Kiss Kismayo Goodbye


Somalia's new president Hassan Sheikh MohamudMOGADISHU (Reuters) – With government and African Union forces closing in on Kismayo – the stronghold of militant Islamist militias in Somalia – the writing appears on the wall for Al-ShababGamal Nkrumah, Sunday 30 Sep 2012

Somalia’s new president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud attends his inauguration ceremony in Mogadishu September 16, 2012 (Photo: Reuters) The searchlight of public opprobrium has reached beyond the media razzmatazz. Celebrities flooded into Somalia, but did not venture far beyond Aden Adde International Airport, Mogadishu, to attend the inauguration of Somalia’s new president, Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud earlier this month.

Mahmoud, an internationally acclaimed academician, is a technocrat whose top priority is to chase out the country’s militant Islamist group, the Al-Qaeda-associated Al-Shabab (youth in Arabic), from the country.

It is against this backdrop that Al-Shabab militiamen came under intense fire from Kenyan troops Thursday and Friday in the southern Somali port city of Kismayo, 500 kilometres south of the capital.

The question is whether there are also political consequences resulting from this week’s intensive fighting in Kismayo.

Somalia has effectively been divided into three regions — Somaliland in the northwest, Puntland in the northeast, and the remainder. Somaliland, a self-declared independent political entity, resists being part of Somalia. Somaliland, presumably with close secret ties to Ethiopia, has managed to run its own affairs since 1991. Kismayo metamorphosed into a fiefdom of Al-Shabab.

There have been many blueprints for the reunification of Somalia, but despite some successes in various parts of the country the political status of Puntland and Somaliland have remained unresolved.

In 2007, the late Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi ordered Ethiopian troops to enter Somalia and control vast swathes of the southern and central parts of Somalia, especially the capital Mogadishu. African Union (AU) troops were deployed in the capital and Al-Shabab militiamen since fled the capital.

The political process has been largely a success. But there are pockets of resistance even inside Mogadishu and in the southern parts of the country. A year ago, AU troops controlled barely half of the capital Mogadishu. Today, they control most of the country.

Great power shifts are occurring in Somalia and yet reminders of past atrocities remain. Last Thursday, a suicide bomber believed to be a woman killed at least 15 people and wounded scores more. The blast came as a shock because the target was an upmarket eatery, The Village Restaurant, in the commercial heart of Mogadishu frequented by the city’s expatriate community members, aid workers, government employees and journalists. The restaurant, located opposite the National Theatre and not far from the presidential palace, was a favourite meeting place for Somali politicians.

“We were behind the blasts. It was a well-planned mujahideen operation,” conceded Sheikh Abdiasis Abu-Musaab, spokesman for Al-Shabab’s military operations.

The question uppermost in the minds of Somalis is whether these blasts will eventually weaken the resolve of the Somali people to advance the democratisation process in the country

Somalia has become a proxy playground. A number of former warlords are now MPs in the Somali parliament and many are millionaires with private armies to boot. The warlords were supposed to be excluded from the political process and not participate in the parliamentary elections. However, the powers that be turned a blind eye to the anomaly.

Al-Shabab has led a deadly insurgency fuelled by a sense of social injustice. Vote buying, too, has raised eyebrows. Tribal elders chose most parliamentary members in August but the irony is that parliamentarians themselves chose a technocrat as president.

Endemic corruption has plagued the country. Most Somalis face hunger and suffer destitution. Two million Somalis need humanitarian assistance — food and medicine — and some one million Somalis are in immediate danger.

Colonial echoes

“The so-called election came to maintain the status quo by allowing foreign companies to steal Somalia’s resources and to destroy its economy. Sharif’s replacement is nothing more than a revised edition of traitors serving those interests,” Al-Shabab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mahmoud Rage was quoted as saying. “They represent Western interests, and the interests of their agents in the region,” Rage added.

Yet there is nil desperandum on their part. “We will continue to fight these apostates as we have been fighting them before,” Rage stated ominously.

What then had gone wrong? Members of the Somali political establishment struggle to appreciate that the hard times for the vast majority of their compatriots mean greater scrutiny of the privileged few.

The public mood in Somalia has changed. Whether the new Somali government of President Sherif Sheikh Ahmed seizes the moment is altogether more doubtful. What is happening in Somalia is a much-needed re-assessment of acceptable standards of political behaviour.

Nine warships of European Union powers — France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal — patrol the Indian Ocean waters around Mogadishu.

Over the past decade some Somali businessmen have done well out of the war. Now most conclude that peace is best for business. Kenya’s navy also patrols the adjacent coastal areas of southern Somalia. There has been heavy fighting in recent weeks between Kenyan troops stationed along the border and Al-Shabab.

The Kenyan authorities are collaborating closely with neighbouring Ethiopia and the AU. Like Ethiopia, Kenya has a sizeable ethnic Somali population. The Somalis of Kenya are focusing on the challenges ahead in Somalia, especially vis-à-vis Al-Shabab.

The political chaos in Somalia has drawn in AU military intervention with the full backing of Western powers. Kenyan troops that overran Kismayo are an integral part of AMISOM, the AU peacekeeping force.

End of Al-Shabab?

Al-Shabab fighters have fired anti-aircraft shots on two foreign warships. This is widely seen as their swan song. Indeed, the most important military event in Somalia this month has been the joint AU and Somali government troops overrunning the Afgoye Corridor.

Hailed as an unprecedented military breakthrough, the triumph of AMISOM spells the beginning of the end for Al-Shabab. The movement’s days as a military force to be reckoned with are numbered, the Somali political establishment insists. Now they appear to be losing grip of Kismayo.

With peace comes a new sense of nationalism, harking back to the good old days. The Somali capital is fast becoming a plutocrat’s paradise. Five-star hotels and skyscrapers are transforming the Mogadishu skyline. Yes, income differentials are fast widening. Al-Shabab insurgents are regrouping and they want to wreck the city. They are a hardened lot — veterans of many skirmishes with AMISOM. Currently, they are trying to make their escape from Kismayo, but without changing their indolent posture.