Somalia has become an increasingly unstable region in recent years. The international community needs to help bring law and order to help the struggling population of Somalia and cut down on the piracy plaguing world markets. The recent attacks on a Kenyan mall by al-Shabab militants from Somalia illustrate the need for international attention in the region.
Somalia, which the Foreign Policy Journal has named the No. 1 failed state every year since 2010, is responsible for the majority of the chaos in the region known as the Horn of Africa. The Muslim extremist group, al-Shabab, has been locked in a war with the government of Somalia for control of the country since 2009, when Ethiopian troops pulled out and left Somalia to fend for itself. At the time, it was obvious that al-Shabab would take over significant portions of the peninsular state without international intervention, according to Foreign Affairs magazine.
In taking over, al-Shabab has brought criminal elements and enterprise to the region that creates chaos in the Horn and in the neighboring Gulf of Aden, which is a major shipping route for international trade.
Al-Shabab maintains huge amounts of influence in Somalia and the Horn of Africa because of its ability to foster economic growth by creating de facto safe havens for illicit activity. The militants allow piracy in the southern and central regions of the country, where government forces have been unable to keep law and order for the past five years, according to BBC. Piracy allows Somalis to earn vast amounts of money by ransoming captured foreigners. al-Shabab supports the pirates by bringing weapons into the area and creating safe harbors for the pirates to land in and use as home bases.
In return, the pirates pay large sums of cash to al-Shabab. The pirate money trickles into the local economy, as harbors that once catered to fishing boats are now boomtowns where pirates spend most of their ill-gotten gains on basic necessities and luxuries supplied by the locals. Local Somalis realize that this economic growth is only possible because the al-Shabab militants control parts of the coastline, and are unwilling to oppose the militants or the pirates because of the economic incentives to do otherwise.
As much as the pirates contribute economically to the region, however, they also bring violence and militant conservative Islam. According to Human Rights Watch, the militants in Somalia enforce Sharia law with harsh penalties for rule breakers. This means that the militants regularly maim or kill Somalis, turning some in the population against the militants. The recent attacks on the mall in Nairobi that left at least 67 dead, according to NPR, are an example of this violence and the way it turns local populations against the militants.
The violence against civilians gives the world a limited opportunity to push out the militants. According to the theories that counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen lays out in his book, The Accidental Guerilla, this gives the world a chance to intervene and convince the population to turn on the militants. According to Vanda Felbab-Brown in her book, Shooting Up, in conflicts where guerilla groups facilitate black market enterprise but also attack the local population, legitimate government entities can make inroads by stopping the violence while still facilitating some of the illegal economic activity.
By exploiting the ill will against the militants at this time, the world could move into Somalia to push out militants. These efforts would be of limited effectiveness if the world also attempted to clamp down on piracy simultaneously because the pirates are vital to the local economy. Pushing out the pirates immediately would simply give the local community reason to aid al-Shabab in returning to the area because of economic pressure on the impoverished people of Somalia.
Instead, the world would need to undertake a long-term strategy of investment and growth in Somalia in order to rid the area of militants and eventually pirates. The Brookings Institution notes that long-term economic redevelopment of traditional Somali industries such as fishing would give pirates the ability to return to the industries in which they were originally trained. Somalia has the ability to spur legitimate economic development without pirates, but it would take some investment from the international community.
For international trade and the sake of human rights, the international community should turn its attention to Somalia.
Dan Morgan-Russell is a sophomore majoring in international relations (global business). His column “Going Global” runs Mondays.
Follow Dan on Twitter @ginger_breaddan