Somalia: Two Sobering Perspectives on Kismayo

The Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF), which invaded southern Somalia last October, recently achieved one of their major goals, capturing the port city of Kismayo (map). Taking Kismayo represents a military, political, and economic loss for the rebel group al Shabab. Kismayo was al Shabab’s last major urban stronghold, and this defeat leaves them in search of places to regroup. In the meantime, Somali government forces have arrived to take control of the city. Several explosions have occurred, at least one of them claimed by Al Shabab, but KDF and Somali soldiers appear to have imposed a preliminary kind of order.

Despite the military triumph for the KDF and the Somali government, voices from various sides are warning that the political battle for Kismayo is only beginning.

AP:

Bitter clan rivalry is expected to hamper the creation of a new administration needed to run the city and port, say residents.

“We want peace, not clan feuds and a cause for al-Shabab’s return,” said Muhummed Abdi, an elder in Kismayo who spoke to The Associated Press by phone.

[…]

The clan rivalry centers on control of revenues from the port, which is one of Somalia’s most lucrative business hubs.

[…]

“The situation of Kismayo has always been a difficult one and the clan rivalry will be further exacerbated by alleged siding by foreign troops with one of the clans in the city,” Mohamed Sheikh Abdi, a Somali political analyst says. “Only an inclusive administration will dictate the future of Kismayo. Also if Kenya, with its history with Somalis, does not leave, I think they will just add more fuel to the fire already raging Kismayo” he said.

Dr. Ken Menkhaus makes similar points:

Since the onset of state collapse and civil war in 1991, Kismayo has been Somalia’s Sarajevo — a chronically contested city, at times half-emptied by armed conflict, at other times bloated with hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons. It has changed hands many times over the past two decades but has always been in the control of warlords or jihadists and has never enjoyed a day of good governance. Rival Somali clans in Jubbaland — the region of southern Somalia where Kismayo is located — have never been able to agree on how to share the city and have repeatedly fought over it. Even al-Shabab suffered an internal armed battle over control of the seaport in 2008. Thanks to years of political violence, Kismayo has a well-earned reputation as the most difficult and dangerous place for aid agencies to operate in all of Somalia.

Menkhaus goes on to underline the important of Kismayo and the impact of its loss on al Shabab. He discusses several scenarios for Kismayo’s future, including the role of Kenya and Somalia’s new government.

The issue of how and whether the government will truly rule recaptured areas has loomed large since the African Union Mission in Somalia began to dislodge Al Shabab forces from Mogadishu, Afgoye, and elsewhere. Establishing a sustainable peace in Kismayo will be a serious test for the new government of Somalia, and an indication of whether the country is headed for a period of stronger central control or another phase of fragmentation.

Somalia: Assuming Kismayo Falls, What Next for Al Shabab?

The port city of Kismayo, Somalia (map) has long been a target of the Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF), who entered the country last October to help defeat the rebel movement Al Shabab. Under pressure from both the KDF and forces from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), Al Shabab has withdrawn from a number of cities and towns, leaving Kismayo as its last major stronghold and a critical source of income. Kenyan forces have been steadily shelling Kismayo and preparing for a final battle since August. On Monday Kenyan troops battled Al Shabab in Birta-dher, a town some 24 miles from Kismayo, and now they are reportedly closing in on the city itself. Al Shabab seems to feel the city’s capture is likely:

Young armed men from the Islamist army, Al Shabab, still patrolled, but higher-ranking officers had today disappeared from their usual tea shops and command bases. Even Al Andalus, Al Shabab’s radio station, was off the air.

“They are fleeing toward various locations, some are going north, some are going into the forests. It is all the senior men; the young boys are still here in town,” says Abdi Qani Ahmed, a Kismayo trader.

[…]

Kenyan forces Tuesday were reported to be less than 50 miles from Kismayo, battling for control of at least two towns on the road into the city, according to Abdinasir Seyrar, a Somali Army officer. “We are a short distance from Kismayo now and we can reach it immediately we want to,” he says.

