By Michael Shank
At next month’s Africa Leaders’ Summit in Washington D.C., it’ll be important for President Barack Obama to refrain from prioritizing counter-terrorism, resource extractive or aid-only agendas – which is what has dominated White House policies in the past – and pursue, instead, a more just path for the 54 countries on the continent, 47 of which have been invited to the Washington summit.
Of the seven countries that have been excluded from the invite list, Somalia is not one of them, thankfully. And lest the United States get increasingly interested in the kinds of military-first interventions that have characterized U.S. foreign policy in Somalia, as I witnessed in my trip there last year, the Summit should serve as a reflection point before the West worsens the war it’s waging on the Horn and elsewhere.
When Americans think of Somalia, the first thing they likely think of is al-Shabaab, the violent rebel group that sprung from the military wing of the Islamic Courts Union that once ran the country. The al-Shabaab fit nicely into the characteristics of the West’s war on terrorism, as well as the conservative narrative about Islam and violence.
There is much that is misunderstood about this movement and the country that is trying to quell it.
Al-Shabaab means “youth” in Arabic and is largely made up of young persons who were previously unemployed, aimless and impoverished. They are recruited with nothing more than a $20 gift or a cell phone. Much of the mid-level leadership is filled by marginalized clans, persons who didn’t get to participate in the political process, at least not in a meaningful way, like the handful of majority clans have historically.
The majority of al-Shabaab is not composed of people who are inherently set with a sinister agenda for Somalia and the West, but rather people in search of job security and political power. The good news here is that these needs can be met through more legitimate means.
In fact, not unlike Somalia, some of the most unstable and insecure countries in Sub-Saharan Africa perform the poorest in the JustJobs Index’s country rankings concerning employment opportunity, income security, employment security, safety at work and healthy work conditions, equality of treatment and opportunity. Any young man – in Somalia on the Horn or in Nigeria in West Africa – is going to be much less inclined to pursue violence if he’s got a good job, a quality education and socio-economic opportunities available. Without these basic ingredients, this young man has nothing to lose.
While this may not be an easy task, the outline is clear. First order of business is to prioritize socio-economic development, something that has not been on the West’s agenda for the Horn. As I walked the streets of Mogadishu late last year, thousands of youth milled about, aimless, listless and jobless. In speaking with the women and youth organizations and coalitions operating throughout the country, the United States has not invested in strategies to get these kids off the streets and into just jobs. This is a missed opportunity, one that does not require much funding, and one that should be remedied immediately.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s Terrorist Watch list creates obstacles to aid – e.g. support for socio-economic development and job creation for youth who are at risk of recruitment by al-Shabaab. This is problematic. Somalia’s most recent famine, in 2010-2012, which killed more than 250,000 Somalis, is believed to be partially a result of the World Food Programme retracting its food distribution out of fear it would end up in the hands of al-Shabaab.
While I understand why policymakers wouldn’t want U.S. aid to end up in the hands of people who do violence, what about U.S. aid for preventing people from doing violence? These Somali youth need our help and if we fail to offer it to them, they will go to the loudest local recruiter, who, in many cases, is the Shabaab.
Whether it’s disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs and rigorous religious retraining and rehabilitation for former fighters, or, for future fighters, something more preventative like skills training and job placement to ensure that the Shabaab’s recruitment strategies are ineffective, the West must be ready to reconsider how we prevent violence overseas, because the current approach isn’t working. We’re allowing new recruits to be swept up for something as simple as a cell phone. We can do better.
There’s incredible opportunity for engagement but we’re not seizing it, and, instead, sticking to our old ways in America’s so-called “war on terror.” Those ways are military-focused, not socio-economically inclined, and engaging only segments of the population, not the disenfranchised and marginalized. If we want to win over Somalis, an about-face is needed, and it is needed now.
As President Obama plans his August summit in Washington D.C, we can help tip the scales in Somalia towards something very positive. But it requires a serious. Rethink on how we wage war. In Somalia, a war on poverty and unemployment would go a lot farther in meeting our objectives than our current strategy and for a lot less money. The time for that rethink is now.
Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the associate director for legislative affairs the Friends Committee on National Legislation, adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, and senior fellow at the JustJobs Network. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Shank.