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Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Down but Far from Out
Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Down but Far from Out
A Somali soldier takes position at the scene of a suicide attack by al Shabaab militants in capital Mogadishu on 21 June 2015. REUTERS/Feisal Omar
Commentary / Africa

Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Down but Far from Out

Somalia’s militant group, Al-Shabaab, has often defied its adversaries’ claims that it is in decline. In recent months, however, the movement has suffered setbacks, including territorial losses, high-ranking commanders killed and defections. The Somali Federal Government (SFG) and its internal, regional and international allies need to be clear-sighted about the reasons for these, and what they can do to stop another Al-Shabaab recovery.

Al-Shabaab’s set-backs – and fewer attacks by the movement during the Ramadan holy Muslim month of fasting than in previous years – are the result of three distinct and unrelated factors. First, an enhanced and largely externally directed and funded campaign including drone strikes has eliminated high-profile leaders and diminished its military capacity. Second, some of Somalia’s new federal units are demonstrating greater military effectiveness, even if they and the government still rely primarily on clan-based militias. Third, the Islamic State (IS) has challenged Al-Shabaab’s greatest internal vulnerability – its ideological cohesion.

Whether the Somali government and its allies can advance their cause will largely depend on greater agreement on priorities and coordination of action – no easy task, given the wide and diverse range of external and internal actors.

The Impact of U.S. Strikes

The U.S. has already stepped up its longstanding campaign against individual Al-Shabaab commanders and attacking the group’s military capacity. Drone strikes and ground operations have killed at least five Al-Shabaab leaders: Abdirahman Sandhere “Ukash”, from the combat operations wing (jabha), in December 2015; Hassan Ali Dhore, from the security and intelligence wing (amniyat) in March 2016; Daud Ma’alim (also known as Yusuf Haji), also from the amniyat, in May 2016; and Ma’alim Aden Hassan, a military instructor, in June 2016.

The U.S. army also claims that a drone strike in March this year killed 150 militants in a training camp in the Hiiraan region. Other successful assaults were launched by the U.S. contractor-trained Somali “Thunder” (Danab) Brigade – an elite, 570-strong commando force – from its Baladogle military air base in the Lower Shabelle region. Most recently the brigade killed Mohammed Mahmoud Ali “Dulyadeen” or “Kuno”, a leading commander reportedly responsible for the attack on Kenya’s Garissa university college that killed 147 students.

Map of Somalia. CRISIS GROUP 2016

The Clan Resistance and Islamic State Encroachment

Another important strike against Al-Shabaab came from some Somali clans, a reversal of Al-Shabaab’s usually deft management of clan relations. In February 2016, Abgal clan militias forced the group out of several locations in the Middle Shabelle region following resistance against alms (zakat) demands; Gugundhabe “Ma’awis Lei” clan militias did the same in Hiiraan, as did the original clan-based Sufi-inspired anti-Al-Shabaab militia Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a in Gedo (with the help of Ethiopian forces). The now more substantive federal states and interim administrations have also used their clan-based militias. In March 2016, for example, Al-Shabaab units were caught between the Somali National Army, Puntland’s “Darwiish” forces and Galmudug Interim Administration militias as they attempted to enter the Mudug region and its port town of Gara’ad.

The IS factor is the latest playing into a number of internal divisions that are arguably more deadly to Al-Shabaab than the military forces pitted against it.

The March 2016 losses in Mudug were the result of Al-Shabaab’s botched attempts to move fighters toward their Golis mountain stronghold between Puntland and Somaliland as the group tried to eliminate a dissident faction that had declared allegiance to the so-called IS. The IS factor is the latest playing into a number of longstanding internal divisions – including reports of internal criticism of the current Emir Ahmed Diriye “Abu Ubaidah” – that are arguably more deadly to Al-Shabaab than the military forces pitted against it. The prominent Sheikh Abdulqadir Mumim’s October 2015 pledge of loyalty (ba’ya) to IS was the most high-profile of at least four different pro-IS dissident factions across Somalia, which Al-Shabaab’s amniyat security wing ruthlessly began to exterminate in November 2015.

The internal purge against suspected IS sympathisers may explain a wave of Al-Shabaab defections to Somali government forces. These include the April defections of Ahmed Mohamud Afrah, a senior commander responsible for collecting tax (zakawat) contributions and Mohamed Hooley, a district commander in Galgadud region, as well as the defection of amniyat security officer Hassan Isaq Nuur in May. It may also explain a reshuffle of Shabaab’s governors (walis) in Lower Shabelle, Hiiraan and Mudug.

