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Briefing Room

Why the US Cares About Somalia

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Geopolitical Futures — Something is quietly stirring in the Horn of Africa. Over the past month, the United States seems to have shown a renewed interest in Somalia and the security threats that emanate from it. On April 15, U.S. Africa Command confirmed that several dozen troops from the 101st Airborne Division would train and equip Somali forces to more effectively combat militant Islamist group al-Shabab.
Shortly thereafter, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order giving AFRICOM more autonomy in its missions against the group. Then, on May 5, Washington announced the death of a U.S. Navy SEAL outside the capital of Mogadishu – and, in doing so, acknowledged that the United States was participating in local military operations there. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is even slated to attend a conference in the United Kingdom on May 11 over the future of Somalia.

These events raise an obvious and important question: Why does Somalia warrant such a military commitment from the world’s only superpower?

The answer to that question, as is so often the case, starts with geography. Somalia’s northern coast borders the Gulf of Aden, which leads to Bab el-Mandeb, a narrow chokepoint through which all maritime traffic from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean must pass. Avoiding this strait would take all goods from the Persian Gulf – including oil – around the entire African continent to reach European and American markets. It is also a valuable staging ground for navies to project power on to the Arabian Peninsula.

For this reason, Washington’s interest in Somalia remained steadfast even after the Cold War ended. After civil war erupted in 1991, the United States, in a testament to Somalia’s geostrategic importance, participated heavily in the U.N. peacekeeping mission there. (Washington would later reduce its involvement after sustaining casualties in 1993.) Among the groups fighting for power were Islamist groups, one of which, the Islamic Courts Union, actually controlled southern Somalia in the 2000s.

An extremist wing of the Islamic Courts Union split from its parent group, donned the name al-Shabab, and continues to conduct terrorist attacks in the country. Al-Shabab also boasts ties with both al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. Formally, Somalia now has a central government, but it cannot control formally or informally such an untamed and fractured country, to which al-Shabab is a big contributor.

The United States, meanwhile, has been coming to terms with the costs of global hegemony. It has been trying to extricate itself from faraway military operations such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Horn of Africa is no different. Washington understands that it does not have the resources or political capital to fight every war in the world. But it still needs to be active in places like Somalia to protect its global interests. It has therefore pursued a strategy that involves a limited use of resources necessary to achieve an acceptable result as opposed to decisive, clear-cut victory.

Such is the case in Somalia. Over the past few years, Washington has selectively developed a military presence throughout the Horn of Africa that features drone technology, special operations forces and cooperation with other regional actors.
The East Africa Response Force, an outfit comprising members of the U.S. Air Force, Marines and Navy tasked with crisis response and personnel recovery, returned to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti (the largest U.S. base in Africa) in April 2014.

Plans are also underway to add new facilities to the U.S. special operations compound at Lemonnier. In addition, U.S. 3rd Special Forces Group were sent back to Africa in late 2015 after serving in Afghanistan. The U.S. government was also privy to the negotiations for DP World’s plans to develop Berbera port in Somaliland along the Gulf of Aden, as well as plans by the United Arab Emirates (a strong U.S. ally) to establish a military base near there.

Central to this strategy, however, is the inclusion of local forces to share security responsibilities. To that end, the United States has been delegating to regional leaders who have a more vested interest in stabilizing the internal conflicts and terrorist threats coming out of other countries. Given their shared border with Somalia, not to mention their comparatively mature militaries, Ethiopia and Kenya appear as the two most natural candidates.

Ethiopia, however, is undergoing a period of nationwide unrest and is not in a position to be a viable partner. The country recalled some of its troops from Somalia citing financial restrictions, but the more likely explanation is that more security forces were needed to help quell domestic political unrest.

Kenya appears to be more reliable. The country has a direct incentive to help, considering al-Shabab has conducted attacks on Kenyan soil. Recent U.S. gestures to help Kenya play its regional role include increased military training programs, inclusion in regional military drills, and the sale of 12 new U.S.-made light attack helicopters, 24 heavy machine gun pods and accompanying systems, 24 rocket pods and some 4,000 M151 high-explosive rockets. With so much time spent fighting insurgencies, moreover, the United States has a lot of experience it can impart to Kenya that it cannot get from other countries.

There may also be economic motivation to helping the United States. Kenya is an emerging East African economy, and its main strategy for increasing basic manufactured exports is to take advantage of the United States’ African Growth and Opportunity Act, which gives Kenya preferential trade status with the United States.

For this reason, in late April, the Kenyan government sent Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed to Washington to discuss security cooperation, economic agreements and investment opportunities with U.S. officials.

Ideally, the United States would like to see al-Shabab, and indeed all radical Islam, destroyed. But to achieve this requires the United States to use vast resources for results that are far from guaranteed. Instead, the United States will settle for keeping the world’s sea lanes off the Horn of Africa open and safe for passage.

This is the U.S. imperative in the region, and a containment approach to al-Shabab in Somalia achieves that goal, particularly since the group is relegated largely to the south, separated from the strategic north by vast deserts and poor transportation infrastructure. The United States will try to use its allies to help it keep al-Shabab there, a sufficient outcome for a country trying to strike a balance of power in virtually every corner of the world.

Briefing Room

Saving Somalia Through Debt Relief

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KEVIN WATKINS

Kevin Charles Watkins is the Chief Executive of Save the Children UK

Somalia needs humanitarian aid to stem its short-term suffering, but that cash will not break the country’s deadly cycles of drought, hunger, and poverty. To do that, the IMF must forgive Somalia’s crushing debt, just as it has for nearly every other heavily indebted poor country.

