Somalia: African solutions to African problems?

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What can regional peacekeeping interventions like that of AMISOM in Somalia tell us about the reality of ‘”African Solutions to African Problems”? In a new article in African Affairs, Jonathan Fisher explores how regional interventions in Africa can end up reproducing regional forms of dominance and external imposition of ideas and values, despite the harmonious, pan-Africanist rhetoric surrounding them.

Coined in 1994 by Ghanaian economist George Ayittey following US withdrawal from war-torn Somalia, the term ‘African solutions to African problems’ (ASTAP) has since become a rallying cry for a whole host of agendas. In the aftermath of the deadly Battle of Mogadishu, which saw the downing of a US Black Hawk helicopter, it was deployed by the Clinton Administration to justify US disengagement from African conflict zones. More recently, in 2015, the Obama Administration evoked the spirit of ASTAP in lauding the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) – a counter-terrorism ‘model’, according to the then US president, which involves African states pursuing US (and regional) security goals ‘but does not require [the US] putting boots on the ground’.

On the continent itself, ASTAP has been mobilised by African leaders and organisations in support of multiple policies and processes including Ebola response in West Africa, peace-building in Rwanda, intervention in Côte d’Ivoire and non-intervention in Libya. The concept has, of course, been widely criticised by both African and non-African scholars, who underscore its instrumentalization by authoritarian leaders in relations with Western states and its cynical under-playing of the links between so-called ‘African problems’ and wider, global inequities.  It remains, however, an entrenched discourse of the continent’s policy elite and a commonplace expression used to describe the putatively distinctive problem-solving approaches adopted by African states and peoples. In 2014, for example, a senior African Union (AU) official praised the various successes of the AMISOM mission – a peacekeeping operation commanded by, and composed of, African states – as an indication that ‘Africa’s solution is working’. More recently, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, whose country became the first contributor to AMISOM in 2007, explained that his government was ‘confident…of the correctness and feasibility of our decision [to intervene as part of AMISOM]…this was due to our knowledge of the African peoples’.

What – if anything – , though, can be said to be distinctively ‘African’ about interventions like that of AMISOM in Somalia? The largest and most comprehensive international intervention in the country since the collapse of the central Somali state in the early 1990s, AMISOM represents perhaps the most explicit example of ASTAP in contemporary Africa, at least in the sphere of peace, conflict and security. How far, though, does it offer an alternative model to the oft-criticised ‘template’ UN interventions of the 1990s and 2000s – where ‘empty shell’ institutions have been planted atop existing, complex polities under the mistaken assumption – as a senior UN administrator in Timor-Leste once noted – that there is ‘nearly nothing’ there already in terms of functioning, legitimate political institutions.

This is the central enquiry of a recent article of mine in African Affairs, where I explore how policy-makers across AMISOM’s five east African troop-contributing countries (TCCs) – Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda – have approached state reconstruction in Somalia, and the degree to which they have embraced locally-legitimate Somali institutions and frameworks in the policies they have promoted.

Drawing upon interviews with regional officials across these states, as well as analysis of archival material held at the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Secretariat in Djibouti, I find that while TCC states – understandably – baulk at ‘tendentious’ claims by international organizations that their own polities are ‘failing’, they have no compunction about discursively constructing a fellow African state – Somalia – in exactly these terms. Moreover, regional discourses on Somalia as a ‘failed state’ have undergirded TCC narratives around the legitimacy of the AMISOM intervention. In 2008, for example, Museveni explained the rationale behind AMISOM to regional counterparts as a means ‘to ward off the dangers of weak, fragile and failed states’ while in 2015, his Kenyan counterpart – Uhuru Kenyatta – described Somalia as ‘a failed state right next to our border, a state where there was no rule of law, there was no government and it was just open, vast land’.

In practical terms, too, East African states have demonstrated limited interest in going beyond a UN template-style approach to reconstructing political institutions in Somalia. Former Kenyan foreign minister Moses Wetangula, for example, outlined a largely technocratic approach to state reconstruction in 2008, urging regional counterparts to ‘devise an expert-informed collective approach…we should refocus support to the transitional federal institutions, which are the very essence of statehood’. More centrally, regional leaders have actively eschewed an approach to state-building in Somalia which seeks to build-on locally-legitimate, and enduring, forms of political association. Most notably, Ethiopian and Ugandan officials have condemned ‘the politics of the clan’ and ‘the bankrupt ideology of clanism’, despite the centrality of clan networks to Somali socio-political life. They have also declared their commitment to building ‘secular government in Somalia’ and to ensuring that ‘Islamic elements [do] not disturb…the Somali government or the Somali population’. This flies in the face not only of the reality of everyday life in Somalia, where Islamic identity is often embedded within socio-political structures, but also of how regional leaders incorporate religious – in most cases, Christian – legitimation into their own governing practices back home.

In explaining these findings, I underscore the degree to which East African political elites have, at least in part, internalized a range of Eurocentric, ‘neo-Weberian’ logics concerning what statehood ‘is’, despite ASTAP rhetoric to the contrary and, in some cases, their own origins as leftist, anti-imperialist revolutionaries.

A more persuasive explanation, however, can be found through examining longstanding regional discourses around Somalia’s place in the region and its historical construction by Ethiopian and Kenyan governments in particular as a threat to the regional, postcolonial status quo. The legacy of colonialism in East Africa ensured that upon Somalia’s 1960 independence, Somali communities found themselves scattered across four polities – Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia itself and, eventually Djibouti – leading to irredentist attempts to ‘reclaim’ Somali territories by a range of insurgent groups and Somali governments themselves. This has given rise to a regional discourse on Somalia as a ‘problem’ for the region, the origins of which long pre-date the country’s current political crisis. It is, therefore, enduring regional narratives on Somalia as a ‘troublesome’ state requiring regional disciplining which best explains contemporary TCC presentations of AMISOM and its mission to provide Somalia, what Kenyan deputy prime minister William Ruto described in a July 2014 interview as, ‘babysitting’.


Jonathan Fisher is Reader in African Politics in the International Development Department of the University of Birmingham, in Birmingham, UK.


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