Home Discussion Papers Africa Watch Solving Somalia: Beyond a military approach
Solving Somalia: Beyond a military approach
Written by Katharine Dennys (1) Monday, 16 April 2012 08:10

Somalia is currently experiencing its worst humanitarian crisis for decades, with more than 325,000 children suffering from acute malnutrition, and 31% of the total population estimated to be in crisis.(2) The recent ‘London Conference on Somalia’, held on 23 February 2012, proposed a new framework to approach the continuing crisis in Somalia, its internal stability and the terrorist threat it poses beyond its borders. The proposal set out at the Conference has, however, come under criticism for relying too heavily on a military approach whilst side-lining inclusive humanitarian approaches which aim to solve the root causes of conflict. This CAI paper argues that despite many obstacles facing the humanitarian effort, there do still exist opportunities for an inclusive approach that deserves greater attention from the international community. It argues that ignoring this approach through a reliance on externally led security measures will serve to further exacerbate tensions and encourage extremist violence within Somali borders.

The Conference receives criticism

Following the discussions which took place on 23 February 2012, United Kingdom (UK) Prime Minister, David Cameron, proposed a “seven point plan” for Somalia, stating that measures to deal with security issues, piracy, terrorism, humanitarian assistance, local stability, political process and international coordination had been agreed on.(3)

Although the discussion of humanitarian issues was high on the Conference’s agenda, these were arguably side-lined on the day by security concerns surrounding terrorism and piracy. The fact that humanitarian issues were discussed in a separate side meeting co-chaired by the United Nations (UN) and the United Arab Emirates highlights its lack of centrality in the process.

The London Conference backed a UN Security Council resolution proposing to increase the number of African Union (AU) troops operating within Somalia by 5,000, to over 17,000 troops.(4) The resolution also proposed to give the AU mission extra funding for extending its mandate. This highlights the hard-line stance taken during the Conference towards al-Shabaab militants operating within and outside of Somalia. This was reflected in United States Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton’s views when she stated that the world “must keep al-Shabaab on the run,” and that there was no possibility of negotiation with members of al-Shabaab.(5)

The Conference also saw a focus on piracy, which has been described as an “affront on the rule of international law.”(6) The Conference proposed tougher laws in order to try and imprison pirates due to the threat the piracy business poses to international trade and insurance industries. It is this focus on international security concerns that has resulted in the conference receiving criticism for defending foreign interest as opposed to the interests of Somali people, and pursuing a policy which neglects the importance of a humanitarian approach.

Emergence of ‘failed state’ rhetoric

The importance of the international community working alongside AU troops in order to fight the threat posed by al-Shabaab militants was central in the London discussions surrounding Somalia’s future. It was highlighted by Cameron’s statement that “the connection between military action to put a huge pressure on Shabaab… and the political process, are two sides of the same coin.”(7) This focus on a military response has been criticised by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as representing an external solution which fails to include the voice of the people. Speaking after the Conference, Barbara Stocking from Oxfam International stated in a press release that ‘What we’ve seen once again were external solutions that haven’t worked, aren’t working and will not work.”(8)

The problem with the military approach is that it focuses too heavily on ‘quick-fix’ military approaches aimed at neutralising immediate threats. In this context, humanitarian approaches built on a more long-term time-scale have taken a “back-seat” to “short-sighted” policies driven by a counter-terrorism agenda.(9) This has been a result of a “noticeable policy shift” in 2008, when the United States (US) listed al-Shabaab as a terrorist organisation under US law, resulting in a decrease in aid to Somalia.(10)

The militaristic approach stems from the idea that Somalia is a ‘failed state’ due to its lack of centralised governance, widespread terrorism and insecurity. A pre-occupation with this ‘failed state’ rhetoric was noted in the run up to the Conference, as UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, was frequently reported to have used the phrase “Somalia is the world’s worst failed state” in his communications.(11) This mind-set amongst politicians explains the emphasis on solutions aiming to neutralise the threat posed to external actors rather than supporting the country from within, as it sees inclusive peace initiatives as unworkable within Somalia’s volatile security situation.

Limitations of a military approach

There are currently extreme challenges to the aid effort within Somalia, as aid agencies are limited by both Transitional Federal Government (TFG) imposed restrictions and armed opposition groups. The TFG has limited the movement of foreign aid workers outside of TFG controlled areas which led to the arrest, in September 2011, of 10 aid workers distributing aid in the Lower Shabelle region.(12) Furthermore, armed militias have also been known to impose taxes which put aid workers in a difficult position due to allegations of ‘taking sides’, and resulting in time consuming negotiations.(13) Due to this persistent insecurity and lack of governance systems, it is extremely difficult to monitor the movements of aid on the ground.

Within this context the military approach may seem the most attractive option to improve security both regionally and for Somali citizens. However, the military approach proposed in the Conference may serve to further exacerbate conflict and hinder aid getting to the right places.

