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Somalia: First Steps in a New Direction

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Feb 16, 2009 (090216)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"The shortcomings of [the previous U.S.] approach are abundantly clear: violent extremism and anti-Americanism are now rife in Somalia due in large part to the blowback from policies that focused too narrowly on counter-terrorism objectives. The new U.S. national security team must make a clean break by defining and implementing a long-term strategy to support the development of an inclusive Somali government." - Ken Menkhaus

With the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Somalia, the election of President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed on January 31, and his appointment of Prime Minister Omar Ali Sharmarke on February 14, the opportunities for such an inclusive government seem to be opening up. President Sheikh Sharif is a moderate Islamist who headed the Islamic Courts Union before the Ethiopian invasion in December 2006. Sharmarke, who graduated from Carleton University in Canada and has worked for the United Nations, is the son of the last democratically elected president of Somalia, whose assassination in 1969 was followed by the military coup of Mohammed Siad Barre, who held power from 1969 to 1991.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains an interview with President Sheikh Sharif, and excerpts from a new policy paper for the Enough Project by Ken Menkhaus, on "Somalia after the Ethiopian Occupation: First Steps to End the Conflict and Combat Extremism" (Feb 9, 2009,

For a profile of new Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed see

For a profile of new Somali Prime Minister Omar Ali Sharmarke, see

For an earlier report (September 3, 2008) for the Enough Project by Ken Menkhaus, see "Somalia: A Country in Peril, a Policy Nightmare" (

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Somalia and additional background links, see

Alison Des Forges

Most AfricaFocus readers have probably already seen the news of the death of outstanding scholar and human rights activist Alison Des Forges in the plane crash in Buffalo, New York, on February 12, 2009. Her courage and integrity will be greatly missed. Human Rights Watch has opened a tribute page for her at

Her classic report on the genocide in Rwanda , "Leave None to Tell the Story," is out of print, but the full text is still available on the HRW website at:

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

Editor's Book Notes

(1) New Books on Somalia in AfricaFocus Bookshop

See or

Of particular interest, all published in 2008 or 2007, are

Abdi Roble (photographer) and Doug Rutledge (writer), The Somali Diaspora

Osman Farah, Muchi Mammo, and Joakim Gundel, Somalia: Diaspora and State Reconstitution in the Horn of Africa

Kenneth R. Rutherford, Humanitarianism Under Fire: The US and UN Intervention in Somalia

Mark Bradbury, Becoming Somaliland

Ioan Lewis and Michael J. Dwyer, Understanding Somalia and Somaliland: Culture, History, Society

(2) Updates on Books by AfricaFocus Editor

"No Easy Victories" in the Classroom - see syllabus and comments from fall 2008 course on "Race, Class, and Power in Southern Africa," Dr. Jeanne Penvenne, Tufts University

"No Easy Victories" reference list available on-line

"Apartheid's Contras" now back in print

"King Solomon's Mines Revisited" full-text now available on-line by chapter
New and used print copies available for order at low prices

Somalia: 'The Somali People Do Not Want Any More Fighting'

12 February 2009


UN Integrated Regional Information Networks

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

Djibouti - Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was recently elected President of Somalia at a parliamentary meeting in Djibouti. Before returning to Mogadishu where he will appoint a prime minister and form a government, Ahmed talked to IRIN about the challenges ahead. Below are excerpts:

What are the biggest challenges facing your administration?

The biggest obstacle is trying to get people to believe and have hope again that things can and will get better. The people have suffered and are still suffering. They have been divided. Rebuilding the unity of our people and nation will be one of our biggest challenges. Every time they were hopeful, they were knocked back again. We must keep this hope alive.

We also face the task of building government institutions from scratch. We are basically broke and the country broken. All these in my opinion are obstacles we will have to deal with urgently.

What role do you expect donors to play?

In the past donors have put money into Somalia but unfortunately, it did not have [the] impact it should have had on the people for various reasons, including corruption. Often, aid did not reach the intended targets. We hope and expect that donors will increase their support. For our part, we have to change the way things are done and make sure that any money given will be used appropriately and in the manner intended, that it will reach the people. We will not allow corruption to take root and public money [to be] misused.

Do you think the international community is serious in its support and will give the necessary help to allow your government to function effectively?

It is too early for me to answer that question. Give it time and we may be able to answer it.

There are groups that do not support you, including the more radical Islamists. How do you intend to deal with them - negotiate or fight?

First, I don't have any desire for more fighting. The Somali people do not want any more fighting. Those who think that more fighting will resolve things, I want to tell them it will not. Let us try to find a better way for them to accomplish what they are looking for. The best way is through dialogue and negotiations and we are open to talking. We will talk to anyone willing to talk. We will not engage in war. I am for a negotiated settlement to our differences.

