What Trump’s policies mean for Somalia and security in East Africa

Saturday January 21 2017

News last week that President Donald Trump had asked for a review of the US role in Somalia should worry frontline states like Kenya and Ethiopia.

Over the past three years, President Obama’s support for the 22,000-strong Africa Union Mission to Somalia, Amisom, has been crucial in the fight against Al Shabaab, the Al Qaeda-affiliates trying to oust the Federal Government of Somalia.

By providing intelligence, deploying Special Forces, airstrikes and drones, the US has degraded Al Shabaab’s fighting capabilities and decapitated its leadership.

In May last year, a US airstrike killed Abdullahi Haji Da’ud, a key military commander. He was one of many Al Shabaab leaders taken out by US drones and Special Forces in early 2016 among them Mohamed Dulyadin, architect of the 2015 Garissa University shootings; Yusuf Ali Ugas, an Al Shabaab recruiter; Mohamed Mire, the Al Shabaab governor for the Hiran region and Hassan Ali Dhoore, architect of both the 2014 Christmas Day attack on Mogadishu airport and the 2015 attack on Maka al-Mukarramah hotel, also in Mogadishu.

If Al Shabbab seems less fleet-footed and lethal today than it did a year and a half ago, part of the credit must go to the US. It now looks like President Trump — who is breathtakingly naïve about the threat that Al Shabaab-like groups pose — wants the review in order to cut back US involvement in Somalia. This would be a strategic and costly long-run mistake for US policy in the Horn of Africa.

The Red Sea


It also means that Kenya and Ethiopia, both allies of the US against Al Shabaab, could also soon bail out of Somalia. Should they do so, Al Shabaab will flourish, at least in the short-run.

The silver lining, though, is that in the medium-term, the retreat by the US, Ethiopia and Kenya would give the Africa Union an excellent chance to redesign Amisom, its otherwise doomed mission in Somalia. Here is why:

To begin with, it is baffling that President Trump cannot see the strategic argument. The Red Sea — and so the Suez Canal — is vital to global commerce, a route not only for oil from the Gulf states to Europe but also for goods from Europe and North America to India, the Arabian Peninsula and China.

The Red Sea shortcut — which carries about 8 per cent of global trade — eliminates 10 days and 8,900 kilometres (or 43 per cent) from the alternative route round the Cape of Good Hope. True, some oil tankers are now taking the long route but that is temporary, explained by low oil prices that offset the higher transport costs.

On all accounts, then, the Suez Canal route will remain critical. But it is vulnerable. The entry to the Red Sea, past the point where the Horn of Africa juts into the Gulf of Aden, is a 32km wide maritime chokepoint, the Bab-el-Mandeb, Arabic for the “Gate of Tears.”

Looking north towards Suez, the strait lies athwart the Red Sea with Djibouti to the east, on the African coast and Yemen to the west, on the Arabian coast. Behind, the Red Sea funnels out to the Indian Ocean and on to the coast of Somalia. The strategic threat of a failed Somalia is obvious and has been for years.

In imperial times, Britain and France split sentinel responsibilities over the strait, Britain taking Yemen and France Djibouti. Today, two states at or near both ends of the strait, Somalia and Yemen, have slipped into chaos.

In Yemen, there is a proxy war raging between Saudi Arabia and Iran pitting pro-Saudi government forces against pro-Iran Houthi militias. The chaos has energised terror groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The problem for global trade is that nearly 16,500 ships — a quarter of which are oil tankers — transit through the strait and the Suez Canal every year.

These are tempting for terrorists.

Somali piracy

One may resent the US as a self-appointed global cop but its naval and air capability has kept the Red Sea route safe. Seen thus, US withdrawal from Somalia poses risks.
One, it will embolden Al Shabaab to regroup and escalate attacks against both Amisom and the Somali government.

Two, other terror groups will see the retreat as a collapse of US military will.

A resurgence of Al Shabaab — or another terror group that targets the global maritime trade — would have a more lethal impact than what the world experienced over seven years of Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden from 2005. Piracy is a good example. It arose from the same circumstances that spawned Al Shabaab: A failed state in whose lawless coves and creeks pirates found safe harbour.

Using piracy as a touchstone gives perspective to the magnitude of the impact of maritime terror.

To fix ideas, take the Somali piracy numbers for 2011 and 2012. The year 2012 marked the first time since 2005 that there was a significant drop in the threat level posed by Somali pirates.

