The “Somali Question” and Ghosts of Past Security Dialogues in Africa

The “Somali Question” and Ghosts of Past Security Dialogues in Africa

The Westgate mall attack in Kenya—one of the most recent indicators of the continuing rise in the use of terror by a network of insurrectionary groups in Africa and globally—compels us to reflect on extant approaches to national and regional security. The challenge that confronts Kenya (and indeed the rest of the continent and elsewhere) is whether it can conceive the security of Somalia and Somalis as an integral part of the security of the Kenyan state and people, as well as the neighboring region. Conceptions of security in this way seem antithetical to popularly accepted realist notions of security that, despite the rhetoric of a common security situation, underpin and justify a regional and continental peace and security architecture. African security is yet to be transformed from its state-centric tendencies to ways that can deal effectively with the reality of the prevailing security environment.In this regard, the inclination of many Kenyans toward demanding that their government should consider pulling Kenyan troops out of Somalia is to be expected. When confronted by threats of this kind, the natural instinct of a state and its peoples is to seek ways of “cocooning” and separating themselves from other “conflict-prone” peoples or “purveyors of insecurity” in their immediate neighborhood or further afield. The threat from neighboring Somalia, with its most visible manifestation being the influx of refugees within Kenya’s borders and the attendant spillover of insurgent criminality, has produced two reactions from the Kenyan government.

The first is to beat back that insurgency through the use of force. The second is Kenya’s alignment with the forces of “do-good” nations who are seemingly protecting the people of Somalia through the deployment of a peacekeeping force—the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Joining AMISOM invariably serves the interests of Kenya; ensuring a stable Somalia means keeping Kenyans safe. Following the Westgate attacks and Al-Shabaab’s narrative that justifies this action as a retaliation for Kenya’s military operations in Somalia, the silent yet loud wish of the average Kenyan is discernible: “Let’s secure ‘our borders’ and ‘our people,’ and leave the ‘violence-infested’ people of Somalia to their own devices.”

This instinctive reaction is not the preserve of Kenyans alone; nor is it the preserve of other African populations facing similar threats. In recent weeks, in response to the October shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrant Somalis off the coast of Italy,1 ordinary Italians and other Europeans thought the solution was to find ways to stop these African migrants from reaching the shores of Europe. This reaction assumed tighter immigration rules and greater assistance from other European nations to help Italy “deal” with this influx. The futility of this option might have been lost on Europeans; yet barely two weeks after this unfortunate incident occurred, another ship, this time carrying Syrian migrants, arrived on the coast of Italy. It will take a while for the “invaded” people of Italy and neighboring European countries to consider alternatives to the current policies designed to prevent the influx of people fleeing conflict and insecurity. Such thinking requires a selfless, longer-term approach. Embedded in this approach will be a commitment to ensure that the lives of these migrants are secure in their countries of origin. This is not fathomable, however, for many leaders, let alone ordinary citizens, in those European countries who have little or no understanding of the reality that confronts ordinary Somalis or Syrians. It is probably far easier to stick to what a government does instinctively (i.e., police its country’s borders, throw illegal immigrants into detention centers, and bundle them back home, in addition to spending millions of Euros maintaining holding/processing centers).

The harsh reality for Kenyans and Italians alike is that this “them” and “us” construction will not deliver an effective solution to the twenty-first-century security challenges confronting societies in these and other areas. Traditional security approaches can no longer effectively address the nature and form of insecurity that faces citizens—even in those societies that have a measure of confidence that their elite and fellow citizens can be fairly insulated from the conditions of “others” outside their immediate vicinity.

How should Kenya therefore deal with the Somali question? Do those who argue that the Al-Shabaab attacks were triggered by Kenya’s own incursion into Somalia in 2011 with backing from the United States and the United Kingdom have justification for proposing a Kenyan pullout? New and comprehensive security thinking is required within Kenya and the region as a whole if the threat posed by Al-Shabaab is to be more effectively tackled.

There are several interrelated elements to such innovative and transformed security thinking. First, the security of the state of Kenya and its people should be seen as being intrinsically linked to the security of the people of Somalia (within and outside Kenya). This thinking requires that within Kenya, ethnic Somalis—whether recently migrated or second-generation settlers—are considered part of the fabric of Kenyan society rather than a “problem to be solved.” It also requires that the safety and well-being of Somali people living within Somali territory are essentially tied to the safety and well-being of Kenyans living in Kenya. This calls for a radical change in the mindset of Kenya’s elite and citizens. Kenya’s ruling elite might already be persuaded into thinking that this new mindset would offer a path to dealing permanently with the Somali question (and, in fact, there is some evidence to suggest this). The major challenge, which must be overcome, is how to transfer this thinking to other clusters of Kenyan elite and ordinary Kenyans.

