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Whither Somalia?

In response to:

Somalia Rebounds from the December 7, 2017 issue

To the Editors:

It was pleasing to read Jeffrey Gettleman’s description of how, despite so many problems, “Somalia Rebounds” [NYR, December 7]. In my experience Somalis tend to be brave, tough, and hardworking; but that does not quite explain where the money is coming from to rebuild Mogadishu. In good part the rebuilding may be financed by remittances from the large and growing Somali diaspora in America and elsewhere. One may wonder whether financing also comes from the huge ransoms paid to Somali pirates in recent years. A 2013 World Bank report entitled “Pirate Trails” estimated that piracy off the Somali coast had by that year earned over $300 million for the pirates and their financiers.

One might wish, too, that Gettleman had said a few words about the future of the country. The growth in the Somali diaspora has to some extent eased the pressures caused by the population explosion in Somalia. That problem is, however, not going away. The CIA World Factbook estimates that the average Somali woman bears 5.8 children, while in Mexico, for example, the figure has fallen to only 2.2. Somalia does not support itself now; can it ever do so?

Among other continuing problems, beyond the violence perpetrated by Al-Shabab, is the existence of Somali political entities besides the Federal Republic centered in Mogadishu. Most notable is the Somaliland Republic in the north, which attracts little international attention because it has enjoyed a quarter-century of relative peace, and which has not been formally recognized by foreign governments fearing a precedent that might be cited by breakaway groups elsewhere. Will there ever again be a Somalia unified within its pre–civil war borders? And is such unity really a necessity?

Peter Bridges
US Ambassador to Somalia, 1984–1986
Arlington, Virginia

Jeffrey Gettleman replies:

I agree with Ambassador Bridges that investment from Somalis living in the diaspora is contributing to Mogadishu’s faint renaissance. And I too am concerned about Al-Shabab. The government security forces are still very weak. If it weren’t for the African Union, the Shabab would be sitting in the presidential palace right now. Ugandan and Burundian troops are the backbone of the African Union mission, and they have taken hundreds of casualties in the continuing battles to wrest neighborhoods from the Shabab. The Somali troops are infiltrated by Al-Shabab and have done much less.

What is Somalia’s future? I think more of the same. Some areas of the country will stabilize; others will sink deeper into despair. Fragmentation will continue and more regional governments will assert themselves. I see the emergence of a loose, highly decentralized city-state model of governance, reminiscent of parts of Europe in the 1600s. (I think this could happen in other failing states as well, such as Yemen, Libya, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. I don’t see any of these nations coalescing around a strong central government in the near future.)

People living in cities like Mogadishu, Hargeissa, and Kismayo will be able to work, go to school, and build some wealth as these places become nodes of economic activity, although on a relatively small scale. They will remain fiercely independent of one another. Bandits, warlords, and Islamist militants will have significant power in the vast spaces between the cities and still operate inside some urban areas.

Unity may not be necessary for stability. But I don’t see how Somalia will ever build the infrastructure it needs or get the respect it deserves if the country remains divided.