Saving Somalia (Again)

How Reconstruction Stalled—And What to do About It

Over 3,000 council workers sit under banners of Somali flags in an old police hall to discuss security, resettlement of displaced persons, and social affairs with the city mayor Mohamed Omar Habeeb "Dheere" in Mogadishu, July 31, 2007. Edward Ou / Reuters

In early May 2015, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made a historic but little noticed visit to Somalia, a country no other U.S. secretary of state had ever visited. His trip symbolized both how far Somalia has come—from the blackest days of civil war, clan infighting, and famine in the 1990s; to the brutal rule of the jihadi group al Shabab in the late 2000s; to something getting closer to normal now—and how very far it still has to go.

The fact that a high U.S. official could enter the country at all speaks of real security improvements. During his visit, moreover, Kerry announced the reopening of a U.S. embassy in Somalia, which had been closed since 1991 when the government of long-term dictator Siad Barre collapsed. But the fact that Kerry’s visit was a brief few hours—during which he did not even leave the heavily-guarded Mogadishu airport—also points to deep and persistent security challenges. Moreover, his meeting with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud and Prime Minister Omar Sharmarke comes at a time when the relationship between international donors and the Somali government has soured and the Somali people have grown increasingly weary of their government. The early optimism that the 2012 election of Mohamoud by appointed members of the Somali parliament would usher in badly needed changes in Somali politics, toward inclusiveness, effectiveness, and accountability, dissipated long ago. 

A woman walks by on the outer perimeter area of the Kismayu airport controlled by the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), November 11, 2013.
A woman walks by on the outer perimeter area of the Kismayu airport controlled by the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), November 11, 2013. Siegfried Modola / Reuters
Indeed, an observer’s bullishness about Somalia very much depends on his or her baseline. Compared to the early 1990s or 2011, when al Shabab controlled most of Mogadishu and most of central and southern Somalia, with only the semi-autonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland escaping its grasp, Somalia is in much better shape. However, when compared to the spring of 2013, when I took a previous research trip there, the 2015 spring (my latest trip), and summer hardly look peppy. Security is tenuous, with al Shabab and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces stuck in

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