This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
William and Mary
8 April 2015
David H. Shinn
Elliott School of International Affairs
George Washington University
Let me take a moment to review the background to the current
situation in Somalia. Somalia has been trying since the overthrow of the
Siad Barre government in 1991, the same year Somaliland declared
unilateral independence from Somalia, to remove itself from the status of
failed state. After the fall of Siad Barre, a series of warlords quickly took
control of different parts of Somalia and ruled fiefdoms by relying primarily
on the support of members of the same clan.
The international community led by United States military forces
intervened late in 1992 to end a humanitarian catastrophe caused by a
combination of drought and the end of the Somali government. In early
1993, after alleviating famine conditions, the United States turned the
humanitarian operation over to the United Nations, which tried to help
recreate a Somali state.
The UN led effort soon became a hunt for one of the warlords,
Mohammed Farah Aideed, and resulted in a failed political mission and the
departure of all US troops after the infamous Blackhawk Down incident. The
UN then pulled out of Somalia in 1995; its effort failed to create a new
national government and end the reign of the warlords, who continued in
power throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century.
The Islamic Courts briefly seized power from the warlords in Mogadishu
and most of southern and central Somalia until they were ejected by
Ethiopian forces at the end of 2006. Ethiopian troops remained in Mogadishu
until early 2009 when the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which
was initially composed of Ugandan and Burundian troops, were strong
enough to replace the Ethiopians.
Ethiopian and AMISOM forces both struggled to counter an extremist
group known as al-Shabaab, which developed as a radical splinter from the
defeated Islamic Courts. AMISOM finally managed in 2011 to push alShabaab out of Mogadishu and other key towns, but al-Shabaab just moved
its forces to rural southern and central Somalia. Kenyan troops entered
southern Somalia in 2011 to remove al-Shabaab from the Lower Juba and
formally became part of the AMISOM force in 2012. Ethiopian troops, who
periodically crossed into Somalia from across the Ethiopian border, became
part of AMISOM in 2013.
Since 2011, al-Shabaab has not successfully confronted AMISOM forces
in a major battle, but it has conducted hit and run attacks, suicide bombings,
and political assassinations, including in Mogadishu. In 2013, it also carried
out the Westgate Mall bombing in Nairobi, Kenya. Al-Shabaab, in spite of
losses caused by AMISOM, has adapted to its more limited role and can still
field as many as 3,000 fighters.
After several transitional Somali governments failed to reestablish
control over the country, Somalia created in 2012 the Federal Government of
Somalia under President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who remains the current
leader. While Somalia has made considerable progress, it faces severe
political, security, economic, and humanitarian challenges.
The Current Political Situation
Let me turn next to the political situation. Somalia is working to create
a federal-style government capped by elections no later than September
2016. Many Somalis, however, prefer a strong central government based on
Somali nationalism. The reality is that Somali clans continue to prevail as
the predominant political force, which will almost certainly result in some
kind of federal system.
Two recent visitors to Somalia, retired British Army Major General
Dickie Davis and head of the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation,
Greg Mills, concluded that the state operates today as a clan-based mafia
where entwined business and political interests feed off each other. Others
describe the current government as disjointed and fragmented where
widespread corruption is a way of life.
There have been constant disagreements between the president and
the prime minister. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is now on his third
prime minister, Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, who was appointed at the
end of 2014.
There has been some progress on agreements between the Somali
Federal Government and local administrations in Jubaland, South-West State,
and Central States, but local administration is far from complete and either
not possible or threatened in some areas because of al-Shabaab’s control or
influence. Somali Federal Government relations are especially difficult with
local authorities in Puntland, and Somaliland is not part of the federal
discussion at this point.
Work is behind schedule on developing a federal constitution, which is
supposed to be ready by December 2015. Nor has there been much
progress on establishing a National Electoral Commission, which must be in
place well before elections can be held. There is no guarantee that the
Somali Federal Government can agree on a constitution and move forward
on schedule with national elections.
The most critical challenge facing Somalis today is agreement on and
implementation of a political program for the country. Once most Somalis
have reason to believe that the government is both willing and able to work
on behalf of the people and begin to reestablish services such as education
and health care, the country will finally be on the way to recovery.
