Somalia: What Is Lost


October 22, 2019: For the second year in a row donor states are reducing aid because of the corruption This year the United States threatens to halt all aid if the government does not find and prosecute whoever stole $18 million contributions from the EU (European Union), Saudi Arabia and the UN. This theft was particularly painful because it was so brazen. The U.S. has taken the lead in establishing financial systems to track aid money and confirm it went to where it was supposed to go and if not, reveal who was responsible for stealing it. This included new electronic fingerprints and photos biometric ID system for everyone on the army payroll. That made theft of payroll much more difficult and upset a lot of politicians and officials who had long stolen much of the military aid. Other changes bypassed the government for some aid projects, although there was still theft at the local level. That was more difficult to get away with because the money was being stolen from people the thief knew. Aid was often stolen anyway, although local leaders would often try to work out an agreeable arrangement to share the stolen aid and avoid another bloody feud.

Donor nations are rapidly losing patience with this culture of corruption. The United States has been the largest provider of aid to Somalia and that American aid alone amounts to over $55 billion since 1991. In 2019 the U.S. provided nearly half a billion dollars, about 30 percent of the total. About half the aid is for food and other emergency supplies sent to people in areas suffering from severe food shortages, usually because of a drought. Much of this aid is stolen by al Shabaab and other outlaw groups. Enough of the food gets through to prevent massive starvation deaths. In addition to stealing food, al Shabaab also charges “taxes” and “fees” for access to the areas in need of food. Truck drivers who do not pay get shot at and their trucks stolen. Aid workers must also pay fees to operate in al Shabaab or warlord controlled areas. The income from plundered aid is what has kept al Shabaab in business for over a decade. Try and crackdown on that and al Shabaab will allow lots of Somalis to starve to death. These Islamic terrorists have done it before.

In 2018 donor states cut their contributions to Somalia by a third in 2018 (to under $900 million) compared to 2017. The donor community is losing patience with the endless violence and self-destructive corruption. What it has come down to is that the international community is not willing to provide the food, medical and cash aid, that keeps about a third of the population from starving to death or fleeing to adjacent nations like Kenya, Ethiopia and Yemen, unless Somalia proves it can govern itself. That aid pays for the current government, and its $340 million a year budget. This includes the Somali military, which is still a work in progress, and peacekeeping operations are also foreign aid.

The key problem is that despite their dire situation the Somalis still cannot agree on how to govern themselves as a nation. The natural state of what we call Somalia has been, for thousands of years, a dozen or more separate entities that have never voluntarily come together to govern themselves. Unity seems to be an impossible dream. Fighting between various clan and regional factions, as opposed to al Shabaab violence, causes thousands of people to flee their homes every month. Many end up in refugee camps around Mogadishu. UN and other foreign mediators have so far been unable to get the various warring factions to settle their disputes.

Somali leaders are aware of the problem and thought they could solve some of them with a federal form of government Currently there are five federal states; Puntland in the far north, Galmudug just south of Puntland, Hirshabelle (Central State), Southwest State and Jubaland on the Kenya border. Somaliland in the northwest is also considered a federal state of Somalia, but refuses to cooperate and continues to consider itself an independent nation. The problem is few other nations, or the UN, will recognize that.

The federal government concept was put into operation during 2016. It was agreed that the federal states would have some autonomy and the ability to elect local leaders (especially a state president). But the current de facto leaders don’t trust the national government and believe the central government will interfere with the state elections and otherwise limit the autonomy of the states. The federal form of government is supposed to provide the states with a lot of autonomy. In return, the central government would provide muscle to help control bandits and warlords throughout the country. The central government also controls most of the foreign aid coming in. There was growing acceptance for the federal form of government but many politicians prefer to try and concentrate maximum power in the central government. This causes problems with the federal states.

