Security in Somalia: Can it be Achieved?

“Live is best organized as a series of daring ventures from a secure base”, Bowlby

Filled with euphoria, Somalia is emerging from over twenty years of state collapse and some even say that Somalis are determined to rebuild the country this time. However, there are persisting security challenges despite recent military gains against Al-Shabaab, the extremist militant group that has been waging bombing campaigns against the Somali authorities. Speaking in his inauguration as the newly elected president of Somalia, Mr. Hassan Sheik Mohamud has outlined his vision for Somalia for the next four years, underlining security as his number one priority in a country that is suffering from multiple malaises including environmental, economic, social and political -  a daring venture indeed.  Can the new president achieve security in Somalia?  To answer this, we need to identity the insecurities the country is facing with regard to human and state security. Moreover, I will attempt to explain that security is not one dimensional issue and that its units are interdependent, making necessary to take a holistic approach when dealing with security. This paper will critically examine the number of security threats Somalia is facing today, contextualizing it in a socially and culturally sensitive manner and offering solutions to the present security challenges and to prevent return of insecurities in the future.

Persisting insecurity

The focus of the new government in Somalia is to end insecurity as announced by the new president recently in his inauguration speech (the Guardian, 16 September 2012).  The newly elected president has elaborated on this in another speech in the southern City of Baidoa where he focused on Al-Shabaab, an insurgency group that is in decline in its territorial control in Somalia but still a major security threat because of its bombing and insurgency military tactics. The president challenged Al-Shabaab in his speech by offering them a political dialogue while at the same time making it clear that all options are on the table including military action. The president also rightly highlighted “the judiciary and democratic rule” as part of what he considers critical in the restoration of security in Somalia. From a theoretical standpoint, the concept of human security is best explained by the contrasting views of the neo-realist and post-modernist thinkers. The neorealists argue that state’s security is paramount as it is the “guardian” of the nation and if the state is secure, the people are at peace (Buzan, 1991). This approach focuses on the military capability of the state to deter external aggression and to provide internal security.  However, some point out that the state could be a security threat itself to its own citizens and the security of the state itself does not guarantee human security and freedom. In this context, the postmodernists propose a “broadened conceptualization” of security that embraces individuals and groups (Booth, 2005). In this sense, the target or the referent is not the state but the human. This argument forces the state to not only concentrate on the defense of the country but also the protection of the citizens and the well-being of the society. This means that security is not only physical security from harm or threats but also security risk from lack of human rights and any threat to human dignity and wellbeing such as hunger and lack of economic opportunity.  However, both sides recognize the importance of the strength and capability of the state to provide security. This means that there is an agreement that a weak state that can’t defend its territory can’t logically provide human security. In this view, Somalia has been weakened by years of civil war and foreign intervention. The state which is made up of “people, territory and government” has suffered major setbacks in the context of Somalia.  The state doesn’t have control over its territory, the Somali people had no functioning government for years and as a result there is lack of trust and confidence in the state’s ability to govern and restore order.  Famine, terrorism and foreign domination rule the day in Somalia. The state needs serious fixing. The restoration of security in Somalia has to start with the building blocks of the state, its institutions and its monopoly on responsible violence. It has to win the hearts and minds of its citizens and regain its sovereignty from the clutches of internal and external forces. These forces include Al-Shabaab, Somali clannish politicians, and the enablers of domination that continue to make the Somali leaders subservient thugs. Exceptional leadership skill and courage is critically and urgently needed to overcome these existing extreme challenges and deficiencies in a responsible manner.

Internal security threats

There are five major internal security threats to the Somali state including weak institutions, the Al-Shabaab, the clannish politicians who cater to not only the clan interest but their own interest, underdevelopment and external interference. All feed one another and the first four form the basis for the external security threat. Fixing these problems will diminish or may even end the external threat entirely, while also making it a strong, responsive state possible.

