New Position at Davidson College in “Politics of the Islamic World”

I’m delighted to share the news that my department at Davidson College has a new tenure track position in Politics of the Islamic World. The link to the human resources website for the position, including instructions for applying, can be found at:

The job is also advertised on the American Political Science Association eJobs website.

Here is the job advertisement:

Politics of the Islamic World
Davidson College seeks a tenure-track assistant professor in Political Science specializing in Politics of the Islamic World, to begin August 1, 2016.
The successful candidate will teach five courses annually (four in the first year of employment), including an introductory course in either comparative politics or international relations, upper-level courses and seminars in the politics of the Islamic World (including coverage of the Middle East and South Asia), and research methods. Candidates demonstrating an ability to offer other needed courses in the sub-fields of comparative or international politics are welcome. Scholars with an interest in identity politics – ethno-politics, gender and equality, or religion and politics — are strongly encouraged to apply. We seek a committed scholar-teacher who will maintain an active research agenda, participate in department and college-wide initiatives, and advise students in Political Science and inter-disciplinary programs. Experience in the region, including field research and research proficiency in a regional language, is required. We welcome applications from scholars who have conducted research in any part of the Islamic World. Applications from Ph.D-holders and very advanced ABDs will be considered.
The successful candidate will contribute to the College’s growing interdisciplinary programs in Middle Eastern Studies, Arab Studies, and/or South Asian Studies.
The following material is required: letter of application; curriculum vitae; three letters of reference; statements expressing the candidate’s teaching experience and research agenda; graduate school transcript; and evidence of demonstrated or potential excellence in and enthusiasm for undergraduate teaching. The deadline for receipt of applications is September 20, 2015. All application material must be submitted at
Davidson is strongly committed to achieving excellence and cultural diversity and welcomes applications from women, members of minority groups, and others who would bring additional dimensions to the college’s mission. Consistently ranked among the nation’s top liberal arts colleges, Davidson College is a highly selective, independent liberal arts college located in Davidson, North Carolina, close to the city of Charlotte. Davidson faculty enjoy a low student-faculty ratio, emphasis on and appreciation of excellence in teaching, and a collegial, respectful atmosphere that honors academic achievement and integrity.

Kerry’s visit to Mogadishu

What is the significance of the visit of the US Secretary of State to Mogadishu International Airport this week?

I think it’s fair to say that, at a minimum, it constitutes a signal that the US is looking for ways to be more engaged politically in supporting state revival and recovery, and that while US security concerns will still dominate its Somalia policy, Somalis can expect to see more American attention to the Somali political process. There may be an especially useful role for the US in helping to encourage Somalia’s autonomous regional states into more routinized, codified relations with the federal government. The Secretary of State’s visit was a valuable signal of support to the administration of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, but one that also put pressure on Mohamud’s administration to move speedily on key outstanding tasks required to make some sort of election in 2016 possible.

It would easy to overstate the importance of this short visit — the Obama administration has only modest political influence in Somalia at present, and has many other urgent international crises claiming its attention. But this visit seems to be signaling more than just symbolic support — it shows a genuine interest in political re-engagement in Somalia.

His remarks below:

Remarks in Mogadishu, Somalia

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Mogadishu, Somalia
May 5, 2015