A Still-Lethal Punch

Despite these setbacks, the group can still hit hard against the Somali Federal Government and its allies, including the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Soft targets like government offices and hotels in Mogadishu are regularly subject to Al-Shabaab “complex attacks”, the latest against the Naasa Hablood Hotel on 25 June and the Ambassador Hotel on 1 June, killing civilians and a number of SFG officials, ministers and members of parliament with whom both venues were popular. An AMISOM base manned by an Ethiopian National Defence Forces contingent near the town of Halgaan, in Hiiraan region, was overrun on 9 June with significant casualties. Unlike the devastating attack on the Kenya Defence Force contingent in AMISOM’s base in El-Adde in January 2016, (Ethiopian) air power and reinforcements came quickly to Halgaan and inflicted heavy casualties on Al-Shabaab.

Reduced European Union funding and domestic issues are making some troop contributing countries threaten a draw down, with Uganda announcing its planned exit in late 2017.

Worryingly, however, AMISOM has appeared to have disengaged somewhat on the ground. Despite its critical role and sacrifice in removing Al-Shabaab from strategic locations and opening the space for political progress, it has taken both a physical and political beating over the last eighteen months. Reduced European Union funding and domestic issues are making some troop contributing countries threaten a draw down, with Uganda announcing its planned exit in late 2017.

The Double-edged Sword of Regional Peace-support

AMISOM’s role as both an operation against Al-Shabaab and as a peace-support force increasingly suffers from being dominated by nearby powers. It could almost be called “IGADSOM”: Burundi aside, all troop contributing countries are members of East Africa’s regional peace and security organisation, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Kenya and Ethiopia are Somalia’s direct neighbours; part of a wider trend on the continent of neighbours participating in stabilisation or peace operations. A troop contributor that is a neighbour can more directly support the new federal entities with whom it shares borders and knows intimately. But this also risks sidelining the development of the still weak Somalia National Army, and may indirectly risk friction between the Somali Federal Government and federal entities, as well as between the entities themselves.

The heavy presence of neighbouring states in the newer federal entities of Jubaland, South West State and Galmudug can look like a partisan foreign occupation, especially where they are still internally disputed. Al-Shabaab can easily appeal to disgruntled Somali clans by charging that foreigners are manipulating internal affairs, then portray its role as Muslim resistance to non-Muslim powers, and implicitly, the defender of Somalia’s sovereignty.

Al-Shabaab has been a tough survivor and one of its easiest wins is that it has been able to split the internal and external threats it faces.

Ethiopia’s deployment to Somalia of the auxiliary (Ogaden) clan militias – from its own federal Somali National Regional State – has also led to clashes with non-Ogadeni Somali clans in the shared border regions. In the medium term, with better-armed federal entities and clans taking the fight to Al-Shabaab, AMISOM may be faced with more conventional tasks of inter-communal peacekeeping, tasks for which governments and electorates in the troop contributing countries may have little appetite.

Sustaining Gains Against Al-Shabaab

Any strengthening of Somalia’s federal states represents a threat to Al-Shabaab. This includes the coming elections, where local clan-based electoral colleges in each of the federal states will directly select MPs. This should garner greater local buy-in for the federal government model, if not for centrally directed government. Greater stabilisation support to the more substantive federal entities will also help. But to win back the political space and undermine Al-Shabaab’s ideology, Somali actors must create and act on a coherent narrative.

Al-Shabaab has been a tough survivor and one of its easiest wins is that it has been able to split the internal and external threats it faces. The divisions that IS prompts within Al-Shabaab are worth nothing if the Somali Federal Government does not offer a third way for political dialogue and accommodation, enhancing the current policy of individual amnesty.

Despite effective U.S. training for specialised commando units, overall attempts to rebuild the Somali National Army could be strengthened by better coordination among the large number of other states – at least eleven others – involved in their training. The reality of stronger federal entities and clan-based militias also demands a rethink of how Somalia’s security forces are to be rebuilt from a less centralised starting point. Above all, there is an urgent need for a concerted program of reconciliation at all levels, without which federal states and their clan militias are still as likely to fight one another (and the Somali National Army) as they are to take on Al-Shabaab itself.

With additional research by Horn of Africa Research Assistant Abdul Khalif

Internally displaced Somalis carry their belongings as they flee from drought stricken regions in Lower Shabelle before entering makeshift camps in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, on 17 March 2017. REUTERS/Feisal Omar
Briefing 125 / Africa

Instruments of Pain (III): Conflict and Famine in Somalia

Chronic conflict is preventing effective response to Somalia’s prolonged drought and humanitarian crisis. This special briefing, the third in a series of four examining the famine threats there and in Yemen, South Sudan and Nigeria, urges Somalia to improve governance and promote countrywide clan reconciliation to end the war.

