The Illiberal Tide
Why the International Order Is Tilting Toward Autocracy
In March 1977, Ethiopia and Somalia edged toward war over the region of Ogaden, which both claimed. Cuba’s revolutionary President Fidel Castro made a desperate dash to the Horn of Africa with a bold plan to keep the peace: with the backing of the Soviet Union, he proposed to combine Ethiopia, Somalia, South Yemen, and the soon-to-be-independent French Territory of the Afars and the Issas (now Djibouti) into a Marxist-Leninist superstate that would control the Red Sea and the all-important entrance to the Suez Canal. Not only would the merger resolve the long-standing rivalry between Ethiopia and Somalia, it would unleash the region’s economic potential. Even more important to the Kremlin, it would consolidate recent communist gains and make the Soviets the dominant external power in the Horn of Africa.
Castro’s shuttle diplomacy failed to win support from regional leaders, most notably Somali military leader Siad Barre, and soon Somalia and Ethiopia were locked in a vicious war. Yet the idea of an integrated Horn of Africa never died. More than four decades after the Ogaden War, the goal of greater political and economic integration lives on—particularly in Ethiopia, the regional hegemon, which is landlocked and depends on its neighbors for access to the sea. Regional organizations such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development have also sought to foster integration, as has the United States, which sees deeper trade ties and political cooperation as bulwarks against instability and extremism.
Since he came to power in 2018, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has accelerated the regional integration project. He has forged closer ties with Somalia and with Ethiopia’s erstwhile archenemy Eritrea, even signing a tripartite agreement with the leaders of both countries that established a framework for political, economic, and security cooperation. More ominous, Abiy has publicly suggested that economic integration could be a prelude to political integration and ultimately to a single unified government and military in the Horn of Africa.
Efforts at political integration that come at the expense of sovereignty are bound to provoke conflict and end in failure. But even economic integration efforts that should in times of peace and stability benefit all parties could backfire under the current conditions. In theory, the free movement of people and goods between Ethiopia and Somalia should ease historical tensions, strengthen economic ties, and foster shared growth and prosperity. But in practice, allowing such movement could deepen the mutual suspicion and chronic insecurity that have crippled Somalia’s democratic development.
Simply put, neither Ethiopia nor Somalia is ready for deeper integration. Ethiopia is sliding toward instability and preoccupied with both internal ethnic conflicts and border disputes with Somalia and Eritrea. Somalia, for its part, is too politically fragmented, fragile, and imperiled by extremists to benefit much from regional integration right now. And because Somalia’s current leaders have embraced Ethiopia’s integration agenda without much input from civil society or the public, further implementing that agenda could deepen divisions rather than heal them. Before seeking greater interdependence with its neighbors, therefore, Somalia’s government should focus on turning the tide against the extremist insurgent group al Shabab, strengthening weak and divided governance structures at home, and building on the democratic gains that have been made over the last 20 years.
Somalia has been chronically unstable for nearly 30 years. Its civil war began in 1991, when Barre’s authoritarian regime collapsed and gave way to clan conflicts that ultimately created large swaths of ungoverned territory. This territory proved to be the perfect breeding ground for terrorists, many of whom had trained abroad in Afghanistan and other countries, who eventually established al Shabab, al Qaeda’s most dangerous franchise in Africa.
By the time I was sworn in as president in September 2012, al Shabab controlled large portions of Somalia’s major cities. But with the support of the United States, my government was able to arm and train the Somali security forces to more effectively participate in the fight against al Shabab alongside African Union peacekeepers. Together, we created a special forces battalion modeled after the U.S. Army Rangers. Called the “Danab,” or Lightning Brigade, it pursued al Shabab behind enemy lines, disrupted terror plots, and eliminated important terrorists from the battlefield.