Since the beginning of 2012, aid workers in Somalia have reported a deteriorating humanitarian situation as a result of expanded military operations, as thousands of civilians have been forced to flee to safety.(14) According to Oxfam, particular areas in which military operations are hindering aid efforts include: the northern Hiraan region, where continued fighting is blocking a key entry point for aid supplies, the Gedo region which has seen an upsurge in airstrikes, renewed fighting and hostage taking, and Lower Juba, where fighting and airstrikes have forced residents to flee towns.(15)

Given this information, it can, therefore, be asserted that proposed plans to run military operations alongside a humanitarian effort will ultimately fail as the humanitarian effort cannot be effective within a war zone. This is due not only to the restrictions placed on humanitarian efforts by military activities. “The Somali case shows that military intervention in Somalia is hugely unpopular, and can act as a catalyst to whip up Somali nationalism to unite Somali groups that had, hitherto, been sworn enemies.”(16) Military operations may also be ineffective due to the fact that “coercive efforts to stabilise Somalia, including forcible disarmament, undermine the balance of power between clans and communities and will always be met with resistance.”(17)

An alternative approach: Giving Somalia back its voice

The London Conference has received criticism for lacking specific plans for post-conflict stabilisation, and for not offering a long-term solution for sustainable development. NGO’s have highlighted the importance of an “inclusive, Somali-led peace process,” proposing a shift in approach which includes the use of local peace initiatives and civil society.(18)  

On 22 February 2012, Oxfam published a paper which sets out a “new agenda” for creating long-term peace and stability in Somalia.(19) One main point made in the report is the importance of working internally with influential local actors within Somalia such as elders, religious leaders and members of the Somali business community in order to promote humanitarian access. These groups, which form an integral part of Somali society, are too often overlooked in the quest for regional security and counter-terrorism initiatives.

A study conducted by the Centre of Research and Dialogue (CRD) found that since the collapse of the Somali Government in 1991 there have been more than 90 local peace initiatives in south central Somalia which have used traditional conflict mediation practices under the guidance of clan elders, Islamic scholars and other key stakeholders.(20) The CRD report states that the majority of these peace initiatives are “social,” in that they address violence as a consequence of the social structure; addressing conflicts over shared land, pastoral resources or clan-related revenge killings.(21)

Oker argues that international efforts have “compounded” the problem of insecurity within Somalia due to their reliance on armed faction leaders as their primary interlocutors in Somalia.(22) Furthermore, Brickhill argues that states that are externally imposed are viewed with “suspicion and alarm,” whereas locally owned initiatives based on “painstaking consultation, negotiation and confidence-building” have achieved “tangible and enduring” success.(23)

Concluding remarks

The Islamic extremism which is creating the current chaos and insecurity within Somalia, and which further threatens international security beyond its borders, is rooted within the social fabric of the nation. External state-led approaches to solving Somalia’s security crisis, therefore, cannot succeed within this context. If the international community were to approach Somali insecurity from a grass-roots level, supporting local peace-building initiatives as opposed to an external military approach, it could catch endemic conflict at its roots. As this paper has shown, there are certain avenues that can be exploited to promote inclusive sustainable development which go beyond externally-led solutions. Although Somali civil society has been greatly damaged due to 20 years of civil war, and the process of negotiation and consensus-building at a grass roots level is slow and time consuming, civil society should not be overlooked by the international community in favour of ‘quick-fix’ counter-terrorism initiatives. The International community needs to look beyond its own national interests and strengthen Somalia from within; only then will regional stability and sustainable growth be achievable.


(1) Contact Katharine Dennys through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Africa Watch Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).
(2) ‘A Shift in Focus: Putting the interests of Somali people first’, Oxfam briefing note, 22 February 2012, http://www.oxfam.org.
(3) ‘PM sets out 7-point plan of Somalia’, Politics Home, 23 February 2012, http://www.politicshome.com.
(4) ‘London Conference Backs Somalia Terror Fight’, BBC, 23 February 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom website, http://www.fco.gov.uk.
(7) ‘London Conference Backs Somalia Terror Fight’, BBC, 23 February 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(8) ‘Oxfam’s reaction to the London Somalia Conference’, Oxfam, 23 February 2012, http://www.oxfam.org.uk.
(9) ‘A Shift in Focus: Putting the interests of Somali people first’, Oxfam briefing note, 22 February 2012, http://www.oxfam.org.
(10) Ibid.
(11) Walls, M., ‘International engagement in Somalia: lessons from Somaliland?’, UCL, 29 February 2012, http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk.
(12) ‘A Shift in Focus: Putting the interests of Somali people first’, Oxfam briefing note, 22 February 2012, http://www.oxfam.org.
(13) Ibid.
(14) Ibid.
(15) Ibid.
(16) Sazawal, S., ‘UK Somalia Conference weak on humanitarian focus, NGOs host own meetings’, Charity and Security Network, 5 March 2012, http://www.charityandsecurity.org.
(17) Bryden, M. and Brickhill, J., 2010. Disarming Somalia: Lessons in stabilisation from a collapsed state. Conflict, Security and Development, 10(2), pp. 239-262.
(18) Bauwens, D., ‘NGOs Urge "Solution from Within" for Somalia’, IPS, 25 February 2012, http://ipsnews.net.
(19) ‘A Shift in Focus: Putting the interests of Somali people first’, Oxfam briefing note, 22 February 2012, http://www.oxfam.org.
(20) Ali Amber, I., 2010. Community peace processes in south central Somalia, Accord, 21, pp. 52-55. 
(21) Ibid.
(22) Ibid.
(23) Bryden, M. and Brickhil,l J., 2010. Disarming Somalia: Lessons in stabilisation from a collapsed state, Conflict, Security and Development, 10(2), pp. 239-262.


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