I. Overview

History is at risk of tragically repeating itself. Once again, conflict-wracked Somalia is faced with mass hunger, just six years after a man-made famine took the lives of 250,000 people, mostly children, and 25 years after another killed 300,000, triggering a U.S. and UN intervention without which many more would have perished. An estimated 6.2 million people – half the country’s population – are in dire need; over three million are in a “crisis” or “emergency” situation, faced with death due to hunger and disease. While governmental and international responses have been relatively swift and relief efforts better coordinated (in part, because of lessons learned from the 2011 famine), many former limitations and challenges remain. Today, Somalis are starving because funding is insufficient and because access denial and insecurity impede delivery; most of all, they are starving because chronic conflict has destroyed their savings and ability to cope with periodic drought. The government and its international partners must tackle these immediate impediments and do more to stabilise the country lest yet another famine loom in the not-too-distant future.

Somalis are starving [...] because chronic conflict has destroyed their savings and ability to cope with periodic drought.

As in 2011, the epicentre of the current humanitarian crisis is south-central Somalia where Al-Shabaab, a violent Islamist insurgency, and localised clan conflicts have compounded the drought’s impact, undermined subsistence farming and cereal production, and led to crippling inflation and skyrocketing food prices, as well as mass displacement. Pockets in northern Puntland and Somaliland have also been badly hit, though the situation is far less grim than in the south.

Greater international assistance is urgently needed but will not be enough. A central cause of the crisis is access restrictions, provoked all at once by Al-Shabaab-orchestrated violence and insecurity, increased numbers of checkpoints on major aid supply routes, bureaucratic impediments and hefty illicit fees that both limit reach and increase delivery costs. Muslim community leaders and clerics should seek to persuade Al-Shabaab to allow access to areas under its control. But access restrictions are also the work of clan militias and disgruntled government and federal state forces engaging in predatory behaviour and routinely erecting barriers on major highways to extort money. The federal government and federal member states need, therefore, to pressure them too: through negotiations with clan militias if feasible, by considering military options to dismantle the checkpoints and provide armed escorts to relief convoys if necessary. And the federal government and federal member states should ease official impediments and red tape, which further constrain access. With a massive number of vulnerable people on the move in remote areas, the federal government and federal member states will need to do more to assist them and, in particular, curb rampant sexual violence in displaced peoples’ camps. These are all important steps, but to get beyond palliatives and find a more sustainable solution, the government will need to tackle the conflict itself, which remains the principal trigger and contributor to this unfolding humanitarian catastrophe: by improving governance; taking steps to address the division of power and resources among the central government and member states in a permanent constitution; and promoting countrywide clan reconciliation.

II. Conflict, Drought, Displacement, Access Denial and Hunger

A. An Acute Humanitarian Crisis

Since the central state’s collapse in 1991, Somalia has been wracked by acute humanitarian crises of varying intensity and experienced two major famines – in 1992-1993 and 2011-2012. A combination of protracted armed conflict and climatic as well as environmental stresses has made the country highly vulnerable to periodic large-scale famine.[fn]Crisis Group has been writing about Somalia since 2002. See for example, Crisis Group Africa Reports N°170, Somalia: The Transitional Government on Life Support, 21 February 2011; N°147, Somalia: To Move Beyond the Failed State, 23 December 2008; N°116, Can the Somali Crisis Be Contained?, 10 August 2006; Crisis Group Africa Briefings N°99, Somalia: Al-Shabaab – It Will Be a Long War, 26 June 2014; N°87, Somalia: An Opportunity that Should Not Be Missed, 22 February 2012; Commentaries, “Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Down but Far from Out”, 27 June 2016; “Somalia: Why is Al-Shabaab Still A Potent Threat?”, 11 February 2016.Hide Footnote

