Analysing Britain’s Policy towards Somalia

by Farah Ali Ahmed


Executive summary
What is Policy?
Britain Conquering Somaliland
Britain conquers the Horn of Africa
Britain’s Current policy towards Somalia
Why should Britain engage Somalia?
Al-Shabab as a terrorist posing threat

B. Piracy


1. Executive summary

The report explores Britain’s foreign policy towards Somalia. The report investigated Britain’s historical relation with Somalia, since becoming a British protectorate in 1887 and through the present time. The report examined Britain’s policies where in the imperial epoch had a policy of colonization, based on diving and ruling and oppressing and after the collapse of Somali State had containment policy which based on delivering aid and developmental goods so as to reduce poverty, where as in 2012 an engagement policy based on stabilizing Somalia in order to eliminate piracy, terrorism and later profiting Somalis natural resources such as oil.

Thus the report concluded Somalia became at the top of the UK policy agenda because it meets the UK’s foreign policy objectives which is based on maintaining Britain’s permanent national interests.

2. Introduction

Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston said in 1848: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow” (Palmerstone cited in Dominic Raab 2011, the telegraph). This often-cited quote by a British statesman aptly summarises Britain’s permanent interest in Somalia, and ably explains British policy’s foreign policy towards that country. A policy is defined as a course of action intended to achieve a particular goal. Somaliland became a British colony in 1887, with British rule extended to the South of Somalia after expelling Italy in 1941. There was serious resistance against British colonisation in the Somali peninsula.

For instances, the Dervish movement led Sayid mohamed Abdulle Hassan was bombarded by British in 1920. British imperial policy was based on a strategy of divide and rule which inflicted human and material costs to the Somalis. Britain handed over two Somali regions to neighbouring regions, grossly provoking Somali anger. Following independence in 1960, Somalia broke diplomatic ties with the British in 1963, a rupture that lasted to 1968, with the exception of a diplomatic link.

Since Somalia became a failed state, and with the failure of US and US interventions in 1992. Britain adopted a containment policy, meaning that it only pursued developmental activities that would serve the national interests. Currently, the British government is offering conciliatory gestures towards engagement with Somalia as Somalia appears to threaten British national interest. This report will define policy and outline both past and present British foreign policy towards Somalia, and explain why Somalia assumed such importance in contemporary UK foreign policy agenda.

3. What is Policy?

The term ‘policy’ is ambiguous, and its ambiguity means that it can be differently interpreted, but a broad definition would be a“ course of action” intended to achieve several goals (Martin Harrop, 1992, p.2). Parsons (1995) defines policy as a course of action or plan, a set of political purposes” (Wayne Parsons, 1995, p.14). Jones states that policies are deliberately intended to decide whether things have to occur or not to occur.

Policies are “courses of actions” planned to advance, preserve or preempt states businesses (Peter Jones, 1992, p.241). The definition to be deployed in this report is policy as a “course of action”( Wayne Parsons, 1995). Analysing British policy towards Somalia requires an examination of how, why, and when and whom it is made for. First however, I briefly outline the nature of Britain’s historical foreign relations with Somalia.

4. Britain Conquering Somaliland

In 1887 Northern Somalia officially became British protectorate (British Somaliland). It occupied a landmass of 68,000 square miles on the Somali coastline (Patrick Kakwenzire, 1986, p.661). For Britain, colonising Somaliland was vital for several reasons; it ensured the safe passage of food suppl

Some argue that Britain even sought to prevent other European colonies occupying this vital (Abdi Samatar and A. I. Samatar ,1987,p.675-6). Yet, Somaliland proved to be an economic burden. The land was poor, arid and dry, and Winston Churchill who visited Somaliland “…advocated its complete abandonment on account of its unproductivity, climatic inhospitability, and the hostility of its inhabitants” (Patrick Kakwenzire, 1986, 674). Others scholars have suggested that Britain’s overall colonial policy was the extension of imperial rule to the Horn of Africa, made possible by capturing the Somali coast (Abdi Samatar and A. I. Samatar ,1987,p.676).

Somalians suffered greatly under British imperialism which brought human and material costs. The imposition of taxes on Somalis deeply affected three things that Somalis deeply valued “their faith, their independence, and their socio-economic institutions” (Patrick Kakwenzire, 1986, p.662). Somalis resisted British rule, as with the well-known resistance movement led by Sayid Mohamed Abdule Hassan, the so called Mad Mullah, who led a 20 year Dervish resistance movement against the British.