I’m very, very pleased to be able to come to Somalia today. It was important to be able to meet face to face with President Hassan Sheikh and with Prime Minister Sharmarke and regional leaders and with a range of civil society representatives. As everybody knows, more than 20 years ago, the United States was forced to pull back from this country. And now we’re returning in collaboration with our international community and with high hopes mixed, obviously, with ongoing concerns.
My brief visit confirms what diplomats have been telling me: The people here are both resilient and determined to reclaim their future from the terrorists and the militias who’ve been attempting to steal it. Over the past quarter century, Somalis have known immense suffering from violence, from criminals, from sectarian strife, from dire shortages of food, and from an inability to remain safely within their villages and their homes. In Kenya yesterday, I spoke through an internet link with refugees in Dadaab who had fled their homes for protection from the persecution and from the violence, from the war. I met Somalis who were 15, 18, 20 years old who had never lived anywhere except in a refugee camp; this in an era of unprecedented globalization and opportunity.
So I’m here today because Somalia is making progress in its mission to turn things around. Three years have passed since a new provisional constitution was adopted and a parliament was sworn in. With help from AMISOM, the UN mission here, the United Nations has contributed significantly to this progress. Somali forces have pushed al-Shabaab out of major population centers. A determined international effort has put virtually all of Somalia’s pirates out of business. New life has returned to the streets of Mogadishu, and fresh hope to the people of all the country. I want to acknowledge particularly the remarkable commitment and sacrifice of the nations and countries that make up a part of AMISOM, particularly Kenya, Burundi, Ethiopia, Uganda, Djibouti, and previously Sierra Leone. It is really a great statement about the leadership of African nations stepping up to deal with African problems.
The question now is how quickly and completely the next steps of governing will be taken. The Somali Government has put forward a blueprint for the country’s development as a unified and federal state. It is working with the new regional administration to enhance stability and sow the seeds of prosperity in every part of Somalia. That includes finding the right balance of authority and responsibility between the national, the regional, and the local levels. And we look forward to seeing progress soon on an integration process between the regional forces into the Somali National Army so that we can broaden our security assistance to those forces.
The government is also working towards finalizing and holding democratic elections in 2016. The president, the prime minister, and the regional leaders affirmed to me today that they are committed to making progress on these issues and ensuring that there is a broad consensus on exactly how the constitutional review and the elections are going to proceed. And in addition, he also committed to me today that the mandate will not be extended beyond 2016, that the government will keep the schedule of Vision 2016 and avoid delays, that they will appoint the members of the national independent electoral commission and the boundaries and federation commission by next week. He committed that they will work with parliament to pass the political parties law by next month, and committed to move forward with the integration of the National Army. So I am confident that the leaders came together today from the regions and the federal government to affirm solidly their determination to work cooperatively with the international community and to move the reform process of governance of Somalia forward.
We all have a stake in what happens here in Somalia. The world cannot afford to have places on the map that are essentially ungoverned. We learned in 2001 what happens when that is the case, and we have seen on a continued basis with splinter groups how they are determined to try to do injury to innocent people and to whole nations by operating out of ungoverned spaces. And so Somalia’s return to effective government is an historic opportunity for everybody to push back against extremism and to empower people in a whole country to be able to live the promise of their nation.
In recognition of the progress made and the promise to come, I’m pleased to announce that the United States will begin the process of establishing the premises for a diplomatic mission in Mogadishu. And while we do not yet have a fixed timeline for reopening the embassy, we are immediately beginning the process of upgrading our diplomatic representation. And I look forward, as does the President, to the day when both the United States and Somalia have full-fledged missions in each other’s capital city again. And I look forward as well to the time when we can say, and all the world will be able to see and to measure, that this country is fully united, combining regional strengths with national purpose, able to welcome its refugees home, and secure in a new Somalia that occupies an honored place on the regional and global stage for generations to come.
That is a job, in the end, that only Somalis can accomplish. But together with many other international partners, the United States is prepared to do what we can to help bring Somalia the peace and prosperity and security and the future that the people of Somalia want and that they deserve. Thank you.

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Heritage Institute Study on Educational Challenges in Somalia

This new Heritage Institute report on the state of education in Somalia, using Mogadishu as a case study, is worth a read. Here is the link:

It’s short but packed with important findings that have broader implications. Two findings really jumped out:

1) None of the schools surveyed in Mogadishu offers instruction in the Somali language. Instead Arabic and English are the two preferred languages. This may suggest that Somalis are viewing education mainly as preparation for a search for work abroad. That in turn raises concerns about the long-term viability of an economy so dependent on remittances and export of labor. It also raises concerns about preservation of cultural heritage.

2) Though the country suffers from exceptionally high unemployment, the report finds that trained teachers are very scarce. The study suggests that teaching is no longer viewed as a desirable profession. This same trend exists in northern Kenya, where schools have had to rely heavily on non-local teachers, many of whom have fled in the aftermath of the Shabaab attacks. This issue merits more research, to uncover if the low interest in teaching is due to low pay or if there are other reasons why Somalis view the profession with less interest.

Conflict Analysis Northern Kenya and Somaliland executive summary

This is a summary of findings of a study I recently completed with Kenyan and Somali colleagues…

Conflict Analysis Northern Kenya and Somaliland
Ken Menkhaus
(Nairobi: Danish Demining Group, March 2015)

for full report:

• Both eastern Somaliland and northern Kenya are experiencing spikes in political and social tensions, armed
conflict, and communal clashes, and, in the case of northern Kenya, violent extremism.
• Available evidence suggests that the trend toward greater levels of armed conflict is likely to intensify with the arrival of a combination of transformational changes in the regional political economy, including new county budget lines in northern Kenya and possible oil windfall revenues in both northern Kenya and Somaliland.
• These changes are injecting or may inject substantial levels of new revenue into the national and regional
economies, dramatically increasing the stakes over who controls local and national governments.
• This anticipated influx of new revenue into state coffers is occurring in a context of poor economic governance,contested communal claims over rights to resources and revenues, and, in the case of northern Kenya, a new devolved political system with no established “rules of the game”. This is a dangerous combination and increases the odds that both regions could suffer destabilising levels of armed conflict.
• Oil exploration is already setting in motion local reactions, including speculative land-grabbing, that increase the odds of violent conflict even if actual oil extraction is not viable in some areas.
• Oil exploration may aggravate existing conflict issues, including contested communal and political borders,
grievances over job and contract allocation, local anxiety over land loss, land-grabbing, disputed allocation of oil revenues to local constituencies, in-migration, and control over elected government positions.
• In northern Kenya, large new county budgets have increased the stakes surrounding elections for top county
positions. The political elite has successfully mobilised clans and tribes to vote in blocs to maximise odds
of controlling county government revenues, and, as a result, elections are more likely to generate politically driven communal violence.
• Major new development projects associated with Vision 2030 are generating potential both for expanded
economic opportunity and for armed conflict across northern Kenya, as they exacerbate tensions over
communal and county claims to valuable land.
• Pastoral poverty, urban drift, and high urban unemployment in both eastern Somaliland and northern Kenya
contribute to social frustrations that can facilitate recruitment of young men into armed criminal, tribal,
or insurgency groups. The enormous refugee population in northern Kenya is an additional site of social
frustration and recruitment.
• Much of the worst communal and political violence in both regions can be traced back to violence entrepreneurs, including some individuals in positions in the government and others in the diaspora, who stoke communal tension and incite violence to advance their own political and economic interests.
• Land disputes – conflicting communal claims over rangeland, private claims on rangeland, land grabbing,
disputed and corrupted land titling systems in urban and peri-urban areas, and contested county borders –
remain a major underlying cause of conflict.
• While local resilience to conflict drivers in these areas has been very impressive over the past decade, it is now under unprecedented strain and is poorly equipped to deal with the new conflict dynamics in play.
• In both locations, oil risks becoming a “resource curse” unless stronger social compacts are brokered between communities on land and resources; greater levels of trust are built between peripheral communities and the state; and more robust political regimes governing resource allocation and accountability are forged.
• Violent extremism, in the form of Al Shabaab and its Kenyan affiliate, Al Hijra, is a rapidly mounting source of political violence in northern Kenya and a potential threat in eastern Somaliland. Oil extraction sites and related infrastructure, along with security sector personnel, civil servants, foreigners, and non-Muslim Kenyans, will all be attractive targets for these groups. This violence may deter investment in northern Kenya and is already impeding the retention of professional Kenyans engaged in health, education, and other vital sectors.
• In the past, government security forces in northern Kenya have at times engaged in collective punishment
and abusive behaviour. For local populations, such operations have been more a source of insecurity than
• One of the principal sources of resilience to drivers of armed violence in both Kenya and Somaliland has
been their vibrant democracies, which allow grievances to be articulated and addressed through non-violent
political processes. The governments of Kenya and Somaliland have, however, recently pursued policies and
passed laws that risk eroding civil liberties in the name of national security. When abused, expanded state
security, for whatever reasons, may exacerbate local grievances against the state and increase the risk of

Al-Shabaab’s Use of Social Media

I just published an article in the Brown Journal of World Affairs which explores Al-Shabaab’s use of social media from 2007 to 2013. Access to the full article is only available to subscribers, but most university libraries have a subscription so students and faculty can access the article that way. For copyright reasons, I cannot reprint the full article on this blog, but I paste the conclusion below along with the full citation and link:

Ken Menkhaus, “Al-Shabaab and Social Media: A Double-Edged Sword,” Brown Journal of World Affairs 20, 2 (Spring/Summer 2014). 


 New communication technologies have hurt Al-Shabaab as much as they have helped it. The organization has exploited the internet and social media to recruit, fund-raise, issue threats, monitor enemies, amplify its messaging, and reinforce its narrative, and it has used remittance and telecommunications sectors to move money and raise revenues. But that same technology has exposed the militant group to lethal armed counter-insurgency strikes, broadcast its internal feuds, and made it impossible for Al-Shabaab’s leadership to control its image and message. In consequence, the group has a schizophrenic relationship with new communication technologies, simultaneously using them to communicate globally while and seeking to ban or tightly restrict them domestically. Over time, these new technologies have become more of an Achilles heel and less of an asset to Al-Shabaab.  The unregulated and hyper-democratic nature of the new social media has collided with the leadership’s obsession with tight control.

