The Offensive & Gatekeeping: Reflections from Somalia


During the PeaceRep Somalia research team’s recent visits to Mogadishu and Galkayo, Somalia, and Nairobi, Kenya, we had discussions with a wide range of stakeholders. Two major themes emerged, which appear to be preoccupying many people in both Somali and international circles. One is the current ‘offensive’ against Al-Shabaab (AS) and the second is ‘gatekeeping’. We offer some reflections on both.

The Offensive

The offensive against AS has evolved from an opportunistic attempt to build on a very localised conflict – between a Hawadle sub-clan and AS in Hiraan region – into a significant multi-pronged movement against the group. This opportunistic beginning may since have transformed into a more coherent or even strategic approach (although to use the word ‘strategy’ gives greater credit than many feel is the case). There is no doubt a considerable degree of support in many circles, local and international, for the current offensive, and there is no doubt that some kind of ‘solution’ to the current predicament is necessary. Somalia has become politically and territorially structured as a series of accessible ‘city states’, enabling access for humanitarian and developmental purposes (in other words allowing international resources to continue to flow), but where vast areas of the rural hinterland – and its population – have become invisible, appearing only as internally displaced persons (IDPs) in urban camps and feeding an IDP political economy. In a forthcoming article we argue that this politico-territorial arrangement works for many actors, particularly the powerful, while maintaining rural and displaced populations in a state of ‘permanent precarity’.

For some observers 2023 may provide a critical turning point for Somalia – one which, should the FGS and its allies succeed (it is unclear exactly what success will look like), will see the end of AS in its current pervasive form. However, two questions have emerged through these discussions regarding the offensive: a) whether there is sufficient buy-in across the major politico-security actors to succeed militarily and b) if so, what comes next. These two questions are not unconnected and, in this light, it is interesting to consider what the government (the FGS and FMSs) represent to many people and therefore how AS fit in.

It is worth remembering that Al-Shabaab precedes the Federal Government itself and remains a more effective actor in relation to both taxation and the provision of justice in much of the country. It has proven highly adaptable in both regards and its relative success in the field of justice is noteworthy as it challenges the underlying power hierarchies in Somalia and has mechanisms to monitor corruption and bias within its own members. In addition, as argued by Hoehne and Gaas, the relative success of AS is arguably more to do with the absence of credible alternatives – as forms of public authority – than due to any widespread ideological support for the group.

The current offensive relies on the mobilisation of the more powerful clan-based militias in southern and central Somalia. Many of these groups were the victors in the overthrow of the Siad Barre regime over thirty years ago and still see themselves as such. One of the reasons for ex-President Farmajo’s popular support was because he initially challenged some of this dominance. Similarly, one of the appeals of Al-Shabaab, and certainly a factor exploited by the group, is their support to marginalised or minority groups – whether minorities from within powerful clan families or from outside such groups. In the current offensive tension has already materialised, for example in Hirshabelle, with certain groups (i.e. sub-clans) not joining the offensive as they are unwilling to support others they see as dominant and expansionist.

Should AS be significantly weakened or eliminated – a big if – unrest and new or repressed grievances may arise. Those clan-based groups who have been considered sympathetic to AS, or part of them, may face a serious backlash by the new victors, which may set off intra or inter-clan conflict. There are already some signs of this taking place. While we don’t see the appetite amongst populations for large-scale conflict of the type seen in the early 1990s, there may be particular hotspots – for instance, between the Ga’al Jecel and Hawadle in Hiraan, in Gedo, within the Marehan, between the Murasade and Duduble in central regions, not to mention against Somali Bantu and other groups who have been oppressed historically.

The underlying issue in the potential for conflict concerns the ability of the elite leadership (i.e. Hassan Sheikh’s government) to articulate and demonstrate some meaningful level of understanding and accommodation of the various cleavages in Somali society. This requires not just mobilising and appeasing the most powerful interest groups but signifying a new direction towards a more inclusive politics and society. There are two examples of why this is currently not in evidence: a) the way that MPs are elected remains heavily manipulated by elite interests, with the Federal government unable to sanction free elections, even within the limited college-based system, and b) efforts to promote the issue of famine risk and vulnerability amongst marginalised populations, which has not been taken up by national leadership in spite of the lobbying by international actors.

