Somalia: Military Reform Cannot Succeed Without Political Progress

AP has a nice article out on efforts to train the Somali military, which is technically commanded by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) but is mostly funded by the US, Italy, and others. The article notes that “Somalia’s armed forces — 10,000 soldiers, 5,000 police and assorted allied militias — have seen some improvements over the past year.” These improvements include new facilities and uniforms, payment methods designed to eliminate embezzlement, and closer contact between Somali soldiers and African Union (AU) peacekeepers. But the Somali military is still a deeply flawed institution:

In recent weeks Somali forces have shot civilians, each other, and looted food aid meant for famine-hit families. Yet these are the forces many aid agencies must rely on to protect vast amounts of food pouring into Somalia. They are also supposed to help the 9,000-strong African Union force secure the country’s capital after Islamist rebels withdrew from bases there this month.


But many now fear that with the Islamists gone, Somalia’s armed forces — still organized largely along clan lines — may simply fight each other and try to extort money from the civilians they are meant to protect.


Most Somali soldiers are loyal to individuals, not to the weak U.N.-backed Somali government, and most brigades are still organized along clan lines. Analysts say unless the government — widely perceived as divided and corrupt — must improve its performance and command loyalty.

That final line contains a typo, but it’s worth elaborating on the implied meaning, which is that military progress and political progress are inextricably linked. There are two points to make.

The first is that the TFG is a political mess. International Crisis Group wrote in February that the TFG “has squandered the goodwill and support it received and achieved little of significance in the two years it has been in office. It is inept, increasingly corrupt and hobbled by President Sharif’s weak leadership.” And that was before the ugly deal that Sharif and Speaker of Parliament Sharif Hassan Sheik Aden concluded in June, when they (with questionable legal basis) extended the TFG’s mandate and postponed presidential elections by a year (to August 2012). The deal also forced out Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, whose initial, public refusal to step down underscored how nasty the government’s infighting had become. If the TFG cannot resolve these crises and establish a legal footing that is credible at home and internationally, will it be able to run an effective military, even with massive outside help?

The second point is that the military’s brutality – which has, despite improvements, continued up to the present – undermines governance in TFG-controlled areas. Much of the commentary on Somalia’s civil war focuses on the brutality of the Shabab rebel movement, against which the TFG is fighting. There is no question that al Shabab frequently commits abuses against civilians. But as Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been pointing out since 2008, the TFG’s soldiers are no saints. This month, HRW’s report on the famine in Somalia assigned blame to all the major actors, saying their indiscriminate use of force was leaving civilians with no one to protect them:

All parties to Somalia’s armed conflict have committed serious violations of the laws of war that are contributing to the country’s humanitarian catastrophe…All sides have used artillery in the capital, Mogadishu, in an unlawful manner that has caused civilian casualties. Al-Shabaab has fired mortars indiscriminately from densely populated areas, and the TFG and AMISOM forces have often responded in kind with indiscriminate counterattacks. As a result, civilians have not known where to turn for protection. While al-Shabaab’s reported withdrawal from Mogadishu may bring some respite to civilians in the capital from the incessant fighting, future abuses are likely unless the warring parties take assertive measures to end them.

A government that does not offer basic protection, it seems to me, will have a hard time commanding more than superficial loyalty in Somalia.

What the TFG has then is a cycle where its political dysfunction exacerbates its military’s abuses, and the military abuses compound challenges of governance. And the political dysfunction, of course, owes much to the structure of the TFG as a government funded from the outside, staffed heavily by the diaspora, and imposed through a foreign (Ethiopian) military occupation. Those underlying problems are not going away. AP’s article ends with a quote by an AU trainer who gives a variation of the “when they stand up, we’ll stand down” line heard so often in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nothing is impossible – the TFG could rule over a prosperous and thriving Somalia five years from now – but given the government’s current problems, it seems unlikely that the Somali military will fully “stand up” any time soon.

I leave you with an Al Jazeera report on civilian suffering in Mogadishu:

9 thoughts on “Somalia: Military Reform Cannot Succeed Without Political Progress

  1. Totally unrelated.

    There has just been a suicide bombing of the UN office at Abuja, sixteen people suspected to have died.

    This could be the first credible evidence of a link between AQIM and Boko Haram (However, I must warn that nobody has claimed responsibility for the bombing yet).

    My great fear is not the presence of AQIM in Nigeria but the impact of such blatant acts of religiously motivated violence in a nation that is evenly split between (largely Evangelical) Christianity and Islam. Nigeria is different from either Algeria, Pakistan or even Somalia in that regard. The possibility of a Lebanon-type escalation should not be discounted and the greatest danger is the future of a united Nigeria (which for all intents and purposes is an artificial state).

      • It could well be, but as a Nigerian I am very seriously worried. This is not merely an academic exercise for me – I live in Nigeria.

        I know how these things progress, if the pace of attacks continue unabated we will start to see the rise of rival militias (ethnically based, religiously motivated). These developments are a couple of months down the line if:
        a. Attacks like this continue and the general populace feel threatened.
        b. The national security services are not up to the job.

        When rival militias begin to engage with Boko Haram, all bets are off.

      • Yes, I have heard about Akhwat Akwop. If I am correct, it originates from the Southern Kaduna region (predominantly Christian). Those people are ready to kill and / or die when they feel threatened. (Remember the Zangon-Kataf crisis).

        I may not be a specialist academic, but I interact with Nigerians from all parts of Nigeria on a daily basis. The air is pregnant with danger. The Core Muslim North will be the greatest losers if Boko Haram proceeds unabated. (No Southerner, Middle-Belter or Northern Christian minority will line up to support a candidate from a region associated with Boko Haram).

        Another fear is that the Nigerian State simply does not have the capacity to deal simultaneously with a crisis of the magnitude of Boko Haram and the Niger Delta.

        Nigeria is in crisis.

        In a nation that has a single shared vision, cultural traditions and sense of its destiny, a crisis can have a positive outcome. Nigeria is none of these, Nigeria is the most artificial of artificial states. We barely escaped disintegration in the sixties and our differences were attenuated by the presence of massive amounts of “Oil Boom” money in the seventies. We have steadily declined economically, morally and as a cohesive entity since the 1980s.

        I guess all that is left for me to do is to pray.

      • I’d thought the Delta was quieter these days. Of course you can’t rely on that forever but one crisis at a time.

  2. Boko has reportedly taken credit to the BBC’s local radio station. Although the UN attack represents a spike in escalation and could snowball the conflict, the group wouldn’t necessarily need outside support to spot the target or load a car with explosives. At the same time Africa’s situation would heat up fast if AQIM is involved, and if al-Shabaab was shipping fighters to Yemen. This is a murky regional conflict, perfect for AQ and the US – and not so good for everyone else.

    I’m feeling surer that al-Shabaab vacated Mogadishu to cause a power vacuum that it could exploit elsewhere.

    • Please explain to me what you mean by “perfect for AQ and the US”. I think the AQ threat is over-hyped in Africa. Africa is more at risk from a Rwandan / Congo style massacre than an AQ threat. One of the sides in such a potential conflict could be Islamic, but that will not make AQ the be all of Africa’s problems or even the trigger.

  3. Pingback: Somalia – Death and Corruption | The GOLDEN RULE

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