LONDON – Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, once asked his country’s creditors a blunt question: “Must we starve our children to pay our debts?” That was in 1986, before the public campaigns and initiatives that removed much of Africa’s crushing and unpayable debt burden. But Nyerere’s question still hangs like a dark cloud over Somalia.

Over the last year, an unprecedented humanitarian effort has pulled Somalia back from the brink of famine. As the worst drought in living memory destroyed harvests and decimated livestock, almost $1 billion was mobilized in emergency aid for nutrition, health, and clean water provision. That aid saved many lives and prevented a slow-motion replay of the 2011 drought, when delayed international action resulted in nearly 260,000 deaths.

Yet, even after these recent efforts, Somalia’s fate hangs in the balance. Early warning systems are pointing to a prospective famine in 2018. Poor and erratic rains have left 2.5 million people facing an ongoing food crisis; some 400,000 children live with acute malnutrition; food prices are rising; and dry wells have left communities dependent on expensive trucked water.

Humanitarian aid remains essential. Almost half of Somalia’s 14 million people need support, according to UN agencies. But humanitarian aid, which is often volatile and overwhelmingly short-term, will not break the deadly cycles of drought, hunger, and poverty. If Somalia is to develop its health and education systems, economic infrastructure, and the social protection programs needed to build a more resilient future, it needs predictable, long-term development finance.

Debt represents a barrier to that finance. Somalia’s external debt is running at $5 billion. Creditors range from rich countries like the United States, France, and Italy, to regional governments and financial institutions, including the Arab Monetary Fund.

But Somalia’s debt also includes $325 million in arrears owed to the International Monetary Fund. And there’s the rub: countries in arrears to the IMF are ineligible to receive long-term financing from other sources, including the World Bank’s $75 billion concessional International Development Association (IDA) facility.

Much of the country’s current debt dates to the Cold War, when the world’s superpower rivalry played out in the Horn of Africa. Over 90% of Somalia’s debt burden is accounted for by arrears on credit advanced in the early 1980s, well before two-thirds of today’s Somali population was born.

Most of the lending then was directed to President Siad Barre as a reward for his abandonment of the Soviet Union and embrace of the West. Military credits figured prominently: over half of the $973 million in US debt is owed to the Department of Defense. Somalia got state-of-the-art weaponry, liberally financed by loans. The IMF was nudged into guaranteeing repayment through a structural adjustment program.  Repaying the debt today would cost every Somali man, woman, and child $361.

None of this would matter if Somalia had qualified for debt reduction. The Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC), created in response to the great debt relief campaigns of the 1990s, has written off around $77 billion in debt for 36 countries. Somalia is one of just three countries that have yet to qualify. The reason: the arrears owed to the IMF. (Eritrea and Sudan have also not qualified, for similar reasons).

The IMF view is that Somalia, like earlier HIPC beneficiaries, should establish a track record of economic reform. This will delay a full debt write-off for up to three years, exclude Somalia from long-term development finance, and reinforce its dependence on emergency aid. Other creditors have endorsed this approach through silent consent.

Somalia deserves better. President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s government has demonstrated a commitment to economic reform, improved accountability, and transparency. For two years, it has adhered to an IMF program, achieving targets for improving public finance and the banking sector. More needs to be done, especially in terms of domestic resource mobilization. But this is the first Somali government to provide the international community with a window of opportunity to support recovery. We must capitalize on it.

Waiting three more years as Somalia ticks the IMF’s internal accounting boxes would be a triumph of bureaucratic complacency over human needs. Without international support, Somalia’s government lacks the resources needed to break the deadly cycle of drought, hunger, and poverty.

Somalia’s children need investment in health, nutrition, and schools now, not at some point in the indefinite future. Investing in irrigation and water management would boost productivity. With drought-related livestock and crop losses estimated at around $1.5 billion, government-supported cash payment programs would help aid recovery, strengthen resilience, and build trust.

The benefits of these investments would extend to security. Providing the hope that comes with education, health care, and the prospect of a job is a far more effective weapon than a drone to combat an insurgency that feeds on despair, poverty, joblessness, and the absence of basic services.

There is an alternative to IMF-sponsored inertia on debt relief. The World Bank and major creditors could convene a creditor summit to agree to terms for a prompt debt write-off. More immediately, the World Bank could seek its shareholders’ approval for a special mechanism – a “pre-arrears clearance grant” – that would enable Somalia to receive IDA financing. There is a precedent for this: In 2005, the US championed World Bank financing for Liberia, which at the time had significant IMF debt after emerging from civil war.

The technicalities can be discussed and the complexities resolved. But we should not lose sight of what is at stake. It is indefensible for the IMF and other creditors to obstruct Somalia’s access to financing because of arrears on a debt incurred three decades ago as much through reckless lending as through irresponsible borrowing.

Somalia’s children played no part in creating that debt. They should not have to pay for it with their futures.

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Briefing Room

UNSC votes to extend sanctions on Eritrea and Somalia

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The United Nations Security Council has voted to extend an arms embargo imposed on Eritrea and Somalia for allegedly supporting al-Shabaab. The decision comes barely a week after a panel of experts called for the lifting of sanctions particularly on Somalia. CGTN’s Liling Tan filed this report from New York

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Briefing Room

Somalia’s Humanitarian & Disaster Management Minister resigned citing “Confusion and Disorder”

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(GOOBJOOG NEWS) Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management Dr. Maryan Qasim said Wednesday she quit the job following what she termed as ‘confusion and disorder’ in government.

Addressing the media shortly after confirming her resignation to Goobjoog News, Dr. Qasim said she could not put up with the level of ‘confusion and disorderly manner in which the government operates’ but noted she was not in any way opposed to the government.

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