Strengthening Weak Institutions

In order to achieve state security goals, robust institutions are required that can provide public goods and that are resilient to internal political and economic challenges as well as external pressures.    Institutions are the explicit expressions of effective political process of states (Wade, 1990). This means that the art of leadership in negotiations between the state and “societal groups” produce the institutions that maintain order and mediate relations between the state and citizens for collective action. The Italian thinker, Gramsci provides possible relevant ideas to the current institutional formation in Somalia. Gramsci wrote that a state’s historical process produces “organic relations between political and civil society” (Lawrence and Wishart, 1971). This means that through conflict and negotiations, the particular interests of the different groups in society merge at the political level where they take national character in the state machinery, “providing intellectual and moral unity.” Through this, good institutions emerge that are responsive to societal needs and enjoy greater legitimacy.  In the historical context of Somalia, post-colonial institutions were distant and unresponsive to the needs of average citizens due to lack of vision, lack of government resources and delivery capacity. During the Cold War, the state was marked by strong institutions with better economic development but also engaged in violence, exclusion and nepotism. Since the collapse of the state in 1991, the new institutions that took shape in Somalia were tribal based as clan politics have been the norm for the past two decades in the absence of national state. Tribal or clan politics has been characterized by greed but effectively utilizes the concept of tribal grievances to capitalize on perceived inequalities, exclusion or oppression. To address this problem, clannish politicians engage in collective punishment, monstrous widespread victimization of women and children and propensity for revenge.  The emerged clannish politicians have wrecked the country as they have demolished many of the social and political institutions that unified the country including the institution of Somali citizenry. In its place, they constituted the clan identity and sometimes clan based regional identity, leaving the people divided and in conflict. To solidify this process, they continue to push for the construction of clan based constitutional system that legalizes tribal territories.  Such proposition is enshrined in the provisional constitution and one can’t overstate the urgency and the need to rectify this. Clannish politicians are a threat to Somalia’s national security and to the long-term stability of the country. Dislodging the clannish politicians and restoring the Somali political identity, the citizenship of the SOOMAALI, is of prime importance. Similarly, the state can’t be representing one region, clan and a particular interest group and this realization must sink in the minds of the new leaders in Somalia. The new institutions must reflect the merged interests of the political and civil society, while the Somali political identity is the expression of this political unity. The need for balanced power with checks and with regional autonomy can be achieved without adversely affecting the unity of the Somali state.


Al-Shabaab has stated that they are fighting for the implementation of Islamic rule and expelling the foreign troops in Somalia by force. Their actions, however, has spoken volumes. They have killed more Somalis than foreign troops and they have been violating Islamic rules by their continued violence against Somali civilians. Many Somalis have turned against the actions of Al-Shabaab and it has no moral authority at all. The new president, Mr. Mohamud has rightly pointed out that Al-Shabaab should lay down their arms and join other Somalis seeking political solution. By choosing dialogue, Al-Shabaab may be able to claim victory over violence and this will give the Somali people new opportunity to reclaim their lives. Given the historical hardline position of Al-Shabaab, there isn’t much hope of peaceful resolution. The new Somali president has made it clear about the resolve of the government to restore peace and security. Al-Shabaab is one of the greatest security challenges Somalia faces today.  And the best strategy to defeat Al-Shabaab is not militarily but as Fareed Zakaria aptly put in an article published on Washington post, “the real answer, many argue, is to strengthen the state’s capacity so that the government has greater legitimacy and the opposition gets discredited”. It is very obvious that, there can be no military victory regarding Al-Shabaab and the Somali social institutions can offer key solutions to the Al-Shabaab phenomenon. The Al-Shabaab ideology can be confronted through religious education and combated through the media and by allowing greater civil rights.


