Somalia has only a handful of confirmed coronavirus cases, and although the authorities’ early public health moves have been sensible, they are rightly worried that if the virus takes hold, they will be unable to cope. The pandemic has not reduced the violence being committed mainly by al-Shabab insurgents, or increased the prospects of talks between the federal government led by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (better known by his nickname Farmaajo) and the state governments, which had stalled earlier in his administration and were just starting to resume. Rather, it will delay or damage the steps the government needs to take to manage the conflict, which includes resuming the dialogues, conducting a constitutional review, and coordinating one-person, one-vote elections (which have not taken place in Somalia in more than two decades)—all of which depend upon in-person gatherings.
Medical experts warn that Somalia could be one of the worst-affected parts of the world if the virus takes hold. As of April 8, the Somali Ministry of Health & Human Services had reported twelve cases of coronavirus in the country, which is almost certainly an underestimate. The public health response has included closures of schools and other institutions, as well as limited distribution of test kits and protective gear to medical professionals, but thirty years of conflict have devastated the medical system, which cannot possibly respond to a real outbreak. Further, hundreds of thousands of Somalis, displaced by conflict, are crowded into camps, making both hygiene and social distancing difficult and potentially allowing the virus to spread further.
As a result, the government has moved aggressively to isolate the country, canceling all commercial flights on March 19. But this move also has had unintended consequences for conflict management efforts: the air closure led to an exodus of international donors, implementers, and diplomatic personnel from Somalia, since there are no secure alternatives to air transportation. As a result, Somalia will need to grapple with governance, political management, humanitarian, and security challenges with less in-person international support than at any time in its fragile government’s history.
During previous humanitarian crises such as the 2010–12 famine—and then, only after an estimated 250,0000 people had died—low-level discussions between the government and al-Shabab enabled the delivery of some food aid and other assistance. This precedent has led optimists in Somalia to believe that setting up similar talks could help contain the spread of the virus, and may even develop into more substantial negotiations. But so far, the United Nations’ call for a “global cease-fire” has not had any effect. Security incidents continued and even spiked both in frequency and intensity, with particularly damaging bombings not long after the first case of coronavirus was diagnosed and the Somali government took measures to prevent further spread. On March 19, the Risk Level Index for Somalia used by international implementers reached its highest point in six months.1 To some extent, this violence may be fueled by the recent decline in the availability of the stimulant drug khat, which is economically important and could even increase al-Shabab fighters’ inclination to launch ad hoc attacks owing to drug withdrawal.
Meanwhile, al-Shabab is looking to use the pandemic to its benefit. It seeks a propaganda advantage, claiming that coronavirus was spread “by the crusader forces who have invaded the country and the disbelieving countries that support them.” This rhetoric indicates the group may oppose medical help from international aid agencies, much as it resisted most food aid during the 2010–12 famine. Such a move naturally would damage public health efforts, but in the medium term it would also have implications for the movement’s claims of legitimacy: a dramatic failure of pandemic response in al-Shabab areas might also erode support for the movement, as the health facilities in these areas are more basic than those in many government-controlled areas. Mainstream clerics have joined in an outreach effort to counter al-Shabab’s message, but with madrassas closed for social distancing, they may struggle to reach the population.
Throughout, the Somali government and international forces have continued military operations. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) continues to support the Somali National Army (SNA) and other security forces in their campaign. On March 10, the SNA and its international partners killed six al-Shabab extremists and three foreign militant leaders in the southern region of Lower Juba. For now, AMISOM is sticking to its phased drawdown plans for 2020, even though this reduction in forces could combine with the pandemic to increase instability.
Unlike military operations, political processes have slowed as the pandemic has spread. Dialogues between the Somalia Federal Government and states, which are necessary for the federal system in Somalia to function, stalled early during the current government’s term. Nevertheless, just before the first case in March, the president of Puntland State, Said Abdullahi Deni, hinted at a deal to ease tensions with the Somalia Federal Government with a visit to Mogadishu and engagement with other federal member states. Similarly, the virus means that the elections anticipated for 2020–21, which already were unlikely, might well be further postponed. All of these processes depend on in-person meetings, which are now impossible. Somali infrastructure does not make online communication easy—for example, on March 23 the internet service in Mogadishu was down for the entire day, a not atypical problem.
It is anyone’s guess as to whether the pandemic will bring al-Shabab to the negotiating table, as health crises sometimes do. Yet there is no doubt that the virus’s impact on essential components of the peace in Somalia—dialogues between the federal and state levels, constitutional review, and elections—will be serious, with inevitable further delays.
Tihana Bartulac Blanc is a specialist in transitional programming for Creative Associates International’s Electoral Integrity and Education Practice Area, leads Creative’s East Africa strategy, and is the director for its project, which has supported political processes in Somalia since 2016.
1 Somalia Weekly Security Report, proprietary data.