Ask the Expert: Africa Center’s Dr. Benjamin Nickels on Somalia and the Way Forward

By Africa Center for Strategic Studies
Updated: 12/17/2012

Inauguration of Somalia’s First Parliament in Two Decades - UN Photo/Stuart PriceMajor shifts, both internal and external, have greatly enhanced the likelihood for Somalia to consolidate peace and start rebuilding the country, according to Dr. Benjamin P. Nickels, Associate Professor of Counterterrorism and Transnational Threats at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS). A new president was elected in September 2012, and a new government was installed two months later. The militant Islamist group al-Shabaab has been militarily weakened and there is a growing will amongst international stakeholders to put an end to piracy on the Somali coast. In an interview with Serge Yondou, staff writer at ACSS, Dr. Nickels, provides some insights about the status of al-Shabaab, efforts to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia, the role of the Somali Diaspora in the country’s transition, and the prospects for peace and stability in the region.

Q: Is al-Shabaab definitely out of Somalia?

DR. NICKELS: The ultimate disposition that the terrorist group al-Shabaab will assume remains to be seen, but its prospects certainly don’t look good at the moment. From the significant force of a few years ago that was able to effectively control considerable swaths of territory in the center and south of the country, proclaim connections to al-Qaeda, and carry out regional attacks, the group has been greatly disrupted and degraded over the past year or 18 months, in terms of reach, capacity, and structure. Military successes are part of how this happened: The remarkable, long-standing commitment of AMISOM forces, reinforced recently by notableAMISOM Trains Members of Somalia Police Force - UN Photo/Tobin Jones troop actions from neighboring countries, has pushed al-Shabaab into smaller and smaller spaces and put the group under more and more pressure. Perhaps even more importantly, political successes also seem to finally be emerging as part of the story of al-Shabaab’s decline. The recent elections and end (officially at least) of the transition have given Somalia another shot at some sort of national government, and surprisingly this new government seems to have at least some measure of popular support at present, which opens real possibilities. However, military and political advances aside, al-Shabaab should not be entirely counted out within Somalia (including Somaliland and Puntland), and certainly not in neighboring countries (like Kenya). A few wrong moves could always bring al-Shabaab back to south–central Somalia as well. And of course, even if al-Shabaab is eliminated, the conditions conducive to its creation may persist, and so we may end up talking about some new group in 2013 that looks quite a bit like al-Shabaab, with just a few changes in names and key figures.

Q: Some argue that even with a new president elected and al-Shabaab’s influence waning, Somalia may now face an ever greater danger: regional clan-based groups taking up arms once more against each other. How do you assess that risk?

DR. NICKELS: I believe that the rise of the new government and the decline of al-Shabaab are positive developments that decrease rather than increase security risks in the short to medium term. I don’t know what the factual basis is for the claim that clan-based groups are now poised to rise up, but that vision — a sort of ‘revenge of the clans’ resulting from al-Shabaab’s absence and a central government’s presence — strikes me as a kind of default position, a view based on the notion that clans are basic social elements in eternal opposition that have simply been suppressed, or have been somehow ‘slumbering,’ as it were, during the past five years. To really know if some array of regional clan-based groups are likely to drive instability anytime soon, we would need some very specific information on which groups are forming, how clan dynamics fit within their mobilization, where they are operating, under which leaders, what their capabilities are, and so on.

Q: Clans were virtually abolished by President Siad Barre when he came to power, but they never disappeared. Some say they are the bedrock upon which Somali is built. How important are those clans for politics and for politicians?

DR. NICKELS: I think that the consensus among Somalia analysts is that clans are central to the political and security landscape of Somalia and most would agree that they have served as a major source of legitimacy and mobilization for politicians. That said, we have to be careful when it comes to clans. Clans can come to play a catch-all role for Somali watchers. They can rush in and fill a void, as it were: Clan conflict can become an explanation when things become unclear, radically open, or downright inexplicable, and esoteric acquaintance with clan delineations for its own sake can become an intellectual pursuit and basis for a claim to expertise quite beyond its explanatory power. What would truly add analytic value regarding clans, to my mind, would be detailed on-the-ground empirical research looking at how clans fit within competing identities and loyalties, and especially how clans develop over time and have been changing during the past decade or so, in relation to the experience of limited/no central state, influence of the Diasporas, and so on. Most references to clans imply a remarkably static array of social divisions. Overall, my impression is that our understanding will advance as clans are streamlined into analyses, not as dangerous fundamental fault lines plaguing Somali society, but rather as one more aspect of the Somali social environment that — like everything else — influences in some manner the security environment.

Q: The other fixture when pundits talk about Somalia is the pirates: Some say they are “common criminals” while some other argue that they are a coast guard or fishermen driven to piracy because on industrial overfishing of their coastal shores. Is that latter view somewhat romanticized?

