Al Shabaab Governance

By Robert Kluijver | Published 10 July, 2019 | with thanks to Leela Jacinto and Hussein Sheikh Ali

Camels grazing plastic garbage, Hargeisa. © Robert Kluijver, 2016

Camels grazing plastic garbage, Hargeisa. © Robert Kluijver, 2016

In late June 2018 the Somali insurgent movement Al-Shabaab announced a ban on plastic bags, citing environmental concerns and impact on livestock. The few international media outlets that reported on this development, as well as most social media commentary, immediately ridiculed the decision. Rukmini Callimachi of the New York Times, for example, cited mocking tweets calling al-Shabaab the world’s “first eco-friendly terrorist group.”

Such coverage assumes that all al-Shabaab media statements are mere propaganda efforts. However, many al-Shabaab announcements, especially those made on and Radio Andalus in the Somali language, are meant primarily for those living under their control, and well as those in their own movement. For example, in my travels through Somalia, I’ve noticed extensive plastic bag pollution. The leading cause of death for camels in the United Arab Emirates is plastic bags (see an article in The National or the short analysis here), and undoubtedly they cause many deaths in Somalia too. Camel raising is a main source of wealth in Somalia. So a ban on plastic bags, whoever declares it, should be greeted with relief — and likely is, by al-Shabaab’s constituents.

Of course, many al-Shabaab claims should not be taken seriously, especially those related to their military endeavors. But the group is also governing territory, and we should look at such announcements in this light. 

Eight months after the ban, al-Shabaab appears to be strictly enforcing it, as they do all their regulations. The plastic bag ban is just one aspect of a more extensive governance system that has received insufficient attention. Interviews I conducted in Mogadishu this year revealed a consensus, even among government advisers, that besides maintaining law and order, Al-Shabaab has built up a good record on tax collection, financial management, and the provision of justice. As Hussein Sheikh Ali, former deputy head of the National Intelligence and Security Agency, and founder/director of the Hiraal Institute, a security research institute, notes, al-Shabaab probably out-performs most sub-Saharan African countries in these fields. 

Public administration 

Al-Shabaab’s finances have come under close scrutiny by the United Nations and independent Somali researchers; both have concluded that the insurgent group raises its required resources locally, mostly through taxation. Al-Shabaab collects taxes not only in the south-central areas of Somalia they directly control, but in all the neighboring cities as well, including Mogadishu. They have a sophisticated and predictable taxation system, including reliable financial transfers, careful bookkeeping, and personnel monitoring. There appears to be little corruption because tight monitoring systems reinforce the internal dynamics within the group, which strives to be seen as “clean.” The tax is used to pay civil administrators and security forces, who receive a regular salary according to a rationalized scale. Al-Shabaab mainly uses its resources to finance the war against the government, but at least some funding is reinvested in communities for small-scale development (e.g. water pumps and irrigation channels), schools, and law and order. Administrative overheads are low.

In contrast, despite the federal government’s commitment to building a well-functioning state, civil servants and soldiers working for the government are often not paid their salaries. As a result, they must extract their income from the local population by whatever means available. Businessmen generally prefer to rout their wares through Al-Shabaab territories, as their drivers only pay tax once and obtain a receipt which they can present as proof at other al-Shabaab checkpoints. On a government road, checkpoints proliferate — manned by soldiers, clan militias, police and intelligence forces. Cach collect their own “taxes.” This revenue obviously does not make it to the coffers of the public administration.


Even some of Somalis working in government are positive about al-Shabaab’s justice system. The formal government court system is mostly dysfunctional, and, despite the presence of a few honest judges, it mainly works through bribes – whoever pays more wins the case. In contrast, the insurgents run a professional judiciary. Criminal and civilian cases are heard in a public court. Mogadishu residents travel to the Islamic courts in Afgooye, a district on the outskirts of the capital almost entirely controlled by al-Shabaab, to seek redress on any matter, even domestic cases. Cases are dealt with immediately and, most importantly, decisions are enforced. Women may expect fair treatment within the parameters of the militants’ narrow interpretation of sharia law.

A typical case: Abdi returns to Mogadishu from the Gulf, where he is a successful businessman, to find his property he wants to develop occupied by Bashir and his family, who moved there during the war after their own house was destroyed. Abdi first turns to the district court but finds out that they have a few months backlog and that he will need to pay a hefty bribe to get his case handled, and even more for a favourable outcome because Bashir comes from a locally powerful clan. Abdi then gets in touch with Al Shabaab, and they refer him to the court in Afgooye where he must bring his documents and present his case. The militants ask him for Bashir’s contact details. They call Bashir, inform him of the case brought against him, and summon him to come to court. If Bashir ignores the summon, Al Shabaab will increase the pressure, typically threatening him. If the defendant cannot come to court for other reasons such as infirmity, AS will send a team from the court to hear his side of the story and collect evidence.

