Defense Department in Somalia

Somalia / Flickr Creative Commons -infantry expert
Somalia / Flickr Creative Commons -infantry expert

by Michael Shank, PhD

WASHINGTON, January 13, 2014 — As the U.S. Department of Defense announced last week that American soldiers are re-entering Somalia after 20-plus years avoiding the country, the need for new solutions to this crisis is critical.

The answer to the rebel group al-Shabaab’s growth in Somalia, can be found in the women and youth.

Sound like an oversimplification of a sophisticated counter-terrorism problem? Perhaps. But there is a reason the military response – as witnessed by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) presence throughout the country – has yet to put a stop to al-Shabaab. Armed attacks by AMISOM will only go so far in stopping armed attacks by al-Shabaab.

The real way to prevent any growth of the “Shabaab” – which, not coincidentally, means “youth” in Arabic – is through Somalia’s youth and Somali mothers. As I visited various women and youth organizations doing outreach, training and empowerment throughout the country – from the Somali National Women’s Organization to the Coalition for Grassroots Women Organizations to the Somali Youth Development Network – what became clear is that this critical constituency is the underfunded and under-pursued answer to countering al-Shabaab.

What I heard consistently and categorically from the women and youth, who are courageously working to build a sustainable peace in Somalia, was that the United States wasn’t supporting this important work. This is disappointing given how much the State Department and USAID emphasize the importance of empowering women, especially in Muslim countries.

The women, however, remain undeterred and continue the fight in the trenches irrespective of the violence around them. One of Somalia’s great female politicians and peace activists, Asha Elmi, who happens to be married to the Prime Minister of Somalia and who has been featured for her work to bring dignity to the women of Somalia’s refugee camps, is absolutely convinced the answer lies with the mothers.

A mother loses all influence with her child, said Elmi, after she is unable to put food on the table. Considering that Somali kids are being recruited by al-Shabaab for as little as a gift of a cell phone, a mother’s ability to put food on the table is priceless.

Walking through the streets of Mogadishu, not only was the poverty painfully apparent, but so too were the high numbers of youth aimlessly roaming with nothing to do. They are easy pickings, then, for opposition groups keen to recruit among these disenfranchised youth.

As part of a sustained effort to improve a mother’s ability to put food on the table, Somalia’s female activists have made significant political headway but still have a ways to go. Somalia’s constitution allocates 30 percent of the seats in parliament, but women currently fill only 12 percent of the seats – due, in part, to lack of political campaigning precedent and infrastructure.

Elmi and others reiterated the need for the international community to support women in Somalia in even the smallest of ways. Since United Nations Special Representatives to Somalia and the international community’s ambassadors to Somalia have historically been men, the message is one that undermines local efforts to empower capacity and promote gender equality. That must change, say Somali women on the ground, if a stable Somalia is the desired goal.

A stable Somalia’s main sticking point, however, is with the youth, since they compose the large majority of the al-Shabaab fighters. The Somali Youth Development Network is working with youth at risk of being recruited by al-Shabaab, providing religious counseling, training in marketable and employable skills, help with trauma healing for those that have witnessed violence and rehabilitation for those who have already engaged in violence. Reintegrating these at-risk youth back into the mainstream is no easy task.

In a meeting, the Minister of Interior noted that $18 million has been set aside, provided by the international community, to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate 3,000 former al-Shabaab fighters (most of them youth), and that 700 have successfully gone through the program. With an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 al-Shabaab fighters in total, a doubling of the available funds seems very doable. The key question is whether the international community will commit to it.

Beyond rehabilitation and reintegration of youth, however, the necessary long-term work is in conflict mitigation and violence prevention, as SOYDEN has emphasized. On mitigation, they support 15-member peace committees in all of Mogadishu’s 16 districts, capable of dealing with conflicts before they turn violent. On prevention, they emphasize that it’s all about jobs and socio-economic development. They couldn’t be more right.

One elder minister of the parliament – as he walked me through Mogadishu’s destroyed downtown infrastructure, once a beautiful colonnade of colonial-era buildings – said the answer lay here in the ruins. Why wasn’t the international community helping Somalia rebuild itself, instead of throwing so much money at drones, air strikes and AMISOM military? That would provide jobs, tens of thousands of them, for years to come and for much less funding. Again, yes.

As the power outages, the dusty, muddy and potholed roads, the pervasive waste and sewage and the thousands of internally displaced persons indicated, Somalia now needs to be rebuilt and there are youth ready and willing to do it. Somalia’s peace lies in Somalia’s future. It is time to help them put food on the table.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the Associate Director for Legislative Affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and Adjunct Faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. 

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Michael Shank
Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the Director of Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington DC. Michael is also Adjunct Faculty and a Board Member at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, Board Member at Communities Without Boundaries International, Senior Fellow at the French American Global Forum and the Just Jobs Network, and Associate at the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict. Prior to joining FCNL, Michael served for four years as a congressional staffer, working as US Congressman Michael Honda's Senior Policy Advisor and Communications Director. Michael's career over the past 20 years has involved UN, government and non-governmental organizations in the US, Europe, Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America, as an adviser on diplomatic, economic, energy, and environmental security and policy initiatives. Michael's Ph.D. from George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution focused on Climate Conflict.