Two suicide bombs went off Sunday in Baidoa, Somalia, leaving at least 20 people dead and 60 injured, in an attack claimed by the Islamist militant group al-Shabab. In an email interview, Ken Menkhaus, a professor of political science at Davidson University, discussed the fight against al-Shabab and the security situation in Somalia.
World Politics Review: What is the current security situation in Somalia, and how much does it vary locally across the country?
Ken Menkhaus: The security situation across Somalia is harder to generalize than one might expect. Most media reports give the impression that Somalia is uniformly dangerous, but actual security conditions for local communities vary tremendously along regional, neighborhood, class and ethnic lines. Regionally, most of the north of the country, including Somaliland and Puntland, is more peaceful and less crime-ridden than the south of the country. In Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, businesses operate freely; political and civic leaders move about without the need for private security; and citizens walk the street day and night with little concern about violent crime. By contrast, in Mogadishu, the country’s capital, armed protection is essential for businesses and prominent people. The threat of targeted political violence, violent crime, communal clashes and al-Shabab terrorist attacks continues to be very high in the south.
But even within Mogadishu there is significant variation in security. Some neighborhoods—where a combination of private business security, government forces, and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeepers are present—are viewed as much safer than others. Dramatic differences in the value of real estate across different parts of the city are driven by variations in security.
Class also plays a complex role. Wealthier Somalis can afford private security and walled compounds, while poor displaced families are easy prey for violent criminals. But Somalis with high status are also more likely to be targeted for revenge killings or political assassinations.
Finally, some Somalis enjoy much greater security than others due to their identity in powerful clans, which are a strong deterrent.
The most insecure places in all of Somalia have been contested zones where al-Shabab has clashed with Somali National Army and AMISOM forces. These are mainly in areas south of Mogadishu, toward the Kenya border. But political clashes over regional borders inside Somalia have, over the past two years, also contributed to insecurity in several hotspots.
WPR: How far-reaching and effective is the central government and its international partners’ security writ in Somalia?
Menkhaus: The Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) remains very weak and has little to no political control over most of the country. Even in the capital Mogadishu, most neighborhoods are under the de facto control of clan-based district commissioners and their paramilitaries. The Somali National Army is also poorly controlled by the government; its brigades tend to act as clan paramilitaries pursuing their own interests. The FGS’s nominal control over areas of the country not held by al-Shabab is actually a mediated relationship with self-declared regional authorities that have varying levels of commitment to the FGS.
AMISOM forces maintain a strong presence across most of southern Somalia, but that presence rarely translates into any influence over local political affairs. The exception is the Ethiopian-Somali border regions, where Ethiopian forces have a more robust capacity to shape local politics and security.
WPR: What decentralized approaches have been implemented locally in Somalia to address security issues in areas where the central government lacks a presence, and how successful have they been?
Menkhaus: Most day-to-day security in Somalia is the result of informal, local arrangements, ranging from clan protection to neighborhood watch groups to private security. Security is very much commoditized in Somalia, and is only a public good in a few fortunate locations. The international community has sought to support nascent regional administrations and their security sectors, with variable success. Predictably, support to subnational security providers creates tension with the central government.