The judge considers the claims and the evidence from both sides, and then arrives at the verdict.  His ruling is that Abdi has right to the property but that, given that Bashir has lived there with his family for ten years and is poor, Abdi will have to find alternative housing for Bashir first. Abdi and Bashir must apply the ruling immediately. Non-compliance is swiftly and decidedly punished. However, if one of the parties appeals the decision, the case can be taken to the appeals court. 

This kind of Solomonic judgment intends to keep peace rather than uphold formal law. In the formal court system, the property deed might have been enough and there would be no requirement to relocate the occupying family. To a jurist trained in Western law, Al Shabaab’s legal system is full of flaws, and the pressure to deal with cases quickly leads to some sloppy rulings, but their courts do serve a social purpose efficiently.

Humanitarian aid

Two years ago, the UN warned of impending famine in the Horn of Africa and estimated that a large percentage of the population of South-Central Somalia was in acute danger of malnutrition. The UN organised the delivery of water, food and non-food aid and has since congratulated itself on having prevented a famine. What it does not mention, is that most potential drought victims in South Central Somalia live in Al Shabaab controlled areas, inaccessible to international aid. Although some of these came to camps run by international aid agencies in government-controlled areas, many others remained in their places of residence and survived the drought there.

Al Shabaab is against food aid because they say it ruins local food markets. They have suggested buying produce from Somali farmers and using local trade networks to import additionally required food instead of dumping Western surpluses. Given the strict international counter-terrorist financing laws, that is not an option for donors and aid organisations. It has been impossible for NGOs to start new projects in AS areas as that would entail dealing directly with ‘terrorists’. In the framework of the Global War on Terror, supporting farmers and businesses in Al Shabaab-controlled areas is tantamount to supporting terrorism.

In 2011-2012 a quarter million Somalis died because of a drought-induced famine. Back then, many of the victims lived in Al Shabaab-controlled areas; the militants, who had just made aid refusal a policy, suffered a major setback in popularity. In 2017, Al Shabaab organised its own aid operation, supported by private charities from the Gulf who do not fear the long arm of Western counter-terror institutions. See the BBC report here. There were almost no deaths due to the drought. Al Shabaab performed at least as well as the UN.

No social contract

This does not mean that Somalis want to be ruled by Al Shabaab. While the organisation may run an efficient administration, they also run an oppressive security intelligence apparatus with rampant human rights abuses that tyrannizes the local populace. When clan elders fail to make peace among their people, or refuse to provide fighters with guns for the war, they can be jailed and beaten mercilessly, even killed. Spying accusations are heard in a military court and can elicit capital punishment. 

What Somalis most hate about Al Shabaab is the forced indoctrination of their youth. Families are obliged, through the mediation of clan elders, to deliver sons to Al Shabaab seminars; after a rudimentary education many of these are then sent on to training camps. The boys are lost for years, until either the families receive a notification of their death, or their son comes back on leave, a successful fighter ready to found a family. The fear of losing one’s sons drives entire families to join the ranks of over 500,000 internally displaced persons on the outskirts of government-controlled cities.

Most Somalis also contest Al Shabaab’s claim to Islamic legitimacy. Not only because they kill other Muslims, with the takfiri justification that their opponents are apostates; also because their brand of Islam is not native to Somali culture but imported from the Gulf countries. Moreover, although the ban on plastic bags, cutting trees, chewing the drug ‘qat’ and smoking are generally seen as reasonable measures, the ban on the internet, music, TV and the lack of mobility to engage the world outside Al Shabaab areas is deeply resented.

Therefore, despite good indicators in some aspects of governance, Al Shabaab is rejected by the vast majority of Somalis, who rather live in anarchy then under such harsh rulers. There is no social contract underpinning the insurgents’ governance.

Federal non-governance

Al Shabaab’s governance track record stands in stark contrast to the multiple and repeated governance failures of the federal state supported by the international community. Despite sustained efforts by the federal government to turn external state-building blueprints into reality, Somalia’s state today remains incapable of providing basic services like health, education, water, power and infrastructure, even to the population of the capital city. The only service it provides is security in Mogadishu, but as frequent reports of terror attacks confirm, it is not doing very well on that account. The schools and hospitals that officially fall under the government are in fact entirely run by NGOs, whose ‘incentives’ replace salaries which are rarely paid. Residents must source all other services in the private sector, which in Somalia has been thriving despite state collapse.

