Al Shabaab emerged not as a rag tag semi-informed group, but a group with sophisticated understanding of the duality of the state; brutal efficiency in employing force and in the second order the ability to undertake state’s benign function- collecting garbage and ensuring pharmacies stock unexpired drugs. In popular state formation theories what distinguishes or indeed make a state a state is its ability to project the use of force. By being the prominent purveyor of violence the state increases the cost of anyone who wants to challenge the state violently, and also provide incentive for a group(s) to accept to be part of the state. Since its collapse, Somalia’s ability to function as a state and project the use of force has been outsourced to external actors. As a result – nature abhors vacuum, Al Shabaab or previously warlords filled in.
The group’s overarching understanding that the center of gravity for its survival rests with the citizens and not the state or external actors explains their durability; as long as they can provide security- because they are biggest source of violence anyway, and garbage is collected in areas they control, buys them legitimacy albeit through fear.
While all external actors crave to be loved, Al- Shabaab thrives on fear. In understanding Somali’s, one has to struggle with the paradox of being at once a pastoral democrats- ready to negotiate some issues , and an unflinching republican- some relations like family are nonnegotiable. Al- Shabaab concentrated on the later part- Somali’s can trenchantly disagree over their clan politics, but regarding their sovereignty both personal and collectively, they will never negotiate- they are unrepentant nationalists, because of the state’s absence, rhetorically and sometimes symbolically Al Shabaab acts as the vanguard and the only reliable custodian of Somali nationalism and identity.
This is further entrenched by the fact most of the post-1991 government’s have not been organically constituted – they have been externally midwifed, makes Al Shabaab a formidable custodians of the Somalia identity.
While Al Shabaab has that luxury (Monopoly), the Somalia government that has to juggle so many contradicting and often competing interests- the Turks who would want to show Somalia as the testing ground for International Islamic brotherhood through humanitarian lens, the Europeans and the Americans who have mortal fear of radicalization of Somalia youth immigrants, the African Union who want to prove the dictum Africa’s solutions to Africa’s problem. Without any leverage, the Somalia president/Prime Minister is left at the mercy of all these and many actors. All the while Al Shabaab is capable of being run like a well-oiled machine The Western countries have by default reduced their footprints and focus on counterterrorism. This is guided by rational calculations; limited footprints means limited domestic political consequences, inoculate themselves against accusation of invaders. But this singular focus on terrorism by the West is akin to attempting to address the symptoms rather than the cause of Somalia’s crisis- classic Band-Aid solution.
The African countries are enamored by the African solution to the Africa’s problems, but they suffer from the naivety since we are fellow Africans, Somalis will welcome us with flowers at the gate of Mogadishu. Just like any other modern intervention, the window between an intervention is regarded as liberation and invasion is small, and in the case of the AMISOM they need to grasp that reality urgently, otherwise, their genuine effort of winning over Afro-pessimist could be undone. In all, everyone is in Somalia for their own success rather than Somalis, and that explains why Al Shabaab succeeds and other fail.
Another group that most external actors could learn from is the Khat/Miraa distributors in Somalia. Since the collapse of the state in 1991, Miraa/Khat- a mild stimulant popular in East Africa and grown in Eastern part of Kenya has been exported to Somalia war or peace. It is distributed more efficiently than any food aid. This efficiency beats what any economist envisages when they speak about the virtues of the unseen hand of the market. This is despite the Al Shabaab banning Miraa as Haram- forbidden.
The group that can survive Al Shabaab has an enduring lesson for all. The Miraa’s distribution network, their resiliency could be a case study on how to operate in a hostile environment. May be it is about time we undertake an unbiased case study of Al Shabaab and Miraa/Khat distributors on how to establish a state and an efficient distribution network of economic and public goods- the key pre-requisite of a state.