 The evidence reviewed here suggests that claims of Al-Shabaab’s “savvy” in use of social media and the internet are generally but not entirely true.  Some of its videos have been powerful and helped it build a brand that for a time was very popular; its employment of Twitter to instantly send photos or sound-bytes have helped it shape media coverage; and its use of chatrooms and Facebook gave it a very strong recruitment tool. But the group has also been amateurish at times in use of these tools, from the pompous tone of its tweets to the jihadi rap that was more a source of derision than inspiration.

 Al-Shabaab’s success in harnessing social media to advance a radical narrative was not an act of creation, but of appropriation.  Al-Shabaab inherited an existing Somali grievance narrative, which it adapted, repackaged in more radical Islamist garb, and transmitted with social media back to an audience which had already internalized the basic story line. Al-Shabaab used Twitter to reinforce, not build, that narrative with shards of evidence and images that conformed to the belief system of its target audience. Twitter can be a more effective tool for narrative wars than meets the eye, but only if the audience has already accepted the broad contours of a grievance narrative.    

 Finally, the Al-Shabaab case suggests that both realist and constructivist theories are useful lenses through which to view jihadi use of social media. The explanatory value of the two theories depends in part on the state of play of the jihadi movement itself.  Al-Shabaab has always been in the business of projecting a narrative, but in its early years – when it was advancing on the battlefield and holding territory – its main goal in using social media was for tangible assets – funds and recruits, as a realist would anticipate. Al-Shabaab’s shift toward a greater focus on advancing a global jihadi narrative occurred at a time when its ability to hold territory, win battles, and maintain organizational coherence was waning. This points to the possibility – and one that requires more investigation — that jihadi groups like Al-Shabaab tend to embrace the “constructivist” war of ideas via new social media not so much as an expansion of their activities but as a form of strategic retreat. In this sense, they replicate the behavior of leaders of failed states, by devoting more energy to projecting a narrative to win recognition and support from an external audience than earning legitimacy at home. Failing states and failing jihadi movements, it turns out, have more in common than either would care to admit.



Somali solutions for Somali problems: Can Somalis handle Al-Shabaab themselves?

In the Somali media and blogosphere, it is hard to come by anything approaching a consensus. But on two current issues – the Kenyan government’s crackdown on Somalis in Nairobi, and the desirability of AMISOM peacekeeping troops in Somalia – there seems to be a coalescing of views.

On the Kenyan security crackdown, Somalis have been virtually unanimous in their criticism and outrage, and justifiably so.

On AMISOM and the role of armed interventions of neighboring states in Somalia, views are still somewhat divided, but if I am reading Somali opinions on the web correctly, I sense that more and more Somali opinion-shapers openly agree that the presence of troops from regional neighbors is unwanted and counter-productive. This latter position was most recently articulated in a widely circulated Al-Jazeera op-ed by Ambassador Abukar Armen entitled “Somalia: African Solutions for African Problems?” At the end of the piece, he argues that Ethiopian and Kenyan policies are more to blame for “setting the Horn on fire” than is Al-Shabaab.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Ambassador Armen’s sentiments reflect the views of a sizable majority of Somalis (I haven’t seen many dissenting views on the web, so I think this is a reasonable assumption). If AMISOM is unwelcome, and is viewed by Somalis as part of the problem rather than part of the solution, then perhaps we need to consider alternatives.

What would “Somali solutions for Somali problems” look like?

This begs a critical question: can Somalis handle Al-Shabaab themselves? If the answer is yes, we have options. If the answer is no, or if Somalis simply deny that Al-Shabaab is a problem (this is a favorite diversionary tactic for some, but dodging the question clearly won’t work anymore), then I suspect Somalis will be living with AMISOM for years to come.  So for Somalis who are fed up with years and years of foreign military forces in their country, the answer really needs to be “yes, we can handle Al-Shabaab ourselves, and here is how.”

This essay considers the possibilities if Somalis were left to address Al-Shabaab themselves in Somalia (the Al-Shabaab problem in Kenya is another matter, perhaps for another blog entry). It assumes the Somali government would continue to receive external military and other foreign aid, but that no foreign forces would be directly involved in fighting Al-Shabaab inside Somali territory.

It is meant to start a much-needed conversation, not to provide all the answers. I look forward to reactions and feedback.

