How to Help Somalia

The president of Puntland State argues that to defeat the global threats of piracy, terrorism, and anarchy, the world needs to think locally.


Recent headlines about al-Shabab terrorist bombings in Kenya and the disruption of Somali-originated terror plots in the Netherlands have served to reinforce the conventional view of Somalia as a war-torn country lacking a functioning government and infested with extremists and pirates — the view also expressed by Foreign Policys 2012 Failed States Index, which once again ranked it as the world’s most unstable country.

This view is not entirely wrong. But less widely understood is that several regions in Somalia — particularly Puntland State — have functioning governments that have taken concrete steps to address the threats of terrorism, political fragmentation, and piracy that plague the country as a whole. If the international community wants to get serious about helping Somalia — and combating the internationally dangerous groups that take refuge here — it must increase support for state governments, such as Puntland, and commit itself to a federalist Somalia.

The state government of Puntland, located in northeast Somalia on the Gulf of Aden, was formed in 1998. Puntland’s goal is not independence from Somalia, but a federal system of empowered state governments — the only viable political solution to the country’s political crisis. Only a legitimate federal constitution can reunite a Somalia fragmented by more than 30 years of civil war and misrule. Such a constitution would solve the chronic mistrust among Somali communities, abolish anarchy, and ensure a clearly defined distribution of power, resources, and government functions.

The Somali people deserve peace and stability, and since its establishment, Puntland has made steady progress toward those ends. Puntland has held three successful and peaceful presidential elections and has played a leading role in the road-map process by hosting two National Constitutional Conferences. However, we still face daunting tasks when it comes to the two greatest threats to Somalia’s security and stability: piracy and terrorism. As the recent events in Kenya and Europe show, these threats are not confined to Somalia alone.

Puntland is located at the very tip of the Horn of Africa. An estimated one-third of world maritime trade passes through the waters off our coast each year. Despite the best efforts of the international community, including a flotilla of NATO and EU warships and best practices instituted by the commercial shipping industry, Somali piracy continues to impose a significant tax on the global economy of approximately $7 billion a year. The acts of violence perpetuated by these pirates — common criminals who hijack ships and demand enormous ransoms — imperil the safety of seafarers and too often result in casualties.

Piracy not only fuels instability and criminality, but there are worrisome signs of ties between pirates and terrorist groups like al-Shabab, the Somali-based branch of al Qaeda, which threatens Puntland daily. In addition to attacking our own institutions by targeting and assassinating government officials, religious scholars, journalists, and community leaders, among others, al-Shabab has used Somalia as a base from which to attack other countries in East Africa. It has also blocked humanitarian organizations from operating in areas it controls, worsening Somalia’s famine.

On multiple occasions, the United Nations has called upon Somali authorities to build solid law enforcement and security institutions to address the threat of piracy and terrorism while maintaining respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Although progress at the national level has been slow, in Puntland, we have taken those calls to action seriously. In 2010, with the endorsement of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, we created the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF), a professional coastal police force that targets piracy and illegal fishing activities in Somali waters. The coastal police force — which has been closely coordinated with and warmly welcomed by a number of international stakeholders including the United Nations — has begun patrols and has succeeded in helping to drive pirates out of several safe havens and towns in our region. In late May, the PMPF arrested 11 pirates, including those suspected in the kidnapping of a Danish family last year. The PMPF is exclusively dedicated to its anti-piracy mission and does not engage in internal border disputes or oil exploration. Puntland’s security forces have also successfully disrupted terrorist cells, including the capture of an al-Shabab-linked explosives expert, and provided cooperation to counterterrorism units operating in the region.

But if we are to maintain our hard-won peace and stability, we need more help from the international community. Specifically, we require law enforcement and counterterrorism training for local Somali forces such as the PMPF, judicial system development so that pirates and other criminals can be held accountable and properly brought to justice, and prison maintenance and expansion assistance so that convicted individuals can be detained locally in appropriate conditions. We also still need economic development assistance to uplift our communities and to provide alternative opportunities to piracy.

Since the collapse of the Somali state in the early 1990s, international assistance to the country has primarily been aimed at reestablishing a strong central government in Mogadishu. While we also support the rebuilding of Somalia’s national institutions, the crises we face are too serious to wait. Increased support for Somalia’s regional authorities — the only institutions currently capable of establishing security and the rule of law — is a matter of great urgency. I have no doubt that we can restore our country’s dignity as a respected member of the community of nations and neutralize the threats of piracy and extremism. But we need the world’s help.

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