Why does al-Shabaab still exist?

Interesting article in the New African Magazine

 Below are some excerpts:

The AMISOM contingent numbers over 22,000 soldiers, including over 3,000 Kenyan troops and many aircraft. Ethiopian units are present all across the border with Somalia and the Somali National Army has been funded, armed and trained by Western advisors for a decade. Unknown numbers of US and British special forces and drones are also frequently active against al-Shabaab, and yet the shadowy militia continues to operate with wide license.

To some extent, ideological militias like al-Shabaab are impossible to defeat, since ideologies cannot be defeated on the battlefield. But the reach and success of al-Shabaab has defied the resources deployed against it. Why can it not be better contained?

In fact, the long war that is proving so intractable in the Horn of Africa is sustained by all parties through a mess of contradictory and counter-productive policies, many of which end up creating incentive structures that reinforce al-Shabaab’s position.
In a new book, “The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa”, Alex de Waal shows how political and economic power in the region is increasingly directed less towards state-building and more towards the capture and control of “political markets” for the benefit of a corrupt elite. Indeed, de Waal argues, borders matter little. And in this struggle for loot, national governance structures simply become another site of competition for factions seeking resources to control and reward their loyalists. In that competition for loot, a national army is a valuable asset. So is the flag; in this scheme of state capture, it becomes little more than an instrument to legitimise factional control over a state’s international treaties and contracts – especially its arms deals with powerful foreign states – the attendant proceeds of which can then be deployed to supply particular patronage networks.
In a world, and a region, where foreign policy is dominated by the terrorist discourse, it is no surprise that generals and defence departments have come to set the agenda.
And in hollowed-out governments like Kenya, where the fabric of the state is so thin and the opportunities for graft so tempting, the flow of valuable assistance and contracts is good for their counterparts. It allows the Kenyan generals to play an even larger political role, as godfathers and kingpins.
Add to this picture, the prospect of an illicit trade in sugar and other goods, moving from Kismayo in southern Somalia into Kenya. The gravy train is worth an estimated $400 million a year: you begin to understand the rationale for the Kenyan invasion of Somalia in 2011. (…) The Kenyan domestic sugar industry remains depressed, and as the gap in demand persists, these operatives continue to make a windfall for as long as the KDF remains in Kismayo.
… in a conflict economy, it is cheaper and easier to simply participate in the status quo rather than attempt to re-engineer the system at the cost of much blood and cash. Peace holds no dividends for the cartel served by the KDF. And so the KDF operate their smuggling scam, Jubaland run theirs, the Federal Government cries out for more and more funds to defeat al-Shabaab and keep its fragile administration alive. Meanwhile al-Shabaab taxes sugar on its way to Kenya, charcoal on its way to the Gulf states and runs protection rackets in all the major economic centres in Somalia, while the federal government looks on helplessly.
… the main troop-contributing countries to AMISOM, together with Ethiopia, are there for their own reasons, not out of any concern for a peaceful Somalia. In fact, an unstable Somalia is in their interests.
For Uganda, a discredited president is able to retain a useful role on the world stage, and being a key player in Somalia means a ready income for his generals. Without that foreign subsidy his army would be poor, poorly trained and possibly unruly.
For Kenya, too, having a significant KDF presence within AMISOM is a good insurance policy against a deteriorating image abroad or troublesome legal cases at the Hague. Not to mention the aforementioned benefits in terms of cash and contracts with Western defence interests.
For Ethiopia, the memories of the 1977 war are fresh. Ethiopia’s Somali Region, comprising the restive Ogaden, was of course traditional Somali grazing land with no connection to the highlands, and unfairly granted to Ethiopia by the British and Italians in the 19th century. The numerous wars to re-unite it with Somalia mean that Ethiopia has a strategic preference for a weak Somalia.
The assumption for nearly a decade has been that faced with a regional military onslaught, al-Shabaab will be progressively pushed to the periphery and gradually, the SNA will assume more control, ultimately returning Somalia to order. This is not happening. Instead, AMISOM is staying in its bases in garrison mode (its interest served by merely being there, not going on the offensive). The SNA fails to develop because the government embezzles the funds in order to fund patronage needed to stay afloat and to pay off al-Shabaab to avoid being killed. Meanwhile al-Shabaab continues to strike, the government calls for more funds, the West, making massive savings from the absence of Western boots-on-ground in exchange for the relatively low price-per-head on the AMISOM troops, complies.
Under such circumstances, all the actors have reconciled themselves to the existence of al-Shabaab and have trimmed their operations to match. Perversely, it is in no one’s interests to incur the costs of undermining and dismantling al-Shabaab. Worse than that, in some lights you could say that it was in their interests for al-Shabaab to endure: not necessarily to thrive, but to continue to be active.
In the Horn of Africa there has been very little substantive sociological research into the drivers of extremism, despite it being the subject of endless conferences and much foreign policy funding. The only two serious studies to date that have actually interviewed former al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia and Kenya have been done by the Pretoria-founded Institute for Security Studies. In both cases the finding is clear: a majority of the Shabaab combatants say that they joined  the extremist group after experiencing brutality at the hands of security forces.
The counter-terrorism agenda colours all aspects of the relationship: from social spending to tourism to money laundering to international crime and domestic politics, terrorism is a trump card and a cheque to be cashed. As outlined above, there are strong interests within Western military and foreign policy establishments which are vested in looking for terrorists and are, thus, forever doomed to keep creating them.
Those truly wishing to reduce the influence of al-Shabaab, both inside Somalia and in the marginalised north and east of Kenya, should instead direct their attention to primary education, healthcare, a fair and equitable justice system and to a police force and military that obey the rule of law. This difficult work of state-building is hard and slow. It is much easier, and more lucrative for nearly everyone involved to play the terrorism game and blame their favourite bogeyman: al-Shabaab.
Read the complete article here.

Sobre Gustavo Plácido

An independent political and security risk analyst focused on Lusophone Sub-Saharan Africa. He covers Angola and Mozambique for Horizon Client Access.
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