from Africa in Transition

Somalia: Violence Against Staff Forces MSF Retreat

August 15, 2013

Blog Post

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Terrorism and Counterterrorism



Wars and Conflict

International Organizations

Doctors Without Borders announced that it is leaving Somalia. The French-founded, Nobel prize winning non-governmental organization, known by its French acronym MSF, provides medical care in war zones. It has operated in Somalia since 1991. In 2012, MSF “provided 624,000 medical consultations, admitted 41,100 patients to hospitals, cared for 30,090 malnourished children, vaccinated 58,620, and delivered 7,300 babies” according to its August 14 statement.

It is leaving Somalia because of accelerating attacks on its staff “in an environment where armed groups and civilian leaders increasingly support, tolerate, or condone the killing, assaulting, and abduction of humanitarian workers.” In Somalia, MSF negotiated with war lords and other “actors” for the “minimum guarantees to respect its medical humanitarian mission.” On that basis, MSF was willing to accept very high levels of risk. However, the same “actors” with whom MSF negotiated agreements have been directly involved in violence against its personnel–so much so that the organization, which is famous for its willingness to tolerate risk, judged that the situation has “created an untenable imbalance between the risks and compromises our staff must make and our ability to provide assistance to the Somali people.” This is a tragedy all the way around: for the Somali people and for MSF, which is rightly celebrated for the effectiveness of its humanitarian interventions.

What happened? Only a few months ago there was optimism that Somalia had turned around, that the jihadist terrorist group al-Shabaab had been driven out of Mogadishu and Kismayo by Kenyan and Uganda troops (part of an African Union mission) and a new Somali civilian government was establishing itself. Abdihakim Ainte provides an overview in his African Arguments article, “Reorganization and Rebranding Make Terrorist Group a Force to be Reckoned with Again.” He concludes that a reorganized al-Shabaab under the leadership of Ahmed Godane is internally more united and operationally more diffuse. He argues that al-Shabaab is “dialing up its domestic attacks and dialing down its external operations.” He also highlights the recruitment of youths with Western exposure, and cites an al-Shabaab video that features three Somali-Americans: “The Path to Paradise: From the Twin Cities to the Land of Migration.”

He also highlights the continuing fiscal and military weakness of al-Shabaab, concluding that it still needs al-Qaeda support. But, as he says, the Somalia government is also very weak.

The lesson here may be an old one: failed states in an environment of religious fanaticism fueled by clan and other rivalries, take a long time to recover.