Somalia’s Uneasy Peace
Abdullahi walked slowly past makeshift stalls in a crowded Mogadishu market, dragging his right leg. He’s in his fifties and unemployed, and relies on overseas remittances sent by his daughter to survive. In 2007 he was shot by Somalia’s increasingly powerful Islamist militia, al-Shabab (Youth). The bullet blew a hole through his right leg, just below his groin.
Like many Somalis, Abdullahi is a casualty of the conflict between Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and al-Shabab. He says he supports the TFG but doesn’t know whether it can succeed. “But it has to,” he said. “Look at the roads, look at the rubbish: this is what 20 years of no government does. We cannot have another 20 years of war.”
With renewed violence in October, the uneasy peace that has hung over Mogadishu since al-Shabab withdrew in early August may be over. Most analysts explain the withdrawal from the capital city by pointing to rifts that emerged within the organisation when it attempted to define who it should be fighting. Should it fight the ‘near enemy’ or the ‘far enemy’? Should it be national in its focus, or international? Part of the global jihad or not? Pressure from other militia notably the Sufi-oriented Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa compounded the organisation’s problems; so did the drying up of remittances from the Somali diaspora.
According to William Reno, of Northwestern University in the United States, al-Shabab placed emphasis on ideology at the expense of political pragmatism, and fought on too many fronts at once. “They’ve overplayed their ideological hand and annoyed enough people so that, in the end, the communities they control are turning against them and starting to look to other people.” Reno, who has extensive experience throughout Africa, thinks that in some ways al-Shabab has pursued the sensible alternative when trying to figure out how to unite communities to use religion. “But,” he added, “in trying to articulate a religious idea they are too ideological. So they are insensitive to the political calculations and compromises they have to make.” (Al-Shabab’s ideological persuasion is Takfiri, an ultra-conservative interpretation in which the killing of apostates forms the core conceptual basis. Un-Islamic cultural practice is banned and a strict version of sharia enforced.)
In 2008, for example, a 13-year-old girl, Asho Duhulow, was raped by three militiamen. She took her case to a Kismayo court administered by al-Shabab and identified her assailants. The men were released, but Asho was charged with adultery. She was taken to a local sports ground, buried up to her neck and stoned to death. According to reports, al-Shabab militiamen opened fire on people who attempted to intervene, killing one.
Yet, Somalia does not have a history dominated by Islamic extremism and most analysts note that al-Shabab’s ideology is an odd fit for Somalis. Political Islam emerged in the 1960s as Muslim Brotherhood ideology spread through the Horn of Africa and Egypt’s al-Azhar University funded religious schools in Mogadishu.
In the mid-1970s former president Siad Barre introduced a new family law, ostensibly promoting gender equality as part of his agenda of “Scientific Socialism”; this granted women equal rights in the area of inheritance. Abdurahman M Abdullahi wrote in an essay entitled Women, Islamists and the Military Regime in Somalia,that the law enraged Somalia’s religious leaders who saw it as a secular assault on Islam at the level of the family. An Islamist movement began to crystallise.
Saudi Arabian Wahabbism was imported into Somalia in the 1980s, via Saudi charities. By 1984 al-Ittihad al-Islamiya had emerged as a composite of two other radical groups. It morphed into a militant group in 1991, but suffered a series of stinging defeats in the mid-1990s.
The Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) was formed in the early 2000s; its basis is an ad hoc collection of Islamic courts that had administered justice in Somalia following the collapse of Siad Barre’s regime. By 2006 the UIC was seriously challenging Mogadishu’s warlords and took control of the capital in June, bringing stability but enforcing a strict form of sharia. The UIC was unacceptable to both Ethiopia and the United States, for geopolitical reasons. In December 2006 Ethiopia, acting as a crude proxy for the US, formally launched strikes against the movement and quickly overwhelmed it. Al-Shabab, the UIC’s youth wing, emerged. Led by Sheikh Aden Hashi Ayro, who is said to have received training in insurgency tactics and explosives in Afghanistan in the 1990s, the organisation began waging war against the TFG and soon controlled much of south and central Somalia.
Some of the people perched behind temporary stalls were from Bakara market, which was closed by the TFG as it sought to secure Mogadishu after al-Shabab’s withdrawal. One storekeeper said he felt as if he was on holiday, but did not think the peace would last long. “Shabab was making problems for the people. It was better they leave us. [But] these people are from Bakara. By day they come here and sell, at night they fight with the government.”
Others claim al-Shabab cannot regroup, but express concerns about whether the TFG will act responsibly: The TFG is known to be corrupt and there are doubts over whether a western-style centralised system of governance is relevant or can be effective in a clan-based Somalia. But everyone agrees that further US involvement in the country would shatter the temporary peace. As Abdullahi put it: “We need help now, but then they [the international community] should leave.”
But recent reports that the United States is expanding its capabilities throughout the Horn of Africa, while unsurprising, do not bode well, and could threaten Mogadishu’s shaky peace, while strengthening al-Shabab’s international factions.
It is clear the United States is at war in both Yemen and Somalia. How it manages those wars will determine the damage to the region. Washington’s Somalia and Yemen strategy seems similar to its Pakistan strategy: By targeting leadership figures, normally with drone strikes, operational inefficiencies emerge over time and hinder the ability of jihad networks to carry out attacks. The networks then fragment as disagreements over how to counter US tactics emerge, amid an overall environment of rotating leadership, probably characterised by competition between potential leadership figures. Efficacy is lowered and the threat becomes localised, rather than global.
But this strategy lacks an end game. As the civilian casualties mount, the likelihood of ordinary people aligning themselves with the United States’ targets increase. And so the US gets stuck in a pointless rut. Expanded US engagement in Somalia gives al-Shabab’s international factions a propaganda boost and could swing the balance in its favour while healing basic rifts within the group. Glen Johnson is a New Zealand journalist. Copyright ©2011 Le Monde diplomatique -- distributed by Agence Global