The immediate cause of the current crisis is extensive and prolonged drought provoked by two consecutive years of failed Deyr (October-December) and Gu (April-June) rains. This triggered a humanitarian catastrophe on a scale unprecedented since 2011. Subsistence farming in the Shabelle and Juba river valleys has all but collapsed;[fn]“Somalia Drought Response: Situational Report No.5”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), 23 April 2017.Hide Footnote prices of staple grains and legumes (maize, sorghum and beans) have doubled;[fn]“Somalia Drought Response: Situational Report No.5”, ibid.Hide Footnote  and millions of livestock have perished. Deforestation (partly fuelled by the charcoal trade), soil erosion, coupled with diminishing volumes of water in the three major rivers – Shabelle, Janale and Juba – in turn have severely undermined subsistence farming in the fertile riverine belts. Somalis also blame insufficient local production of traditional coarse grains on land grabbing by businessmen connected to powerful clans and the switch to cash crops, such as lemons and sesame seed, especially in Lower Shabelle.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, agronomist based in Kismayo, April 2017. For background, see Catherine Besteman and Lee Casanelli, The Struggle for Land in Southern Somalia: The War Behind the War (London, 2003).Hide Footnote

In many urban centres in south-central Somalia food is increasingly scarce and available only at prices internally displaced persons (IDPs) and the very poor simply cannot afford. In an effort not to further undermine the regional market (with free relief food that disincentives farmers from planting more crops), and because it is more efficient, a number of aid agencies, among them USAID, UKAid and ACF (Action Contre la Faim) are sending small sums of money directly to needy families via mobile phones.[fn]In addition to avoiding market distortion via massive amounts of free, imported food, aid agencies have learned that small cash transfers are cheaper than trucking in large quantities of supplies and – under the right conditions – produce less diversion (or theft) of assistance. Crisis Group telephone interview, former U.S. government official, 2 May 2017. For more, see “Final Evaluation of the Unconditional Cash and Voucher Response to the 2011–12 Crisis in Southern and Central Somalia”, UNICEF and Humanitarian Outcomes, 2013.Hide Footnote

The drought situation is not about to improve. Despite the onset of Gu rains in April in some parts of Somalia, experts predict the prolonged dry spell will persist.[fn]The Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) noted in its latest global weather forecast update that Somalia experienced generally low, erratic and below average rainfall, adding that the situation was unlikely to improve. “Global Weather Hazards Summary”, Fews Net, 14-20 April 2017.Hide Footnote  Some 6.2 million people are in dire need of assistance and nearly 600,000 have been displaced since November 2016.[fn]UNOCHA estimates that 2.9 million are in dire “emergency” and “crisis” situations; 3.3 million in “stressed food security and livelihood situations”; and 363,000 children in a state of “acute malnutrition”. “Operational Plan for Prevention of Famine in Somalia”, UNOCHA, February 2017; “Somalia Drought Response: Situational Report No.5”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  The bulk live in makeshift camps in Baidoa and Mogadishu and are increasingly desperate. Overcrowding and poor sanitation incubates infectious diseases like cholera and measles. In some of the camps, “gatekeepers” masquerading as “camp elders” are beginning to obstruct aid deliveries and extort bribes. Hundreds of thousands of victims of previous displacements also live precariously in cities and bigger towns.

What stands in the way of a more effective and sustainable response to this humanitarian emergency are not acts of God or of nature. It is the intractable conflict that Somalia has experienced since the early 1990s. True, aid agencies are now able to reach close to two million vulnerable people. But they continue to face enormous challenges in meeting their target of reaching 5.5 million, because many areas are inaccessible and insecure.

B. Al-Shabaab Checkpoints and Access Denial

Al-Shabaab maintains an active military presence in much of the south’s drought-stricken countryside, and its violence and other destabilising activities constitute the greatest impediment to the delivery of relief to drought victims. The group routinely launches deadly assaults on troops of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), Somalia Federal Government (SFG) and federal member states; runs “security checkpoints” on major routes;[fn]According to the UN, the most affected roads are Mogadishu-Baidoa-Dollow, Mogadishu-Afgooye-Marka-Barawe-Kismayo and Mogadishu-Balcad-Jowhar-Belet Weyne-Galkacyo. Al-Shabaab is not the only armed group to erect roadblocks in order to extort money from drivers. Clan militias and government soldiers also routinely engage in this behaviour. “Somalia Drought Response: Situational Report No.5”, op. cit. “WFP probes bomb attack on its convoy in Somalia”, Xinhua, 17 April 2017; “Aid worker kidnaps and roadblocks soar in famine-threatened Somalia”, Thomson Reuters Foundation, 4 May 2017.Hide Footnote  and uses a variety of coercive tactics to prevent people from leaving and block access to aid agencies.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Briefings N°99, Somalia: Al-Shabaab – It Will Be a Long War, 26 June 2014; N°74, Somalia’s Divided Islamists, 18 May 2010; Africa Reports N°100, Somalia’s Islamists, 12 December 2005; N°95, Counter-Terrorism in Somalia: Losing Hearts and Minds?, 11 July 2005; N°45, Somalia: Countering Terrorism in a Failed State, 23 May 2002.Hide Footnote