If the current political leadership sees its potential legacy in terms of the defeat of Al-Shabaab, it will require far more than just a military victory, and without a greater attention to underlying cleavages a militant Islam will continue to appeal to many groups, particularly as they have seen their relative benefits in some areas.


Gatekeeping means different things to different people. It is most commonly evoked in relation to the exploitation of IDPs by various intermediaries, particularly concerning the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

A definition of gatekeeping is ‘the activity of controlling, and usually limiting, general access to something’. As this very general definition suggests, the notion of gatekeeping can be widely applied – in the case of Somalia it influences virtually all forms of international engagement from the political to the humanitarian, and the developmental to the organisation of research itself. It involves everything from the manipulation of information, the control or ownership of local and international organisations, and the delivery/implementation of humanitarian and developmental assistance. It is difficult to know to what extent Somalia is at the more extreme end of the gatekeeping phenomenon, but it is clearly deep and widespread and influenced by the ‘remote’ form of operations and engagement that currently exists.

As we set up our own research, for example, we have to be hyper-aware of not falling into narrow recruitment and information networks where, if we recruit carelessly, we will be perceived as ‘belonging’ to one group or another and will compromise our ability to understand the local context. We ensure that the researchers we recruit know that we know how to manage such issues and they are accountable in this regard.

We also see gatekeeping in the form of the numerous ‘advisors’ that circulate within the international system, and between it and positions in government. Personal or group self-interest is often a prevalent motivation, rather than institutional development or the pursuit of the public interest. The gatekeeping phenomenon of course influences our understanding of the current offensive and the ability of any recovery efforts to succeed.

In the humanitarian sector we have particular insights, gained from a study we conducted in 2016, much of which remains relevant today and which is worth reading in the current context – this report is considered essential reading in some humanitarian circles. It should come as no surprise that, in the context of the rapidly scaling up humanitarian response to the current crisis, incidents of gatekeeping and misappropriation should come to light. This is entirely predictable and was very evident in 2012/13 after the large major famine-related scale up.

The report does not just identify malpractices but also points to the existence of good practice, stating that…

Given this context, corruption or manipulation of aid in Somalia could be seen as a normal – even acceptable – way of working because it reflects historical and now well-established patronage networks which involve a redistribution of resources. While to some extent this is the case, it is also problematic as patronage networks are exclusionary and many groups – disproportionately the more vulnerable – are often not part of such networks and redistributive practices. In addition, even in the absence of clear legal frameworks to address corruption, notions of fairness and integrity are present in Somali society and are found in many areas of life, including with religious leaders, social activists and political activists, as well as within the aid community itself.

Further insights on similar practices, in terms of the security sector and stabilisation processes are found in this report and in this blog. As ourselves and others have argued, such processes should not be seen as practices that only Somalis engage in but occur as a result of the networks and relationships between national and international actors, and international actors are as culpable in the continued prevalence of these practices as local actors, not least by failing to absorb and act on the considerable learning that has been generated over several decades on this subject.


About PeaceRep Somalia

Our Somalia research aims to deepen understandings of the country’s fragmented predicament, ten years after the establishment of the Federal government and in light of the continued pervasiveness of conflict and political instability, both domestically and regionally.  PeaceRep’s Somalia research will explore a number of themes, including how to build on the Galkayo agreement; checkpoints and sub-national governance; and justice and security.

The PeaceRep Somalia team is led by Nisar Majid and Khalif Abdirahman (LSE Conflict and Civicness Research Group), and builds in part on previous research from the Conflict Research Programme at LSE IDEAS.

Learn more about PeaceRep’s Somalia research

Dr Nisar Majid leads the PeaceRep Somalia research team. Learn more about Nisar

Khalif Abdirahman is the PeaceRep Somalia research team’s senior field researcher. Learn more about Khalif