The evolution of the ‘Somalization’ concept


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“And our country [Iraq] has turned into Somalia… and under the rule of foreigners.” These were some of the words chanted by disgruntled Iraqi demonstrators earlier this week complaining about unemployment, poor public services and rampant corruption.

The chanting, shared on Twitter by Somali News Updates, highlighted the perception held by the world about Somalia as a blueprint for a failed state. One Somali Twitter user, Ayan Aden, commented saying, “I’m tired of how the world views us. It’s time we stopped fighting ourselves and rebuild.” The uproar on Twitter by other Somalis prompted this opinion piece, which aims to shed some light on how the concept has evolved, how it has been used over time and why as Somalis we should reclaim it and redefine it.

Origins of the concept and its examples

The early use of the concept suggests that it has been used to mean the promotion of Somalis into occupying positions within the government during colonial rule.

After the collapse of Somalia’s central government, the concept was used to define a country associated with destruction, mayhem, submersion into “warlordism,” tribal wars and state failure.

These features were all present in Somalia, making the comparison justifiable to many. In an opinion piece on the Huffpost, Attali defined “Somalization” as “the nightmare scenario of globalization, when it sets in without the rule of law, police or justice.”

The concept was used throughout the 1990s and early 2000s to describe other countries in civil wars like Somalia. For instance, in October 1999, the Congolese politician and the former leader of the Rally for Congolese Democracy-Goma (RDC-Goma) rebel movement warned other rebel groups that his “movement cannot accept the Somalization of the country.”

In March 2001, in a U.N. Security Council Report regarding the Burundi peace process, the report noted the warning by the Burundi government of “the specter of Somalization and regionalization of the conflict” in Burundi. Most African countries facing civil wars were described as being on the brink of Somalization.

The concept was also used relatively to describe piracy in West Africa by NATO in 2011 when incidents of piracy were reported in the region. The term was also used in reference to the rampant piracy off the coast of Somalia since the early 2000s.

The Arab Spring and the phobia of Somalization

In the wake of the Arab Spring in various countries in North Africa and the Middle East, the concept of Somalization was increasingly popularized by academics and politicians alike. Among the countries most affected are Syria, Lybia and Yemen, and Somalization has been used multiple times by politicians, diplomats, and even U.N. envoys to describe the situation in those countries.

Lakhdar Brahimi, an Algerian diplomat and the former joint special envoy of the U.N. and Arab League, warned in 2012 of the Somalization of Syria where various warlords would be fighting for power. Yigal Palmor, the former spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry voiced similar concerns about the civil war in Syria being Somalized, hoping that a central power that will rule all Syria emerges.

Libya has also been widely been considered a good example of a Somalized country since the topple of its former leader Moammar Gadhafi, where armed groups have had a free ride in the country. Similar concerns were voiced by analysts on the political turmoil that followed the Arab Spring in the country and the former U.N. envoy to the country Jamal Bin Omar warned the political leaders of an agreement that should be accepted by all parties or “face collapse and the ‘Somalization of the country.'”

During this period when some Arab countries were engulfed in civil wars, Somalia stood as a card to warn stakeholders of the repercussions of civil war and political turmoil such as state failure, disorder, loss of lives and destruction of government institutions.

The ongoing Iraq protests and beyond

Iraq has been rocked by days of protests by mainly young people demanding the curbing of corruption, improvement of public services and fighting unemployment. The mass protests have led to the death of more than 100 protesters so far.

In the midst of the protests, a video shared on Twitter showed demonstrators complaining that their country has been Somalized, something that has irked Somalis on Twitter.

Some were surprised at how a country like Iraq – itself known for its record in civil wars, terrorism, sectarianism and destruction – still uses Somalia as a blueprint of the worst that could face it. Others instead opted to remind fellow Somalis and politicians of the need to unite and build their country and change the narrative about Somalia instead of engaging in divisive politics that derail the country’s development.

Reclaiming and redefining Somalization

As discussed, Somalization as a concept has evolved from being used as a term to indicate the inclusion of Somalis in senior government positions during the colonial era, to the definition of a country that suffers from civil war, political disorder, mayhem, warlordism and sometimes piracy.

And while Somalia has made huge strides toward achieving peace, eradicating warlordism and preventing tribal wars, it is still viewed as the best example to define countries that are facing new waves of civil wars. It falls upon Somalis to change the narrative of how Somalia is viewed.

As observed, Somalization as a concept can be redefined to mean something different. Somalis should thus reclaim the concept to symbolize a peaceful, democratic, and politically and economically inclusive country.

* Graduate in international security (Master of Science) from the Turkish National Police Academy, currently pursuing Ph.D. in international relations at Ankara Yıldırım Beyazıt University



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