Al-Shabaab’s complex and fraught relationship with humanitarian agencies operating in south-central Somalia was not always hostile. Prior to the 2011 famine, a few of its top commanders, notably Mukhtar Robow, cultivated cordial ties with relief agencies, granted them limited access after payment of “fees” and used their influence to secure release of abducted aid workers.[fn]“Somalia’s hardline Islamists invite aid groups”, Agence France-Presse, 29 March 2009.Hide Footnote

But the 2011 famine coincided with two significant setbacks for Al-Shabaab: first, a major AMISOM offensive as a result of which the movement lost key urban strongholds in rapid succession; second, increased U.S. attacks using drones and special operations forces targeting its top leadership. An increasingly paranoid Al-Shabaab severed links to relief agencies and banned foreign aid agencies and their local partners from its territory, accusing them of espionage.[fn]This coincided with revelations that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had sought to use a polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan to identify the location of Osama bin Laden’s hideout. “CIA organised fake vaccination drive to get Osama bin Laden’s family DNA”, The Guardian, 11 July 2011.Hide Footnote

In February and March 2017, large numbers of drought-stricken families began spontaneously leaving areas Al-Shabaab controlled in Bay and Bakool, as well as the Shabelle and Juba river valleys in search of relief assistance in federal and state government-controlled territory. This raised speculation that the militant group might be softening its uncompromising attitude toward foreign aid, perhaps because of the gravity of the situation and criticism it endured when it blocked Western food aid during the 2011 famine. These assumptions proved misplaced. Al-Shabaab blocked the exodus through coercion and by providing its own relief to hungry communities, arguably because of its heightened sense of insecurity and vulnerability – a realisation that mass depopulation might expose it to aerial and ground attacks.[fn]Crisis Group interview, prominent Somali politician, Nairobi, 29 March 2017.Hide Footnote

Al-Shabaab continues to hold drought victims hostage by blocking international organisations, the Somalia Federal Government and local NGOs from delivering aid.

Today, Al-Shabaab continues to hold drought victims hostage by blocking international organisations, the Somalia Federal Government and local NGOs from delivering aid, even though territories under Al-Shabaab’s control in south-central Somalia are among the most severely affected. Worse, those found with Western-donated food and items risk arrest.[fn]Most aid organisations label their donated supplies with their logos.Hide Footnote  In one such incident in the town of Waajid (Bay Region), in April, Al-Shabaab detained a group of people transporting relief food on donkey carts, burned the food and issued an edict warning against accepting handouts from “crusaders and apostates” (a reference to foreigners and the Somali government).[fn]“Somalia Drought Response: Situational Report No.5”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  The fate of those who were arrested remains unknown. But this incident, together with an April improvised explosive device (IED) attack on a UN World Food Programme (WFP) convoy in Mogadishu’s KM-3 district, suggests Al-Shabaab may be intent on using violence to disrupt aid operations.[fn]“WFP probes bomb attack on its convoy in Somalia”, Xinhua, 17 April 2017.Hide Footnote

Still, Al-Shabaab has sought to mollify critics and stem the exodus of people fleeing hunger and water shortage in areas it controls. To that end, it recently launched its own parallel relief effort to provide livestock, food, water and even money – collected from compulsory donations imposed on businesses and individuals across all Somali towns – to drought-stricken Somalis.[fn]Among the coercive tactics used by Al-Shabaab, especially in Juba and Lower Shabelle, is collection of the 2.5 per cent zakat annual wealth tax and other levies. This, in the midst of a terrible drought, has triggered public backlash and armed clashes. See “Al-Shabaab seizes Somali herders’ livestock”, Voice of America, 26 December 2016.Hide Footnote  But while its effectiveness is hard to gauge, Al-Shabaab clearly could not single-handedly stave off such large-scale famine and any speculation that the group may be amenable, through negotiations, to open up areas under its control to aid agencies seems at the very least premature. If anything, major military setbacks since 2011 and the relentless U.S. drone campaign targeting its leadership have made the group even more militant and suspicious of Western relief agencies.

