It's Still a Bad Idea to Sell Arms to Somalia

By Armin Rosen

A recent UN resolution assumes that the country has made serious progress. Here's why it may be wrong.

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A Somali government soldier stands guard at the scene of a deadly suicide attack on a restaurant at the Lido beach in Somalia's capital Mogadishu March 1, 2013. (Ismail Taxta/Reuters)

For twenty years, and until the middle of last week, Somalia was subject to a stringent UN arms embargo. And with good reason: during that time, Somalia became a byword for state failure, subjected to practically every dysfunction and misfortune a country can experience. Multiple U.S.-backed foreign invasions and the deployment of an African Union counter-insurgency force seem to have broken the cycle of militancy and state collapse that kicked off with long-tenured military ruler Mohamed Siad Barre's violent overthrow in 1991. For all their flaws, AMISOM, as well as the Ethiopian and Kenyan militaries, have at least bought a crucial window of stability for the country's fledgling government, which didn't even earn U.S. recognition until early last month. Somalia has supposedly turned into something of a success story: a place where intense international engagement, as well as the Somali people's gradually-building resentment of the country's once-powerful al Qaeda-affiliated insurgency, has brought a measure of normalcy to the world's emblematic failed state.

It's simply difficult to justify sending more weaponry to Somalia, especially when stories of government armories and warehouses without roofs or significant protection are so common.

There's plenty of reason to call this narrative into question. Though still dangerous, al Shabaab is no longer capable of ruling large swaths for the country, and there's been an astounding drop in Somalia-based piracy as the security situation improves. But a country isn't fixed simply because the pirates and terrorists who utilize its territory are in retreat. The Somali federal government is badly lacking in capacity; by all accounts, its reach is little felt outside of Mogadishu, and even there it's having difficulty providing basic services for a population that is still widely-militarized and poor. The state security sector largely consists of regional militias incorporated into the national army -- hardly a firm foundation on which to build a legitimate, professional military. And the government has proven worryingly illiberal in its decision-making in the few areas of life it actually can control: witness the widely-publicized prosecution of a woman who accused members of the state security forces of raping her (as if this weren't bad enough, a journalist was subsequently jailed for interviewing her). The mere existence of a Somali government, as well as the relative calm that has allowed any government to exist at all, are incredible developments that shouldn't be taken for granted. But the process of rebuilding the country's vital institutions is still in its infancy.

Nevertheless, the UN pushed forward with lifting the 1992 arms embargo last week, partially fulfilling one of the new government's top foreign policy goals. Under the earlier embargo, a committee of UN Security Council members had the ability to veto any declared state arms shipment to the Somali government (any undeclared shipment would be -- and in fact still is -- a violation of international law). Under the resolution, for the next year, states can sell or donate small arms to the Somali government with no obligation other than warning the Security Council's sanctions committee. And there are notable exceptions to the ongoing ban on the importation of heavier or more sophisticated equipment. Things like surface-to-air missiles and night-vision goggles are still covered under the embargo. But according to the resolution's annex, the list of proscribed weapons "does not include shoulder fired anti-tank rocket launchers such as RPGs or LAWs, rifle grenades, or grenade launchers." These are considered small arms by traditional standards, stock armament for light infantry forces around the world. Still, it's possible to do quite a bit of damage with a grenade or small rocket launcher, and in Somalia, there's little guarantee that these weapons won't fall into the wrong hands.

The Somali government certainly needs small arms in its continuing fight against al Shabaab. Even so, the government's weapons management leaves much to be desired. "Fears the government won't be able to control those stockpiles are warranted," says E.J. Hogendoorn, Africa deputy program director with the International Crisis Group. He says it's possible the lifting of the embargo will bring "a greater proliferation of light weapons and ammunition in particular...making conflict more likely and easier."

It's simply difficult to justify sending more weaponry to Somalia, especially when stories of government armories and warehouses without roofs or significant protection are so common. Of course, effective stockpile management is a function of other factors: a government with a trained military, direct lines of authority and developed logistical capabilities is far more likely to be able to keep track of its arms supplies, or prevent its military personnel from transferring weapons to terrorists.

A government that has only existed for a few months can hardly be blamed for lacking the capacity or the ability to look after large weapons stocks, especially in an environment as challenging as post-conflict Somalia (a label which can be easily disputed). But that doesn't alleviate the danger of giving the Somali government grenade launchers. Renzo Pomi, Amnesty International's representative at the UN, was straightforward in his assessment of the consequences of lifting the embargo: "The government has not proven that they will be able to control the new influx of weapons to the country."

The decision to weaken the embargo raises a couple of even more basic issues: why this, and why now? There are ways to reward the Somali government for its progress without potentially deepening the country's misery, perhaps through even more rigorous multilateral institution-building initiatives, or greater training for the Somali military. The U.S. could even help Somalia while expending almost no resources whatsoever -- namely, by loosening domestic restrictions on international money transfers.

Under the current regulatory regime, Somali-Americans are limited to a surprisingly small number of American banks willing to transact with Somalia-based money transfer agencies  -- usually no more than three or four at a given time. Fears of violating terror financing laws have made wiring money to Somalia more time consuming and expensive than it needs to be, while nearly regulating the entire market out of existence. This was enough of a hardship to inspire Democratic congressman Keith Elision, who represents a Minnesota district with a large Somali community, to make an awareness-raising visit to Mogadishu last month. Considering the global Somali diaspora sends nearly $1.6 billion a year back to its country of origin, a less restrictive money transfer system might actually do more to bolster the new government's independence and credibility than the lifting of the arms embargo.

And yet according to multiple sources with knowledge of the Security Council negotiations, the U.S. mission advocated an even greater rollback of the arms ban than what was eventually passed. During negotiations that one UN source described as "pretty intense," U.S. diplomats argued for something approaching a total lift of the embargo. Eventually, the U.S. endorsed a resolution that another UN-based source described as "a compromise:" a lift on the light weapons ban, along with various U.S.-backed changes to the organization of the UN mission in Somalia.

The considerations were more political than anything else. The resolution is a symbolic vote of confidence in a fragile yet regionally-important government that is still facing a significant threat from al Shabaab. But it's the kind of action that could even further destabilize Somalia, while rewarding a government still at an embryonic stage of development. "The Security Council was short-sighted," said Pomi. "They decided to give a reward to the government for their progress, without looking into the consequences."

There are certainly some benefits attached to lifting the embargo: it might make the government more capable of holding territory and fighting rival militants, and it removes a major point of contention between the Somali government and its international partners, including the United States. It's just unclear if those benefits are actually worth it. "It is a signal that the international community respects the Somali national government much more than it did previous versions of the Somali central government," says Hogendoorn. And it's possible that last week's decision will change little on the ground: several countries, including the United States, provided military support to Somalia's Transitional Federal Government in the late 2000s even while the embargo was in place. The country is one of the most arms-saturated on earth (a point recently raised by no less an authority than a Twitter account claiming to represent al Shaabab). 

Yet this still exposes how the U.S.'s expectations for Somalia are outstripping current realities, and how easy fixes can shoulder out more difficult yet more substantive ones -- while unintentionally making things worse. The resolution assumes that serious progress has already been made in Somalia. It could just as easily reveal how far off the country's greater and more important accomplishments might lie.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/03/its-still-a-bad-idea-to-sell-arms-to-somalia/273889/