What hope for peace? Greed, grievance and protracted conflict in Somalia

Posted by Managing Editor for YaleJournal.org • April 2, 2013  

by Tuesday Reitano*



2013 might just be Somalia’s year.  A confluence of events – the successful end of the political transition, the formation of a promising new government headed by a new guard of civil society leaders, and the rollback and significant weakening of the militant terrorist group al Shabaab – offers the best hope for a peace that Somalia has had in decades.  But the challenges remain immense, and recent achievements can be easily reversed.   Without an effective central government since 1991, parts of the country have been torn apart by decades of conflict, chronic poverty, inequality, food insecurity, and public health challenges.  State institutions, where they exist, are a patchwork of colonial legacies that were never fit for the purpose of governing a sovereign state and delivering services to its people.

Any analysis that attempts to identify the underlying and precipitating causes of conflict in Somalia wades into turbulent waters.  There are numerous competing narratives and differing interpretations of a complex and contentious twenty-year conflict.  What is clear, however, is that the best chance of sustaining the peace in Somalia will be through ensuring the legitimacy of leadership and by addressing some underlying causal dynamics.

 Understanding the drivers of conflict in Somalia

The root causes of the Somalia crisis can be traced to three phenomena: colonialism, Cold War politics, and the Barre dictatorship, perpetuated by a combination of both greed and grievance.  The interaction of these forces in the post-colonial state ushered in the clan conflict of the 1980s and the two decades of perpetual violent anarchy that followed.

Two other actors that have been drivers in the conflict in Somalia are the criminal elements in the country and radical ideologies.  Somalia’s extended coastline, – the longest in Africa – its strategic location as the gateway to the Gulf States, and the poor government controls have made the country very vulnerable to trafficking, smuggling and organised crime.  The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)[1] observed that established trafficking routes in the Horn of Africa expand elastically to smuggle or traffic all manner of illicit goods from people to weapons to illicit drugs.  Somalia further serves as a quasi-free-trade zone with its neighbours, most notably Kenya, on a wide range of licit and contraband goods that, despite being smuggled, are still cheaper than buying domestically.  Local criminal networks are quick to facilitate these kinds of illicit activities for any product for which a buyer can be found, and have used funds to infiltrate key trade and political sectors, using violence and intimidation to safeguard criminal activities.   For these groups, which in some cases include powerful provincial leaders, armed militia groups, and business elites, there has been a vested interest in perpetuating conditions of lawlessness and disorder.

Al Shabaab, the extremist ideology that splintered off of the Ethiopian-funded Union for Islamic Courts movement at the beginning of the Millennium, has become the largest and most powerful Somali militia force in the country, controlling much of the South and, up until 2011, Mogadishu.  Up until this time, Somalia’s civil war had been largely free from radical ideologies, but al Shabaab’s on-going insurgency against the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has been the main source of armed conflict in the last five years[2].  However, the goals and actual grievances of al Shabaab are unclear, and have become more so since the self-proclaimed terrorist group has increased its international linkages to al Qaeda and other foreign extremist groups[3].  While on paper the group subscribes to the same long-term goals as international al Qaeda (namely global jihad), in reality al Shabaab leaders have focused on Somali priorities, evicting AMISOM and deposing the former Transitional Federal Government (TFG), and the agendas of international figures remains opaque[4]. This seems to suggest that while ideological extremism has been suggested to be a primary driver in the conflict in Somalia, in fact it is less ideology than control over strategic locations which may be at play here.

 What hope for peace?

The perceived legitimacy of the state and its ability to provide security and deliver services to its people are absolutely critical to building a peaceful society.  Furthermore, having robust legitimacy in place will decrease the likelihood that insurgent, terrorist or militant groups will attract mass support[5].  It is for this reason that the recent election of the new government may prove to be the key to breaking the protracted conflict, moving Somalia down the path to peace, security and development.

The selection of the three most pivotal positions in government – the President, Vice President and the Speaker of the Parliament – was, in part, the result of a civic mobilization by a coalition of “constructive elites” associated with the establishment of universities, schools, hospitals, charities, and businesses in Mogadishu over the past twenty years.  Analysts consider it a positive indication that the 2012 Government of Somalia is being built around prominent civil society figures who have stayed in the region and who are part of network of civic and private sector actors with a real interest in promoting peace and governance,[6] as opposed to members of the old TFG guard.   As emphasised at the high-level London Conference on Somaliain February 2012, ensuring peace dividends for the population, and introducing basic services into areas liberated from Al-Shabaab will be an important tool to reinforcing the new government’s position.

The protracted conflict in Somalia should also be understood as part of an inter-related web of conflicts that blight the Horn of Africa.  Over the past two decades, external actors have frequently and increasingly been central protagonists in Somalia’s armed violence.  This has taken numerous forms – international peace enforcement, protection forces, occupying armies, proxy wars, covert operations, smuggling of both commodities and illicit goods across borders, and as the source of policies or development resources that have inadvertently fuelled local conflicts.[7]  There is little doubt that the actions of these external actors, whether positively or negatively intentioned, will continue to have considerable impact on the future of Somalia and the success of its state-building transition.