A powerful central government is unpopular with clans and the clan leaders, who are accustomed to having no government at all ordering them around. For most of the last few thousand years, the clans answered to no one except for the occasional empire builder. European colonial powers arrived in the 19th century and established a central government that didn’t really take; nor did similar efforts by previous conquerors. Once all the colonial powers were gone by 1960, the newly established Somali government began to come apart, a process that was completed by 1991. Since then no one has been able to get all the clans to submit to a new central government. To make matters worse, most of the educated Somalis fled in the 1990s and most have not returned. Meanwhile, public education has been absent in most of Somalia for two decades and the literacy rate is under 40 percent (and under 30 percent for women). Public health has been largely missing for two decades and life expectancy is about 52 years. Outside of Somaliland and Puntland, it’s under 50 years. Corruption and violence eventually caused medical aid group Doctors Without Borders to abandon Somalia in 2013, after trying, since the early 1990s, to operate effectively. Doctors Without Borders is famous for persisting under the most arduous and dangerous conditions. This medical charity rarely abandons an area that is in need but Somalia turned out to be one of the few situations that proved intolerable. Many other international aid organizations have given up on Somalia. Several medical charities that have left Somalia are willing to return if it is safe enough to justify the risks. Because the culture of corruption continues to subsidize groups like al Shabaab, Somalia is not getting safer for foreigners. Most foreign aid groups hire locals to handle the aid, which means there is even less control over the theft. Medical charities are different as they need doctors and other medical professionals which Somalia cannot supply. For foreigners are popular targets for kidnapping and being held for huge ransoms.

Many foreigners and Somalis feel Somalia is still too corrupt and poorly governed for even a federal form of government to work. Eventually but not yet. One encouraging sign has been the relative peace and prosperity in the north (Somaliland and Puntland). However, all is not perfect in the north. Since the 1990s the two statelets that comprise northern Somalia (Puntland and Somaliland) have been having some internal problems but much less so than in Somalia. Northern Somalia has been better governed since breaking away from Somalia in 1990 to form Puntland (2.5 million people) and Somaliland (3.5 million). The other two-thirds of the Somali population to the south has been in perpetual chaos since 1990 and the establishment of a lasting central government is still a work-in-progress.

The pleas from the UN and other aid organizations for donations to help Somalia are increasingly ignored and the money distributed to disaster areas where the money simply does more good. Increasingly those most willing to step up and stay involved with Somalia are neighboring countries, who have centuries of memories of violent Somalis raiding throughout the region. The neighbors would like to just ignore Somalia, like the rest of the world is increasingly doing. But when Somalia is a neighbor, ignoring the problem is not an option. For nations threatened by international Islamic terror attacks originating in Somalia there is a need to stay involved, but as little as possible. And that’s what the Americans and other Western counter-terror operators are doing.

Another form of foreign aid that is not working is loans. Somalia has foreign debts of nearly $5 billion which foreign lenders, especially the IMF, World Bank and the U.S., agree cannot be repaid. So this debt will be forgiven and more cash aid to Somalia written off as “missing”. That’s another way of saying it ended up in some foreign bank account that was established in part because the bank was known to resist legal efforts to find out who owns the money and where it came from. A lot of the stolen cash is used in Somalia, mainly to reward family, followers and temporary supporters for their services.

Some forms of aid are resistant to corruption. For example, American military aid concentrates on recruiting and training Somalis to be special operations troops. These Somali commandos work closely with their American counterparts, who provide training as well as passive support in operations involving the use of American helicopters to transport the strike teams. Then again there are only a few hundred Somali special operations troops, in part because standards are very high and the corruption prone are avoided. Another form of military aid that is largely immune to corruption is airstrikes the Americans provide against Islamic terrorist targets. So far in 2019, there have been 54 airstrikes against al Shabaab and ISIL targets in Somalia, Somaliland and Puntland. That’s more than the 47 for all of 2018.

October 13, 2019: Outside Mogadishu al Shabaab fired several mortar shells at the airport, wounding seven civilians but doing no damage to the airport.

October 12, 2019: In the south, across the border in Kenya, an al Shabaab roadside bomb killed ten Kenyan soldiers as their vehicle passed near. Al Shabaab seeks to intimidate Kenyan soldiers and police patrolling the border and interfere less in al Shabaab smuggling operations.

October 2, 2019: Outside Mogadishu al Shabaab used two roadside bombs to attack an army convoy, killing six soldiers.

September 30, 2019: In the south (Middle Juba), an American airstrike was carried out to assist American and Somali troops defending an airfield and special operations training base from an al Shabaab attack. One of the attackers was killed and an American soldier was slightly wounded. The attack, which involved two suicide bombers, was repulsed.


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