You will need a security force. Where will you find them?

Security will come from a combination of the TFG [Transitional Federal Government] forces, our forces in Mogadishu and other supporters and of course the Somali people who want to see the government succeed and are ready to join the security forces. So, yes we are going to create security forces.

Do you need outside help in forming a security force?

Obviously outside help is necessary but then it must be done in a way that they can help without inflaming the situation and creating instability and animosity among the people. It will have to be an approach that is appropriate and will help without hurting us.

Does this help need to include military as well? Do you need arms, soldiers, maybe even blue helmets?

Because we are in a new situation we need to figure out what exactly we need. We need arms and security forces and of course we need the world to help us. However, we have to figure out the best form that help should take. Therefore, it will be the responsibility of the new cabinet to come up with the best way to ask for the help.

In the past two years, thousands have been killed and over a million displaced in Mogadishu due to the fighting. What plans do you have to alleviate the suffering of the people?

I am deeply saddened by the suffering of those people affected by the fighting. Taking care of them and resettling them is going to be one of the biggest challenges facing this government. We [will] do our part in assisting them ... but we are also going to invite humanitarian agencies to come and help. We are putting in place plans to ensure the security of the city to enable people to return home. With this two-track approach, ensuring security and providing the necessary help, I am convinced there will be changes that will lead to the return of the displaced to their homes.

There is an enormous naval taskforce fighting piracy off the Somali coast. Do you think that is the best way to combat the problem?

I think the best way to fight piracy in Somalia is to have a strong and functioning government capable of taking charge of security both on land and at sea. But I also understand that while ships are being hijacked nations will not stand by and watch. That is why foreign forces at sea are taking action.

Some Islamist groups have been very rigid in their application of what they see as Islamic law. People are flogged and even stoned. What is your view of their interpretation of Islam?

I believe that the way they deal with people is not right and has nothing to do with Islamic Sharia law. Islam has a legal framework and courts. So for individuals to take their whip and flog people on the street is wrong.

The clan structure in Somalia has been a problem. Do you think it will pose a problem for you when it comes to naming your government?

I don't think the problem has been the clan but the way it was used. It has been misused and I think we will find a different and positive way and whatever problem it presents, I am confident we will be able to deal with it without resorting to its negative side.

How do you plan to deal with Somaliland and Puntland?

Both are enjoying real, tangible peace and stability. Therefore, we must acknowledge the contributions of those who made this peace and stability possible. We are opposed to anything that will jeopardise the peace and stability enjoyed by those regions. We are determined to resolve any misunderstandings through dialogue and negotiations. I trust that we will succeed in finding common ground.

Somalia After the Ethiopian Occupation: First Steps to End the Conflict and Combat Extremism

Feb 9 2009

Ken Menkhaus

Enough Project

[Excerpts: full text available at]

President Barack Obama has inherited a dangerous and fast-moving crisis in Somalia - one with profound implications for regional and international security. While some within the new administration will be tempted to continue to place short-term counterterrorism goals ahead of a more comprehensive strategy approach as was done during the Bush administration, the shortcomings of this approach are abundantly clear: violent extremism and anti-Americanism are now rife in Somalia due in large part to the blowback from policies that focused too narrowly on counterterrorism objectives. The new U.S. national security team must make a clean break by defining and implementing a long-term strategy to support the development of an inclusive Somali government.

Building on the recent creation of a more broad-based transitional parliament, and its selection of Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a moderate Islamist, as president of Somalia's transitional government, the United States should immediately bolster its diplomatic engagement in the region and assign a senior diplomat to drive U.S. policy and harmonize its counterterrorism and state-building agendas. At the same time, the United States should work multilaterally to provide focused, conditional support to expand the legitimacy, inclusiveness, accountability, and capacity of Sheikh Sharif's fledgling government. It must make clear that it will provide sustained support to the general principles of reconciliation, consensus-building, power-sharing, and moderation, but not support to specific individuals or factions.

U.S. policymakers must approach Somalia with humility. Somalia has been much more susceptible to negative external forces than positive ones over the last two decades. U.S. engagement will only prove effective if it is driven by sound analysis, sound policies, and a willingness to invest in the hard work of local consensus building. The Obama administration must adopt a clear set of core principles and interests, develop a better understanding of regional and local political dynamics, and take a more pragmatic, nuanced approach to dealing with local actors that works with rather than against powerful social and political undercurrents within Somalia. Given Somalia's deeply dysfunctional state, policy choices may often have to be a matter of selecting the least-worst options. ...