In particular, the on-going competing interests of neighbouring powers Ethiopia and Kenya continue to play out within Somalia’s borders, with financial interests coming quickly to the fore.  A recent article in The Economist highlighted the growing unrest in the recently liberated port of Kismayo in South-Central Somalia.  Formerly a bastion and primary resource generator for Al-Shabaab, the port was liberated by AMISOM in September 2012 and “is now run by a chaotic security committee on which Kenyans, Ethiopians and several competing Somali factions joust.  A presidential delegation from Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital … was turned away when it tried to visit.”  Kenyans are jockeying with local militia for control of the port (which generated an estimated $50 million in taxes under Al-Shabaab), as well as for the stockpile of illicit charcoal (estimated in the region of $40 million), in what threatens to become another episode in the Somali conflict.

As a potentially more positive example, the role of the diaspora as they engage with post-conflict Somalia is a variable in the country’s stability.  Somalia has a very large, dynamic, and dedicated diaspora community.  $1.3-2 billion are remitted into the country annually,[8] equivalent to approximately one third of the country’s GDP.  Analysts who have examined the role of diaspora in conflict have broadly concluded that, historically, countries with large diaspora show a greater propensity towards armed conflict.[9]  Indeed, the Somali diaspora has played a role in both fuelling armed conflict and supporting the peace in the past,[10] and is likely to continue to do so as the diaspora dominates large swathes of Somalia’s political and civic life, including the central government, provincial governments, Al-Shabaab, business communities and civil society groups.[11]

Similarly, while the international community seeks to support Somalia’s transition and to provide humanitarian relief and development dividends to its people, lessons must be learned from the past.  Since Barre, the delivery, distribution of aid in Somalia has been a flashpoint for conflict.  One of the most notorious cases was Operation Provide Relief, an airlift of 48,000 tonnes of food aid by the United States in 1992, which attracted armed militia from across the region and resulted in 80 per cent being looted and more than 200,000 famine related deaths.[12]  Every effort should be made by the international community to ensure that the injection of external resources does not provoke conflict and exacerbate instability, and the growing presence of emerging donors such as Turkey and China will need to be monitored.

To avoid the new government being overwhelmed and marginalizedby international aid, funding should be channelled through legitimate state institutions in such a way that it builds local and national capacity to deliver services and maintain the rule of law.[13]  Given the incredibly weak capacity of Somali institutions, some innovative solutions may be required.  For example, a new trust fund established jointly by the British and the Danish, the “Somaliland Development Fund”, takes a shared governance and fund management model that will support the provincial government to meet its developmental priorities, improve service delivery capacity and support public financial management reforms, whilst at the same time ensuring transparency, accountability and limited international oversight.[14]  The OECD International Network on Conflict and Fragility (INCAF) is piloting an approach by which national and international partners enter into “transition compacts” as a modality to better align international financial support to country-specific priorities and strengthen mutual accountability.

The quiet success of the provincial governments of Somaliland and Puntland in managing conflict and shifting into relative stability has offered insights into what a more universal model of state-building might look like.  Somali communities in these provinces have developed an impressive array of informal systems to manage and mitigate conflict, and to provide citizens with modest levels of security and stability.[15]  These have been most effective and resilient when built around hybrid coalitions of clan elders, women’s groups, professionals, clerics and business people.  To offer one noteworthy example, community pressure has served to eject pirates from some coastal towns in Puntland.  This coalition-based approach has also proven its utility in overcoming clan politics.  The analogy of the “wagon train” was used by a senior EU official in an interview with the author in Hargeisa in May 2012, describing significant infrastructure investments that have been made even in contested areas, with all clans and factions paying a share, so that no single group would “shoot down the wagon train”.  The potential for this kind of collaborative, mutually advantageous coalition turns clan politics from a zero-sum game into a positive sum game, and thus can and should be harnessed at the national level to create a compact towards a more stable future.

The most ubiquitous source of conflict management in Somalia is customary law, or xeer, which is applied and negotiated by traditional clan elders and dedicated peacemakers and, much like the examples given above, relies on a principle of collective responsibility.[16] In an effort to build state institutions and accelerate Somalia’s road to development, the international community needs to use caution in imposing modern civil law.  Traditional community structures have legitimacy that derives from people’s shared beliefs and traditions, rather than from Western state models. Therefore, reinforcing support to such community structures and processes can help to safeguard against peace spoilers, and also prevent the growth of weak transitional state structures with the potential for greater corruption and exploitation by criminal actors and vested interests.


This analysis of conflict drivers and potential for peace-building concludes that while there is good reason to have hope for a brighter future for Somalia, this transition period will be characterised by enormous ambiguity, uncertainty and potential for a reversion to conflict.  The willingness of both local and external actors to act in good faith and with a common purpose will be crucial to building a culture of trust and transparency.

The cornerstone of the debate rests with the new government, and whether they can break the greed-grievance cycle perpetuated by the governments that have gone before.  If they can remain committed, and are empowered, to build a genuinely open, accountable and citizen-centric set of state institutions, then this might indeed be Somalia’s year.

— Scott Ross was lead editor of this article.

 *Tuesday Reitano is an Assistant Director at STATT, a boutique consulting firm that specialises in fragile states and transnational threats.  She is a senior research associate at the Institute of Security Studies, and has ten years of experience as a policy expert within the United Nations.   She is currently focused on research on the impact of organised crime on democratic governance and statehood across Africa, as well as globally.


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