Biden's bid to boost Somalia

The East African country’s democratic progress deserves U.S. assistance to fend off jihadist violence and sets a model for the region.

A member of the Somali parliament casts a ballot during the May 15 presidential elections.

The Biden administration said Monday that it would redeploy hundreds of American troops to Somalia to help contain a threat from Islamist insurgents. A day later, it said it would provide $670 million in emergency food assistance to the East African country and its neighbors. Announcements like those may feel perennial. The Horn of Africa has faced overlapping conflicts and food insecurity for decades needing outside intervention. Somalia hasn’t had a strong central government in three decades.

Yet the United States outreach may be recognition of something more than security and humanitarian interests: a new alignment of shared democratic values. One of the most challenging riddles since the end of the Cold War has been how to rebuild states that fall apart. Somalia was the first to pose the problem after the collapse of a longtime dictatorship in 1991. Now it may be charting a road map back to stability for other faltering countries like Libya and Yemen.

The U.S. pledges of guns and butter to Somalia came after the country’s first successful democratic elections in half a century on May 15 and an immediate peaceful transfer of power. That achievement was often in doubt. The ballot was delayed more than a year by political disagreements and violent clashes in the capital, Mogadishu. The jihadist group Al Shabab stepped up attacks on civilians.

That sort of fragmentation has often derailed internationally brokered attempts at state building, especially in societies defined by strong and often rival clans. But in the past decade, Somalis have gradually adapted democratic practices to their own traditional social norms.

“A silver lining in the jostling,” the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington observed, “is that Somalia is forging, in fits and starts, a system of checks and balances on its executive branch and an open debate about what a free and fair electoral process entails.”

The decision to redeploy U.S. troops to Somalia points to an important dividend of democratic progress. Washington and Somali leaders share a common basis for reining in Al Shabab. That contrasts with a breakdown in counterinsurgency cooperation in West Africa. Earlier this year, France began withdrawing its forces from Mali over friction with the military government.

When Somalia’s Parliament elected Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as president on Sunday, the process fell short of the goal to one day restore universal, direct elections. But it reflects a brick-by-brick approach to someday creating a popular central government with authority over the whole country.

There’s more to that than meets the eye. One effect of Somalia’s long political crisis is a vast and Western-educated diaspora. Many members of Parliament are former refugees who carry more than one passport. They reflect the growing sensibilities and expectations of a predominantly young population. That presents both urgency and promise. Radicalization of youth by groups like Al Shabab is fueled by frustration, but the progress in elections has nurtured hope.

“Somali politics, however dysfunctional, self-adjusts,” Hodan Ali, a senior adviser in the mayor’s office in Mogadishu, told the Kenyan newspaper The East African. “We see Mogadishu yearning for change and buzzing with possibilities.”

Once a case study in state failure, Somalia is now offering a credible argument that societies, like individuals, have the capacity for self-renewal based on ideals that are all-embracing. The Biden administration has taken note.

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