New dangers and opportunities in 2009

As the Enough Project chronicled in its most recent report, U.S. policy under the Bush administration helped push the crisis in Somalia to catastrophic dimensions. An Ethiopian military intervention in Somalia in December 2006 succeeded in ousting an increasingly radical Islamist movement, the Islamic Courts Union, but provoked a brutal cycle of insurgency and counterinsurgency that plunged the country into new depths of misery. As conflict raged and humanitarian conditions spiraled downward, flawed U.S. policies only strengthened the Islamist shabaab movement and its commitment to attack Ethiopian and western and United Nations interests, as well as regional governments collaborating with the United States. This homegrown terrorist threat emanating from Somalia has the potential to become even more dangerous than the East Africa Al Qaeda cell that was responsible for the 1998 terrorist attacks against U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. And as the recent epidemic of piracy off the Somali coast demonstrates - as did Afghanistan earlier this decade - the cost of ignoring failed states can be very high.

Several major developments present both new opportunities and new risks for Somalia and the Horn of Africa in 2009.

The Ethiopian withdrawal: Ethiopia has made good on its decision to withdraw its military forces from Somalia, a move which has transformed the political landscape in Somalia. The worst fears that the shabaab would consolidate control over the capital Mogadishu - a fear the Bush administration sought to exploit at the eleventh hour with a failed push for authorization of a U.N. peacekeeping force through the U.N. Security Council - have not materialized. On the contrary, the Ethiopian withdrawal has the potential to dramatically reduce violence and defuse radicalism by removing the presence of a "foreign occupier" which Somalis of all stripes resented and which fueled the insurgency. It also promises to strengthen the coalition of moderates from the Transitional Federal Government, or TFG, and opposition groups - including many Islamists - who signed the Djibouti Peace Agreement in the summer of 2008. That coalition will now enjoy greater legitimacy for having delivered the Ethiopian withdrawal, while the shabaab will have lost its main adversary and rallying point. Periodic Ethiopian incursions into Somalia are inevitable, but are unlikely to be sustained and will hopefully not undermine the new transitional government.

President Yusuf's resignation: Under sustained pressure from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Western countries, TFG President Abdullahi Yusuf resigned in December 2008. Yusuf was a deeply polarizing figure in Somalia, a hardliner who actively sought to block implementation of the Djibouti Agreement and who specialized in a particularly divisive style of clan politics. He was widely viewed as a major impediment to peace in Somalia, a conclusion eventually reached by his former patron, Ethiopia. Yusuf's departure opened the door for progress toward implementation of the Djibouti Agreement and the building of a broad-based coalition government. It also robs the shabaab of another important rallying point.

Formation of a new government: On January 31, 2009, an expanded transitional federal parliament met in Djibouti and selected a new president, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed. Sheikh Sharif's selection signals a major power shift in the TFG toward the moderate Islamists within the former Islamic Courts Union. ... It is [...] not yet sufficiently broad-based; important Somali constituencies currently feel marginalized in the government, a problem President Sharif must address as he forms a new cabinet. Nonetheless, the formation of a post-Yusuf government offers the promise of a more broad-based administration which, if successful, should be able to negotiate with parts of the armed insurgency and contain the rest.

A new U.S. administration: With the arrival of a new administration in the United States, a window of opportunity clearly exists to reverse the very high levels of anti-Americanism prevailing in Somalia. Most Somalis were deeply impressed with the election of an African-American president, are hopeful for a change in U.S. policy, and, if the Obama administration takes the appropriate steps, could quickly shift attitudes toward the U.S. government. Moreover, the new face of the American government also deprives the shabaab of some of its ability to demonize the United States.

Resistance to Islamic extremists: Armed groups, organized mainly around clan but in some cases Islamism, have actively resisted the shabaab's attempts to gain control of some neighborhoods and key sites in Mogadishu. This is an important indication that the shabaab was tolerated, and enjoyed some support, when it posed as the main source of resistance to Ethiopian occupation, but is not acceptable to most Somalis as a source of political leadership once that existential threat has been removed. While it is still too early to say, there is a good chance that the shabaab reached its high water mark in late 2008, and is now facing resistance from Somali constituencies and struggling with internal fissures.

Successful selection of new government in Puntland: The northeastern polity of Puntland, long a zone of relative stability and economic recovery in Somalia, suffered dangerous political and security deterioration over the past two years, threatening to slide into violent anarchy. It also became the hub of the world's worst piracy epidemic. But last month the Puntland Parliament selected a new President, Abdirahman "Farole," resisting efforts by the incumbent faction to manipulate the election. The election raises hopes that Puntland can reverse its worrisome slide and can re-establish public order.


