While reliable data are lacking, the coronavirus pandemic appears to be hitting Somalia hard. The public health crisis seems to be heavily taxing the country’s healthcare system, which was already reeling from decades of conflict and underinvestment. And while the government has reached a political compromise to select the country’s new leaders, the virus has failed to deter the terrorist group al-Shabab. Though the government and Somali citizens mostly have not seen the pandemic as a severe threat, given the many other challenges they face, the virus has nonetheless further exposed the country’s weak institutions and governance shortcomings.
Limited Public Health Capacity
As the pandemic spread earlier this year, Somali authorities’ early public health moves were sensible. They closed national borders, schools, and universities; canceled flights and issued social distancing guidelines; and distributed protective gear. But poor implementation has undermined the effectiveness of these measures. Economic hardship has prevented Somalis from following through on isolation recommendations and lockdowns. Government officials have even failed to leverage their public platforms, often not following their own guidelines. As of December 15, the Somali Ministry of Health and Human Services has reported 4,579 coronavirus cases and 121 deaths in the country, and both numbers are likely dramatic underestimates. Unofficial sources such as satellite images of mushrooming gravesites paint a different picture.
Even restrictions that could be effectively enforced, like barring flights, were lifted starting in July—more because of the need to alleviate the pandemic’s secondary, largely economic effects than because of any success in managing the crisis or tracking the virus’s spread. In the best-case scenario, Somalis, along with their government, have ignored guidelines on coronavirus prevention and social distancing, and in the worst cases, they have stigmatized those who have observed them.
According to one of the most comprehensive assessments of the situation in Somalia, “The deficiencies in the governance response to COVID-19 in Somalia . . . are . . . closely related to wider political divisions that affect the country’s relatively young and unconsolidated federal system of government.” For example, the federal and state governments delegated responsibility to local districts but did not provide adequate guidance or resources for the tasks assigned, such as creating isolation centers.
Halting Signs of Political Progress
I projected in April that the pandemic would delay or undermine the steps the Somali government needed to take to improve its legitimacy and manage the country’s conflict, including resuming political dialogues between the federal and state governments, conducting a constitutional review, and coordinating one-person, one-vote elections. But in the end, these political dialogues continued or even accelerated, with the pandemic providing a rationale for logistically less challenging online talks.
In September, an agreement was reached on a compromise electoral model. The agreed-upon process, which was also used in 2016, is not really an election per se. Instead, a small number of clan-appointed delegates will choose the government, without any mandate from the millions of Somalis who will cast no vote in this process. Further, the new electoral bodies created to administer the process were immediately challenged for blatantly political appointments and a lack of women representation. The model is likely similar to what would have been agreed on even without the pandemic.
Yet for all its weaknesses, this new indirect quasi-election is likely the only realistic option other than simply extending the current government’s term beyond its mandated end in February 2021. Successfully holding any electoral process during the pandemic would set Somalia apart from some of its neighbors, like Ethiopia or Kenya, countries that have postponed elections due to the viral outbreak. The agreement on this leadership selection process—struck amid the pandemic—is fragile and could easily break down in ways that would fuel violence, but it is probably better than no agreement or an indefinitely postponed election.
Al-Shabab’s Relentless Attacks
Meanwhile, the pandemic has not affected al-Shabab’s terrorist activities. According to Sunguta West, “Its fighters have sustained [or even accelerated] their operations, increasingly targeting civilians, government officials, and security forces.” West went on to say, “The persistent attacks have further strained and frustrated the military response being carried out by the Somali National Army . . . which is backed by the African Union Mission in Somalia,” whose mandate was extended in line with the electoral calendar. Supporting U.S. forces are now expected to leave by early next year, meaning that the strain on Somalia’s armed forces will likely intensify.
As West put it, “Top al-Shabaab leaders’ radical interpretation of Islamic teachings has informed the [initial] rejection” of sensible public health measures to combat the pandemic. West went on to write, “The group used affiliated media channels . . . and social media channels . . . to portray the disease as a punishment from God to nonbelievers for their evil deeds against Muslims and jihadists” and to argue that “the disease was an American and European problem that had no impact in their region.”
As West also observed, “Months after beginning this disinformation campaign in opposition to government measures,” al-Shabab shifted gears and “started responding to the virus.” In June, al-Shabab launched a facility and a hotline for treating patients with COVID-19 (both civilians and fighters). West noted that the organization only took action “after it became apparent that the disease would decimate its fighting force and lead to a loss of support if [al-Shabab] did not provide help for the local people.” The movement created a pandemic response team, and according to West, a senior leader used the media to “[urge] the people to seek treatment to avoid infecting other Muslims.”
The Changing Khat Market
In April, I also expressed a concern that pandemic-related movement restrictions might limit the availability of the stimulant drug khat, with drug withdrawal potentially increasing violence given al-Shabab fighters’ frequent use of the drug. There have been some supply reductions and associated price increases but not a dramatic collapse in the substance’s availability. Nevertheless, the khat economy has been effectively restructured, with more of the drug being smuggled in via new, land-based routes after the cessation of inbound flights. These trends have negatively affected both government revenue and income for the women who were previously the main sellers of the drug. These changes, and the way more of the khat trade has shifted from licit to illicit channels due to pandemic-related movement restrictions, “may have [long-term] security implications,” according to Sahra Ahmed Koshin.
Somalia’s government selection process and new government may benefit from a resumption of previous forms of international support. On November 1, the African Union Mission in Somalia announced the gradual easing of restrictions on the secure international compound in Mogadishu.1 The U.S. government may provide early vaccination to its essential personnel, allowing more U.S. officials to return to Somalia, but international development organizations will be slower to return, and Somali staff’s access to the compound will remain severely limited.
Coronavirus vaccination campaigns in most parts of Africa will probably begin in earnest only in the spring of 2021 for logistical and operational reasons. Somalia’s vaccine rollout will be even later, given the compounded effects of ongoing conflict, al-Shabab attacks, and weak governance.
Although neither the Somali public nor the government have perceived or treated the coronavirus pandemic as a major threat, the virus has brought to light many of the challenges the country faces, including weak institutions and governance structures, a lack of coordination or rule implementation, and a lack of reliable public health data.
1 This point is based on a memo with limited circulation from the African Union Mission to Somalia dated October 30, 2020.