Will the intensity of the Somali conflict increase? Implications for neighbours and international actors’ attitudes

First of all, apologies for the half-finished version of this article which was unintentionally published last night. I intended only to save it, and not publish it! 😦

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Albert Vilalta (a la izquierda), Alicia Gámez, con el rostro difuminado, y Roque Pascual, junto a los secuestradores.- EL PAIS

The freeing last week of the two Spanish hostages kidnapped in Mauritania nine months ago and then hidden in Mali, has centred much of the attention of the international pages on most Spanish media outlets. The news have also generated plenty of analysis regarding AQIM, and the Al-Qaeda brand on the Sahel. As mentioned here a number of times before, the increasing instability of the region has been a source of concern for numerous European and northern African governments. At the same time as AQIM got all the headlines, the spike in violence in Mogadishu – where Islamist insurgents and governments troops have clashed and where over 30 people were killed in a hotel – may make us wonder whether we should also worry about the intensification of the Somali conflict on the near future. I do not know how likely this is, although I have hypothesised on this possibility a few weeks ago, when writing on the Kampala bombings and the African Union summit. This lack of detailed knowledge of the Somali reality on the ground and the internal dynamics of the different actors prevents me from writting much about this, but I would welcome any input from those more familiar with the Somali situation…
Now, a possible consequence of the intensification of the conflict – together with the fact that Kampala saw the first Al Shabaab terrorist act outise Somalia – could indeed lead to further “regionalisation” of the conflict. And, to an increase on the number of foreign troops in Somalia and external support for these operations. This, some analysts point out, could not only not contribute to the solution of the conflict, but in fact have just the opposite effect. Nevertheless, if we were to take this escalation as a working hypothesis, we can suggest a few aspects of this which are worth our attention:

Domestic security
It is clear to everyone that domestic security within Somalia is something that will only be achieved when the conflict is solved, and this unfortunately appears quite far away. The Kampala bombings however, have risen one important question; this is: “to what extent are African citizens of neighbouring countries (of course, Ethiopia, but also Kenya and Uganda) threatened by potential attacks on their countries?”. This is what this piece on Ratio Magazine said following the Kampala bombing and the Uhuru park bomb on the run-up to Kenya’s constitutional referendum:

The blasts in Kampala, currently investigated as an attack by Somali Islamic militants, draw renewed emphasis to the fact that the region is exposed to threats from the Horn of Africa…
The security outlook is worsened by the fact that across Kenya and Uganda, the police are largely ineffectual. In both countries, they are underequipped, underpaid and corrupt – hiring private security is routine for businesses and residents in both Kenya and Uganda. As a consequence, the local police are not in a strong position to deal with such threats from Somalia. In Kenya, the police have effectively admitted that they did not expect to resolve who bombed the rally, and in Uganda, the US have promised support in the investigations.

This, regarding the direct threat which Al Shabaab or other militians can mean for neighbouring countries; but there are more indirect – although perhaps also more pervasive ones – ways in which renewed hostilities in Somalia can affect other countries. For example, civil society and political leaders can manipulate the fears and insecurity of the population, and construct with these an anti-Islamic discourse which can increase tensions among local groups. This was the case, as Dan Branch writes on OpenDemocracy, on the recent controversy about khadi courts during the campaign for Kenya’s contitutional referendum:

An agreement signed by various church leaders in February 2010 is explicit: “It is clear that the Muslim community is basically caving [sic] for itself an Islamic state within a state. This is a state with its own Sharia compliant banking system; its own Sharia compliant insurance; its own Halaal bureau of standards; and is now pressing for its own judicial system.” In truth, however, the kadhis’ courts are anything but a covert instrument of Islamic radicalism; they have been non-threatening and indeed virtually invisible in public life since independence.
The churches also shamelessly appealed to a broader hostility to Islam, rooted variously in the terror attacks in Nairobi (1998) and Mombasa (2002); the troubled historical relationship with neighbouring Somalia (and the presence in Kenya of many Somali refugees from the conflict there); and the embrace by the Kenyan government of the idea of “war on terror”. More broadly, the public perception of the relationship between Christians and Muslims in Kenya (a country where Muslims make up perhaps a quarter of the population) is being increasingly shaped by rightwing Christian literature, broadcasts and, some argue, money from across the Atlantic.

International actors
But, as well as the domestic implications for neighbouring countries, an exacerbation of the Somali conflict could lead international actors to increase their presence on the territory. This would apply especially, but not uniquely, to the US. Exploring this possibility, analysts have expressed their opinion that increased external intervention could lead to disastrous instability – as both the US-led (1992) and US-backed (2006) interventions show. Elisabeth Dickinson, for example, has argued this; and so has done Bronwyn E. Bruton (via E. Zuckerman), on this interesting interview, in which she advocates “constructive disengagement”:

The constructive disengagement approach is grounded in the realization that Somalia’s internal conflict is entrenched, and that international efforts to step into it and try to pick political winners is to do more harm than good. It proposes that the best thing that the United States can do is to try to lay the groundwork for a future reconciliation effort. At bottom what that consists of is humanitarian relief and development assistance, using the local authorities that exist on the ground.

Bruton comments explicitly are directed to the US, but some of her cautionary notes are indeed applicable to other international actors, like the EU. For example, on her policy briefing for FRIDE titled “EU cooperation with the African Union: Problems and potential”Cristina Barrios reflects on the importance to look at the broader picture, and not be driven only by crises, in order to improve security cooperation (emphasis added):

…the EU-AU partnership should articulate a more comprehensive security approach. The APSA has been tied to specific military missions (Sudan, Somalia, Central African Republic) and to EU member states’ voluntary funds, channelled through the African Peace Facility. This emphasis on military operations is explained by the role of EU member state militaries in policy-making, as well as by a reactive approach. Thus far, crisis management has been the driver, while the concept of ‘human security’ remains an unattained ideal. The EU must show it really is ready for a more comprehensive – yet realistic – approach, shifting to crisis prevention and peace-building mechanisms. This fits in well with EU Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs’ recognition that conflict and state fragility are connected to the Millennium Development Goals. The Horn of Africa, including Sudan, is a case in point where it is clearly necessary to combine EU operations and AU action within a broader policy scheme.

When examining the possibility of increased violence in Somalia and its regional dimensions, then, the lessons for international actors seem clear: be aware of the counter-productive effect of increased intervention, and put you efforts on developing a security cooperation agenda that both goes beyond the military aspects and does not respond only to specific crises.

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