Despite Recent Progress, Instability Persists in Somalia

Despite Recent Progress, Instability Persists in Somalia

Just one year ago, Somalia, which has weathered near-constant conflict of varying intensity since 1991, looked poised to finally emerge from the cycle of violence and economic despair. A new constitution was ratified on August 1, 2012, ushering in the inauguration of the new Federal Parliament on August 20, which brought permanent central government to Somalia for the first time in over two decades.

Security in the capital, Mogadishu, and throughout much of the rest of the country improved significantly over the course of 2012 as well, thanks to intensive efforts on the part of troops from the African Union, United Nations, and the fledgling Somali military to roll back al-Shabaab, the al Qaeda-affiliated local jihadist movement that carried out regular attacks against government officials.  A US-sanctioned Kenyan invasion in 2011 further eroded al-Shabaab’s traditional strongholds in the south.

Piracy—perhaps Somalia’s most well-known export—has also been reduced by concentrated international policing efforts in the Gulf of Aden and the establishment of a maritime police task force in the semi-autonomous state of Puntland, from which most of Somalia’s pirates launch their attacks on commercial shipping.

Riding on this positive news, multinational corporations appeared eager to invest in the Somali economy, primarily by exploring the possibility of extracting oil from Somalia’s reserves, rumored to be among the largest untapped fields left in the world. In June 2012, Canadian oil company Range Resources confirmed an agreement with Puntland for offshore extraction and began drilling in January 2013 in concert with Africa Oil and Red Emperor Resources. The British company Soma Oil and Gas Exploration Limited signed an agreement with the central government in Mogadishu on August 6 of this year to begin a seismic survey of Somalia’s territorial waters and in some limited areas onshore.

Unfortunately, this positive momentum may be coming to an end. On 18 August Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)—the aid group that provided a range of medical care throughout Somalia for 22 years—announced that it would withdraw all of its staff from Somalia due to “extreme attacks” on its staff members. According to Mark Doyle, an international development correspondent for the BBC, “MSF pulling out of Somalia is the equivalent…of shutting down the entire national health service overnight. In many parts of the country there is simply no other health provision. Hundreds of thousands of people will lose the most basic of services. …[The MSF withdrawal is] a damning indictment of the failure of the government of Somalia to provide even basic security.”

Just two days after the MSF announcement, the UN warned that Somalia is at risk for a major outbreak of polio, despite being declared free of the disease six years ago. The humanitarian cost of such an outbreak could be astronomical. Given the effects of the severe 2011 drought that killed roughly 260,000 people (half of them under six years old), a polio outbreak could have devastating consequences for Somalia’s youth.

Even Somalia’s fledgling economic progress could be threatened. Oil extraction is complicated by the Somali government’s promises in 1991 to sell drilling rights to major multinationals (including Conoco and Chevron), which these companies claim they still own. Somalia is still a very dangerous place to work, and attacks on oil exploration groups are common.

The international community’s attention to Somali issues over the past year has waned as the country appeared ready to shed its identity as a “failed” state.  Unfortunately, the Federal Government has yet to resolve serious security issues throughout much of the country. While Mogadishu may offer relative safety, one enclave from violence and extreme poverty is not enough to attract investors and promote stability. More effort—both public and private—is necessary to prevent Somalia from backsliding.

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