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What Violence in Somalia Says About the Challenges of Peacebuilding

What will it take to bring peace to Somalia? How do you even begin that process?

Somalia has a complex modern history. Generations have lived through civil unrest and the very real issues of famine and drought, which have only been compounded by outside influence.

Peacebuilders, humanitarians, and development workers continue to wrestle with these issues as the decades-long conflict across Somalia ebbs and flows. But they’re not the only ones invested in forging a peaceful future for the country. Both regional and overseas governments also care deeply about Somalia’s fate, and have either directly or indirectly invested in it, with some of this work taking the form of humanitarian aid, some weapons procurement, and some military intervention.

Still, it’s this unwieldy network of support that can make peacebuilding efforts in Somalia challenging: There are just so many different factors pulling the country in so many different directions, and snagging it on sometimes competing politics.

Brittany Brown, chief of staff at the International Crisis Group, provided a broad overview of the current state of affairs in Somalia at a New America and Peace Direct event last week. She underlined that President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (a.k.a. Farmajo) is, in vital ways, a sign of hope for the country. He applied for political asylum in the United States in the late 1980s, after having worked at the Somali embassy in Washington, D.C. He lived in the United States for years after that, seeking higher education, advocating for refugee groups, and absorbing another culture before he took office as Somalia’s Prime Minister in 2010.

And yet, despite the promise of a new era that Farmajo embodies, Somalia’s future is still uncertain due at least partly to territories held by the militant group al-Shabaab. “Everybody has been a little bit disappointed with President Farmajo,” Brown said. “He’s spent a lot of time focused on security and not as much time focused on the other things—like empowering civil society, [supplying] good governance, providing social services—the things that actually make Somalis feel Somali, investing in things to create one country.” These factors and others—high unemployment, poverty, international influence—have hampered the peace process, the panel explained.

Brown was joined by two other guests: Abdullahi Isse, the director of the Social-Life and Agricultural Development Organization (SADO) in Somalia, and Pauline Muchina, the public education and advocacy coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee’s Africa region, here in D.C.

Muchina, who was born in Kenya and has spent many years working in the region, underscored that while it’s important to zoom in on the root causes of conflict in Somalia, it’s just as critical not to neglect the country’s much broader history.

“The problem in Somalia didn’t start recently,” Muchina explained. “The colonialism that took place there, and then after colonialism trying to merge Puntland with Somaliland, and all the clans in different parts of Somalia trying to come together and fighting over power … Somalia was left in a very volatile situation.” She continued: “Because different clans and different militia groups started arming themselves … they’re all heavily armed and not afraid to use their weapons to defend their interests. And then you add another component: the international community’s involvement.”

Part of that international dimension is the Gulf crisis, which has created an unenviable situation for Somalia and its current administration. The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, to name a few, have been vying for influence in Somalia due to its geographical location. As a result of the political crisis in the Gulf, Somalia is being forced to choose a side, placing it in a quagmire. Somalia has tried to maintain its sovereignty, but it’s heavily buffeted by the overtures made by other countries in the form of military and humanitarian resources.

And then there’s the United States.

The world is now dealing with war in the age of President Donald Trump. U.S. air and drone strikes are on the rise in Somalia, and there’s no sign that this will slow down any time soon. But while Trump may be escalating military action against al-Shabaab and ISIS, these belligerent tactics didn’t start with him. It’s true: Former President Barack Obama was the one to ramp up airstrikes after the Bush administration began surveillance and ground operations in March 2003. Obama was also the first one to use drones in Somalia for counterterrorism operations in 2011. Still, is this tactic getting the job done. And, more to the point, do we even know what the job is?

Last month, Trump announced the continuation of a 2010 executive order that stressed the “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States” due to the unrest in Somalia. The United States, as a result, is training troops on the ground in Somalia, a task that may go on for another several years. The United States is also providing robust and diverse financial support to Somalia.

But these kinds of efforts have been largely overshadowed by the military action from the sky, and with good reason—reports of alleged civilian casualties, and the weak transparency around these incidents. Muchina argued that the United States needs to think long and hard about its policy regarding drones and airstrikes. In particular, she asked: “Is this morally correct? Or does it undermine [the United States’] policy of helping the world rather than killing the world?”

Indeed, perhaps the most important question in need of answering is how to at least weaken al-Shabaab with minimal trauma and negative repercussions for Somali society. Muchina argued that Al-Shabaab has been “helped by the international community because every time the international community strikes a village or strikes Al-Shabaab members, they [Al-Shabaab] go back and say, ‘See, they want to kill us all,’ because the strikes also strike civilians.”

However, the jury is still out on whether the citizens of Somalia are truly against U.S. air and drone strikes. On the one hand, Brown recounted how, on a recent work trip to Somalia, she was surprised that so many civil society members supported airstrikes. She recalled, “The amount of people who said ‘Al-Shabaab is a problem; please continue to try and eliminate al-Shabaab’ was higher than I thought.” On the other hand, even those who said they’re pro-strike would follow up with, “Ok, what’s next?”

In the same vein, Muchina pointed out that there’s an opportunity to come together as a unit—the international community, local government, and NGOs—and work toward positively shaping the minds of young people in Somalia. In fact, this outcome ought to be top of mind: If al-Shaabab’s offerings appear better than any alternatives, then there’s little hope for effecting lasting change. “Military intervention will never bring peace to Somalia. It will bring some semblance of peace—but it will never bring full peace,” Muchina argued.

So, what does violence-prevention with some longevity look like?

Peacebuilding is a layered process, and it includes the work done by the very organizations on the panel: SADO, American Friends Service Committee, International Crisis Group, and Peace Direct. More specifically, it includes conflict assessments and monitoring and evaluation metrics; it includes re-calibrating logical frameworks and tracking. Fundamentally, as all three panelists agreed, the peacebuilding process needs to be multifaceted, and there need to be many people at the negotiating table. That means intentionally including women and young people. Muchina emphasized that, “Women have a lot of say at the family level. They’re the ones educating their children … They play a very critical role in brokering peace between the clans. Unfortunately, when it comes to peace talks, they’re not at the table.”

In addition, as Isse noted, “in peacebuilding, we say there’s no one prescription for all problems … The role of civil society and local people is very important.” That’s because locals are more familiar with their own problems, and tend to have a better sense of what solutions may be most effective. Some observers have even argued that militants should play a role in the peace process, something the United States, among others, has struggled to embrace for various reasons. Even so, at the end of the day, the federalist states of Somalia will have to decide what works best for their constituencies—and the rest of the world will have to find a way to bring its own interests in line.


Melissa Salyk-Virk is a senior policy analyst for New America’s International Security program. Her research focuses on armed drone proliferation and the U.S. counterterrorism ground/air/drone strikes abroad, as well as the corresponding militant and civilian casualties. She has also researched monitoring and evaluation techniques for countering terrorist narratives, preventing violent extremism (PVE) and peacebuilding in South Asia and the Middle East, as well as the countering violent extremism (CVE) pilot program in the United States, specifically in Minnesota. Her research has been presented at conferences by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and the Society for Terrorism Research, and has been published in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism and CNN, among others. She has also interviewed former violent extremists for New America public events.

Previously, Salyk-Virk worked with the United Nation’s Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) as a communications consultant for the analysis of terrorist narratives, and supported the Soufan Center as a researcher. Prior to this, Salyk-Virk worked with international organizations in fundraising, business development, and training capacities, and has worked extensively in Jordan, the Caribbean, and India. Salyk-Virk completed her master of science in global affairs from New York University, concentrating in peacebuilding and transnational security, and her bachelor of arts in political science from the University of Richmond.

This article was first published by New America.

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