The Current Security Situation
The continuing challenge posed by al-Shabaab complicates the task of
the Somali Federal Government. Al-Shabaab has been squeezed into an arc
in the middle of Somalia. It relies on terrorism, suicide bombings, and
targeted assassinations in cities, including the capital of Mogadishu. Recent
suicide attacks in Mogadishu have included the Presidential compound and
Federal Parliament in July 2014, the National Intelligence and Security
Agency prison in August 2014, AMISOM headquarters on Christmas day in
2014, and the Central Hotel in February 2015.
It makes frequent use of improvised explosive devices on supply routes
to areas liberated from al-Shabaab and has stepped up the number of
attacks it conducts inside neighboring Kenya. Just last week, al-Shabaab
carried out a horrific attack at Garissa University, about 90 miles from the
Somali border, killing 148 Kenyans, mostly students.
Al-Shabaab has the capacity to organize a force of as many as 400
fighters who can conduct occasional ambushes of government and AMISOM
troops. It no longer has the ability, however, to confront AMISOM forces in a
pitched battle and it continues to be squeezed into a smaller geographical
space. It is also facing regular defections but, at the same time, is recruiting
new followers. US air and drone attacks have eliminated several key alShabaab leaders.
There is some evidence that al-Shabaab is linked to the Kenyan
extremist organization known as al-Hijra, a non-Somali Islamist group based
on East Africa’s Swahili coast, which has long supplied recruits and financial
support to al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab is conducting a dual-track asymmetric
campaign focused on the targeting of vulnerable AMISOM and Somali
National Army (SNA) defensive positions and terrorist attacks on soft targets.
On paper, the SNA is 22,000 strong but only half this number is being
funded. On a positive note, more than 7,000 SNA soldiers are undergoing
training in Uganda, Turkey, Sudan, and China. But relations between the SNA
and the AMISOM force, while cordial, are barely functional.
Somalia has a police force of about 7,000. Due to lack of funding and
resources, it is little more than a guard force for elites. It is unable to
operate freely outside Mogadishu and sometimes cannot move safely within
the city. Impacted by endemic corruption and chronic dysfunction, the police
force lacks the respect of many Somalis.
For its part, AMISOM now consists of more than 22,000 troops and
police. Most of the soldiers come from Uganda (6,200), Burundi (5,400),
Ethiopia (4,400), and Kenya (3,700), with smaller numbers from Djibouti and
Sierra Leone. The troops are assigned by country of origin and placed in
charge of different sectors of the country. Small contingents of police come
from Burundi, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and
Zimbabwe. Without AMISOM, Davis and Mills concluded that “Somalia would
likely remain a mess.”
Piracy was once a serious problem off the Somali coast. One of the
security success stories in Somalia has been the significant decline in pirate
attacks. In 2014, there were only 12 attacks off the Horn of Africa or in the
Western Indian Ocean.
The Current Economic Situation
The gross domestic product of Somalia is about $1.6 billion annually.
Current exports are mostly livestock and charcoal. The charcoal trade does
serious harm to the environment and al-Shabaab, which controls some of the
charcoal producing areas, receives an estimated 30 percent of its market
value. More than 80 percent of Somalia’s exports go to the United Arab
Emirates, Oman, and Yemen.
Livestock, fishing, and agriculture have potential but are hampered by
insecurity and the absence of a fully functioning government bureaucracy.
Somalia may have oil and gas, but this has not yet been proven. In any
event, there is not enough stability to exploit whatever might be present.
The Somali annual government budget is only $260 million and taxes
and duties bring in about $110 million of this amount. This contrasts with at
least $1.2 billion in annual remittances from well over 1 million Somalis living
in the diaspora. This number excludes Somali refugees now residing in
neighboring countries. Remittances from the diaspora are critical to
There is little formal employment in Somalia and literacy rates may be
as low as 15 percent. Corruption continues to be a huge problem. The only
thing that has held the economy together is the ingenuity and
entrepreneurial skill of the Somali private sector. The business sector works
in spite of obstacles and a weak government. Where there are basic services
such as water, power, finance, and communications, they are provided by
the private sector. Davis and Mills believe that the Somali business sector
offers the greatest hope for Somalis to pull themselves out of crisis.
The Current Humanitarian Situation
Since 1991, Somalia has experienced a persistent complex emergency
due to food insecurity, widespread violence, and recurrent droughts and
floods. Despite improvements in 2014, malnutrition rates in Somalia
remained among the highest in the world, and ongoing insecurity in the
country—particularly in areas that lack established local authorities and
where al-Shabaab is present—contribute to the emergency.
