This piece is part of a series titled “Nonstate armed actors and illicit economies in 2023” from Brookings’s Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors.
Two key interlinked dynamics will define developments in Somalia in 2023. The first is the scale of starvation in the country. The second is how the Somalian government and the jihadi military and political organization al-Shabaab will respond to anti-al-Shabaab clan uprisings. Since mid-2022, these uprisings have been backed by the new government of Somalian President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, with far greater resolve than his predecessor Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmaajo” mustered.
However, many of the deep political fissures that defined Farmaajo’s rule persist and will resurface in 2023. Moreover, the clan-government military operation against al-Shabaab has enormous weaknesses that could easily hollow out the campaign, while al-Shabaab remains entrenched. Calling the clan uprisings the beginning of the end of al-Shabaab is vastly premature.
The devastating humanitarian crisis
At least 6.7 million Somalis, almost half of Somalia’s 17.1 million population, face acute food insecurity, with 300,000 expected to experience famine this spring. More than half a million Somali children suffer severe malnutrition, 173,000 more than during the 2011 famine. More than one million Somalis have been internally displaced due to the lack of food and water and seek to relocate to areas where they can access international humanitarian supplies.
Yet, the vast areas controlled by al-Shabaab receive only a trickle of aid, if any. One reason is that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) fear that al-Shabaab will attack aid deliveries. The second reason is NGOs’ anxiety that they will face international legal action on charges of material assistance to terrorist groups, since al-Shabaab seeks to control and tax humanitarian aid. Concerns that the Obama administration would prosecute NGOs during the 2011 famine delayed and hampered humanitarian assistance for months, likely causing tens of thousands of extra Somali deaths, before the U.S. government worked out legal exceptions and parameters. In December 2022, the United Nations sought to assuage concerns among NGOs by passing resolution 2664, exempting humanitarian deliveries from U.N. sanctions.
Somalia’s massive starvation crisis, not yet officially termed “famine” by the United Nations, a label its government opposes, has long been building. Compounded by global warming, drought has battered Somalia for years. Five consecutive rainy seasons failed to bring sufficient water, each having a more devastating impact on agriculture. The impacts have been multifaceted and go beyond human starvation. Over three million livestock — three quarters of the country’s total — have died. Livestock is not only essential for household survival, but also a key source of revenue for the Somali economy.
Clan uprisings amidst hunger
As the endless drought intensified in early summer 2022, the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabaab reacted with typical brutality — increasing taxes on local populations amid economic downturns and natural disasters to compensate for revenue losses, despite its fat coffers of $100 million yearly revenues. Its unwillingness to calibrate tax collection better with fluctuating economic conditions and its indifference to people’s plight, including not allowing humanitarian aid without taxation during the 2011 famine, was a critical reason why it lost formal control over Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia in 2011.
This time, local clan militias known as “macawisley” rebelled. Al-Shabaab retaliated by poisoning and destroying water wells. Undeterred, the clans did not give up: The uprisings spread, and clan militias were able to wrest large portions of Hiraan, Hirshabelle, and Galmudug from al-Shabaab.
The new government of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud seized this opportunity and reinforced the clans with its own offensive against al-Shabaab, deploying elite Turkish-trained Gorgor forces. It also persuaded the United States to expand anti-Shabaab clearing operations using the U.S.-trained Danab, an elite counterterrorism force.
After six years, this was a major punch. Since 2016, no significant offensives against al-Shabaab had taken place. The international forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) were hunkered down at their bases, plagued by massive problems. The Somalian government was distracted by dangerous near-civil-war tensions between Mogadishu and Somalia’s federal member states (FMS), while the Somali National Army (SNA)’s capacities languished abysmally, despite years and millions of dollars of international training assistance.
The wicked challenges of 2023
But persistent problems will become manifest in 2023.
The most immediate is the lack of a holding force for retaken areas. The new African Union force that replaced AMISOM — the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) — has provided some medevac, but remains mostly garrison-locked and is supposed to wind down by 2024.
Many macawisley are exhausted. Out of fear, lack of resources, and inter-clan rivalries, many clans have not risen up against al-Shabaab, despite government prodding. Meanwhile, al-Shabaab has been reaching out to clans, offering bargains and coercing clan elders.
