Op-Ed: Lessons from Somalia – building community resilience is crucial


    The recent bombing in Mogadishu, when an
    improvised explosive device built on the back of a truck
    exploded in a vulnerable location killing as many as 400
    people, points to the incompetence, coercion and collusion from
    security officials at checkpoints. A bomb of the magnitude used
    in the attack requires a large truck to carry, and concealment
    is very difficult. The weakness in the security envelope around
    Mogadishu is, however, only part of the

    The security forces and the African Union
    (AU) allies — logistically supported by the United Nations —
    have never tried to expel al-Shabaab from more than the main
    towns and villages, allowing the Shabaab fighters to build
    bombs, train and attack almost at will. In the last few years,
    they have repeatedly attacked AU camps, resulting in many
    hundreds of deaths among the peacekeepers.

    If Somalia is not to slide further into
    chaos, to be effective, the Somalian government must gain
    control of all the areas in Somalia it does not currently
    govern and reduce the ability of al-Shabaab to plan and carry
    out further attacks. What would help a great deal is social
    cohesion and media pressure. The people must feel that the
    social compact between their leaders and the people is being
    upheld because without this compact, Somalia will never achieve
    stability. It is as much about the security of peacekeeping as
    it is an effort of educating, mobilising and leading a country
    in a new direction and also, quite simply, addressing the needs
    of the people.

    In view of the civil war that broke out in
    Somalia in 1991, and the violent attacks by Islamic
    fundamentalists like al-Shabaab, it is not surprising,
    therefore, that several hundred thousand Somalis have fled to
    South Africa seeking safety and security. Many have found some
    measure of success in operating small stores and spaza shops in
    townships across the country.

    According to the UNHCR, there were almost
    310,000 refugees and asylum seekers in the country as of July
    2014. By the end of 2015, this number was expected to top
    330,000 with as many as 60,000 to 80,000 seeking asylum each
    year. However divided, unequal and structurally flawed, South
    Africa is home to a very diverse population of people. It
    remains attractive as a home for migrants, many of them seeking
    greener economic pastures, safety and

    A national survey of the attitudes of the
    South African population towards foreign nationals in the
    country, conducted by the South African Migration Project as
    early as 2006 found xenophobia to be widespread— resulting in
    violent attacks on foreign nationals. South Africans do not
    want it to be easier for foreign nationals to trade informally
    (59% opposed), to start small businesses in South Africa (61%
    opposed) or to obtain South African citizenship (68%

    At the heart of the township battles,
    however, is the dereliction of government’s duty to its people
    that has spurred the resentment towards foreign nationals here,
    culminating in the violent looting of foreign-owned stores. The
    South African population expects a lot from the government—many
    can still not speak about the “fruits of democracy” and the
    South African townships are often scenes of daily pandemonium
    with residents protesting against poor service delivery, low
    levels of development or painfully slow improvements to their
    quality of life.

    Social scientists have warned that it is this
    desperate level of inequality that continues to drive
    resentment and instability. There are lessons to be learned
    from Somalia. The attacks on foreigners do not happen in a
    vacuum, nor can they be explained simply by a hatred of all
    things foreign. There are many factors in play, from the
    negative perceptions of justice and the rule of law in the
    affected communities and the poor relationship between
    communities and the police and the wider judicial system. To
    the lack of convictions in cases of violence against foreign
    nationals in South Africa — stripping the government’s approach
    through the criminal justice system of any

    The South African Constitution, along with
    various international treaties ratified by the South African
    government, ensures the protection of all persons who reside
    within the country from violations to their right to liberty
    and security of person. And when it comes to cases of violence
    against foreigners the State is particularly obliged to protect
    the victims from individuals who perpetrate the

    South Africa has observed the rise of violent
    extremism globally and the profound impact this has had on
    countries and communities. For many years, this seemed a
    problem for “other countries”. But the arrest in Turkey of an
    ISS member bound for Johannesburg and other developments have
    changed this viewpoint.

    Conflicts can swiftly spiral out of control
    and affect other areas. Resilience in communities — measurable
    across indicators including: religion, health, access to
    credible law enforcement, criminality fuelled by drugs and
    gang-related activity, xenophobia and violent extremism— is
    eroded by the negative impacts of violence. The ongoing
    xenophobic attacks in certain towns of South Africa, have
    resulted in the internal displacement of foreign-born nationals
    who for the most part are very anxious that civil society views
    them as “good people” and “good

    An example of this is the South African
    Somali community — a community of self-sufficient, law-abiding
    citizens. These people have learned the consequences of
    non-tolerant radicalised societies and their moderation
    continues to hold true despite their being victims of repeated
    and terrible xenophobic and criminal attacks resulting in
    approximately 40 deaths to date in 2017

    It is far more cost-effective to redirect
    members of society away from violent extremism by addressing
    the root causes of dissatisfaction or offering alternative
    directions that do not manifest themselves in anti-social or
    criminal outcomes before radicalisation sets in. Less effective
    is trying to remedy the situation after the

    Radicalisation is not only present in certain
    communities such as the Islamic communities — all communities
    can produce this extremism in certain circumstances. Examples
    of this are the upsurges in violent right-wing behaviour, the
    consequences of which are seen in Europe such as the increases
    in anti-Semitic activity and the targeting of other immigrant

    Understanding the drivers of violent
    extremism and the communities at risk of radicalisation is
    crucial — social media’s role in propagating negative messages
    and exacerbating existing tensions should not be
    underestimated. The implementation of mitigating actions can be
    an efficient way of denying fertile ground to radicalisation.
    Vulnerable communities must be identified and given additional
    resources to address the causes that have the potential to
    enable violent extremism to take root.

    There are important roles for government,
    civil society, social media and many other players. The
    stigmatisation of certain communities along national or
    religious lines only serves to drive important issues

    South Africa is in the enviable position of
    not having had any internationally motivated terrorist
    incidents of the type seen in Western Europe or the United
    States so far. However, we need to learn the lessons from
    countries like Somalia — not cultivate a false sense of
    security as this may not hold true for our future. The more we
    can do to cultivate resilience in our communities the better.

    David Bax is the Director of ALPS
    Resilience, a non-profit that focuses on issues of forced
    migration and violent extremism in Southern Africa. Before
    joining ALPS Resilience in 2015, he spent 18 years on field
    missions for the United Nations, leading the establishment of
    the UNMAS Somalia programme in 2007. He established the first
    UN and permanent international presence in Mogadishu after the
    infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident and withdrawal of the
    international community in 1993.

    Photo: A man runs through the scene of a
    massive explosion in front of the Safari Hotel in the capital
    Mogadishu, Somalia, 14 October 2017. Hundreds of people were
    killed in the truck bomb attack, the deadliest attack in
    Somalia’s recent history. Photo: Said Yusuf