On February 19, 2019, the Africa Policy Institute convened a meeting of academic and policy experts on the Somali crisis.
Framing the debate was a new book, The Roots of the Somali Crisis: An Insider’s Memoir (2018) by Colonel Ahmed Omar Jess, a key figure in Siad Barre’s military Junta and the civil war.
Debate was also informed by two new volumes: Making Sense of Somali History (vol. 1 & 2) by Dr Abdurahman Baadiyow, a Somali Islamic scholar and Chair of the Board of Trustees of Mogadishu University who was also a speaker during the forum.
Conceptually, the story of Somalia and the larger Horn of Africa is a tale or two rival ideologies.
It is a story of a region trapped in militarism, the belief in a strong military as the basis of state power to aggressively defend and expand national interests.
It is also a tale of transition from ‘old Somalia’ characterised by militarism to ‘new Somalia’ aspired by the quest for democracy and development as the face of the new Horn.
As a philosophy, militarism reflects the Hobbesian state where “life is solitary, poor, nasty, and brutish and short”.
Militarism in the Horn of Africa, as elsewhere, inspired expansionist and irredentist agendas.
Militarism may have long roots in what the Kenyan scholar, Ali Mazrui, described as the “warrior tradition” in modern Africa.
Paradoxically, anti-colonial nationalist resistance by historic figures such as Sayid Abdullah Hassan (also known to the West as the ‘Mad Mullah’) in Somalia or Dedan Kimathi in Kenya rendered a moral tinge to militarism.
After independence in 1960, anti-colonial nationalism morphed into pan-Somali nationalism. As Omar Jess rightly observed, “Pan-nationalism was not a subject of discussion then. You were supposed to accept it without question.”
Propelled by militarism, old Somalia diverted resources meant for development and state building to funding irredentism to ‘liberate’ the remaining Somali regions in Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti as part of its pan-Somali nationalist agenda.
This put Somalia at great odds with all its neighbours, sparking the Shifta War with Kenya (1963-1967) and the Ogaden War with Ethiopia (1977-8).
The Ogaden War dismantled Somalia’s military machine, setting the stage for revolt in the army that eventually plunged the country into a civil war, state collapse and anarchy.
The return of the Somali state after 2012 has given legs to the idea of ‘new Somalia’.
Based on the ideology of progressivism, the new Somalia is riding the crest of liberal advocacy for reforms to entrench democracy, development and improve society.
As a philosophy, progressivism envisions a Lockean state where life is peaceful, productive and prosperous.
In Somalia, decline of militarism and the soaring fortunes of progressivism have kindled hope for ‘democratic peace’ in the Horn of Africa based on the theory that democracies seldom go to war with each other.
Driving the ‘new Somalia’ reformist agenda is a small elite returning home from Somalia’s sprawling diaspora in America, Europe, Oceania and Africa.
Somalia’s modernisers are transforming their country into a new business destination in East Africa.
By 2018, Somalia was hosting over 50,000 Kenyans working in various sectors of its economy.
Despite the reforms, ‘new Somalia’ is still trapped in the politics of interregnum, where the old militaristic order is dying but a new progressive dispensation has refused to be born.
The federal member states and the Federal Government are locked in fierce tension which has impeded the development of a strong state.
The federal member states have resisted efforts by the Federal Government to enforce its constitutional authority over them and jealously guarded their degree of autonomy over regional affairs, the right to maintain their own police and security forces while seeking more resources and greater role in foreign affairs.
However, a wind of change sweeping over the Horn of Africa region is giving new impetus to shift from militarism to progressivism.
The election of Dr Abiy Ahmed Ali as Prime Minister on April 2, 2018 set off a reformist dynamic in Ethiopia.
Changes in Ethiopia have led to a surprise peace and cooperation deal with Eritrea on July 7, 2018, ending nearly three decades of stalemate.
The meeting unfolded against the backdrop of the ongoing diplomatic row between Kenya and Somalia over their disputed maritime border in the Indian Ocean.
Like Somalia and Ethiopia, the Mau Mau war of liberation in the 1950s had set Kenya on the path to militarism.
But the military defeat of the nationalist fighters undermined popular appeal to militarism.
Today, Kenya is a special regional power in Eastern Africa, touted as “the Switzerland of Africa” because of hosting refuges, business people and the power elite of its neighbours and providing support to peace processes.
The ongoing diplomatic row between Kenya and Somalia over a protracted maritime territorial dispute reveals that the Horn of Africa is still vulnerable to militarism, which is itself alive and well.
Somalia’s response was surprisingly calm and composed, portraying a ‘new Somalia’ that seems willing to be at peace with its neighbours.
The expert meeting identified dismantling militarism and progressing towards democracy in the Horn of Africa as the main challenge of the 21st century.
Kenya and Somalia should use quiet diplomacy rather than megaphone diplomacy, and utilise the framework provided by the Joint Commission of Cooperation to addressing disputes between them.
They need to continue the partnership, demilitarise the region and defeat Al-Shabaab terrorism by fostering a conducive business investment, grow the economy and create jobs for the youth, thus draining the swamps of radicalisation.
Peter Kagwanja is former Government Adviser and currently Chief Executive of Africa Policy Institute (API). This article is based on the Report of the Policy Forum on: Beyond The Somali Crisis: Echoes from the Past, Lessons for the Future, February 19, 2019.