According to the World Shipping Council, 54 per cent — 237 of 439 — pirate attacks and 62 per cent — 28 incidents of 45 — merchant vessel hijackings in 2011 happened off the coast of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden, the gateway to the Bab-el-Mandeb. In the first quarter of 2012, another 51 out of a global total of 121 attacks took place off the coast of Somalia as did 11 hijackings out of 13 worldwide.

And yet these episodes don’t give the full picture. According to The Economic Cost of Somali Piracy, a 2012 report by One Earth Future Foundation’s project, Oceans Beyond Piracy, Somali pirates got over $31 million n ransom in 2012, which, though large, was nonetheless a remarkable drop from 2011 when they got over $160 million dollars. These numbers do not include logistical expenses, such as the costs of recovering hijacked ships and paying negotiators.

There were other costs too. In the same year, operations to combat piracy topped $1 billion. To hire on-board marshals and outfit vessels with additional security equipment cost between $1.65 billion and $2.06 billion.

Evasive action, including rerouting vessels to avoid risky areas, cost another $290 million and the increase in hardship pay added another $471 million to the labour costs. And yet, for all that, piracy is not nearly half as disruptive as terrorism.


Apart from geopolitics, a US retreat from Somalia would inevitably change the politics of the Horn. It must, for instance, lead to a retreat by Ethiopia, too. There are two reasons for this.

One, there is an incipient rebellion in Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest, most populous and richest region. This will force the security-obsessed ruling party in Addis Ababa to re-deploy its armed forces.

Late last year, Ethiopian troops withdrew from parts of central Somalia unannounced, in response, some say, to the Oromo rebellion back home. The unexpected move proved a boon to Al Shabaab who quickly occupied the towns that Ethiopia abandoned.

The second reason is more complicated and has to do with Ethiopia’s tangled relationship with both the US and Somalia.

Consular ties between the US and Ethiopia were established in 1903, paving the way for the first US ambassador to Ethiopia, Hoffman Philip, to present papers to Emperor Menelik II in 1908.

Today, Ethiopia is one of the largest recipients of US economic and military aid. One justification for this US investment has been Ethiopia’s frontline role in the fight against terrorism, especially its willingness to commit soldiers against the Islamic Courts Union in early 2000 and mid-2006. Without an active US interest in Somalia, aid to Ethiopia will surely fall, if not immediately then in the medium-term.

Without American money, Addis Ababa’s enthusiasm for military adventures in Somalia will wane.

But there are deeper factors at play too. Ethiopia’s historical relations with Somalia are fractious and incandescent and can inflame Somali nationalism like no other factors.

By some accounts, ties go back to time of the Prophet Mohammad. Emollient renderings of Ethiopian history say that the Aksumite Kingdom, the historical heartland of modern Ethiopia, gave refuge to relatives and family of the Prophet fleeing from persecution by the rulers of Mecca, the Quraishi family, ironically members of the same Banu Hashim clan as the Prophet.

A grateful Mohammad is supposed to have decreed that the Abyssinian Christians were never to be harmed. But his injunction was ignored: Muslims from Somalia — and later Sudan and Egypt — regularly raided Abyssinia, at one point occupying most of the Aksumite highlands and nearly vanquishing the kingdom.

Ethiopia’s fight-back began in the late 19th century when King Menelik II invaded the Ogaden and, with the connivance of the British, occupied the region for a short time. Fifty years later, in 1948, the British handed Ogaden back to Ethiopia, claiming to rely on an agreement with Menelik II from 1897.

But Ogaden remained contested. From 1977 to 1978 the long cold war over the region turned hot, culminating in the defeat of Somalia, thanks to the Soviet Union’s turncoat diplomacy which saw them switch sides mid-stream, dumping their erstwhile ally Siad Barre of Somalia for Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia. Later still, in 1996 and then in 1999, Ethiopian forces made incursions into Somalia.

Throughout the 2000s, Addis Ababa tried to stoke insurrections against the shaky Transitional National Government in Mogadishu.

In July 2006, Ethiopia launched a full invasion, cherry-picked friendly warlords and, with the support of the US, arm-twisted them to set up the Transitional Federal Government, all against the vociferous opposition of the Islamic Courts Union, and many Somali nationalists. Ethiopia’s subsequent occupation was brutal: hundreds of thousands were displaced, civilians were killed and others brutalised.

