Lobsters, Beaches, and Bombs in Mogadishu … Not on President Obama’s Africa Menu

Several African countries are smarting for being bypassed in President Barack Obama’s trip, Kenya perhaps the most. Others, like Somalia, can only dream that the President would visit them.

Kenya after all is to where the President traces his ancestral origins. Many Kenyans see his skipping Nairobi as U.S. disapproval of the country’s elected president and vice-president, two men under indictment by the International Criminal Court for their alleged incitement of violence during Kenya’s 2007 elections.

Ethiopia too would have loved to host the U.S. president, having built itself up as a key regional powerbroker, the seat of the African Union, a trusted counterterrorism partner for the West, hosting U.S. drones, and a favored proxy for dealing with the complexities of Somalia. After the 2012 death of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the one-party authoritarian regime still feels shaky. Although the regime seems to have pulled off a smooth transition, an endorsement from the United States would be very handy.

Amidst its many complexities, Somalia’s optimism about itself has been growing. In January of this year, President Obama met Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. In April, the United Nations embargo on Somalia was eased and the United States moved closer to providing direct military assistance to the country. In London in May, international donors pledged $300 million for Somalia’s reconstruction.

Inside the country too, there is an upbeat vibe about the progress achieved over the past year. During my April research there I encountered buoyant optimism that the country is finally breaking free of war, destruction, poverty, and famine – which felt like the heyday of hope in Afghanistan in 2003-04.

Indeed, after years of civil war, rapacious and capricious warlords’ misgovernance, foreign interventions, and a brutal and backward rule of the Taliban-like jihadist al Shabab, Somalis enjoy more security than in almost two decades.

The revamped Panorama Hotel on Mogadishu’s waterfront serves lobsters – somewhat outrageously, given the continually dismal conditions in Somalia’s refugee camps. Businessmen are building resorts on Mogadishu’s pristine beaches. Somalia’s enterprising diaspora is flocking back. Self-starting Somali think tanks and NGOs are emerging.

But just like Afghanistan, Somalia faces enormous challenges that can easily allow this moment of hope to slip through its fingers.

The June 19 attack by al Shabab against the United Nations compound in Mogadishu highlighted how precarious much of the progress is. Al Shabab is much weakened. After struggling to defend even a few blocks of Mogadishu, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) finally managed over the past two years to disperse al Shabab. The U.S. and E.U. training and funding of AMISOM and its growth to almost 18,000 ultimately paid dividends. Kenya’s intervention into southern Somalia pushed al Shabab out of the revenue-generating port of Kismayo and weakened its financial base. Ethiopia’s intervention into eastern Somalia also baldy hurt the jihadists.

But many al Shabab fighters have simply gone to the ground – or sometimes to their homes in Mogadishu – with their weapons. The fact that so few bomb attacks, however horrendous, have taken place so far is largely at al Shabab’s discretion. Worrisomely, under a flip-the-jihadists program, al Shabab fighters have been recruited into Somalia’s security forces and intelligence services with only poor monitoring. Somalia’s national security forces continue to be weak, clan-based, and without salaries for weeks, despite foreign funding. Yet another stream of money lost in Somalia’s notorious corruption.

Many powerbrokers grew extremely wealthy on Somalia’s chaos and war and could become spoilers. Kismayo’s clans are again violently feuding with each other over the city’s spoils. Old warlords are still deeply entrenched in local and national politics. It is only a matter of time before new crime will mushroom – already, there are illegal checkpoints set up by armed men or the police asking for “tolls” within a few blocks of Mogadishu’s safezone and every kilometer or so in all directions. Unless traveling with a truckfull of AK-47-armed security guards, one needs to pay at least 2,000 Somali shillings at each – only a dollar, but for the people of the world’s poorest country, that’s a lot.

Difficult center-periphery tensions are another key thorny governance issue. They too have plagued Afghanistan since 2002, but in Somalia they amount to outright secessionism. Somaliland declared independence years ago. Its top leaders worry that a stronger Mogadishu will want to retake Somaliland and told me that they will go to war to keep their independence. That may well be posturing, but the Turkey-facilitated Somalia-Somaliland dialogue has produced little so far. Puntland also exists in a semi-independent, unclear status.

Somalia’s new constitution establishes federalism. The southern resource-rich region of Juba – of key security and commercial interest to Kenya and Ethiopia, both of whom have been cultivating their proxies there and in eastern Somalia – rapidly declared statehood. But Somalia’s government sees the Juba precedent as a major threat. The national government, once again beholden to central-Somalia Hawiye clans, fears losing power, resources, and physical access from the devolution of power.

The crucial question is whether the new Somali government will rise above decades-old corruption, cronyism, and clan-patronage politics. More legitimate and equitable rule would help improve security.

But instead, clan tensions and favoritism are on the rise. Members of Somalia’s parliament, for example, are all appointed by the clans. The current president has been elected, but through doling out much cash, which many Somalis decry as corruption. Indeed, the government has little power of any sort, other than to buy off opposition.

If that looks like what gave rise to the misgovernance and toxic crime-politics mixture in Afghanistan, eviscerated the early post-Taliban optimism, and brought that country to the profound legitimacy crisis and deep uncertainty about its future, you get the picture.

Pouring foreign aid into Somalia without good accountability mechanisms in place will only worsen these negative dynamics, just like it did in Afghanistan. Yes, reconstruction is sorely required and in addition to improving security, the Somali government badly needs to start delivering some meaningful improvements to the lives of its people. But the international community needs to avoid smothering Somalia in foreign-aid love, thus exacerbating the type of misgovernance that has plagued both Somalia and Afghanistan.