The federal government’s dependence on international support makes it seem as a foreign project. Recent praise from the IMF for the Somali government’s reform process only increases the sense of alienation that Somalis feel toward their ‘state’. Estimates from 2016 show that 60% of government revenue came from foreign donations, and that 80% of that support was unaccounted for in the government’s books, meaning it was most likely embezzled or used to pay ‘off-budget’ projects such as buying votes. 

The government elected in 2017 seems genuinely concerned with fighting corruption, increasing transparency and instilling the principles of good governance, but its efforts remain mostly limited to paper, due to its lack of actual power. In Transparency International’s global index of perceptions of corruption Somalia remains the most corrupt country in the world. 

Direct international support to the federal government is dwarfed by other forms of international aid. For example, in 2018 1.1 billion USD was received through the UN appeal for humanitarian aid to Somalia, which is three times the budget of the Somali government (350 million USD). International support to Somali security forces is also expensive. Besides 3 billion Euros per year that the EU pays to African troop contributing countries for AMISOM, to fight Al Shabaab, a myriad of actors including the USA, the UK, the EU, Turkey, the UAE, Qatar have their own military or security programs in support of the Somali government (but not controlled by it). In contrast, Al Shabaab’s yearly budget is estimated at around 20 million USD.

The war

The federal government, supported by about 17,000 AMISOM troops plus additional troops from Kenya and Ethiopia not under AMISOM command, has been locked in a stalemate with Al Shabaab since 2014. Both sides suffer from overstretch; when they capture a new town or village, they often have trouble holding it. This stalemate has led international partners, foremost among whom the European Union which foots the bill, to work toward an exit strategy. This would see the Somali security forces gradually taking over from AMISOM. But as a recent report by a veteran military analyst shows, the considerable efforts to build up a national army since 2008 have not met success. One of the main issues is that commanders and their troops are not loyal to the federal state.

If neither side can defeat the other, the logical solution is a negotiated outcome. If the foreign, mostly Christian AMISOM troops withdraw, it would also remove one of the major claims to the militants’ legitimacy. Although Al Shabaab attacks on civilians are widely despised by Somalis, popular sympathy is aroused by the patriotic claims of the insurgents and their success in fighting against foreign troops. This is what caused Al Shabaab’s initial popularity, when it formed in 2007 to fight the Ethiopian invasion. The brutal drone war waged by the Trump administration against the insurgents is likewise winning them some sympathy.

A political settlement

Most external observers believe that the withdrawal of AMISOM would cause the Somali state to collapse, as it would tip the military balance decisively in Al Shabaab’s favour. However, Somalis I spoke to don’t agree. They point out that the population could deal with Al Shabaab. For the militants it would be difficult to justify operations against Somali clan-based troops, whether they fight for themselves or for the government, when these are not supported by foreign military. Rather than a new round of war, a ceasefire followed by negotiations would be the more likely outcome. An appeal to a negotiated outcome of the war with Al Shabaab was made by a senior Somali security analyst in the Guardian last October.

An essential part of the negotiations would be to arrive at a social contract among Somalis, which would lay the basis for the kind of state they want to create. This may not be the Western liberal democratic state, which is the only available template today, but which doesn’t seem to work in Somalia. This state would certainly be based on sharia (as is the current federal government) and it could include Al Shabaab’s models of local non-clan based and non-corrupt governance, its justice system and law and order enforcement capacity. To obtain legitimacy both in Somalia and beyond, the insurgents would have to commit to ending support to terrorist attacks outside Somalia and to cut their (already tenuous) ties with Al Qaeda.

In my recent two weeks of research in Mogadishu, I could not find a single Somali positive about the international intervention, even though I spoke to many whose livelihood was derived from external funding. The tens of billion dollars spent in Somalia over the past few years – including humanitarian aid – are not only wasted, but they fuel corruption and conflict. It would therefore be advisable for the entire international community to step aside and let Somalis sort out their own problems, allowing them to create a state that reflects their society and their vision of the future, certainly on good terms with the international community. 

Robert Kluijver (Cyprus, 1968) is an international relations specialist based in Addis Ababa. He is currently writing a PhD at Sciences Po in Paris on ‘International Intervention and State-Building in Somalia’.