Turning a corner? After decades of civil war, some developments indicate Somalia may be heading toward stability

John Siebert Armed Conflicts, Defence & Human Security

John Siebert

The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 33 Issue 4

Since the fall of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, no one has lost money betting against stability emerging in Somalia.

Dubbed the quintessential failed state, Somalia descended into anarchy and crisis as clans and warlords fought each other for influence. The country has been effectively divided into the relatively stable self-governing territories of Somaliland and Puntland in the north and a south in which warring factions disabled weak, interim national governments. Naturally civilians have paid the highest price for the turmoil and recurring famines, often fleeing to refugee camps for shelter from chaos and hunger.

After two decades of gloom, however, recent developments indicate that Somalia may be turning the corner toward stability. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a military intervention sanctioned by the UN to support the Somalia Transitional Federal Government (TFG), is securing territory in southern Somalia from the Islamist al-Shabab insurgency. Recently AMISOM forced al-Shabab out of Kismayo, their last apparent urban stronghold in southern Somalia.

Created in 2007 to replace the Intergovernmental Authority on Development mission (IGASOM), AMISOM has always been less about firepower than the ability of external troops to appeal to the hearts and minds of the local population. The intervention of primarily IGAD-sourced troops, recently including Kenyans, is a new development for the Horn.

Since 1998 Turkey has increased attempts to become an important development and commercial partner in Africa. Considered a moderate Sunni Muslim country with an increasingly stabilized democratic tradition and a flourishing industrial economy, Turkey has chosen to invest its political, diplomatic, humanitarian, and commercial resources in Somalia. In August 2011, a week after AMISON expelled al-Shabab from Mogadishu, Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdoğan and his family flew to Mogadishu with a party of 200 officials and business people. This was the first visit to Somalia by a head of government or state since 1991. The TFG has enthusiastically welcomed Turkey’s interest and contributions, although other observers remain cautious about the impact of Turkey’s relatively late arrival at the peace and stabilization process (ICG 2012).

In the midst of cautious optimism, warnings are being sounded by some Somali activists, who have long argued for broader local participation in the processes of peacebuilding and state formation, which are dominated by foreign military forces and international aid agencies. Unless the people of Somalia own these developments through direct participation and the cultural affinity of changes, the country may persist in turmoil.

In his introduction to an important new scholarly contribution to the field of peacebuilding, Wilfrid Laurier University professor Timothy Donais (2012) points to the obvious need for local ownership: “any peace process not embraced by those who have to live with it is likely to fail” (p. 1). However, he acknowledges that the notion of local ownership is difficult to define and even more difficult to put into practice: “While the principle of local ownership enjoys broad rhetorical acceptance it has proven inherently difficult to operationalize” (p. 1).

According to Donais, peacebuilding in previously war-torn countries, as encouraged and implemented by the international community, has almost uniformly been a technocratic, social-engineering process consisting of institution building for “democratization, economic liberalization, neoliberal development, human rights, and the rule of law” (p. 4). He contrasts this vision of “liberal peace” with an alternative approach that he calls “peacebuilding from below.” These more “communitarian approaches stress the importance of tradition and social context in determining the legitimacy and appropriateness of particular visions of political order, justice, or ethics” (p. 5).

Using case studies of peacebuilding in Afghanistan, Haiti, and Bosnia Donais shows why sustainable peace has been so difficult to establish. The reasons the local inhabitants were fighting with each other don’t just disappear with a signed peace agreement. The myopic and self-defined interests of the international interveners often steamroll local cultural understandings and traditional governance practices. Acknowledging these complexities, Donais opts for a synthesizing term that indicates the need to blend international agendas with local particularities. “Negotiated hybridity” is the “creative mergings of values, practices, and institutional forms across the international-local divide” (p. 3).

The repeated failure of peace initiatives in Somalia over two decades suggests that there are fundamental flaws in those processes. Dr. Ibrahim Farah and Sagal Mohamed1 emphasize the need to pay greater attention to local ownership in the state-building and peace processes in Somalia to ensure success.

Farah and Mohamed characterize the 21-year period in Somalia since the fall of the Barre regime as one of increasing civil militarization. The four main groups who formed the armed opposition to Barre did not share a plan for Somalia beyond overthrowing the regime. “These rebel groups have had neither national agenda nor any form of strategy for a post-Siyad Barre Somalia” (Farah & Mohamed 2012a). Descent into clan-based warfare and warlordism was the result.

Exacerbating the turmoil was the proxy support of factions within Somalia by Ethiopia and Eritrea. A generally held suspicion was that Ethiopia preferred a weak and disorganized Somalia in the face of continuing claims for a greater Somalia that would include parts of Ethiopia (and Djibouti and Kenya). The failed UN mission in the early 1990s gave way to international inattention and then to post-9/11 concerns about radical Islamic groups operating within Somalia and pirates terrorizing the high seas off Somalia’s coast. The territory has been flooded with small arms, making everyday life subject to the whims of armed youth as well as competing armed groups.

Farah and Mohamed argue that the steps taken in 2012 to re-establish a functioning state and sustainable peace in Somalia—a June interim constitution and a newly elected Prime Minister and Parliament in September—reveal the same defects as previous peacebuilding efforts. There is no local ownership.

Somali stakeholders must “check on the importance of Somali ownership and leadership including transparency and accountability of all actors in the ongoing state-formation processes in Somalia” (Farah & Mohamed 2012b). Paralleling Donais’s criticisms of externally driven “liberal peace” efforts, Farah and Mohamed call the processes that established the interim or transitional governments of the past “mainly power sharing talks.” “There has always been too much focus on the institutional and constitutional aspects of the Somalia conflict” (2012b). Transitional justice, national healing, and reconciliation are required in a “Somali-owned Sharia-based Somali constitution as well as post-conflict reconstruction and development” (2012b). The complex matter of establishing and verifying the legitimate role of traditional elders in the process is at the heart of the problem.

The African troops making up the international AMISOM military force have been credited with being more effective in displacing insurgents from Mogadishu than were previous missions, including the U.S. effort in the early 1990s. The addition of Turkey’s diplomatic, infrastructure, and humanitarian assistance has given Somali leaders a needed psychological boost. New Somali government leadership appears to be making headway in organizing itself and providing services in the capital Mogadishu and in other locations it controls. The trajectory for Somalia may indeed be positive if broader local participation and ownership are incorporated into the state- and peace-building processes to create the type of negotiated hybridity that Donais points to.


1. Dr. Ibrahim Farah is a Somali lecturing at the University of Nairobi’s Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies. From 2005-2008 he participated in the joint Africa Peace Forum/Project Ploughshares project on a human security architecture for the Horn of Africa. Farah is also the founder of the Justice & Peace Network-Somalia, a global Somali civil movement aiming to constructively contribute to the search for justice and lasting peace in Somalia. Sagal Mohamed is a peace activist, currently working as a program coordinator with the Network.



Donais, Timothy. 2012. Peacebuilding and Local Ownership: Post-conflict consensus-building. New York: Routledge.

Farah, Ibrahim & Sagal Mohamed. 2012 a. Civil militarization in Somalia—causes, factors and issues. Horn of Africa Bulletin, January–February.

———. 2012b. Somalia: Let us get it right this time. Horn of Africa Bulletin, May-June.
International Crisis Group. 2012. Assessing Turkey’s Role in Somalia. Africa Briefing #92. October 8.

Spread the Word