British retaliations were severe, involving the first ever use of aerial bombardment in one of its Africa’s colonies. Heavy casualties were suffered, as British air power destroyed Darwish’s warriors and main territory (David Killingray, 1984, p. 434). However, if Britain’s policy was to get a safe passage through to its colonies, from Aden to India, she would have stayed on Somaliland’s coastline but using air bombardment in Somalis internal land proves its colonial policy which was based on ruling other people’s Homeland by any cost.

5. Britain conquers the Horn of Africa

In 1941 British troops land in Mogadishu International Airport,
capital of Somalia, after blockading Italian ammunition and food
delivery at the Gulf of Aden, defeating Italian troops in Somalia

In 1941 Britain finally gained administrative rule in the Horn of Africa after defeating Italian colonisers in the South of Somalia, during the Second World War. In this period British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevinpurposed the creation of the “Greater Somalia” , which was short-lived, but had a positive impact on the Somalis to whooped to achieve independence of Somalis in the horn of Africa.

In 1941 British troops pose in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.
The Troops in feeling comfortable dressing tropical kaki military
dress, indicates that the troops might came from Britain's Colonial
East Africa, what is known today as Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania

Apart from that the British policy was based on dividing Somalis in the Horn of Africa, as she gave Somali territories to Ethiopia in 1955, (Haud and the ‘Reserved Area’,) (Gordon Waterfield, 1956,p.52-53) while in the Northern Frontier District of Kenya (NFD ) which was part of Britain’s east Africa protectorate given to Kenya. Somalia became independent in 1960, with British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland uniting to form the Somali Republic.

Somalis living in other areas in the horn were willing to join Somalia. Those living under the British East Africa protectorate resisted becoming part of Kenya, but the British government ignored Somalis sentiment and in 1963 decided that NFD be included. This resulted in the breakdown of diplomatic relations between Britain and Somalia until 1968 (Castagno, A. A. 1964, p.179-180). Ties were reinstated until the collapse of the Somali state after rebels ousted dictator President Mohamed Siyad Bare in 1991. Following this, Britain pursued a containment policy, the objective of which was to control a perceived security threat by Somalia to British interests in the east and Horn of Africa.

Why was a containment policy applied to Somalia at a time when the then Labour government were pursuing an interventionist policy with other African countries such as eg. Sierra Leone? Simply, humanitarian interventions efforts by the UN/USA in 1992 to 1993 failed to re-establish the Somali state, and Britain therefore rejected this route, (Tom Porteous, 2005, p.290) and assigned the Department for International Development (DFID) to focus its efforts on developmental issues in Somalia (Tom Cargill, 2011).

6. Britain’s Current policy towards Somalia

First, Britain’s foreign policy focuses on the following three broad priorities:

safeguarding Britain’s national security
building Britain’s prosperity
supporting British nationals around the world through modern and efficient consular services.

These overarching priorities’ set the goals and objectives of Britain’s foreign policy. The first priority accommodates any security issues in terms of countering terrorism, reducing conflicts, and proliferation of weapons. The second priority deals with Britain’s economic interest in terms of enhancing exports, investment, continues world economic growth, and ensuring world resources are accessible to Britain.

The third priority focuses on putting into place an efficient and effective consulate service that meets the demands of British citizens working and/or traveling around the globe (William Hague, 2010). These are general purposes intended to serve Britain’s national interest. These priorities are applied to Somalia, which has been defined as a failed state for over two decades, and now occupies a paramount place on Britain’s foreign policy agenda.

Britain’s current policy towards Somalia may be linked to the Conservative’s party manifesto which emphasised the importance of dealing with potential security threats emanating from the horn of Africa. For instance, in William Hague’s speech of “The Future of British Foreign Policy” in 2009, made a clear connection of the dynamic between state failure and the absence of functioning government, arguing that these create an environment where terrorist networks, illegal arms and criminals may prosper. This was thought to be the case with the horn of Africa, where Somalia is geographically located, and where there is a perceived absence of proper functioning authority, and as a result, potentially endangering Britain’s own security.

In his speech, William Hague stated “A terrorist today, for instance, may be a citizen of Somalia, who was educated in Yemen, has been trained in Pakistan and may be fighting in Afghanistan or attempting to commit a terrorist attack on the streets of Britain” (William Hague, 2009). This remark was reiterated by Prime Minister David Cameron in his foreign policy speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in 2011 in which he depicted Somalia as a dangerous failed state that poses serious threats to Britain’s’ national security.