Frequent Ethiopian spoliations were eventually repaid in the same coin: A radical and breakaway youth faction of the Islamic Court Union soon morphed into Al Shabaab, a bigger menace than the comparatively moderate ICU that the US and Ethiopia had battled so ruthlessly.

Ethiopian forces eventually withdrew in 2009, 4,300 of them came back in 2014 as part of Amisom. This charged matters profoundly. All considered, it would be best if Ethiopia withdrew from Somalia and stayed away for good.

What of Kenya? A US and Ethiopian withdrawal would weaken the Federal Government of Somalia — the 2012 successor to the Transitional Federal Government. But a weaker Somali government would, ironically, tighten Kenya’s grip on Somali affairs even as it deepens Somali distrust of Kenya.

Left the top dog by the exit of its allies, Kenya would be tempted to play the advantages of dominance. That would be a mistake; it would only add fuel to the mouldering resentments that Al Shabaab appeals to every time it attacks Kenya.

Bluster and bullying would imperil Kenya’s security without removing the sources of threat. Kenya invaded “to stabilise Somalia so that state-building could start.” Instead, by relying on imprudent and self-serving advice from politically connected Somalis, it exported Somali clan politics to Jubaland.

Some security experts now argue for Kenya’s extended stay in Somalia pointing out that since 2015, Al Shabaab, attacks on Kenyan soil have dropped sharply. This, they say, is proof that military intervention has paid off. Not so fast: it is just a year after the deadly El Adde attack.

A more convincing explanation is better intelligence gathering, thanks to the new Director-General of Kenya’s National Intelligence Service, Maj-Gen Philip Kameru. Kameru’s quiet and methodical style — a sharp contrast to the style of Maj-Gen Michael Gichangi, his predecessor — appears to be paying off.

He has restored professionalism. It is important that Kenya does not become complacent because terror groups are often most lethal when they seem weakest. More important, the military’s triumphalist account of its mission doesn’t match with events in Somalia. Since September 2016, Al Shabaab has stepped up attacks, in part to disrupt presidential elections in Somalia. Premature announcements that it is dead are ill-informed.


If, in fact, Ethiopia and the US do pull out, Al Shabaab will, in the shortrun, grow strong again. That is a strategic menace to Kenya: an Al Shabaab re-energised may be tempted to attack Kenya this year, an election year, which would make credible elections impossible.

What to do? Kenya has no good options in Somalia. It really is the “Devil’s Alternative.” Kenya could stay on, engaged in an inept military mission that continues to inflame Somali nationalism and stoke Al Shabaab resentment.

Or, it could withdraw and fret sleeplessly that Somalia will collapse back into the lawlessness that bred terror in the first place. Kenya’s ability to do good in Somalia has been eroded by partisan politicking in Jubaland. It is now reaping the very things it dreaded: A border as porous as before and a Somalia no safer than before. It is time for Kenya to leave.

That leaves matters to the pussyfooted AU, which must urgently rethink Amisom’s design. Amisom is congenitally defective. Five countries have contributed troops — Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Burundi and Uganda. Three of these — Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya — have territorial interests at odds with those of Somalia.

Ethiopia has shown imperial tendencies in its interventions in Somalia and it also holds Ogaden. Djibouti was annexed by the French from Puntland and was then granted Independence totally delinked from Somalia. Kenya’s (now former) northeastern Province was part of Jubaland and was hived off by Britain in 1925.

In 1960, Britain lied that the province would be re-unified with Somaliland but promptly handed it over to Kenya even though an overwhelming majority of the population there wanted to secede to Somalia. So three of the troop contributing countries — Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti — sit on land that Somali nationalists make claims to.

Since 2015, a fourth country, Burundi, has routinely suppressed its own people and brazenly cocks a snook at both the AU and the East African Community, daring either or both to take action against it if they will. It has no legitimacy to intervene in Somalia. It is a moral blot on the continent’s leaders that Burundi has been threatening to withdraw its troops from Mogadishu, because the European Union has imposed sanctions on its government, cutting off pay to its soldiers.

The solution to this mess has long been clear: Amisom needs a credible intervention force with a clear mission, tight timetable and definite milestones: To stabilise Somalia by taking control of key infrastructure, improve policing to provide civilian rather military security, rebuild the state to deliver basic services, create a framework for an inclusive national dialogue including rewriting the Constitution, hold elections to establish a legitimate government and, once done, leave Somalia to the Somalis.

Wachira Maina is a constitutional lawyer.