Blackened Waters of Somalia
At this critical juncture and in this particular moment in Somali history, objective assessment of new trends has an existential significance. Early this year when the previous Somali president was voted out of the office in favor of a more popular one, the euphoria was so contagious, and expectations so high. Sadly, that was eclipsed by leadership strategic errors and vicious strings of terrorist attacks and targeted assassinations.
With over 30 such attacks since February, the belligerence, frequency, and lethal accuracy have set a new precedent. Ironically this came at a time when the new government launched a controversial campaign of what many—especially in Mogadishu—considered selective disarmament, declared an “all-out war” against al-Shabaab, and promised to eradicate them within two years.
Naturally, almost all fingers are pointed at the usual suspects, al-Shabaab. And it is hard to dispute when they themselves continue to claim responsibility, though sometimes through spokespersons that are barely known to the public. However, to accept that never-changing narrative that there is only one actor who solely benefits out of conditions of insecurity is to naively assume that all other clandestine armies, scores of shadowy experts, and deadbeat ‘security’ gangs across Somalia are there for shark-fin-gazing in the Indian Ocean. In addition, there are the domestic profiteers of chaos who in the past three decades have been investing heavily to defend the status quo by any ruthless means necessary.
Whatever the end result, no one can accuse the new government of not trying. The government has launched initiatives such as cleaning the city, attending public events to boost public morale, and conducting random office inspections to keep ministers and staff on their toes. While these are good initiatives, there are more critical issues waiting for the government’s full attention. On some of these issues, the government has already taken ill-advised approaches.
After declaring war against al-Shabaab, a stealth enemy that is part of the social fabric, and promising to eradicate them “in two years” the government launched a controversial disarmament campaign that many interpreted as a defanging process of certain clans and interest groups.
Launching such initiative before any attempt was made toward confidence-building or managing perception would only make genuine conciliation facilitated by the current government dead on arrival.
The government also declared war against corruption without providing a comprehensive definition of what constitutes ‘corruption,’ and without pushing through the parliament all anti-corruption laws and the establishment of an independent commission to fight corruption; especially when clouds of suspicions hover over certain government officials. In a clear conflict of interest, some ministers (and MPs) own private security companies that compete for projects. Both the President and the Prime Minister stated publicly that they and all their ministers will declare their individual assets for transparent public scrutiny. Several months into office, officials are yet to make good on those promises.
They also aggressively expanded the selective taxation that targets the likes of fruit vendors and tuk-tuk or Bajaj drivers (3 wheeled taxis) while exempting the conglomerate businesses such as money remittances and phone and internet services.
Private security branding
In a clever marketing strategy that exploits consumer biases, major manufacturing companies of household products commonly have several competing brands of the same products side by side in supermarkets. They even hire different brand managers to advance one product against another, though profits generated from all those products ultimately go to the same owners.
The private mercenary industry clearly duplicated the same strategic marketing, and nowhere is that more apparent than in The Horn.
The Horn of Africa is a tough and highly volatile region. It’s only second to the Middle East where it, in fact, shares many traits- natural resource wealth, historical grievances and suspicions, and leaders with myopic vision and gluttonous appetite for corruption. With Donald Trump being in the White House and UAE establishing its intelligence network and loyal militia in Somalia, the stage is set for a new theater of lucrative clandestine operations. The current volatile political and security landscape could not have been more ideal for Erik Prince, founder of the infamous Blackwater, and companies. If it did not exist, they would’ve invented it.
Erik Prince and companies’ clandestine operations in Somalia began in 2010 when Saracen International appeared in Mogadishu and in Puntland regional administration. However, with Blackwater’s record of crimes against humanity, a loaded name (Saracen), and a good number of their mercenaries being remnants of Apartheid-era enforcers, it didn’t take long to attract UN and other human rights groups’ attention. So, Saracen turned into Sterling Corporate Services.
Against that backdrop, the Prince-led Frontier Services Group Limited (aka The Company) comes to the scene to provide “security, insurance and logistics services for companies operating in frontier markets.” So, is it not within the realm of rational skepticism to question the good-faith of any Mafia group offering business protection services, life insurance, and luxury burial/cremation package for a price that you cannot refuse?