Nor have expectations that Al-Shabaab might be more charitable toward Muslim relief agencies been borne out. Its hostility vis-à-vis international aid efforts no longer distinguishes between Western and Muslim NGOs; the group deems Turkish and United Arab Emirates (UAE) personnel and facilities legitimate targets.[fn]In one of the deadliest attacks on Muslim relief workers, a Turkish Red Crescent aid convoy was targeted by Al-Shabaab in April 2013; fifteen Somali aid workers and four Turks were killed. Mehmet Özkan, “Turkey’s Involvement in Somalia: Assessment of a State-Building in Progress”, SETA (Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research), October 2014. In April, Al-Shabaab claimed an IED attack on an Emirates Red Crescent aid convoy in Mogadishu. “Terror attack will not deter UAE’s aid mission to Somalia”, The National (UAE), 19 April 2017.Hide Footnote  As long as there is no dramatic deterioration in the coming months and it can keep a lid on the hunger crisis through its own parallel aid and coercion, and as long as no mass deaths occur under its watch, Al-Shabaab will likely continue to rebuff calls for dialogue to grant access to humanitarian agencies.

C. Clan Conflicts: Insecurity, Checkpoints and Access Denial

Al-Shabaab is not the only non-state armed actor whose actions have a direct impact on the humanitarian crisis. Parts of the country remain trapped in unresolved inter-clan conflicts. These tensions are typically exacerbated in times of drought when massive numbers of people and livestock move across traditional clan “boundaries” in search of water and pasture. Pre-existing clan disputes tend to resurface, sometimes resulting in sporadic, low-level clashes among clan militias. This is particularly true in Sool and Sanaag regions (northern Somalia) as well as Hiiraan, Galgadud, Mudug Lower and Middle Shabelle in south-central Somalia. A series of clashes in the contested town of Galkacyo in north-central Somalia in the last two years triggered a massive displacement, with estimates ranging between 75,000 and 100,000, and a humanitarian crisis.[fn]For more on this conflict see “Galkayo and Somalia’s Dangerous Faultlines”, Crisis Group, 10 December 2015.Hide Footnote

Clan grievances and conflicts often occur in areas marked by contested sub-national boundaries and in territories better endowed with resources such as water and infrastructure (mostly roads, as well as airports and harbours). In the past, traditional elders brokered temporary local truces among warring clans. Some new federal member states have since reduced the elders’ role in a bid to control local reconciliation and peacebuilding efforts (and to attract donor funding for such endeavours), but without replicating the credible or effective mechanisms required to manage conflicts over resources, especially water wells and reservoirs. In many instances, predatory/criminal clan militias as well as rogue security elements belonging to the federal states exploit these localised conflicts, erecting checkpoints on major routes to serve as “toll stations” as a means of extracting money.[fn]See “Aid worker kidnaps and roadblocks soar in famine-threatened Somalia”, Reuters, 4 May 2017. “The majority of the 42 districts in southern and central Somalia continue to experience moderate to high movement restrictions linked to road blockades, active hostilities and extortions at checkpoints”. “Humanitarian Bulletin, April 2017”, UNOCHA, 4 May 2017, p. 5. Some 40 static “illegal taxation” checkpoints have been set up along the Mogadishu-Baidoa-Dollow access road alone. On 13 April, over 60 trucks were stranded between Afgooye and Leego towns for over a week after local authorities demanded large unjustified payments. A similar incident involved over 30 trucks carrying supplies from Bossaso port the previous week. Ibid.Hide Footnote

III. Preying on IDPs and Vulnerable Communities

Many Somali actors prey on IDPs and others who lack protection from powerful clans, in effect profiting from conditions of acute need and helping perpetuate them. These include in particular so-called leaders who claim to represent needy communities as well as criminals. There is also a genuine risk of exploitation by corrupt officials, although to date there has been no credible report of corrupt practices related to the current relief effort. At a minimum, the donor community should intensify its focus on Somali anti-corruption institutions and civil society organisations. If leaders suspected of corruption cannot be held accountable in Somalia, consideration should be given to their being prosecuted by governments of countries in which they hold dual citizenship.[fn]Many Somali elites possess dual citizenship. For example, 124 of Somalia’s 283 MPs and Senators are from the diaspora. President Farmajo is a U.S. citizen and previously worked for the New York State government in Buffalo.Hide Footnote

