A former prime minister of Somalia, Abdiweli Ali, tells a story that demonstrates the pervasive influence of al-Shabab, even in areas ostensibly controlled by the Somali Federal Government (SFG) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Al-Shabab collects taxes – reportedly as much as the government, and certainly more efficiently. This includes a payroll tax, described as a ‘contribution’, which salaried personnel – government staff among them – are obliged to pay. Abdiweli describes how a defector from al-Shabab who went to work for the government received a visit from a man who told him to pay his ‘contribution’. ‘How will I know whom to pay?’ he asked. ‘You will know,’ the messenger replied. At the end of the month, he went to collect his salary from the cashier at the bank. The cashier said: ‘Now let me receive your contribution.’

Europe, the United States and the African Union are focused on solving their problems in Somalia: terrorism, piracy, refugees. First and foremost, the SFG is an instrument for doing that. President Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud doesn’t control his own security forces: he relies on AU ground troops and US aircraft. His defence minister needs special permission to visit security facilities along the coastline. He doesn’t control most of his budget, which is either directly in the hands of foreign agencies, or so closely managed by European donors that he has no discretion on spending. It’s a form of latter-day native administration: indirect colonial rule using a local proxy. Whatever his democratic credentials or personal sincerity, Hassan is a prisoner of circumstance, with very little latitude to address the fundamental problems facing his country.

As long as the SFG’s aims are defined as defeating al-Shabab on the battlefield and building a government on the model favoured by Somalia’s foreign sponsors, it has no chance of success. Hassan’s Western backers have not yet squared the circle of pouring money and guns into a client government to fight a counterinsurgency, and preventing that government from becoming rentierist, militaristic and corrupt.

Rent-seeking pervades the whole system: the president or defence minister must bargain separately with each military unit to secure its loyalty for each operation. And even then, he cannot order a Somali unit to enter a ‘liberated’ town where the locals won’t welcome it. It’s no surprise that Somalis hedge their bets against the time when the SFG’s international sponsors tire of a Sisyphean counterinsurgency and sell out their erstwhile proxies. Even if al-Shabab were defeated, it wouldn’t solve Somalia’s problems. The corrupt rentierist system of government, which gave rise to al-Shabab in the first place, would be more entrenched than before.

The al-Shabab leader Ahmed Godane’s recent purge of his rivals, his collaboration with al-Qaida and, above all, his role in last week’s atrocity at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, are part of a bid for prominence and power within both a fragmented al-Shabab and the international jihadist movement. They are also a means of ruling out negotiation, and provoking a counterinsurgency that, he anticipates, will only make the SFG more unpopular and bring more recruits to his ranks.

The Kenyans are, despite their leaders’ better instincts, falling into the trap. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s immediate response to the Westgate Mall attack was a model of restraint and statesmanship, insisting that the enemy was not Islam, not Somalis, but terrorists. But, embarrassed by security lapses and anxious to show that they are doing what is necessary, the Kenyan police have turned to harassing and cracking down on Somalis. If this continues it will be predictably counterproductive.

The African Union troops in Somalia – from Burundi, Djibouti, Kenyan, Mali and Uganda – are underequipped for their task. They have no helicopters and their armoured personnel carriers are in urgent need of replacement after five or six years of continuous service in a war zone. AMISOM needs support, but it will be predictably easy for international diplomatic efforts to focus on generating resources for the military effort in Somalia. The lesson of military interventions – from Somalia in 1992 to Afghanistan today – is that military efforts should be in support of political solutions, not the other way round.

Full essay at London Review of Books blog, October 3, 2013.

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