Although the SNA did not split along factional lines in spring 2022 as the cloud of civil war between Farmaajo, opposition clans, and politicians hovered, it’s still too weak to even hold territory. The more robust Gorgor and Danab — the latter having embedded U.S. special operations forces — provide operational teeth. They are not geared toward holding territory.
Frustrated with U.S. drone strike restrictions in Somalia and resentful of the continual U.S. and international weapons embargo, the Somali government has allegedly begun buying and deploying Turkish drones on the battlefield (though the Somali government denies it). But like Danab, drones don’t resolve the holding challenge.
The Somalian government is aware of the problem. It has sought the return of 5,000 Somali troops sent to Eritrea for training during the Farmaajo years, but has had little success due to logistical and legal challenges and the diplomatic maneuvers of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. Instead, improved relations between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Mogadishu have produced a new deal for the UAE to train well over 10,000 Somali soldiers and police officers.
Shrouded in secrecy, the deal would eviscerate the vestiges of the so-called Somalian national security architecture worked out between Mogadishu, FMS, and the international community in 2017. The unsettled relations between Mogadishu and FMS, and among Somalia’s key clans — the dominant vector of politics and daily life — could easily become explosive. Mohamud allegedly plans to appease state presidents by offering to delay state elections, arbitrarily extending the incumbents’ rule by two years. But that will not sit well with local opposition clans and politicians. Delays in elections in Somaliland, a more stable Somalian region long seeking independence and not reconciled to a mere FMS status, already set off a local crisis.
At the core of Somalia’s instability is bad governance. Arbitrarily extending what often amounts to exclusionary and unaccountable rule ensures that such dysfunction will persist.
Clan and political rivalries haven’t gone away. Like in previous Somalian governments, relations between the president and the prime minister, who represent different clans, remain fraught, though nowhere as bad as during the Farmaajo years.
Mohamud came back to power promising the Hawiye clans, intensely dissatisfied with Farmaajo’s rule, to prioritize their interests — including by improving security against al-Shabaab’s taxation in Mogadishu and Benadir. Yet with the Hiraan-Hirshabelle-Galmudug offensives, Mohamud doesn’t have enough forces to protect the center.
Predictably, al-Shabaab responded to the rural offensives by mounting deadly urban terrorist strikes in Mogadishu and other cities, including the deadliest attack since 2017. Apart from the human horror, such attacks undermine Mohamud’s security assurances to the Hawiye.
The United States would like to see yet another battlefront open — in southern Juba. Concerned about its porous border with Somalia and long propping up Juba’s strongman president, Ahmed Madobe, the Kenyan government would welcome this. But the front would trigger complex Mogadishu-Juba politics, including over deployments of local and federal forces.
What kind of governance will follow in retaken areas is also crucial. Somalia’s entrenched patterns revolve around poor governance, inter-clan conflict, and marginalization. Al-Shabaab’s resilience and entrenchment comes from its adroitness at taking advantage of corrupt governance and clan rivalries, exploiting clan disputes, and offering support to marginalized clans.
Somalia’s clan militias also have a long history of predation on local communities, generating deep resentments.
Yet insufficient planning has gone into preventing renewed misgovernance by militias, clan elders, and state and national politicians and government officials in the liberated areas. Eschewing large rural offensives for now, al-Shabaab is waiting for the uprisings to go sour, anticipating that renewed clan rivalries will provide reentry points.
Bringing in acceptable governance and easing local tensions should become a core 2023 priority. But it will be difficult, requiring bargaining with clan elders, communities, and state politicians, as well as local dispute resolution mechanisms.
Finally, there is the large unresolved issue of negotiating with al-Shabaab. The International Crisis Group strongly called for it months ago; the Somalian government has wobbled; and the United States remains opposed.
But beginning dialogue does not mean making a final problematic deal, à la the 2020 deal with the Taliban. Instead, the start could be to negotiate humanitarian access, so hundreds of thousands of Somalis in al-Shabaab-controlled areas don’t die this year.
Al-Shabaab has frequently, though not always, rejected negotiations with the Somalian government. In early January 2023 it denied asking for and engaging in negotiations. Large, visible, formal negotiations are unlikely to take off quickly or produce a good deal rapidly. But at minimum, NGOs and elders should not be hampered and punished for attempting to negotiate humanitarian access and perhaps local deals.