The result of al-Shabaab’s gruesome strike in the Westgate Mall in Nairobi has been international condemnation. It will be followed by a beef up in security around Kenya (this is already happening), and more resources will be pumped in the Global War on Terror’s East Africa/Somalia theatre (this might already be happening). Not much is being said about the reasons that al-Shabaab decided to strike in Kenya, save for that it is in retaliation of Kenya’s support for the Federal Government of Somalia in its fight against al-Shabaab. But Kenya was a target of al-Shabaab activity for a range of reasons beyond that.
Somalia is often painted as the failed state par excellence, and currently ranks as the most failed state on this planet—more ‘failed’ than other warring hotspots such as the Congo, Sudan, Chad, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan. And yet this ranking doesn’t tell us much about Somalia. In particular, it doesn’t tell us why and how Somalia got to where it is, and it doesn’t tell us anything about existing governance structures in the country. And contrary to news reports, there are existing governance structures in Somalia. Al-Shabaab is one of them and the Federal Government of Somalia claims to be one of them.
Al-Shabaab’s legitimacy comes from its relative pacifying and stabilising role in Somalia… yes I did say pacifying and stabilising. While this hasn’t been a popular topic with media outlets, there’s considerable academic writing on the topic of local governance in Somalia and the role Islamic organisations have played in providing for local order, peace, and security. Scholars such as Ken Menkhaus and Ioan Lewis have noted in their writings that local systems of governance such as Islamic Courts (of which al-Shabaab was one member) had effectively brought a significant degree of stability and local governance to southern Somalia.
Al-Shabaab and its predecessor, the Union of Islamic Courts, managed to provide for a great degree of peace and security in Mogadishu and around south Somalia, allowing business activity to thrive, and putting a stop to the predatory looting and rape and murder which Mogadishu’s warlords had ‘blessed’ the citizenry with since 1991. In an environment of great misery and disorder for such a long time, any establishment of order was welcome and al-Shabaab proved highly competent in fostering a relatively well ordered society. However, this doesn’t imply al-Shabaab’s universal or eternal popularity; I merely note that, when faced with years of political anarchy, insecurity, arbitrary extortion and rape, Somalis decided to support a faction which promised a greater degree of peace, security, and order, and to a large extent delivered on that promise (even if under sometimes brutal conditions).
“During their lifetime, the Federal Institutions of Somalia were marred by allegations of corruption, mismanagement, and inaptitude. They were an internationally installed governance structure, not one popularly developed and supported by the people. Because of their international imposition and character, they were distrusted by ordinary Somalis, who didn’t benefit from the graft and massive stealing of international funds destined to support the running of these institutions.
And such governance structures, with all of their international backing and hundreds of millions of dollars in support, were unable to provide for the people what al-Shabaab did; namely greater security and peace, which in turn fostered an environment conducive of greater business activity (the Mogadishu business community bankrolled the Union of Islamic Courts and later al-Shabaab). The current Federal Government of Somalia, the successor of the Transitional Federal Institutions has only recently, and with the help of Kenyan, Ethiopian, and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops, managed to replicate some of al-Shabaab’s successes in security governance.
Kenyan troops were invited in by the Federal Government of Somalia in late 2011 to help in the fight against al-Shabaab. They have since been re-hatted under the AMISOM banner and while in theory they should be working for the benefit of the Federal Government, the reality is somewhat different. Kenya’s strategy for a while now has been to carve up a semi-autonomous state to act as a buffer zone in the far south of Somalia, which would be controlled by a friendly Somali faction. The buffer zone region, also known as Jubaland, would be used to keep Somalia’s Islamists out of Kenya.
US Embassy cables from 2009 confirm that Somali elders, Transitional Federal Government officials, and Kenyan government officials had actually debated and planned the Jubaland project in Nairobi, and even Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi expressed principle support for the project. According to reports from July this year, such a course of events has already taken place, with a semi-autonomous Jubaland state already declared by local militias. The Federal Government in Mogadishu isn’t happy with Kenya over its very active support for local militia leaders over Mogadishu’s authority, but since it’s helpless to do much about it, the situation continues.
Moving past the rhetoric of helping Somalia become more stable, what this represents, at least for many Somalis and certainly for al-Shabaab, is another foreign ‘carve up’ of the country. Somalia and its people have suffered for years from local leadership battles underpinned by foreign support for the warring factions and actual direct foreign intervention in local political affairs. Kenya’s involvement in the southern port town of Kismayo and ‘Jubaland’ is only the most recent such episode, and the attack on Westgate Mall can be seen as al-Shabaab’s delayed response to this ‘carve up’.
Nikola Pijovic is a PhD candidate in the National Security College at the Australian National University. Image courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Photo.