Somali Crisis: Five questions on key actors and regional dynamics. Interview with Matteo Guglielmo

Interview with Matteo Guglielmo, PhD candidate in African Studies at the University of Naples Orientale.

 

Q: The media depicts Somalia as chaos, do you agree with this perception? To what extent is the international media complicit in the problems of Somalia?

A: I totally disagree with such a perception. Somalia is not a prey to chaos, and what is really happening is the culmination of a series of developments and policies which have been implemented by both the international community and the armed groups on the ground at least since 2004. It is also true that the international media tends to analyze the current situation through general patterns, but this is no surprise. In fact, trying to understand the dynamics of the Somali conflict is quite hard. Therefore, in their attempt to explain the Somali crisis, international analysts and policymakers are used to following some 'convenient' interpretations, such as the global war on terror or the failed state theory. Of course, such interpretations can give a picture of the situation in the country, but it is only partial. In other words, armed groups such as Al-Shabaab or Hizbul Islam should be considered more as an outcome of local dynamics than as the expression of global threats.

Q: With reference to the nexus with Al-Shabaab (in terms of funding and more) and beyond this, can the Diaspora be considered a key actor in this crisis?

A: The Somali Diaspora has always played a crucial role in the conflict, both in positive and negative ways. Indeed, Al-Shabaab, and other armed groups, receive significant support from the Somali community living abroad, especially in western countries. However, such types of relationships should be analyzed according to the internal dynamics of Somali politics. Even if the Shabaab's recruitment and financing techniques look like the al-Qaeda's practices, Shabaab's political goals and grievances are deep-rooted in the Somali context, appearing as 'populists' rather than 'Islamists'. In addition, al-Shabaab has no territorial ambition out of Somalia, being more committed to the restoration of security in the country under the banner of a strict Sharia law. It is interesting to note that amongst the Shabaab's activities there are operations against businessmen selling expired food or dangerous products and actions for the dismissal of illegal checkpoints, which make Somalis unable to travel in the south-central regions. Such activities increased the support of some Diaspora communities toward al-Shabaab, which in a very rational way tends to distinguish itself from other militias by keeping a 'populist' behaviour.

Q: Which is, in your opinion, the strategic role that Eastern African Countries are likely to play, with particular reference to neighbouring countries such as Eritrea and Ethiopia?

A: The neighbouring countries do not seem very interested in bringing peace and stability to Somalia. In particular, Ethiopia and Eritrea both consider an eventual stabilization of Somalia as a threat to their own national interests. In the Ethiopian view, a strong Somalia could be dangerous for the stability of the Ogaden region, which is actually inhabited almost exclusively by Somalis. On the other hand Eritrea has no direct interests in Somalia, but its politics toward the country should be considered as a more general anti-Ethiopian strategy. Therefore, in supporting some Islamist oppositions which oppose the Transitional Federal Government, Eritrea wants to maintain Somalia as an unstable country, forcing Ethiopia to dissipate its efforts on the Somali front. Therefore, it is still difficult to identify potential actors able to build up a peace roadmap for Somalia. In such an intricate geopolitical landscape, even regional organizations such as the African Union and the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) are very weak, sometimes appearing to be pawns in some regional governments' hands, and ending up being perceived as non-impartial institutions by the Somali armed factions.

Q: Given the current crisis in the Horn, who is moving and where to? What is the overall impact of these population movements on the dynamics of the ongoing conflict?

A: Years of armed conflict in the Horn of Africa have caused massive displacements. However, forced migrations in the region are not only the outcome of civil wars, but also of natural causes such as droughts, floods, etc. In Somalia, years of forced migration and displacement have also ended up in a consistent alteration of the power relations and clan geography. Regions traditionally inhabited by some clans have been occupied by others, causing clashes and tensions. In Somalia massive displacement occurs as a result of particular cycles of violence. For example, the number of Somali IDPs increased dramatically after the Ethiopian military intervention, and the subsequent insurgency against the Ethiopian contingent, opened up a new period of violence and political instability in the south-central regions. A political solution is still the only way to prevent Somalis from leaving their homes.

Q: What are the likely scenarios that will unfold in the coming months in the region and what significance do they hold for (a) the Somali nation and the almost-states of Somaliland and Puntland (b) the neighbouring countries (c) the international community?

A: At this moment, imagining likely scenarios on the Somali crisis is quite hard. International diplomacy has been affected by different degrees of 'conditionalities', especially from the US, which tends — even today — to consider all Somali opposition groups as terrorists, including al-Shabaab. It is interesting to underline that the same strategy has been applied by the US toward the Islamic Courts before the Ethiopian military intervention in late 2006. From then on, the only outcome was a significant radicalization of Islamist groups excluded from the peace talks. Nowadays, it is problematic to identify a potential actor which can serve as peace-building mediator in Somalia. Even the United Nations (and in particular UNPOS, the United Nations Political Office for Somalia) seems to be deeply discredited. In such a scenario, the regional authorities of Puntland and Somaliland, even if from different positions, both tend to keep at a safe distance from the political landscape of south-central regions. This is for two main reasons. First, the Transitional Federal Government suffers from a huge degree of instability, which influences its political credibility. And second, any eventual support to the TFG could be a potential threat for Somaliland and Puntland, which might both be considered by the opposition groups as parties in the conflict, making them potential targets for the armed insurgency. Therefore, we are in a political stalemate, where both the Transitional Federal Institutions and the armed opposition are simply unable to take over. Today, the international community should regain the role of mediator in the country in order to re-open at least a 'humanitarian space', where civilians can find a minimum degree of shelter after years of pains and instability.

Interview by Flaminia Vola, programme officer, SID Secretariat

Photo: Carl Montgomery