In the wake of the recent surge in piracy, it would be hard to argue that there is not a silver lining fastened to this unique international crisis – the tragedy of Somalia has finally been pushed onto the world stage. Somalia has long been a political catastrophe, having hit rock bottom after claiming the #1 ranking in The Fund for Peace’s most recent Failed States Index. In the last 18 years, Mogadishu has watched 14 failed attempts at establishing a functioning central government, and the current transitional government’s sphere of control has been reduced to just a few city blocks of the war-torn capital. The rest of the country is governed by unbridled anarchy in a violent free-for-all between rival clans, powerful warlords, and radical Islamists. To call Somalia a classic embodiment of Hobbesian state of nature would be a monumental understatement because Thomas Hobbes never fashioned his model of anarchy to include a seemingly infinite supply of automatic weapons. The timeline of the past two decades is dotted with covert military forays and half-hearted state-building efforts, but only as the crisis begins to spill over into the Gulf of Aden and aboard the decks of merchant vessels has the world finally truly taken notice. At a recent conference in Brussels attended by leadership from the UN, the EU, the African Union (AU), the Arab League, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the international community pledged $213 million (far exceeding the requested aid) toward strengthening Somali security forces. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN special envoy for Somalia, said recently that “the problem of piracy has opened the eyes of those who have forgotten Somalia.”
However, many have been quick to note that international intrigue and foreign aid do not necessarily equate to results especially since, at first glance, stability in Somalia appears all but hopeless. After all, 2 million displaced refugees and a $600 per capita GDP in a country defined by drought, famine, and incessant war does not paint a promising picture. But Somalia is an anomaly among the rest of the world’s failed states, which are almost invariably defined by deep-seated religious or ethnic sectarian conflict. Somalia, on the other hand, is strikingly homogeneous. Nearly the entire population of almost 10 million shares the same ethnicity, religion, language, and culture. But the prolonged absence of the rule of law has given rise to violent clan loyalties that have shattered the Somali nation into countless unidentifiable pieces. Nevertheless, the pieces of unity exist. They just need a foundation on which to take shape.
In the past, failed attempts to stabilize Somalia by means of foreign intervention have only encouraged stronger Islamist extremism and deeper anti-American sentiment. But in a recent letter to President Obama, Senator Russ Feingold, the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, articulated a strategy of engagement to unite Somalia from within. Senator Feingold pointed to the dramatic decline in violence and piracy that occurred under the brief rule of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in 2006. Despite the repressive shari’a law imposed by its hard-line al-Shabaab branch of Sunni Islam, the ICU brought Somalia the central authority that it desperately needed to establish order and security. Journalist Jeffrey Gettleman wrote that when he visited Mogadishu in September 2006, he “saw work crews picking up trash and kids swimming at the beach. For the first time in years, no gunshots rang out at night. Under the banner of Islam, the Islamists had united rival clans and disarmed much of the populace … They even cracked down on piracy by using their clan connections to dissuade coastal towns from supporting the pirates.” The brief reign of the ICU prior to its ousting by a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion is widely considered the most peaceful six months in Somalia since 1991. The ICU’s radical Islamic law presented its own set of intolerable human rights violations, but the lesson to be learned from the six-month interlude from chaos is the ability of Islam to unite Somalia’s rival clans and thwart the cycle of violence that they perpetuate. Moderate Islam can, and must, serve as the foundation on which the new Somali nation-state will be pieced together.
Recognizing the common underlying identity of the Somali people and the ability to unite the country as a moderate Islamic Republic is the first step, but implementing such a daunting strategy presents a long and uncertain challenge. However, the Somali anomaly is two-fold. Not only does Somalia’s ethnic and religious solidarity make it unique among failed states, but it also stands alone in enjoying the benefit of a precise model to guide its construction. The northernmost region of the country, Somaliland, declared independence from Mogadishu after the fall of Siad Barre’s violent 20-year dictatorship in 1991. Since then, while Somalia has torn itself apart, Somaliland’s 3.5 million inhabitants – despite failing to gain international recognition – have established a fully-functioning central government predicated on moderate Islam, complete with a President, a bicameral legislature, an independent judiciary, a police force, a coast guard, and multi-party elections. In the words of its Foreign Minister Abdillahi Duale, Somaliland is “Africa’s best kept secret”. The existence of Somaliland presents a bizarre scenario, as if serving as a window into a parallel universe in which the course of Somalia’s history veered off on a starkly different trajectory in 1991, resulting in a stable, moderate Islamic Somali nation-state. By mimicking the structure of Somaliland, the international development effort can blend the principles of moderate Islam, Somali nationalism, and representative democracy into a cohesive and stable Somalia.
The Western world understandably balks at the notion of an Islamic republic, but Islam’s unifying capacity in Somalia is undeniable. By reaching for the calm core beneath the disorder that plagues Somalia’s surface, a country that barely understands the concepts of law and order can finally find peace. Piracy’s knack for grabbing headlines has led the African Union special envoy for Somalia, Nicholas Bwakira, to call the current level of global interest in ending the ongoing crisis on land “unprecedented”. Stability will not come quickly or easily, but for the first time the international community is creating genuine hope that there will someday be a peaceful nation nestled on the tip of the Horn of Africa.