Will Freedom for Libya Mean Peace for Somalia?


As surrealist Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi makes his horrifying last stand in Tripoli, it's probably for the best that the latest upheaval is not happening in one of our client states. But while Libya was not coddled by America in the way that Hosni Mubarak's Egypt was, the United States and Libya have worked together toward a common goal in Somalia.

When fellow Arab states began to shy away from Gaddafi after the Lockerbie bombing, he turned his eye to Africa. (In a famous 2009 hissy fit at an Arab League summit, after being quieted by the emir of Qatar, Gaddafi declared: "I am an international leader, the dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of Muslims and my international status does not allow me to descend to a lower level.") Under his rule, Libya was a founding member and key booster of the African Union, whose seven thousand troops are the only thing standing between Somalia's internationally-recognized Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and complete collapse.

Gaddafi's eagerness to prop up the TFG in Somalia earned him the praise of American diplomats, who in a leaked cable, said that "when approached with appropriate deference, Libya can be an effective actor," able to "secure our foreign policy interests" in Somalia. Ali Treiki, a high-ranking Libyan diplomat who is said to report directly to Muammar Gaddafi, even tried to get the United States to press for action on Somalia at the United Nations Security Council.

But with Gaddafi unlikely to hold out much longer and an American foreign policy establishment that's growing weary of the Somali government's perennial failure to govern, the TFG may not be long for this world. Most international efforts have operated under the assumption that Al Shabaab, an Islamist insurgent group, would fill the power vacuum, but many have noted that Al Shabaab fighters seem motivated more by money than by fanatic ideology, and that the alliance might fall apart if it loses its common enemy, the TFG.

But if not Al Shabaab, then who? Ken Menkhaus, a professor of political science at Davidson College who has written extensively about Somalia, has argued that Somalia's political equilibrium does not involve a traditional state at all. Rather, Menkhaus claims, a heterogeneous mix of local and regional governments, along with xeer, the traditional Somali legal code, would rise to fill the void.

Contrary to the popular image of Somalia as an irredeemable hellhole since state collapse in the early '90s, Somalis actually enjoyed a decade-long period of peace and prosperity (at least relative to Somalia's East African neighbors), beginning with the end of its civil war in the mid-'90s (which ended soon after the US and UN retreated) and ending with the 2006 Ethiopian invasion (backed by the United States and the African Union). If Gaddafi's fall saps the African Union of its power to intervene and the United States loses its taste for Somali adventures, the country might again revert back to official statelessness—which may mean a return to peace and economic growth for the Somali people, if not its government.