USA TODAY 9/23/13
By Michael Shank

Focus on African security missing development needs.

Last month, at the beginning of a trip to Somalia, my twitter feed started buzzing with breaking news about explosions in Mogadishu. A local rebel group, al-Shabab, claimed credit. Their tactic was fairly unsophisticated: break the Ramadan fast with a bang, grenades during the early evening iftar meal. It was plenty to ratchet up my unease about safety in Somalia, especially after the weeks prior witnessed bombings at the U.N. mission and the Turkish embassy in Mogadishu.

Each attack was a harbinger of the violence the group would spread to Kenya last weekend, just weeks later. They were hardly the only warnings.

They kept right on coming. Al-Shabab declared plans for further escalated attacks before Ramadan ended. While I could turn back in Istanbul if my contact in Mogadishu thought it necessary, I never got that red light so I stayed the course – despite delays due to the U.S. government’s “global travel alert” and mass embassy and consulate closures throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

The red flags continued. Flying through Djibouti, en route to Mogadishu, I caught a glimpse of the U.S. Defense Department’s Africa Command (AFRICOM), a colonial-looking encampment which seemed to horrify my fellow Somali travelers (I was the only white American in the cabin).

This same group gasped when Turkish Airlines turned on the in-flight movie: G.I. Joe: Retaliation, wherein the U.S. military attacks Pakistan. To add insult to injury, the Pakistani flag featured in the film, a crescent moon and a star, is about as close to Muslim iconography as you can get. To see that while flying to Somalia was unsettling to say the least.

Landing in Mogadishu was almost as I imagined, with United Nations cargo planes and helicopters, along with a handful of African Union MRAPs (mine-resistant assault protected vehicles). After being escorted through immigration by a friend in the Somalia parliament, I visited, a “green zone” adjacent to the airport where the foreign defense and development contractors reside in new hotels and swimming pools, rarely leaving the premises except when exiting the country. Many call the area “mini-Nairobi” after a much larger development-industrial complex that has cropped up in Kenya, but focused, ostensibly, on Somalia.

The odd idea of putting the main facilities to help stabilize Somalia outside the country was hardly the only thing that seemed out of place. One fact amazed me: soldiers stationed in Somalia with the Africa Union Mission there (AMISOM), staffed with soldiers from Uganda, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Djibouti, etc., make upwards of $1000 per month to provide security for the country. Somali soldiers, in comparison, make $100 per month and often do not have sufficient food. Stories circulate of Somali soldiers being left for to eat or available hospital care. I heard stories of injured Somali soldiers being left for days without medical care.

The United States, which flies audible drones nightly over Mogadishu and maintains a hefty CIA presence in the country, could change this dynamic given that America is the top military financier at $1.5 billion in security assistance since 2009. Little of that money is being left in Somalia to build any kind of security infrastructure and foreign security assistance is quickly leaving the country in U.N. or AMISOM hands.

Before the al-Shabab attack this weekend that grabbed so many headlines, Somali Defense Minister Abdihakim Mohamoud Haji-Faqi told me that the real prevention work, if the international community cares about countering al-Shabab, lies in the jobs-creation, school-building and health-clinic opening after an area in Somalia has been “liberated” from the group’s control. Similarly, government and non-government officials I met with in Somalia agreed that much of what drives recruits to al-Shabab isn’t ideology but rather things like a lack of food, water and jobs.

Somalia’s prime minister and the speaker of the parliament, part of a government that is about a year old, say there is too little international effort to aid the kind of development that would undermine al-Shabaab’s recruiting.

In Mogadishu, the road forward, according to the people who are living there, is to get aid and development outside the “green zone” and outside aid bases across international borders, and among the people. There must be a more Somali-centric commitment to genuine economic development. After 21 years with no central government, someone has to invest in Somalis.

Michael Shank is director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.