As of the beginning of 2015, an estimated 2.3 million Somalis (out of
about 7 million Somalis living in the country) experienced stressed levels of
food insecurity. Some 731,000 Somalis experienced crisis and emergency
levels of acute food insecurity. More than 200,000 children under the age of
five were acutely malnourished. There were 893,000 internally displaced
persons in Somalia.
There were almost 1 million Somali refugees in neighboring countries,
mostly in Kenya and Ethiopia. Yemen hosts about 238,000 Somali refugees.
Ironically, the worsening situation in Yemen has resulted in Yemenis fleeing to
The cycle of violence, drought, and rising food prices in Somalia has
had a devastating impact on the Somali people. Not surprisingly, the 2014
Human Development Index compiled by the United Nations Development
Program puts Somalia near the bottom of the list.
US Policy on Somalia
The United States was deeply engaged in Somalia beginning in 1992 in
an effort to alleviate a serious famine. This major engagement ended in
1994 when U.S. troops ended their participation in the United Nations
peacekeeping operation in Somalia. The United States continued its
humanitarian assistance program but otherwise largely ignored
developments in Somalia until the bombing of the U.S. embassies in 1998 in
Kenya and Tanzania. The embassy attacks were instigated by al-Qaeda and
several of the perpetrators took refuge in Somalia.
The attack on the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001,
added to U.S. concerns about the situation in Somalia. During the first ten
years of the 21st century, the overwhelming focus of U.S. policy in Somalia
was on counterterrorism. While counterterrorism remains high on the
agenda, there has been a greater focus in the last five years on supporting
efforts to achieve political stability and mitigating the continuing
In 2014, Wendy Sherman, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs,
gave a major speech on US policy in Somalia. She identified six reasons for
US engagement in Somalia. First, the US wants Somalia to be stable and
economically viable. Second, a secure and united Somalia weakens the
forces of extremism that threaten other countries, including the United
States. Third, a stable Somalia would allow two million Somali refugees and
internally displaced persons to return home. Fourth, government control
over Somalia would help end piracy. Fifth, it would reduce the strain on
Africa’s peacekeeping forces by allowing them to return to their countries.
Sixth, it would send the right signal to the 130,000 Americans of Somali
The US strategy for helping Somalia defend itself begins with strong
support for AMISOM. Since 2007, the US has obligated well over $500 million
to support AMISOM and more than $170 million to train the Somali National
Army. One piece of this support has been the training of a 150-person
advanced infantry company known as “Danab” or Lightning Force. Much of
this training has been done by private contractors such as Bancroft Global
Development and DynCorp.
The Department of Defense has a team in Mogadishu to coordinate
with the international community in helping AMISOM and the Somali forces.
For the past several years, the United States has had special operations
forces inside Somalia that occasionally attack al-Shabaab. The US also
conducts air and drone strikes aimed at al-Shabaab leaders such as Ahmed
Godane in September 2014 and, most recently, Adnan Garaar, the
mastermind of the Westgate Mall attack, in March 2015. Both are now dead.
The goal of US military assistance to Somalia is to enhance security
and defeat al-Shabaab. From the beginning, US naval vessels have been
attached to the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden and Western Indian
Since the United States officially recognized the Somali government in
2013, it has provided well over $300 million in bilateral aid aimed at creating
jobs, building institutions, and strengthening the public and private sectors.
Last year, the US renewed the disaster declaration for the complex
emergency in Somalia. The US is by far the largest provider of humanitarian
assistance to Somalia, offering $230 million during 2014 and 2015. Of this
amount, $156 million went for in-kind food aid, cash transfers for food, local
and regional procurement of food, and food vouchers.
President Obama named in February 2015 the first US ambassador
since 1991 to Somalia, Katherine Dhanani. She will reside in Nairobi.
Looking to the future, one of the major US concerns has been the lack of
progress in developing a Somali government free of internal divisions, widely
accepted by the Somali people, and able to deliver government services.
Political turmoil came to a head in November 2014 during a vote of no
confidence in the Somali parliament on the previous prime minister. A High
Level Partnership Forum on Somalia was scheduled a few weeks later in
Copenhagen. Washington pulled out of the meeting because it saw no utility
in sending a delegation under these circumstances.
There is a new prime minister, but the United States is waiting to be
convinced that this Somali government has the commitment and ability to
make timely progress on the political process that will allow Somalia to move