Four Options

As best I can tell, if Somalis were left to handle Al-Shabaab themselves, they would have four options, some of which could be sequential: (1) attempt to defeat Al-Shabaab; (2) work to achieve a prolonged stalemate with Al-Shabaab; (3) negotiate power-sharing of some sort with Al-Shabaab; or (4) capitulate to Al-Shabaab.  How likely is each, and what would these scenarios look like?

Defeat Al-Shabaab

If AMISOM were to pack up and leave Somalia, would the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) even survive, or would it be driven out of Mogadishu?

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the government would not collapse and flee within days, as some fear. Al-Shabaab would no doubt take advantage of the vacuum left by AMISOM forces and recapture much of the territory it lost since 2012, and begin the bloody work of retaliating against local authorities who cooperated with AMISOM and the SFG.

Would the government be able to regroup and defeat Al-Shabaab? Nothing we have seen from the poorly-disciplined Somali National Armed Forces to date suggests it could, and it is not clear that a significant increase in external military assistance would make a real difference.  The problem has been one of commitment, discipline, and command and control, not resources.  Al-Shabaab has fought with much greater effectiveness with fewer resources and fewer fighters.

If the government failed to defeat Al-Shabaab, would Somali communities, fed up with the horrific violence and pointless extremism,  turn against Al-Shabaab and either identify Amniyat (Al Shabaab’s underground network) members to the police, or take vigilante action against them? This “Sunni uprising” scenario also seems unlikely at present – the risks would be high, and such a civic uprising would be difficult to organize. But it’s an intriguing possibility worth discussing, and upon reflection may be the only way Somalia moves beyond the current violent impasse.

For this scenario to unfold, it would require a level of commitment we have not yet seen from both the Somali the government and civil society.  If Somalis mobilized in common cause and in full force, they might be able to neutralize Al-Shabaab, in part by encouraging large-scale defections, leaving its leadership exposed. Al-Shabaab is a dangerous network, but it is relatively small in number, and  depends on Somali public acquiescence to its presence. It would struggle to survive in a “non-permissive environment” that only the Somali public could produce.  It could conceivably be outmatched by a unified, mass mobilization, involving clan leaders, clerics, the business community, and others. Once the group began to look vulnerable, it would lose its ability to instill fear in local populations, which at present is its chief form of defense. The formula would be straightforward – Amniyat would need to start fearing the Somali people more than the people currently fear Amniyat. A Somali version of the “Sunni uprising” would likely be bloody and messy, and it would take a very dedicated effort to pull it off. But social rebellions against insurgents have occurred elsewhere, and can be the fate of violent extremist and criminal groups who push their own societies too far.

Stalemate with Al-Shabaab

Alternatively, the government could work to hold ground against Al-Shabaab and stop at that.  The stalemate scenario would represent a variation on the status quo that prevailed in Somalia from 2008 to 2012. This outcome would consign Somalia to perpetual instability and division, and is deeply undesirable for most Somalis and the international community. Yet it is entirely possible, and might even be a preferred outcome for leaders in both the government and Al-Shabaab; each would get to enjoy a profitable fiefdom again without having to trouble themselves either with governing or winning a war.  They could not only co-exist but could work out a symbiotic relationship with one another, one as a dysfunctional state, the other as a hidden criminal syndicate.

Leaders in successive Somali governments have already demonstrated that presiding over a failed state  is a condition they not only can live with but can profiteer from; cutting a deal with Al-Shabaab to maintain the status quo would be a small price to pay. As for Al-Shabaab, recent evidence suggests that its growing practice of extortion is already starting to move it in the direction of a violent criminal enterprise with increasingly dubious Islamist credentials. In that case,  Al-Shabaab could maintain a presence as a mafioso protection racket shaking down the government, private sector, and NGOs for cash with threats of violence.  This is a business model that could work well for colluding elites on both sides, but would be a disaster for the Somali people and for efforts to revive a functional government.

Negotiate power-sharing with Al-Shabaab

Would the Somali government instead seek a negotiated settlement with Al-Shabaab toward a cease-fire and some form of power-sharing?  Over the years, many Somalis have gravitated toward this position, reflecting perhaps a cultural preference for negotiated settlements, and/or a lingering belief among some that Al-Shabaab is a legitimate political actor that merits a place at the table. Setting aside the obvious problem here – that many powerful foreign governments would not accept any outcome in which Al-Shabaab leaders are given government positions — would Al-Shabaab want to negotiate anyway? And if it did, would anyone want to be in that coalition government? SFG officials are surely aware of how Ahmed Godane handled the last set of disagreements he had with erstwhile allies – he launched a bloody purge within Al-Shabaab that killed off most of his internal rivals. This does not look like a group with which to negotiate a power-sharing deal if you want to live long.

