During her recent visit to the Horn of Africa, Theresa May showcased the British commitment to fighting Harakat Al Shabaab, visiting a UK-backed Counter-IED training centre in Nairobi where British troops help prepare soldiers from the region to deploy as part of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). The centre is a part of a wider portfolio of anti-Shabaab measures that have included tools as diverse as the controversial British-backed Serendi deradicalisation centre in Mogadishu, and as much as £385 million in support of Somalia last year. In addition to this, Britain have been very active diplomatically, hosting the May 2017 Somalia Conference in London, and have pledged to increase their general trade and investment in Africa. The British investment is to be expanded with £7 million of new UK funding to support the AU’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia and more than £25 million to support Somalia as it works to establish a stable and democratic political system. This will include advice to help develop rules on resource and power sharing, and to prepare for landmark elections, including support for voter and political party registration. A further £60 million is to be provided for humanitarian purposes.
The involvement of Great Britain is in many ways impressive, but it is also at times a sign of problems within Somalia. According to a UN Security Council Resolution in August 2017, AMISOM troops should be out by 2020, with a complete handover by 2021. Yet, in spite of improvements, the Somali Army continues to struggle with historic issues, including sporadic payment of wages, clan biases and corruption and most AMISOM contributing states are well aware of how unsuited it is to handle the fight against Al Shabaab. The Somali police and court system is in a similarly unfit state, and there are many reports that indicate that locals would rather put their trust in Shabaab’s courts than the corrupt and slow institutions in the Somali justice system.
Somalia is also marred by a tense relationship between the central government in Mogadishu, and the regional state, where the government of Prime Minister Khaire and president Faramajo have actively undermined regional presidents. Oppositional Sheikh Osman Jawari was removed from the position of the speaker of the House in April without a formal process, being replaced by the Khaire/Faramajo loyalist Mohamed Mursal Abdirahman. Early in 2018, the oppositional major of Mogadishu, Thabit Abdi Mohamed, was removed, and clan leaders complain about a lack of dialogue. These moves have created concerns about authoritarianism within government. The lack of security in the capital and an inability to prevent assassinations of government officials—with yet another bomb attack last Sunday—also shows a great weakness in the instruments of power operating on behalf of the Faramajo/Khaire government, and local popularity is dwindling. On top of these conflicts lies the emergence of new actors over the last year, with an increasingly active United Arab Emirates, who support regional states as allies, and the central government which has strong ties to Qatar. The Qatari–Emirati rivalry is playing out in Somalia, and creating a new cleavage that Britain has to transcend. Similarly, in Ethiopa, the new premiership of Abiy Ahmed Ali has led to a change of power in Ethiopia’s Somali-inhabited Ogadeen region, and clashes between Oromos and Somalis, mainly of the Ogadeen clan, have further weakened the Juba state. This comes alongside an increasing Chinese presence in the region, which Britain’s ally, the United States, in many ways sees as a challenge equal to that of Al Shabaab. In this sense, Britain’s engagement takes place in a complex environment, playing host to many actors with diverging interests.
All considered, there are many mistakes Britain must be careful to avoid. The first is the conflation of Somalia with Mogadishu. It is in what Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan, the president of the South Western State, calls ‘the flyover territory’—rural central Somali areas where villages remain unprotected by AMISOM, the national army, and regional state forces—that Al Shabaab poses the greatest challenge. Whilst AMISOM, the Somali Army and regional forces are superior to the Shabaab, this does not translate into rural security. Despite their military superiority, they lack the capacity to protect the locals in day-to-day situations, and withdraw to their bases after odd military campaigns. This means that locals are at the mercy of Al Shabaab, and have to pay them, support them, and even send their sons to them as recruits, to ensure the safety of the villagers. As long as this state of affairs continues, Al Shabaab will survive for years to come. Local knowledge is needed to bring an end to this situation, but, given its current deficiencies, it is unlikely the Somali Army will be capable of fulfilling this role. This means that Britain will have to look outside Mogadishu, and ensure that they have an accurate understanding of regional politics and clan dynamics. Indeed, these forces can be coordinated centrally, and there are already opportunities for such forces in the plans for future Somali police and security structures.
The second challenge is to ensure that the United States, China, Qatar, the new government in Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the Somali regional states and the central government, work together to counter the threat posed by Al Shabaab. The current UK government’s diplomatic record, including a relatively close relationship with Qatar and the Emirates, suggests that this may be possible. The final challenge is to avoid window dressing, for example by supporting political parties that ‘don’t exist’ based around a single charismatic person—a favourite pastime of ‘party support’ in Somalia in the past—and to rather look for parties with a real ideological platform. In general, institutions and organizations should function in order to gain support, not be granted support because they resemble western institutions on paper.
The potential of the British involvement in fighting Al Shabaab is large, and Theresa May’s engagement is commendable, but in order for it to work effectively in the future, Britain needs to learn from the mistakes of the past.