The delicate but peaceful transition of power in Somalia earlier this year after the delayed but successful completion of the legislative and presidential elections had raised hopes that the conflict-stricken country in the Horn of Africa was finally moving towards some political stability. But Friday’s siege of an upscale hotel in the capital Mogadishu — at least 20 people were killed — is a grave reminder of the security challenges the country is facing despite the promises made by the new administration of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud to ideologically, financially, and militarily defeat violent extremists. Armed militants stormed the hotel and took several civilians hostage before security personnel ended the siege about 30 hours later, as claimed by al-Shabab. This al-Qaeda-affiliated terror outfit, which controls much of southern and central parts of Somalia, has repeatedly targeted civilians and security personnel in government-controlled territories. In recent years, despite international counter-terror measures, al-Shabab has grown in strength, cashing in on the humanitarian crisis in Somalia and the security crises in neighbouring countries. According to a 2020 report, it collects more revenue than the government, has built one of the strongest terrorist machineries in the continent, and is now seeking to expand its influence across the Horn of Africa.
Somalia has long been called a failed or fragile state. It has also seen one of the biggest failures of international counter-terror operations. Civil conflicts in Somalia can be traced back to the dictatorship of General Siad Barre. As Barre’s regime collapsed in 1991, the country fell into chaos and civil war, with different clan-based armed groups fighting one another. Since then, Somalia has seen several attempts to form a stable state and regional and international interventions to establish security, but none has proved successful. Al-Shabab emerged from this chaos and went on to become what it is today. Part of the problem is that the government’s writ does not run in regions beyond the capital. The country is also witnessing a massive humanitarian crisis amid a severe drought. As state institutions remain fragile and dependent on the mercy of international donors, it is easy for the militants to retain their territorial fiefs. There are no magic bullets for Somalia’s woes. But to begin with, the federal government in Mogadishu and its regional and international backers should have a comprehensive security and crisis-response approach. The government’s focus should be on providing essential services, goods and relief to the people while at the same time establishing an effective and affordable security architecture through a broad-based political consensus. Both state-building and counter-terror operations should be carried out side-by-side and the international community should generously back Somalia in its fight for survival.