This option appears to be little more than a stepping stone to an Al-Shabaab takeover, which is the final scenario to consider.

Capitulate to Al-Shabaab

The final post-AMISOM option would be Somali government capitulation to Al-Shabaab.  Much or most of south-central Somalia would then be controlled by a well-organized, ultra-violent jihadi group which has declared war on neighboring states and the West, and which treats any Somali who disagrees with it as a spy or apostate.

It is worth pondering the scene that would follow. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis would flee as refugees, only to find doors to asylum largely slammed shut, and neighboring states intensely hostile to hosting yet another wave of Somali refugees. Somalia would face complete international isolation and sanctions. Remittances would be choked off by new counter-terrorism measures, leading to a collapse of the already fragile local economy.  Businesses would fail, real estate investments would plummet in value. The diaspora would be put under intense police scrutiny not just in Kenya  but world-wide. And war would ensue, involving neighboring Ethiopia, many other external players, and local proxies. It would be a catastrophe. Somalia cannot afford any more catastrophes.

This is not a scenario to flirt with. And that brings us back to the question of whether AMISOM should stay or go, and whether Somalis can solve Al-Shabaab themselves. The stakes are way too high for the Somali people to sidestep this question. 

Conclusion: Somali solutions for Somali problems, with backstopping

A push for Somali solutions for Somali problems is long overdue.  Foreign security forces, whether in the form of AMISOM forces or Western covert operations, can push Al-Shabaab out of cities and towns and harass its leadership, but they cannot completely defeat the group, especially now that it has morphed into a terrorist network. Only Somalis can do that.  And we’ve always known that.

Whether Somalis are ready to take that step is unclear.  But if Somalis want AMISOM to leave sooner rather than later, then the government and the Somali people are both going to have to take much more ownership of the Al-Shabaab problem. No more free-riding by leaving most of the fight to African peacekeepers and American drones; no more denying the scale of the problem or wishing it away; no more colluding; no more delaying the inevitable. Not to choose is to choose.

A robust Somali mobilization against Al-Shabaab can be launched while AMISOM is still in place. Realistically, AMISOM forces are not going to be redeployed while Al-Shabaab remains a threat, so any Somali solution to the Al-Shabaab problem is going to have to happen while AMISOM is still on watch. AMISOM would be able to play an essential back-stopping role, and the security it provides to key government facilities would be critical.   But once Al-Shabaab is no longer a serious threat to the Somali government, the Somali people, and the wider region, AMISOM will no longer be needed. No Al-Shabaab, no AMISOM.

This is not a happy analysis for the Somali people. If correct, it means there is no pain-free solution to Al-Shabaab, no way to push the costs onto someone else. Somalis may not want to shoulder the burden of dealing with Al-Shabaab, and they may feel that it is unfair that they have to bear that load when they were not entirely responsible for Al-Shabaab’s ascent.  That may be. But I cannot see any other way this will end unless the solution comes from the Somali people themselves. Somalis are already bearing heavy and rapidly mounting costs thanks to Al-Shabaab, a group which seems remarkably indifferent to that fact.  For Somalis, the costs of inaction are rising faster than the expected costs of addressing the Al-Shabaab problem.

No more selective outrage in the Horn

If you have been following newspapers, websites, and twitter from Somalia and Kenya, you can’t help but notice this pattern:

Somalis express outrage and fury at Kenyan security crackdowns engaging in ethnic profiling of Somalis, but remain largely silent about (or in some cases even rationalize) Al-Shabaab terrorist attacks in Kenya.

Non-Somali Kenyans express outrage and fury at Al-Shabaab terrorist attacks in Kenya, but remain largely silent about (or in some cases even rationalize) the Kenyan security crackdown profiling ethnic Somalis.

This selective outrage plays well to narrow audiences, but is parochial, morally wrong, and ultimately counter-productive. It plays right into the hands of the extremists on both sides who hope to turn these tensions into a clash of civilizations, a campaign of ethnic cleansing, or both.  

If these condemnations are to carry any weight, non-Somali Kenyans and Somalis must speak with one voice against both senseless jihadi violence by Al-Shabaab and brutal, illegal and predatory Kenyan police behavior.  Anything less is just playing politics, and makes us part of the problem instead of part of the solution.