But the military pressure has eased off of al Shabab in recent years. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has ramped up airstrikes in Somalia, and more U.S. military personnel are now stationed in Somalia than in any African country aside from Djibouti and Niger. In the final weeks of his administration, however, Trump is reportedly considering withdrawing nearly all of these troops. Moreover, the Somali government and its African Union military partners have slowed the pace of their operations against al Shabab and even lost control of strategic areas such as the Shabelle Valley and towns along the border with Ethiopia. At the same time, al Shabab has carried out hundreds of attacks in Somalia and in neighboring countries. In January 2020, for instance, the group attacked the Manda Bay Airfield in the coastal Kenyan town of Lamu, killing several Kenyan and American troops.
Efforts at political integration that come at the expense of sovereignty are bound to end in failure.
Al Shabab continues to administer a parallel system of government in parts of Mogadishu, the capital, and in southern Somalia, including along stretches of the borders with Kenya and Ethiopia. Before Somalia can begin to think about deepening ties with neighbors and allowing freer movement across its borders, it will need to consolidate control over those borders and over other regions currently controlled by al Shabab. To that end, the Somali government and its African Union partners will need to go back on the offensive against the terrorist group—not just to liberate al Shabab–controlled areas but to hold them permanently so the government can win back hearts and minds.
Governance at both state and federal levels will also need to improve before regional integration can proceed. During my presidency, Somalia began a complicated federation process through which four regional states were formed. Much progress was made initially toward state building and toward reconciliation of clan and regional conflicts. But soon after coming to power in 2017, the current administration of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed dissolved the leadership of the nascent federal states and installed its allies in their place, weakening the federalization process and triggering conflict with the regional governments.
In the absence of a strong working relationship with regional governments, the federal government has often relied on Ethiopian troops operating outside of the African Union chain of command to advance its political interests in the regional states. In December 2018, for instance, it ordered Ethiopian troops to arrest a former al Shabab spokesman who was running for parliament in the newly formed South West regional state. The arrest sparked days of protests in South West state, to which federal security forces later responded with a violent crackdown. Such transgressions only deepen the Somali public’s suspicion of and antipathy toward Ethiopia, making future aboveboard cooperation more difficult.
In addition to improving governance, Somalia must strengthen its democratic institutions before it seeks closer ties with its neighbors. One reason the current government’s embrace of regional integration efforts has proved so contentious is that ordinary Somalis have had very little say in the matter. While previous governments have often consulted closely with parliament and the regional states on important national issues, the current government has upended that political tradition by making decisions unilaterally. To begin to repair and eventually fortify its democratic institutions, the federal government will need to restore this consultative tradition.
Taken together, Somalia’s problems with security and governance do not augur well for regional integration. But with progress against al Shabab, on governance, and toward democracy, the country might be able to reap the rewards of deeper trade and economic ties with its neighbors in the future. Somalia’s international partners, particularly those from outside the immediate region, can help move Somalia in that direction.
The United States should think twice before withdrawing its troops from Somalia, which would only embolden the terrorist group.
During my presidency, the United States supported Somalia’s government not just militarily but with state building, reconciliation, and democratic governance. Regrettably, during the past three and a half years, the focus of the two countries’ relationship has shifted from a partnership centered on democratization and state building to one centered almost exclusively on security cooperation. As a result, the United States has ignored serious violations of human rights and democratic norms in Mogadishu—including harassment of opposition figures and a vicious war against Somalia’s free press. These violations have caused relations between the federal government and some of the federal member states to break down, impeding security cooperation and allowing al Shabab to regroup and even expand its reach. The United States should think twice before withdrawing its troops from Somalia, which would only embolden the terrorist group. But it should also revive the vital nonsecurity aspects of its relationship with Somalia, without which the country’s democracy will continue to atrophy.
The fates of Somalis and Americans are interlinked, as evidenced by the thriving Somali diaspora in the United States. As a result, Washington has a vested interest in supporting the long-term stability of Somalia and of the greater Horn of Africa region. That stability cannot be achieved without security, democracy, and the rule of law—precisely the preconditions that are necessary to transform the regional integration project from a dream into a reality.