A. Exploitation of IDPs

Most IDPs, both new and older, live in makeshift camps in major cities and towns. With few if any employment opportunities, they typically survive on remittances from relatives abroad and international assistance.[fn]Remittances constitute a crucial lifeline for many Somalis. The Somali diaspora sends an estimated $1.3 billion back home annually through remittance companies. “Somalia; Overview”, Footnote  In some camps, so-called gatekeepers masquerading as camp elders manipulate aid deliveries and extort bribes.[fn]Ahmed Ibrahim, aka Ahmed Vision, a prominent activist and a founder of the Caawi Walaal relief campaign, recently described the resurgence of “gatekeepers” (a scourge of the 2011 famine) in IDP settlements, explaining how they take a cut of the relief items and hire crowds to pose as famine victims. “The threat of gatekeepers to averting famine from Somalia”, Hiiraan Online, 21 March 2017.Hide Footnote  Likewise, many IDPs face abuse at the hands of government and private actors, who often have links to local authorities, business people and militias. Beatings and rape are reportedly common.[fn]See Laetitia Bader, “In Crisis-Stricken Somalia, No Safe Haven”, Human Rights Watch, 18 April 2017; “Somalia: Forced Evictions of Displaced People”, Human Rights Watch, 20 April 2015; “When Push Comes to Shove: Displaced Somalis Under Threat”, Refugees International, 8 November 2013; “Somalia: Protect Displaced People at Risk New Government Should Tackle Past Injustice, Abuses”, Human Rights Watch, 26 March 2013.Hide Footnote  Awareness of such dynamics would help aid agencies mitigate the power that predatory officials and private gatekeepers exercise over vulnerable communities by investigating allegations of abuse and orienting assistance directly to individuals and their families, notably via cash transfers, rather than to communities.

B. Violence against Women

Somalia ranks as one of the most inhospitable country for women,[fn]See “The world’s most dangerous countries for women”, TrustLaw – Thomson Reuters Foundation, 15 June 2011.Hide Footnote  a situation compounded by hunger, conflict and mass displacement. In the wake of the drought, and while precise data is lacking, reports suggest rape and other forms of sexual violence are widespread.[fn]“In Crisis-Stricken Somalia, No Safe Haven”, op. cit.; “Somalia”, 2016 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, 3 March 2017,; “Somalia”, Amnesty International, Annual Report 2016/2017, 22 February 2017.Hide Footnote  Girls and women in displacement camps and those who have fled hunger-stricken villages on foot in remote areas are particularly at risk. As a result, the government has deployed additional police and special gender protection personnel to the camps. But more is needed. In particular, parliament ought to pass more stringent laws criminalising rape and ending the traditional practice (derived from xeer customs) of settling rape cases though clan negotiations that typically entail providing compensation to the victim, often in the form of a marriage offer.

This is symptomatic of a far wider problem. While the short-term focus ought to be on measures aimed at curbing sexual violence in IDP camps and amending rape laws, any sustainable answer will require Somalia Federal Government efforts to promote and institutionalise greater protection for women. Newly elected legislators – of 283, 63 are women – have an historic opportunity to seek change in this area.[fn]“Somalia: Transforming Hope into Stability”, Crisis Group Commentary, 30 April 2017.Hide Footnote

IV. Responses

A. International Response

Donors and humanitarian agencies, including the UN, were better prepared and quicker to respond to warnings of impending famine in early 2017. Since January, the UN estimates that the Somalia humanitarian appeal received “unprecedented levels of funding”, with close to $600 million raised in direct donations or pledges.[fn]“Somalia Drought Response: Situational Report No.5”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  In early March, the UN launched an $825 million appeal.[fn]“Somalia: Transforming Hope into Stability”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Although precise figures remain unclear, the overall funding gap has substantially narrowed in recent weeks, thanks notably to significant pledges from the UK, Japan and Germany.[fn]On 13 March, the UK announced it would fund a £16 million (nearly $20 million) program to help avert famine. This is part of a wider UKAid drought intervention for Somalia totalling £110 million ($136 million). On 14 March, Japan announced an Emergency Grant Aid of $26 million for relief efforts in the Middle East and Africa through six international organisations and agencies including the World Food Programme. Of this package, $8.5 million has been allocated to Somalia. “UK Government allocates £16 million to critical drought response in Somalia”, Relief Web, 13 April 2017. “Emergency Grant Aid in response to famine disaster in the Middle East and Africa regions”, Press Release, Embassy of Japan, Nairobi, 14 March 2017.Hide Footnote  Turkey and UAE likewise significantly upped their aid operations, typically conducted outside the UN aid system. The #TurkishAirlinesHelpSomalia and #LoveArmyforSomalia social media campaigns garnered the support of many international celebrities, helped draw attention to the food crisis and raised more than $1 million. Turkish Airlines eventually fulfilled its promise and delivered 60 tons of humanitarian aid to Mogadishu.[fn]“Turkish Airlines deliver 60 tons of food aid to drought-stricken Somalia”, Anadolu Agency, 5 April 2017.Hide Footnote  More recently, a campaign by the Emirates Red Crescent Society reportedly raised $45 million for drought relief.[fn]“Awqaf donates Dh1m to Somalia aid campaign”, The Nation (UAE), 16 April 2017.Hide Footnote  Altogether a massive emergency relief operation is underway bringing together many foreign and local NGOs.[fn]“Humanitarian Bulletin, April 2017”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Improvements in coordination and management of humanitarian operations partly reflect lessons learned from the 2011 famine. The “Access Taskforce”, set up in 2015 by aid agencies operating in Somalia to negotiate better access with the patchwork of different authorities and minimise official red tape, helped create far more favourable aid delivery conditions.[fn]The Access Taskforce is a forum to enable better coordination of humanitarian action. “Somalia: Humanitarian Strategy, 2016-2018”, UNOCHA, 30 May 2016.Hide Footnote  That said, coverage varies regionally, with better results in most of the north east and north west, and more limited ones in the south-central region.[fn]“Humanitarian Bulletin, April 2017”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