Peace dividend is capitalized across Somalia as business is picking up speed after the threat of Al-Shabaab has declined with its loss of territorial control in many parts of Somalia. With growing youth unemployment and fast population growth, Somalia may slide back into internal conflict. The current militaristic approach to peace in Somalia doesn’t seem to be focusing on this challenge. Daryl Copeland (2009) believes that “sustainable development” is critical for the long-term stability and security in countries like Somalia that have multiple security problems. He notes in his latest book, Guerilla Diplomacy that the traditional military engagement in countries like Somalia does not address their security needs.  Moreover, he admonishes the militaristic approach of the Western policy makers as he believes that this approach undermines the human security needs. He writes, “to address the fundamental drivers of insecurity, decision makers must break the habits of attempting to contain or subdue adversaries and instead move toward engaging them while acting on the most pressing needs of humanity. They must reduce the use of armed force in favor of diplomatic approaches to achieve economic and political objectives, which will entail stowing the cold war baggage, substituting dialogue for battle, and embracing human-centered equitable and sustainable development as the long-term basis for the new security.” He makes the connection between peace and development but advocates dialogue instead of military to fulfill the human security and development needs. In this view, focusing on military success only in Somalia will not guarantee human security.

External Threats

The US and its EU allies have adopted the war on terror campaign to contain the “Al-Shabaab violence” in Somalia. This campaign manifests itself through the military forces from several African countries under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). In this model, no US or EU forces are on the ground in Somalia to “minimize their human cost.”  This means that the US and EU countries incur financial cost while the Africans sacrifice human lives. This military model is considered “smart” in Washington and Brussels and its narrative is palatable to the domestic polity. However, the conflict in Somalia can’t and should not be understood through the narrow prism of the war on terror and there are deeper and more complex national and regional political dynamics that explain the anger and disappointment of the Somali people. Like many parts of the globe, there is a regional conflict in the Horn of Africa that has its history in the colonial period. Both Kenya and Ethiopia have territorial dispute with Somalia and they pursue narrow state interest that fosters instability in Somalia. In this perspective, both countries view a strong Somali state as a national security threat. To achieve their stated goals, both countries provide weapons and political capital to factions in Somalia. Some of the factions, mainly clan based, collaborate with these two countries to gain political edge over other rival clans. This tactic has devastated the Somali state and rendered the country a hotbed for different forces that include nationalists such as the once Eritrea based Re-liberation forces, religious groups such as Al-Shabaab and many non-violence resistance groups.  The cause for their struggle is to end the unending military activities of Kenya and Ethiopia. The US and EU are considered enablers of these two countries as they underwrite their activities in Somalia. This endangers the lives of the other African forces that are not considered to have similar objectives in Somalia such as Uganda, Brundi, Djibouti and Sierra Leone. The contributions of these African troops are widely and positively recognized in Somalia; however, they will not be able to maintain independent standing in Somalia and may face hostile reaction in relation to the activities of Kenya and Ethiopia inside Somalia and this may create hostility towards them. The new Somali government can’t rely on the African troops for its long-term security and it has the opportunity to continue with the rapid rebuilding of the Somali security forces so it can assert itself and its national interest. Moreover, with the changing international approach regarding Somalia, the new government may have the opportunity to convince the US and EU to end their support for Kenya and Ethiopia. This requires exceptional diplomatic strategy and vision. The presence of Kenya and Ethiopia in Somalia has the potential to reignite clan based violence and the resurgence of Al-Shabaab.


The new government in Somalia has identified restoring security as a priority and it is clear from security perspective in its broad concept, it includes both state and human security.  This means that the new government must consider the internal and external threats that are drivers of insecurity.  There are key security concerns that demand concurrent attention which includes not only the political and institutional transformation, curbing the violence but also focusing on the economic and development needs of the country. Such an approach will foster peace and harmony and will spur economic opportunities. The external security threats will always continue to exist as this comes with the anarchical international system, making incumbent on all states to guard against outside interference. In this sense, domestic peace starts with building unity among the diverse political and civil society groups and the business community. By taking this approach, the new Somali government may succeed to embrace a more centrist attitude, while strengthening the institutional capacity to be more responsive to the needs of the national community. In this perspective, state and human security can be restored.

Abdi Dirshe is a political analyst and is also the current President of the Somali Canadian Diaspora Alliance. Contact Abdi at




London Conference on Somalia