Articulating principles for engagement

Effective policy in Somalia must be integrated within a broader strategy to promote regional stability: The Somali crisis is deeply enmeshed in a broader regional dynamic, including Ethiopian-Eritrean tensions and Ethiopia's domestic politics, including the ongoing counterinsurgency campaign against the Ogaden National Liberation Front in eastern Ethiopia. U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa over the last several years has brushed past these important regional dynamics while making efforts to kill or capture specific individuals responsible for terrorist attacks in the region the paramount objective. Unfortunately, this approach has essentially gone after a symptom of Somalia rather than trying to treat its underlying disease. Even worse, this narrow focus has consistently exacerbated rather than reduced levels of extremism, anti-Americanism, and jihadism inside Somalia and negatively impacted U.S. relationships in the region. This approach has reduced the U.S.-Ethiopia partnership to an ill-advised quid-pro-quo: Ethiopia helps the U.S. achieve its counterterrorism objectives and, in exchange, the United States has had little to say about the shrinking democratic space inside Ethiopia and the severe human rights abuses committed by the Ethiopian government in both Ethiopia and Somalia.

Ethiopia has legitimate, vital security interests in Somalia and has the capacity to block developments that it views as threatening to its interests. Moreover, Ethiopia's constructive response to the Djibouti Agreement and its support of the creation of a moderate coalition of opposition and TFG leaders suggests that, under the right conditions, ample political space exists to find solutions which are acceptable to both Somalis and the Ethiopian government. ...

Policies which privilege Somali-driven processes, rely mainly on Somali interests and actors to drive outcomes, and respect Somali preferences will stand a much better chance of success than those imposed from the outside: External actors, including the United States, have only modest capacities to shape short-term outcomes in Somalia. Though limited, the Obama administration can increase its influence by embarking on a much more sustained and extensive public diplomacy with Somalis across the full spectrum of society and in multiple locations, including in the Gulf states and the Diaspora. Increased engagement with Somalis will not only yield benefits in terms of public attitudes, but will also produce better-informed policy. ... Effective Somali policy cannot be conceived or executed if primarily confined to discussion at the State Department and inside the walled compounds of the U.S. Embassy and U.N. agencies in Nairobi.

Policies that maximize space for negotiations are especially valuable; an overreliance on punitive action and isolation reduce the already narrow room for diplomatic maneuver: The 2008 U.S. designation of the entire shabaab movement as a terrorist organization, while debatable on its merits, served to reduce space for Somalis to negotiate, and painted shabaab leaders into a corner from which their only option is to fight. Although some leaders and units in the shabaab are certainly extremists and could never be brought into a normal political dialogue, others may well be mainstreamed if conditions are right. This is also true for U.S. policy toward Eritrea, a principal backer of the insurgency in Somalia and a state that has interests in playing the role of spoiler in Somalia as long as it is diplomatically isolated. Designating Eritrea a state sponsor of terror (which the Africa Bureau within the State Department unsuccessfully tried to do during the last days of the Bush administration) would make it almost impossible to engage Eritrea in a constructive dialogue to convince it to cease its proxy war in Somalia.


The key role for external actors at this time is not to impose solutions on Somalia but rather to create more permissive conditions for Somali-driven solutions to take hold. Toward that end, the Obama administration must take the following steps:

  • Designate a senior diplomat to lead U.S. Somalia policy, base that person in the region, and provide him or her with adequate staffing and resources.
  • State its willingness to accept political outcomes that occur beyond the Transitional Federal Government. While there are a variety of reasons why the TFG may be a preferable vehicle for a unity government and a political transition, the TFG's survival and advancement is not essential for a durable solution in Somalia and should not be conflated with it.
  • Maintain continuous communication with all significant Somali political, social, and economic actors. The U.S. government must avoid over-reliance on contact with a small number of top leaders and facilitators, both to avoid being perceived as playing favorites and to protect Somali contacts from being portrayed as collaborators. ...
  • Run interference between Somali political processes and well-meaning international actors who seek to impose external agendas and tired, template-driven solutions in Somalia. The United States should voice confidence that a Somali-driven process is the solution and infuse that conviction in the international community. ...
  • Ensure that Ethiopia is fully involved in whatever capacity it chooses, so that it is confident political processes in Somalia are not threatening its interests, and so that Ethiopia is tempted to undermine the process.
  • As part of an integrated regional policy, explore quiet overtures to Eritrea to de-escalate tensions and provide that government some incentive not to play the role of spoiler in Somalia.
  • Support conflict resolution between Ethiopia and Eritrea, particularly in resolving with finality the border dispute between these two countries.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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