B. Domestic Response

So far, President Mohammed Abdullahi “Farmajo” and his government have demonstrated strong leadership in addressing the drought emergency. The president convened a major meeting of all stakeholders in Mogadishu just days after his late February election; he put Prime Minister Hassan Kheyre in charge of government efforts; and the government set up a humanitarian affairs ministry and National Drought Committee to coordinate all relief efforts in Mogadishu and in the federal member states – developments welcomed by donors and relief agencies, even though they recognise that the government currently lacks both capacity and revenue to do much more than coordinate.[fn]“Somalia: Operational plan for famine prevention (Jan-Jun 2017)”, UNOCHA, 17 February 2017.Hide Footnote

Other actors have lent a hand. In a symbolic gesture, the Somali Federal Parliament donated 50 per cent of presidential candidate registration fees totalling $360,000 to the drought committee. Students have also been encouraged to donate a minimum of $10 each. Private Somali citizens are pitching in. Companies and businesspeople likewise have contributed significantly to the relief campaign. The most significant local endeavour has been the Caawi Walaal campaign initiated by local and diaspora Somali activists; it has raised thousands of dollars and its volunteers provide water and food to some of the country’s remotest parts which are inaccessible to traditional relief agencies.

V. What is Needed

With famine looming, donors should urgently provide additional funds. Because the hunger crisis is largely fuelled by high food prices – indeed, many families are starving even as markets brim with imported foodstuff – aid agencies ought to scale up the practice of transferring small sums of money to such families via mobile phones. But while necessary, such steps will serve as little more than a (critical) palliative if others are not taken in parallel to aim at the man-made causes of the crisis. These include:

  • Bringing down roadblocks: The federal government and federal member states, supported by clan elders, should engage clan militias that routinely erect checkpoints on arterial highways critical for the supply of aid to drought victims. Where negotiations fail, legitimate authorities should explore the option of military steps to dismantle checkpoints and provide armed escorts to relief convoys.
  • Easing bureaucratic restrictions: The federal government and federal member states should work with the Access Taskforce (an umbrella body established in November 2015 that brings together aid agencies in Somalia) to ease official restrictions and red tape impeding humanitarian operations.
  • Cracking down on crimes of sexual violence: The federal government and federal member states should curb rampant sexual violence in camps for displaced people by strengthening policing, including deploying more women police officers.
  • Tackling the roots of chronic conflict: Ultimately, only by addressing Somalia’s chronic conflicts can the recurring threat of food insecurity and famine be tackled in a sustainable fashion. As Crisis Group has argued more extensively elsewhere, this will require at a minimum that the federal and state governments, supported by donors, combat large-scale corruption and begin to deliver public services, particularly security, at all levels; finalise constitutional negotiations regarding the allocation of power and authority between the central government and federal member states; and restart the stalled national reconciliation process among Somali clans, focusing from the bottom up.[fn]As Crisis Group wrote: “There is an urgent need for a concerted program of reconciliation at all levels, without which federal states and their clan militias are still as likely to fight one another (and the Somali National Army) as they are to take on Al-Shabaab itself”. “Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Down but Far from Out”, Crisis Group Commentary, 26 June 2016.Hide Footnote

Nairobi/Brussels, 9 May 2017

Appendix A: Map of Somalia

Map of Somalia. International Crisis Group/KO/November 2015. This map is partially based on the UN map No. 3690.