Cameron further talked about the importance of safeguarding merchant ships going through the Gulf of Eden against piracy, tackling violent extremism in Somalia by providing assistance to Somali’s neighbouring countries (IGAD) and dealing with the root causes of conflict and insecurities of unrest which engulfed Somalia; he proposed a major international conference for Somalia in London in 2012, at which over 50 head of states, government officials, and delegates from international organizations participated (David Cameron, 2011). Prior to this, Andrew Mitchell, Secretary of State for International Development visited in Somalia in august 2011, and pledged £25 million pounds for delivering humanitarian aid to save lives (Mark Tran, The guardian, 2011). This announcement was followed by Foreign Secretary William Hague’s February 2012 visit to Somali’s capital of Mogadishu, the first such visit by a Foreign Secretary for nearly two decades.

British foreign secretary William Hague drives through Mogadishu, Somalia in an armoured vehicle with Amisom troops.

Photograph: Lewis Whyld/PA

Moreover, in a 9th of February 2012 House of Commons debate on Somalia, Hague presented Somalia’s case, stressing the dangers faced by Somalia’s own people, its immediate neighbors, Britain and the wider international community (William Hague, HC (2012) [13189] (Column 509).

conference london

In addition on the 23rd of February 2012, Britain organized the first Somali international conference where more than 50 delegates from international community and Somalis fully participated, the first such event since the collapse of Somali state in 1991 (Andrew Harding, BBC, 2012).Theseactivities clearly demonstrates how Somalia an important place on Britain’s foreign policy agenda. Clearly, it represents a shift towards a policy of engagement towards Somalia; but the question is why?

7. Why should Britain engage Somalia?
A. Al-Shabab as a terrorist posing threat

The British government has shown commitment of engaging in the Somali conflict in order to bring stability to the failed country. It stems not merely from benevolent humanitarianism, but also from a desire to protects its own national self-interests. There are mainly three factors that may push Somalia to the top of the British foreign policy agenda, namely, terrorism, piracy, and oil.

Somalia is a ‘failed state’ which is been characterized as a potential breeding ground for terrorism. Recently, the so called Al-shabab, an extremist Somali group who control a large part of Somalia, declared their affiliation with the international Al-Qaeda network. The link between Al-shabab and Al-Qaida had previously only been suspected, before 2010 but on Monday 1st 2010, Al-shabab released an official statement confirming their allegiance and links to the Al-Qaeda network.

The groups’ statement, written in Arabic and Somali stated their commitment “to connect the horn of Africa jihad to the one led by al Qaeda and its leader Sheikh Osama Bin Laden” (Sarah Childress, 2010). Thereafter, the UK director of MI5 Jonathan Evans warned of possible terrorist acts from Al-shabab. He stated that Al-shabab operates in a failed state, have training camps, and attracts international jihadists whose mission is to spread global terrorism. Evans warned, “I am concerned that it is only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside Al Shabaab” (Jonathan Evans, 2010). In 2011, Britain’s security service reported that more than 100 British residents are thought to be training with Al-shabab in Somalia (Valentina Soria, 2012, p. 11).

In January 2012, Britain’s secretary for International Development, Andrew Mitchel visited Somalia, and gave an interview the Sun newspaper, in which he claimed, “There are more British passport holders engaged in terrorist training in Somalia than in any other country in the world” (Tom N. Dunn, 2012, the sun). The threat may well be exaggerated. There are an estimated 250,000 Somalis living in Britain and very have involvement with Al-shabab’s activities in Somalia. Moreover, “the connection between al Shabaab and al Qaeda is growing stronger but has not yet reached the level of operational control by al Qaeda” (David Shinn, 2011,pp. 203, 213). Nevertheless, the perceived terrorist threats emanating from Somalia serve to legitimize Somalia as an urgent priority in British foreign policy.

B. Piracy

The second most important factor that may explains Somalia’s priority status on UK foreign policy agenda is the issue of Somali piracy. The Somali coastal guard ceased to function in 1991 after rebels toppled the regime that had ruled Somalia since 1969. The 3,300-kilomiter long coastal line is the longest in Africa. Somalia does not have a proper functioning central government that is able to control its territorial waters.

