Tens of thousands are on the move. Thousands of kids are dying. Al Shabbab is losing support. And the outflux of population robs it of a source of new fighters for its cause. Not to mention a resource base on which its fighters draw to survive themselves.
Letting aid workers in solves many problems for al Shabbab. It demonstrates to its own people that it’s taking steps to solve the problem. It helps slow the outflux of refugees. It brings in resources that bolster the population- which may be appropriated by fighters at times, or the effects may be indirect, such as more money in the economy that supports fighters’ families which in turn supports them. And, if aid agencies don’t do the right thing by al Shabbab, it gives them fresh ammunition in the polarizing of its people against the west.
Finally, al Shabbab is being targeted by US drones. The presence of aid workers acts as a human shield. Suddenly, pickups and four-by-fours with aerials racing through al Shabbab territory may not certify a senior commander in his wagon, but perhaps a bunch of USAID consultants on their way to a project site. Ooops.
An aid operation requires resources- money, vehicles, property, supplies. These come from donors. Unfortunately, most western aid donors have very strong restrictions around dealing with terror-aligned organizations (of which al Shabbab is widely recognized as one). However operating in al Shabbab territory, it is impossible not to engage with al Shabbab, almost impossible to guarantee you haven’t inadvertantly hired an al Shabbab operative, and difficult to ascertain that some of your support doesn’t trickle down into al Shabbab’s hands. With no exemptions from western governments for aid agencies operating in these highly complex circumstances, agencies put themselves at risk of losing donor support, or at worst, criminal prosecution at the hands of donor governments, by operating in these areas.
Many aid agencies operated in south-central Somalia and were ejected by al Shabbab. Some of these did so quickly, at a metaphorical (and sometimes not-so-metaphorical) gunpoint, and in doing so, left behind not just staff and community trust, but also physical assets- cars, computers, generators, compounds. This resulted in a large financial loss to the organizations- resources that had been hard to come by in the first place, given low donor interest in Somalia. Should aid agencies begin operating again in al Shabbab territory without expecting some form of recompense for the loss of their assets? Or do they just ignore the loss of those assets, and let al Shabbab have their way, in the name of helping people? While in principle it may be easy to say that helping people is more important than getting your pound of flesh back, the reality is that agencies have been ill-able to afford the loss in the past, and now investing further in new assets and compounds to replace those lost in evacuation is coming at a cost of resources that might have gone into communities instead.
And what’s to stop al Shabbab doing it all again six months from now and seizing all those shiny new Land Cruisers? And what will donor governments say when they see their logos on the side of technicals being used to ambush AMISOM troops?
The Humanitarian Imperative
All this is very well, but of course, people- and particularly, children- are dying. And these are people who may not support al Shabbab, and certainly didn’t vote for them. Is it fair to let our organizational retisence, our principles of non-politicization, or even some fear that one or two staff members might run over a stray landmine, stop us from rushing in to Somalia to help those who need our help most?
I’m not going to give an answer. The concerns are real. The potential harm from entering this context exists- albeit, at the moment, in some analytical future. The potential harm from not entering the context also exists- and it’s real, and in our faces. But for many years now, the aid community has had to contend not just with growing security risks, but also a growing appreciation for the complexity of their operating environment and the very real need to Do No Harm. Agencies taking a bit of time to assess as best they can the potential risks should be leant some grace, just as those who rush in to begin operations without thought for potential ramifications need to ensure they’ve done their due diligence.
I hope- I sincerely hope- that as many agencies as possible and as much assistance as possible will pour into south-central Somalia. As long as the factors remain as they are, though, this will be an exceptionally challenging operation, with high risk of negative ramifications for even the most thoughtful or well-meaning response agency.