The second element relates to the adoption of a comprehensive approach toward intervention in Somalia, which goes beyond peacekeeping and military operations to embrace a more holistic system response. This should involve the complete engagement with the politics of governance and reconstruction. AMISOM’s military operations to beat back Al-Shabaab from major Somali towns—including, for example, Mogadishu, Kismayu and most recently Baidoa—is a necessary step toward creating safe and secure spaces for the people and for the operations of government. But any military or indeed humanitarian intervention that is not based on a deeper grounding and reflection by Kenya and other regional actors (including the African Union) on sociopolitical processes in Somalia risks ultimate failure. At best, what can be achieved with a military-centered solution is a cyclical pattern of violence, with zero-sum politics that condemn ordinary people to despair and doom. Al-Shabaab may be severely weakened and on the run in Somalia; but it is not defeated. The Westgate attacks can be seen as part of its attempt to lash back at those responsible for its loss of ground in Somalia. Sustaining that loss of ground and Al-Shabaab’s eventual relegation into oblivion offers a promising way forward. But it is not a loss of ground that can be sustained militarily by AMISOM or even the Somali forces (who are still underprepared for the task) that will eventually take over from AMISOM.

Detaching as many Somalis as possible from Al-Shabaab’s command and support structure offers a potentially viable alternative. This will entail closer attention to the politics of governance and service provision. Making Al-Shabaab irrelevant by countering its political narrative and its ability to procure loyalty through service (security) provisions might eventually compel the group to negotiate or alter their base of operations. At the moment, only actors external to the region, including, for example, the European Union, United Kingdom, and United States, among others, are paying attention to the politics and socioeconomic life of Somalia. The extent to which their politics serves the long-term Kenyan and regional agenda is another issue altogether. The same external actors foot much of the bill for AMISOM.

Kenya and the region must take proactive steps to ensure that the political settlement in Somalia serves the long-term needs of Somali citizens, and not just the needs of the Somali ruling elite. Decisions surrounding the constitution and in particular the kind of federal government that emerges in Somalia will have significant bearing on the future. An overly centralized federal arrangement will serve the purpose of a few elite, while a federal structure that decentralizes power to the units/regions of the state might offer a chance to provide services and share resources with the lower level political subdivisions. Besides, resource generation in Somalia is not a centralized affair. This is an important factor at the heart of political settlement in Somalia—Kenya and the region cannot afford to stay away from this conversation. Getting it right offers the potential for lasting peace and stability in Somalia and in neighboring states. While the Kenyan government has offered clarity and agreed that pulling out of Kenya is not an option, it has not yet articulated what the continued stay in Somalia will achieve for the people of Kenya and, by extension, the people of Somalia.

The third and last element concerns the deep engagement by Kenya with regional actors in Somalia, including AMISOM, which should transcend the prism of Kenya’s military approach. This essentially requires Kenya playing the role of a leading voice and advocate for comprehensive security thinking in Eastern Africa and the continent. Influencing thinking and practice at the level of the African Union will invariably help unpack the less implementable parts of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), which on paper provides a comprehensive framework for thinking about peace and security in Africa. APSA offers a range of response options, from the prevention of structural violence to the management of conflict, as well as the use of force to protect citizens in member states who face grave danger when their states are unable or unwilling to protect them. In practice, however, operationalizing this architecture in the robust way articulated has not yet occurred. If and when countries like Kenya envisage their security in the comprehensive ways discussed here, they might become serious advocates for collective thinking at the continental level. Certainly in Somalia, the African Union will need to buy into Kenya’s vision of security alongside Ethiopian and other regional partners if success is to be realized.

Interestingly, some of this is not new to Africa. Dialogues among African states about the security of the continent exhibited such comprehensiveness in the immediate aftermath of Africa’s independence (e.g., the proposal by Nkrumah for an African High Command). The efforts to transform the Organization of African Unity into the Union of African States also had a flavor of comprehensiveness. However, neither these attempts to raise the level of the debate nor current efforts to wish away violence-invested neighborhoods and troubled populations in the face of rapidly changing security situations can deliver security to a state and its peoples. Rather, thinking comprehensively about the security of those neighborhoods and peoples becomes the commonsensical thing to do. Time and changing situations indeed create new ideas and challenge old leadership decisions. Kenya will ultimately have to confront change and create its own new thinking about the Somali question, which might have an unintended consequence of catapulting it into continental leadership.

  1. Associated Press, "Somali Man Arrested in Italy over Migrant Ship Deaths," CBC News, November 8, 2013,
About the Author

'Funmi Olonisakin is the director of the African Leadership Centre at King's College London and a member of the African Peacebuilding Network’s advisory board.

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