The long civil war that engulfed the country abetted the conditions for maritime piracy, which has posed grave danger to ships passing through by the red sea and largely Indian Ocean .According to a report published by Nato defence and security committee in 2012, there has been an increase in the hijackings of ships in the horn of Africa. In 2007 51 incidents were reported, with incidents doubling in 2008 with a recorded 111 incidents, and climbed further in 2009 to 218 incident, and 237 in 2011 (Raymond Knops, 2012).

In February 2012 the BBC reported that pirates had received ransom payments of $146 million in 2011, (Andrew Harding, BBC, 2012). These huge sums touches the nerves of the global maritime trade passing through the Indian Ocean, and no less so for UK businesses. Britain’s Foreign Affairs Committee report in 2012 concluded that “Somali piracy threatens the UK’s economy through the banking, insurance and shipping industries, and the British and foreign flagged ships we depend upon for trade” (The Foreign Affairs Committee Report, 2012, Para.154). Britain’s response to piracy was to arm their ships, and to send their navy to safeguard their ships. These measures have not stopped the piracy, and Somalia’s future will depend on the ability of all involved to bring an end to the practice. While piracy continues to place British trade, national interests, and lives at risk, Somalia will continue to occupy a prominent place on the UK’s foreign policy agenda.

C. Oil

Engineers and visitors explore an exploratory well near Dharoor town in Puntland

Engineers and visitors tour an exploratory well in Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region. Photograph: Reuters

At the start of 2012 the Guardian newspaper and Aljazeera news channel both reported on the huge reserves of oil and other natural resource waiting to be produced from Somalia. Mohamed Mahamuud states that “Somalia has substantial reserves of oil and gas; in fact, its reservoir of black gold is understood to be the second biggest in Africa” (Mohamed Sharif Mohamud, the guardian, 2012). And recently Canadian company Africa Oil started drilling oil in Somalis autonomous region of Puntland in northeast Somalia.

Africa oil anticipates producing enormous amounts of oil. A Canadian company indicates that the Puntland region alone has the potential of producing 10bn barrels (Mark Townsend and Tariq Abdinasir, Guardian, 2012). Somali’s Prime minister told the Observer “There’s room for everybody when this country gets back on its feet and is ready for investment,” he said. “Although now is not the time” the west will gain a share in the natural resources of Somalia if it helps Somalia reconstruction” (Mark Townsend and Tracy McVeigh, the guardian, 2012). Thus, the presence of abundant oil resources, and Britain’s desire to control a share of oil and other natural resources, may be a critical factor in keeping Somalia at the top of the UK’s foreign policy agenda.

8. Conclusion

Overall, this report has looked at Brain’s policy towards Somalia. It has defined the term policy as a ‘course of action’ intended to achieve particular/state goals. The report briefly outlined Britain’s historical ties with Somalia and some outcomes of the British colonial epoch in the horn Africa. The report concluded that Britain had an imperial policy based on conquering and dividing Somalis in the Horn of Africa as she allocated parts of Somalis to Ethiopia and Kenya which caused the later diplomatic breakdown between Britain and Somalia.

Later, during Somali’s civil war, Britain’s policy was based on “containment” as intervening in Somalia became unpopular after the failure of US and UN humanitarian intervention in 1992. The current British government has pursued what I may call a ‘policy of engagement’, after several ministers had visited Somalia, This led to further parliamentary debates on Somalia, as well as the first Somali international conference since the fall of the dictator Siyad Bare in 1991. This policy engagement is believed to be driven by three main factors, namely, terrorism, piracy, and oil which are perfectly fits the main Britain’s policy objective and push Somalia at the top of the British foreign policy agenda.

9. Recommendations

Somalis continue to suffer the legacy of Britain’s colonial policy in the colonial time, as she divided Somalis inhabits in the horn of Africa. The UK now needs to assist Somalis to re-establish their country after it disintegrated following the fall of Siyad bare in 1991. The Report recommends Britain should not facilitate further Somalis disintegration.

Britain should continue delivering aid and developmental goods to those Somalis in need as she has a moral duty to relief poverty in Somalia.

. Britain should further engage with the international community to mobilise resources towards Somalia in order to eliminate the causes and effects of conflicts, such as poverty, illiteracy, underdevelopment, lawlessness, piracy, terrorism.

Britain should not turn its back on Somalia as other issues may rise to dominate international agenda.


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Farhan Ali Ahmed
Secratary General of Somali Concern Group

BA (HONS) Public Policy, MSC (With Commendation) In International Conflict

Contact: E-mail.

Analysing Britain’s Policy towards Somalia

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