An ongoing offensive against the jihadist group al-Shabab is having significant military success after 16 years of civil war. But gains on the battlefield alone won’t solve the underlying challenges still facing Somalia.
To build a better future, the government must adopt a more holistic and sustainable approach to addressing the needs of citizens that goes beyond a military-focused strategy. So far, the signs of that happening don’t look promising.
The government is confronted by a series of daunting tasks. It needs to roll back terrorism, deepen democracy, and respond to a war and drought-induced humanitarian disaster that has left eight million people – roughly half the population – in need of aid.
As the government grapples with each of these problems, the delicate balance between security, political stability, and the well-being of its citizens is being put to the test.
For a start, the offensive – which began last August and is backed by clan militias in the centre of the country – still needs to consolidate the gains it has made after more than eight months of fighting. Large areas are still off limits due to the fluidity of the conflict, which erodes local trust in the capacity of the government to maintain control.
Despite the urgency of trying to assist the millions of people in need – many of them trapped in al-Shabab-held territory – aid primarily reaches regions where the government's authority has already been long established.
The offensive has also uprooted some of the very people it was meant to rescue. In some areas, communities that had spent years under the ideological control of al-Shabab moved deeper into the hinterland with the jihadists when they were defeated. Others fled to the capital, Mogadishu, and the grim displacement camps on the outskirts of the city.
That population shift has been compounded by the recent arrival of some of the more prosperous families who fled al-Shabab when the insurgents first took over rural districts many years ago. They have returned in the hope of taking advantage of the government’s “stabilisation” aid – even though they are generally materially better off than the subsistence farmers who remained behind.
Aid diversion has also been a problem. There have been reports of the government stabilisation funding going to the macawisley clan militias that have done much of the fighting. Although a volunteer force, they have essentially been rewarded with food aid meant for the vulnerable in the newly “liberated” areas.
Extortion at checkpoints set up by security forces further complicates the humanitarian landscape. It not only impedes aid distribution, but also handicaps trade and business recovery.
Need for a new approach
As a first step to capitalising on its recent military success, the government needs to start implementing an aid policy that looks beyond the current approach, which prioritises short-term relief.
This would involve investing in the development of local infrastructure, strengthening health and education systems, and promoting community resilience and self-reliance.
“The government needs to prioritise service delivery in the territory it has retaken to try and blunt any potential jihadist resurgence.”
Yet aid funding to Somalia is perennially under-resourced – currently at 25% of this year’s $2.6 billion international appeal. A cash-strapped Mogadishu needs to reach out to donor governments for the longer-term support required. It’s a hard ask, but it’s the only way to break the cycle of dependence on emergency disaster relief.
The success of the current offensive – which originally focused on the centre of the country – has resulted in the most significant gains against al-Shabab in at least a decade. The government needs to prioritise service delivery in the territory it has retaken to try and blunt any potential jihadist resurgence.
Mounting local discontent with al-Shabab – especially over their strict taxation policy that ignored the hardship caused by five seasons of failed rains – paved the way for the recent successes. But al-Shabab has proved in the past to be remarkably resilient.
As the focal point of the fighting shifts to Somalia’s south, progress by the government has started to slow. While it seeks to solidify its upper hand, the government should also keep a door open to negotiations as a path to ending a war that has seemed to define the country for far too long.
The danger for democracy
Instead of taking a forward-looking and holistic approach, the government has unfortunately shown autocratic tendencies by cracking down on democratic liberties – including freedom of the press – without fully addressing the root causes of the problems Somalia is facing.
The focus on a ‘total war’ strategy has left little room for alternative approaches that embrace peacebuilding and political reconciliation. By silencing critical thinking, the government has been unable to address the flaws in its policies or explore more sustainable and inclusive solutions.
An insistence on favourable media coverage has effectively stifled dissenting opinions, raising concerns about Somalia’s diminishing civic space and the potential exploitation of counterterrorism initiatives for political scapegoating purposes. Journalists who objectively report on the conflict already face arbitrary arrest, and think tanks offering critical assessments have also been targeted for co-option or intimidation.
A recently adopted counterterrorism bill goes even further. It includes ambiguous, undefined terminology forbidding the media from "disseminating lies" and "nonfactual reporting”, which opens up the potential to penalise independent reporting on ongoing military operations.
A blanket ban on "publishing terrorist beliefs” is also in gross conflict with freedom of speech and could further suppress dissenting voices – as well as put journalists’ lives at risk as al-Shabab has repeatedly warned it will punish so-called one-sided reporting.
This suppression of contrary opinions only exacerbates existing grievances and tensions, potentially fuelling further conflict and extremism.
Striking a balance
An alternative would be to open the democratic space by promoting dialogue, inclusive decision-making processes, and allowing for a diversity of voices to be heard. Such an approach would also contribute to more effective policymaking.
Supporting long-term reconciliation and trust-building among stakeholders – including representatives of the government, civil society, and local communities – would create an environment more conducive to lasting peace and stability.
By striking a balance between addressing the immediate threats posed by terrorism and fostering long-term peace, stability, and democratic development, Somalia can create a more inclusive and resilient society.
We are in search of a new equilibrium – one that promotes the welfare of all Somalis.
Edited by Obi Anyadike.