DR. NICKELS: Yes, the latter view is romanticized. Pirates represent a range of actors: Some may be fisherman driven to piracy due to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, either for purely economic reasons or almost as some sort of proto-political reaction, but others are pretty much armed groups that have simply taken their criminal activity to the seas, and still others are part of large piracy operations with substantial equipment, resources, and organization. In a broader sense, it should be noted that romanticized views of Somali pirates share some of the same shortcomings as the anachronistic ones — images of a stateless Somalia relapsing into a pre-national landscape of warlords, fanatic followers of ‘a medieval ideology’ (i.e., Islamists), and pirates — and even the banal ones (i.e., pirates as ‘common criminals’). All these views miss the ultramodern aspect of today’s pirates, as well as their similarity to a variety of contemporary violent non-state actors (VNSA), all of whom have been empowered by globalization and are managing to outstrip prevailing regulations, which primarily reside in our sovereign nation-states, for the purposes of power or profit.

Q: Piracy is also seen as the result of lack of economic opportunities due to chronic political instability. Yet Piracy is also a product of Somali entrepreneurial élan, and it has been until recently a quite profitable business. Do you have any thoughts on that?

DR. NICKELS: Pirates are one sort of the new VNSAs associated with transnational threats generally, be it terrorism, drug smuggling, human trafficking, you name it. These groups all share lack of economic opportunity and political instability as causes — ‘push’ factors leading individuals to sign up. At the same time, VNSAs, especially the ones driven by profit (like drug smugglers, human traffickers, and so on), exhibit traits that are highly prized in the contemporary business world, such as entrepreneurship, focus on the bottom line, adjustment to cost–benefit analysis, flexibility to increase efficiency in practices, and so on. So, my opinion is that piracy is a product of all these factors, from lack of economic opportunities to entrepreneurial élan. There are some larger questions here, though. Some research suggests that piracy money spent within Somalia is actually essential to the economic well-being of the country — that piracy indirectly constitutes an essential part of the Somali economy — and that counter-piracy measures therefore risk creating second- and third-order security effects through their economic costs. The debate here becomes whether, and to what extent, it’s just better to pay tribute to the pirates, as it were, to give them their due as a sort of perverse development aid. Another, related question, is which types of VNSA activities are irredeemable, and which — like illicit commodity smuggling — might be replaced by, or even themselves form the basis for, legal activities in the future, such as (taxed and regulated) trade. All of this gets into larger debates over how state structures and business activities coexist and harmonize in the contemporary world.

Q: The Somali Diaspora has been very active in keeping Somalia on the geopolitical map over the years, especially in the United States. What is its actual influence in political affairs? Is the Somali Diaspora the real kingmaker in Somalia today?

DR. NICKELS: The Somali Diaspora is complex and it has complex effects. There are Somalis in the Diaspora within the region who have been present for decades or longer, settled in identifiable neighborhoods like Kisenyi in Kampala and Eastleigh in Kenya. There are Somalis who have traveled to the Gulf and Arab–Muslim world more broadly. And there are Somalis who have settled in the West, in a variety of locations. In all cases, these Somalis in the Diaspora have generally kept some form of Somali identity alive, focused on economic advancement, and occasionally witnessed their members participate in political organizations and movements on the ground in Somalia, including in al-Shabaab. Overall, the Somali Diaspora’s impact in Somalia is probably primarily economic, as it has played a significant role through remittances, investments, and so on. But Somalis from the Diaspora have also had a role in national politics — Somalis living in the West were an important element in the TFG, for example, and indeed their recent return to the country sometimes fed criticism of them and their government. All of this said, the power and significance of the Diaspora should not be overstated. If the past 20 years have shown anything, it’s that no one outside of Somalia is the real king maker inside Somalia, and that local actors on the ground can disrupt and spoil plans set in motion from outside.

Q: Are you positive about Somalia’s future?

DR. NICKELS: Yes, I am positive, but realistic as well. Several factors, including military and political developments, have indeed aligned to produce in Somalia better security in the short term and possibly better governance in the medium to long term. Moreover, there are coming into place some key circumstances and structures that might allow Somalia to progress gradually toward something like a viable nation-state again. But if it manages to make this progress, the new government will soon find itself having to take on other, larger challenges. One will be how to deal with integrating Puntland and especially the self-proclaimed independent Somaliland; another will be how to negotiate contentious issues with neighboring states, everything from border issues to control of new-found energy reserves; a third will be to establish sovereignty and find the right way to work with international actors, including the United States, who have been operating largely at will on Somali national territory for years. There are many reasons to remain skeptical, and certainly compelling scenarios of regression aren’t hard to imagine. But for the moment, a window of opportunity has opened that was not present six or even three months ago. We’ll see if it’s still there in three or six months from now.

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