In recent decades, Ethiopia has secured for itself a certain level of authority that made it the de facto hegemon of The Horn. With IGAD being a political rubber stamp where Ethiopia sets the agenda, decides the when and why of every meeting, and which one of its concocted initiatives gets mandated, it was not that hard.
The good news is with the current government, Somalia is no longer entirely obedient to the marching orders of its hegemonic master. Moreover, the Oromo and Amhara peaceful insurgency has on the one hand exposed the repressive tendencies of the Ethiopian government; on the other, the vulnerability of its ethnic federalism. So, Ethiopia was compelled to re-strategize for its own survival. It has settled—at least for now—to remain a low profile and calibrate its previous ambition to directly control a good number, if not all, of Somalia’s coveted ports and other resources.
As the de facto custodian of Somalia security that can stabilize or destabilize at will Ethiopia is the guarantor in each of the DP World deals. They are set to make 19 percent in the Berbera seaport deal, maybe much more lucrative deals in Bossasso and Barawe.
The x-factor is that recently the U.S. has removed Mukhtar Robow from its terrorist list. This, needless to say, placed Robow on a dangerous stage and under a lethal spotlight. Robow was an enigma. He was considered the man who always gave credence to the narrative that al-Shabaab is not a terrorist organization driven by Somali issues but an organization driven by global ambition that has 700 plus foreign fighters.
Robow was also one of the last high-profile al-Shabaab leaders to be added to the terrorist list. He also had a very close relationship with warlords from his region who were loyal to Ethiopia. Days after he was taken off of the list he came under al-Shabaab attack. Oddly, the Somali government sent its army to defend Robow against his comrades. But this might make clear sense if, in the coming months, Robow and company flee to Barawe and settle there.
Dollars and dysfunction
The Somali government must muster the courage to call the current international community sponsored and lead counterterrorism and stabilization system what it is: a failed system with a high price tag. Any foreign-driven reconciliation project intended to simply clear the anchorages for lucrative but controversial commercial (and military base) seaport deals in Berbera, Boosaaso, and Barawe will in due course fail. Make no mistake, without effective institutions of checks and balances and political stability, ‘foreign investment’ is a euphemism for predatory exploitation or looting.
The new government either failed to understand al-Shabaab for what it truly is: a symptom of a number of root causes such as lack of reconciliation and trust, inept leadership and lack of national vision, chronic reliance on foreign security, and funding.
All eyes are on President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo. Somalia cannot afford another four years of sleepwalking into catastrophe- a reinvented web of political, social, economic, and geopolitical problems. This nation direly needs shock therapy.
Therefore, President Farmaajo must go to the parliament to declare all foreign energy and security-related agreements unilaterally signed by regional administrations as null and void. The current trajectory will not only keep Somalia in perpetual dependency but in perpetual violent conflicts.
On September 19th the UN General Assembly debates will open. Donald Trump should articulate a new vision on that global platform and put pressure on the Security Council to convert AMISOM—minus frontline states and private securities—and other forces on the ground (the U.S., UK, UAE, Turkey, etc.) into a UN peacekeeping mission. This may achieve three essential objectives: minimize the negative roles played by certain actors, control the free flow of arms and centralize the command and control of all militaries on the ground. Equally important, it will sideline the frontline states and private military services.
The UN mission should last no longer than two years- a period long enough for a genuine, Somali-owned, and sponsored reconciliation.
Wherever they operate, the latter abides by neither local nor international laws. They thrive in impunity and that is why they have a long atrocious record and that is why they constantly keep reinventing themselves. Rest assured, in the court of public opinion, every bone they break and every person they kill will be blamed on President Farmaajo and the UAE and the U.S. for ‘ushering in’ these merchants of death and suicide deals.
Meanwhile, unless we change our thinking and attitude, things will remain the same or get worse. Streets will get cleaner for the next tragedy, and Somalia will remain the most attractive playground for zero-sum games, for quick riches, and for undermining political or geopolitical opponents. It is an ever-morphing dangerous environment where the hunter is being hunted.