Somalia has long been the very model of a modern failed state. The largely ungoverned country on the Horn of Africa has suffered through pirates, terrorists, warlords, foreign invaders, and bandits, not to mention famine. Since 1991, more than a dozen plans to fix it have been tried by the international community.
But we shouldn’t.
Since August, Somalis have set up a new parliament and chosen a respected president, Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud, under a new constitution. Many of the worst warlords have been outflanked by a “constructive elite.” And last Friday, the last stronghold of armed jihadist group Al Shabab fell to Kenyan and Somali troops in a night raid on the port town of Kismayo.
Much more still needs to be done before Somalia can be called a functioning country with a democracy. The gains made so far are fragile. But experts wonder if these latest hopeful actions show that Somalis are finally so fed up with violence, anarchy, and foreign intervention that they are now ready to build state institutions through inclusive politics and to reclaim their sovereignty and unity.
If so, Somalia may serve as a new kind of model, one in which years of failed foreign meddling actually had the effect of pushing locals to reconcile their differences and seek a democratic solution on their own. Part of that feeling is probably due to to a feeling that Somalia has been seen by the United States since 9/11 as just another pawn-state in a global contest with Al Qaeda.
Despite years of civil war, Somalis remain a resourceful and resilient people. They have managed to build one of Africa’s best cellphone and money-transfer systems, a good sign of social trust. In the year since the Al Qaeda-allied Al Shabab was forced to exit the capital of Mogadishu, a market economy has sprung back. Somalis have an active civil society.
Somalia also serves as a lesson for better understanding local culture and clan dynamics before imposing foreign solutions. Iraq and Afghanistan certainly point to that need. The current caution of the West toward meddling militarily in Syria’s ethnic-sectarian muddle is driven by such lessons.
Letting the new Somali government take the lead may be the best course for the US and others, especially in possibly negotiating a political settlement with Al Shabab. The country’s days of being a model, either good or bad, may be over. Soon, Somalia could simply be another country struggling with the problems of peace, not war, and doing so on its own strengths.