Horn of Africa Year in Review: Storm Clouds Brewing

Each year the Rift Valley Institute hosts a week-long intensive course on the Horn of Africa, in which I serve as Director of Studies. In addition to 6 days of lectures and breakout sessions on many aspects of the Horn, we also provide participants with a detailed course book with short essays on selected topics, as well as a bibliography for further reading.  Here, I share the short essay “The Year in Review” from our 2014 course book:

RVI Horn of Africa 2014 course

The Year in Review: Storm Clouds Brewing

With the notable exception of the spike in Al-Shabaab’s terrorist attacks in Somalia and Kenya, the past twelve months have been relatively quiet across the Horn. The governments of three new leaders – Ethiopia’s Hailemariam Desalegn, Somalia’s Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, and Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta –  survived their first full year of transition. The fact that politics in these governments has changed little suggests to some observers that the crises in all three of those states – enduring authoritarianism in Ethiopia, persistent state failure in Somalia, and unchecked corruption in Kenya – cannot be solved simply by replacing a head of state.

Most of the good news from the Horn over the past year has been economic.  Ethiopia’s continued rapid economic growth — at 7%, a bit slower in 2013 than in past years, but still ranking near the top of the list of the so-called “African Lions” – was welcome news.  Eritrea is projected to enjoy 8% growth rates in 2014, one of the highest in the world, thanks in large part to mining exports. Potential game-changing economic developments in the wider region – growing evidence of major oilfields, and the advancement of plans for major regional infrastructure projects like Ethiopia’s electric power grid and the LAPSSET (Lamu Port South Sudan Corridor) project which aspires to link south Sudan, Ethiopia, and Uganda to the Kenyan coast – offer additional reasons for hope.  Piracy off the Somali coast continued to decline, reducing risks to regional sea-borne commerce.  Fiber-optic cable was extended into new parts of the Horn, including war-torn Mogadishu, offering the promise of expedited information flows and new opportunities for businesses.  And in September 2013 the Somali Compact was announced, part of the “New Deal” between donors and the Somali government that included a $2.3 billion pledge to underwrite reconstruction and state-building.  China, Gulf states, and Turkey increased their investment portfolio in the region, reflecting a growing trend to look east for foreign investment and aid.    

But the generally positive economic news was offset by worrisome political trends.  Somalia’s post-transitional government has remained mired in political paralysis, has been hit by repeated Al-Shabaab bombings and assassinations, and has faced serious charges of corruption that immediately put a chill on the donor pledge for the New Deal. The progress of the AMISOM-led offensive that has pushed Al-Shabaab out of most towns in southern Somalia has been tarnished by the predatory behavior  of the Somali National Armed Forces occupying the new recovered zones, leading to local resistance and even pushing some communities back into Al-Shabaab’s arms. Eritreans continue to vote with their feet against the repressive Isaias regime, with thousands of citizens per month risking the harrowing overland journey out of Eritrea, where they face shocking abuses at the hands of human traffickers in Sudan and Egypt. In  Ethiopia, street protests by students as well as by Islamic groups have been met by mass arrests and police violence, and serve notice that beneath the country’s calm veneer lie mounting social and political tensions that have no means of expressing themselves in open political dialogue, and that will not be assuaged with news of high economic growth.  

Spillover from the crisis in South Sudan is an immediate regional security concern.  Al-Shabaab remains a top security threat in the region as well, and though its bloody internal battles in the summer of 2013 appeared to have weakened the group further, the consolidated hardline leadership which emerged from that purge has committed the group to unprecedented new levels of terrorism against civilian and international targets in both Somalia and Kenya. The Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi in September 2013 shocked the world and underscored Kenya’s vulnerability to a group possessing a well-established network there.  Al-Shabaab also launched deadly terrorist attacks in Mogadishu against the UN and the Federal Government of Somalia, shaking confidence in Somalia.  Recent Kenyan government crack-downs on the large ethnic Somali population in Kenya in response to Al-Shabaab attacks have heightened communal and political tensions in Kenya and are the source of considerable controversy. Continuing turmoil in Somalia is likely to prevent repatriation of Kenya’s vast Somali refugee population, who may face still more years trapped in Dabaab refugee camps.

Regional affairs have grown more complex than ever, with states increasingly committing armed forces in cross-border operations that deeply entangle them in the politics of neighboring states. Nearly every government in the region – Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, and Uganda – has peacekeeping forces inside Somalia, while Ethiopia and Uganda have troops inside South Sudan as well. There is no small irony in the fact that regional heads of state have been the most vociferous in invoking state sovereignty against what they see as intrusive meddling by Western governments and the International Criminal Court, yet have been deeply intrusive in one another’s political and security affairs.

