Nairobi, Kenya — A suicide attack at the presidential palace in Mogadishu killed two people Tuesday. Somalia is being hailed as a success story after twenty years of chaos, but the bombing this week underscores the many challenges remaining.
Somalia was the definition of a failed state since autocrat Siad Barre was toppled in 1991. Shortly after, the Somaliland region in the north claimed independence, and the south fell into chaos as warlords fought for power. In 2009, Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group Al-Shabab took control of much of the south, including the capital Mogadishu. At the same time, Puntland fishermen upset with illegal fishing and dumping in their waters became high-seas vigilantes, and eventually, the world’s most notorious pirates.
With shipping threatened and Islamic extremism on the rise, the international community redoubled its efforts to restore stability. That commitment brought major dividends in the past year. A concerted effort from navies and shipping companies to combat piracy reduced attacks by almost 70% between 2011 and 2012. Three weeks ago, “Big Mouth,” a colorful pirate kingpin, announced he’d given up the crime for good. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), with western funding for African troops, has ousted Al-Shabab from much of the south, liberating Mogadishu and the port city Kismayo, bringing relative stability to cities once known only for violence.
So the Somali people—known for their entrepreneurial spirit—are rebuilding. Dedicated diaspora from places like Toronto, Minneapolis, and London are returning, bringing with them business skills and capital. Construction is booming in Mogadishu, and the city’s white sandy beaches are full of happy revelers.
There’s good news politically too. A corruption-wracked transitional government gave way to a new president with a cabinet that includes two women. The president was elected by the parliament, not the people, but it was a promising enough step that the U.S. officially recognized the Somali government for the first time in twenty years. At the African Union summit in Addis Ababa last week, African leaders hailed Somalia as proof that the continent can solve its own problems. President Hassan Mohamud summed up the progress to the assembly: “I confirm Somalia being at your table today not as a liability but as a partner.”
Somalia’s progress is real, but a long road remains. Bombings like the one on Tuesday continue. Piracy is on the way out, but ships will continue arming themselves as they pass the Horn of Africa for the foreseeable future. Al-Shabab claimed a victory of sorts last week after a botched French mission to rescue a hostage. As AMISOM pushes the extremists out of the south, they threaten to bring terrorism elsewhere. Earlier this week, the British government told its citizens in the northern Somaliland region to leave immediately due to a “specific threat.”
Corruption still plagues the government, making donors wary. In Kismayo, millions of dollars worth of charcoal wait for the U.N. to lift a ban on Somali charcoal exports (Al-Shabab drew its income from charcoal), frustrating local businesspeople. There’s a looming refugee and displaced persons crisis, and the poorly-disciplined government forces are known to rape women in camps. The reporting of one such incident led to the arrest of the woman, her husband, and a journalist who reported it, drawing international criticism.
Then there’s Somaliland, which until the U.K.’s recent announcement was known as a haven of safety. America’s recognition of the Mogadishu government angering some northerners. Somaliland has held multiple open and largely fair elections, yet is unrecognized by an international community committed to a united Somalia. With more pressing security issues, Somaliland’s status remains on the backburner, but it won’t go away.
So what’s next? AMISOM will continue pursuing Al-Shabab, but Somali forces will have to take over eventually. To do so, the government needs to strengthen its authority, which will require a selective lifting of a U.N. arms embargo, said foreign minister Fauzia Yusuf Haji Adan. That means Somalia needs to prove to the international community its commitment to tackling corruption and reforming its security sector—the Horn of Africa doesn’t need further proliferation of guns. But if the fledgling government is to maintain credibility, it must foremost prove to its own citizens, especially in rural areas, that it isn’t just another armed group claiming power. Because ultimately, Somalia’s rise depends on the Somali people.