Lessons for Cabo Delgado from the African experience in Somalia

Published in the ACCORD COVID-19 Conflict & Resilience Monitor on 29 April 2021, available at: https://www.accord.org.za/analysis/lessons-for-cabo-delgado-from-the-african-experience-in-somalia/

What can we learn from the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) for Cabo Delgado? One key lesson from the Somalia experience is that a security operation like AMISOM can create the opportunity for stabilisation, but for that opportunity to be turned into reality one needs a significant focus on political engagement, governance, rule of law, basic services and socio-economic development. 

Southern and central Somalia and the northern Cabo Delgado region of Mozambique have a number of challenges in common, but there are also important differences. Both have been affected by a violent extremist insurgency. Whilst the situation in Cabo Delgado is relatively recent, more than 5000 civilians have been killed by Al Shabaab in Somalia, and several hundred in neighbouring Kenya, Uganda and Djibouti, since approximately 2006. If Mozambique and its neighbours want to avoid the same fate they need to learn from the failures of the securitised counter-insurgency campaigns that have been tried in Somalia, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In Somalia, the African Union deployed an operation made up of a coalition of countries primarily from the immediate region, and at its height it was the largest mission of its kind with approximately 20,000 troops and a budget of over one million dollars a year. AMISOM has successfully achieved its core mandate of protecting the Somali state and international partners in Somalia, and it has successfully displaced Al Shabaab from Mogadishu and most of the urban centres in southern and central Somalia. However, despite the sacrifices and successes of AMISOM and the billions of dollars of aid spent towards stability in Somalia by its international partners over the past decade and a half, Al Shabaab remains an existential threat to the government of Somalia, retains influence over large parts of the country, extorts ‘taxes’ from the business community including in the cities under the nominal control of the government and carries out increasingly sophisticated deadly terrorist attacks. I would argue that this is because both the African and international efforts made the mistake of primarily directing their effort at managing the symptom – Al Shabaab – and not the underlying causes which continue to drive instability in Somalia today.

In both Mozambique and Somalia, the problem is framed as a violent extremist jihadist insurgency. Both main insurgent groups are called Al Shabaab, and whilst there may be links between them there are also important differences. In both countries the violent extremists are the most immediate security threat to people and state, and one can thus understand how the governments and some of their international partners have turned to the counter-insurgency playbook to try to manage this threat in the past. However, today ignorance is no longer an excuse. As we have learned in Somalia, Afghanistan and elsewhere, if counter-insurgency is your primary aim you are likely to neglect addressing the underlying causes of the instability, and if you do, the ‘security first’ effort may actually contribute to perpetuating the very problem it is trying to solve.

The underlying drivers of the conflicts in Mozambique and Somalia are marginalisation,  exclusion,  poverty, under-development, unemployment, weak governance and poor basic services. Decades of neglect has led to a pervasive sense of hopelessness. When a certain tipping point is crossed, some people take up arms or turn to banditry. In Cabo Delgado, the trigger seems to have been the exploitation of natural gas and the perception that the wealth being created in the process is once again passing by Cabo Delgado and going to the elites in Maputo instead. In these circumstances, for people that desperately need dignity and a means to sustain themselves and their families, the opportunities offered by the violent extremists  offer them both a sense of purpose and an income. 

Although there is now broad recognition among international experts who study peace and conflict, including at the United Nations, that there can be no military solution to these kinds of social inequality driven insurgencies, the governments and some of their partners in both Mozambique and Somalia have so far responded to these situations by using primarily military capabilities to counter what they assess to be a security problem.

In Somalia, gaining military control over territory has dislodged the formal Al Shabaab presence, but it has failed to disrupt their intimidation, extortion and influence over the people. Successful military actions to regain urban centres from Al Shabaab in Somalia have brought the Al Shabaab flags down, but it has not resulted in a significantly weakened Al Shabaab, nor has it resulted in a Somalia that is significantly more secure and stable for its people or government.

Key lessons from Somalia and elsewhere is that political, governance and development efforts should not be sequenced to follow after security has been restored, because it is not possible to restore security through military means alone. Instead, it should be an integral part, from the beginning, of how a government and its partners assess, plan and implement their efforts to restore stability. 

The ‘security first’ approach in Somalia and elsewhere tends to generate several negative side-effects. Firstly, it creates a political economy that is dependent on insecurity to thrive. Not only does this perpetuate inequality because it is the existing elites that earn the rent and provide the guards and other services to the internationals, it also creates a disincentive to resolve the problem, because the withdrawal of the international forces implies a significant loss of income to the elites. Secondly, it creates a political dilemma; the more the situation is successfully stabilised, the less incentive there is for the political class to address the underlying political and socio-economic problems. This has led, in many similar situations in Africa and elsewhere, to the international effort being trapped in a no war no peace stalemate. 

The core lesson from the African experience in Somalia for Cabo Delgado is thus to avoid getting trapped in a linear security-first counter insurgency doctrine that has failed elsewhere. Instead, what is needed is a comprehensive people-centred approach where the primary effort is to significantly improve political engagement with the people, civil society, community, political and traditional leaders of the affected communities. With their close involvement the focus needs to be on governance, basic services, rule of law, and livelihoods. In such a politically directed and governance-led strategy, the role of the security forces should be limited to creating a secure environment conducive for the main political, governance and civilian stabilisation effort.

What we have learned in Somalia and elsewhere is that whilst military action can create temporary security, sustainable stability can only be realised through political engagement that empowers and enhances the resilience of local communities, civil administration, basic services, rule of law, and socio-economic development including in particular initiatives aimed at improving people’s livelihoods and food security. 

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