The biggest storm on the horizon in the coming year may be yet another major humanitarian crisis. In what has become a depressingly familiar cycle, a combination of political failure, armed conflict, displacement, drought, lack of access, and donor fatigue is placing millions of people at risk of a major food crisis in South Sudan and southern Somalia. The good news about overall economic growth in the region will mean little if it co-exists with famine conditions. Weak regional states insisting on the right to be treated as sovereign authorities will have the chance to earn that sovereignty in the eyes of their own people by facilitating rather than impeding humanitarian response.


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A Comparativist’s Approach to Somalia

I am trained as a comparative political scientist, and it appears that some of my writing on Somalia from that perspective is creating misunderstanding among some Somali readers. This blog is meant to clarify what a comparative method to the study of politics is and why it’s such an important tool now for Somalis engaged in politics in the Horn of Africa.

Students of comparative politics appreciate the unique aspects of each political system but also look for points of commonality – point of comparison – across political systems in order to test propositions about political behavior, processes, and structures.  Since we can’t run experiments on politics the way a biologist can run controlled experiments in a laboratory, the comparative method is our principle tool for trying to move our study of politics beyond an interesting pile of anecdotes, opinions, and preferences toward something approaching an empirically-grounded “finding.”   One way or another, observers of politics have been using the comparative method as least as far back as Aristotle.

Comparativists don’t just focus on the politics of sovereign states.  We look at all manifestations and levels of political life, including local and municipal systems of governance, regional transnational governance like the European Union, and informal, non-state systems of governance and social organization. These all form part of the rich and complex set of practices, institutions, and social contracts that the seven billion of us living on this planet draw on to manage our endless disputes over resources and power and, hopefully, keep our societies from falling into armed conflict and  chaos. Comparativists are also pretty good at uncovering the interests at play in perpetuating armed conflict and chaos where it does occur.

The comparative method is also a critically important instrument for learning and sharing lessons about best practices and innovations in public policy and politics.  Central governments, regional governments, municipalities, and civil society groups all face similar sets of problems, and can and do learn from one another’s successes and failures.

I say all this because the Somali-inhabited eastern Horn is the site of many different Somali experiences with governance – thousands of them. Some, like Djibouti and the Federal Government of Somalia, are at the sovereign state level; others, like Somali Regional State, Puntland, and Garissa County, are at the regional level; and many, many more are at the city, town, and village level, or are part of the rich collection of informal systems of governance that prevail in much of the region.  Across the eastern Horn of Africa, over fifteen million Somalis, in very different, sometimes overlapping political settings, are trying to work out solutions to vexing political problems.

Whether one is an outside academic like myself, or a Somali living in the Horn or the diaspora, we all have an obligation to understand these different political experiences and try to learn lessons from them that might be of wider use to other Somali communities and to the donor agencies funding state-building. Otherwise we risk missing opportunities to help transfer valuable knowledge about what works and what does not work in governance in the eastern Horn of Africa. We simply can’t afford to keep making mistakes in state-building in Somalia, and one way to reduce the risk of mistakes is by learning as much as we can about political systems across the region.

Studying municipal and regional administrations in the Horn is not a reflection of a normative preference for “grass-roots” politics or federalism over centralism, nor does it in any way confer legitimacy on secessionist or irredentist claims. Studying the politics of Somaliland to learn about the pros and cons of its “hybrid” governance model in which elders have formal roles in the upper house of Parliament does not imply acceptance or rejection of Somaliland’s secessionist claim.  Comparing political structures in Puntland and the Federal Republic of Somalia is not a hidden agenda to equate Puntland with the SFG, any more than comparing the health care policies of the state of Massachusetts to those of the United States government is equating the status of those two polities.  Concluding that municipal governance has been the site of some of the most effective governance in Somalia is not an attempt to undermine state-building at the central level; it merely recognizes an important source of success in governance that can and should complement efforts to revive a central state in Somalia.

The Somali diaspora is now a rich additional source of knowledge about comparative politics. It actively participates in political life from Canada to New Zealand. That diaspora knows – or ought to know – that around the world, authority and responsibility for provision of basic public goods is split between different levels of government, and that much or most of that service provision is done at the municipal level. There are very few places in the world (that you would want to live in) where a central government exercises control over all policy, service delivery, and political appointments down to the municipal level.

Somalis are understandably apprehensive about any analysis that appears to reinforce fragmentation or clannism, and I share that concern. But we can’t let that fear prevent us from the essential task of learning best practices of Somali governance wherever we find it.  The comparative method is a tool with enormous potential for good in Somalia, not something to disparage or reject.