Making Somalia great again

The U.S. ambassador to Somalia hands over a "Make Somalia Great Again" cap to the country's newly elected president.

Xenophobia has emerged as a rare consistent and core aspect of President Trump’s foreign policy, directed domestically toward diaspora communities, and outwardly in equal measure. During a campaign speech in Minneapolis, then-candidate Trump disparaged the roughly 25,000-member Somali diaspora in the Twin Cities as “the disaster taking place in Minnesota.” Since his ascendance to the presidency, his now-overturned executive order banning citizens of Somalia and six other Muslim majority countries from entering the United States has been succeeded by a sweeping bill expanding the capacity of the Homeland Security Department to increase deportations.

When the United States touts “national security” as a priority, the results for Somalis as a group are often particularly acute. In the United States, domestic support for humanitarian intervention into Somalia’s civil conflict that began with the overthrow of Siad Barre in 1991, waned sharply following the devastating failure of its mission “Operation Restore Hope” (immortalized in the film “Black Hawk Down”).  The US withdrew the last of its troops from Somalia in 1995 and remained largely absent from the country until in the wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush targeted Africa’s so-called “fragile states” in his 2002 National Security strategy. The US entered a shadow war in Somalia, allying with fractious militia groups to counter al-Shabaab, and provided military and financial support to neighboring Ethiopia, under increasingly autocratic control of its Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi. At the same time, the passage of the Patriot Act greatly restricted refugee inflows from Somalia and prevented the distribution of food aid to alleviate famine in the southern region.

By the mid-2000s, USAID had incorporated the concept of state “fragility” into its own policy framework which considered development as a ‘third pillar’ of national security (after defence and diplomacy). The United States encouraged Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006 (despite early reports to the contrary) providing fodder to al-Shabaab recruiters whose targets were weary of the long-term presence of foreign troops. Somalia endured a period of “statelessness” during which it experienced several iterations of peace processes and transitional governments before inaugurating its current government (Federal Government of Somalia) in 2012.

Under the Obama Administration, United States policy toward the African Horn shifted to a somewhat more cooperative relationship. In 2014, the United States resettled 9,000 Somali refugees, 14% of the total that year. The Obama administration has provided support to AMISOM for equipment and training, and to the mission’s UN Support Office. Maintaining predictable and substantial donor funding is vital to ensure the continuation of troop commitments to AMISOM. The African Union holds greater local legitimacy than either the United Nations or United States, and has made headway in the fight against al-Shabaab since undertaking peacekeeping operations in 2011, bolstered by budget and technical support from the United Nations and bilateral countries. Budget projections developed under Obama include $196,270,000 allocated to Somalia in the 2017 fiscal year, of which $132,270,000 is allocated to the Peace and Security sector. However, evidence also suggests there has been a renewal of covert operations under Obama, in addition to targeted drone strikes.

The presidency of Donald Trump has come at a critical time for Somalia as the country has made grounds in its fight against al-Shabaab but continues to rely on foreign assistance to ensure gains are kept.

On February 9, 2017, Somalia’s parliament elected former Prime Minister (2010-2011) Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed as the second president of the current government. Mohamed, an American-Somali, who was popular for ensuring regular payment to troops as Prime Minister, announced that he would seek Somalia’s removal from President Trump’s immigration ban the day after his election. President Trump’s isolationist stance toward Somalia denies its reality as an expansive and dynamic community as much as a country. In 2015, remittances to Somalia from the diaspora were estimated to reach US $1.4 billion, or 23% of the country’s GDP. In the past, when the US government and banks curtailed the available means to remit payments due to increased “regulatory requirements and expenses” over fraud and terrorism concerns, the impacts for many families were immediate. During his campaign, President Trump vowed to “stop giving money to countries that hate us.” As for Somalia’s security, Trump’s transition team reached out to the Pentagon and State Department to ask bluntly: “We’ve been fighting al-Shabaab for a decade, why haven’t we won?”

It may be too early to tell what what direction US-Somali relations under President Trump will take, as they are just beginning. However, we do know from decades of interventions and counter-terrorism efforts that what is needed is informed and genuine diplomacy rather than isolationism or destructive policies in the name of national security. Analysts have suggested that President Trump’s cavalier approach to counter-terrorism in Yemen is likely to fuel terrorist recruitment efforts. There is nothing abstract about this argument; one recruitment video uncovered from al-Shabaab in Somalia features President Trump promoting his Muslim ban during the campaign.

The first US ambassador to Somalia in twenty-five years, Stephen Schwartz, arrived in Mogadishu recently to present President Mohamed with a truly Trumpian gift. Briefly, the two men looked into a camera and shook hands, displaying a baseball cap in the colors of the Somali flag, replete with a redux of Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make Somalia Great Again.” Unfortunately, there is little evidence to suggest that President Trump’s interest in Somalia will become any more nuanced any time soon.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.