The looming fight has already created serious humanitarian concerns:

The United Nations and United States warned Wednesday that civilians must be protected as forces battling Somalia’s Islamist fighters tightened the noose around the key insurgent bastion of Kismayo.

More than 6,000 civilians have fled ahead of the anticipated assault on the strategic port city, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said Wednesday, with aid agencies preparing for a potential swift escalation of those needing support.

The capture of the city would not necessarily end these humanitarian concerns, nor will it answer the political questions concerning who will rule Kismayo and how. As Horn of Africa analyst Tres Thomas comments, “It does not appear that there are adequate plans to manage Kismayo if taken.”

Assuming Kismayo does fall, what will Al Shabab do? Three answers occur to me. One is that they will continue to carry out terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings targeting key buildings and persons in Mogadishu and elsewhere. Part of that trend may include continued attacks outside Somalia, especially in Kenya. A second answer is that they will retain a presence in rural areas of southern Somalia. And a third answer, suggested in the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia’s most recent report (pp. 15-16), is that Al Shabab may seek refuge in the semi-autonomous polity of Puntland and also head for destinations outside Somalia, such as Yemen.

Find more speculation about Al Shabab’s future at Al Jazeera. What are your thoughts? Do you expect Kismayo will fall easily? What comes next for Al Shabab?

Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Some Background on Al Islah

Somalia’s new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, selected by the new parliament last week, was inaugurated yesterday in Mogadishu. I talked a little about Mohamud’s background in a previous post, but I think it would be worthwhile to give some information about al Islah (Arabic: “Reform”), the movement to which he reportedly belongs.

The International Crisis Group’s 2010 briefing “Somalia’s Divided Islamists” (.pdf, p. 2, footnote 6) summarizes the group’s history:

A group of Saudi-trained clerics, led by Sheikh Mohamed Ahmed (“Garyare”), began a discreet campaign to organise Islamist
resistance to [former Somali President Siad] Barre [, who fell from power in 1991]. In July 1987, Garyare and his friends launched the al-Islah (Reform) movement in Saudi Arabia. It was accepted as a member of the Islamic Brotherhood (alIkhwan al-Muslimin) and formed an alliance with two Somali
armed opposition groups – the SSDF (Somali Salvation and Democratic Front) and USC (United Somali Congress). The alliance broke down after al-Islah failed to dissuade the Somali rebel groups from getting too close to Ethiopia.

A reader has provided me with several other sources on the movement, including the movement’s official website, available in Somali and Arabic. From the site’s history section (Arabic), we get a different account than Crisis Group’s. This account divides the movement’s genesis into three stages: “the stage of spreading the idea,” “the stage of assembling and organizing,” and “the stage of expansion and opening up.” The description of the second stage gives us a broad picture of the movement’s approach:

The Society of Islamic Reform was founded in 1978. Among its most prominent goals were reforming Somali society in every aspect of life and working to raise the level of individual and societal commitment to Islamic principles and values, in accordance with the approach of moderation and temperateness in  the aims of Islamic shari’a, in the framework of cooperation with local and practical reality.

The third section also lists the movement’s current policies, among them “a strict stance against internecine fighting,” cooperating with sheikhs and clan leaders to resolve conflicts, maintaining neutrality, and promoting education and the Arabic language.

Finally, another piece worth reading is this report on Al Islah’s stance toward the recent presidential elections. As of June, the movement’s founder denied that it would field a candidate. Mohamud, then, should perhaps not be seen as “Al Islah’s man,” but rather as someone whose ties include a tie to the movement.

Further links and discussion are welcome in the comments.

A Sobering Start for Somalia’s New President

On Monday, Somalia’s new parliament selected Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as the country’s new president. Mohamud’s term has begun on a sobering note, with an assassination attempt on the president yesterday by three suicide bombers from the rebel movement Al Shabab. Mohamud was unharmed, but the attack claimed the lives of eight soldiers. Al Shabab, which has regularly conducted bombings in the capital Mogadishu since its “tactical withdrawal” last year, vowed that attacks will continue. Reuters (previous link) comments,

The timing of the attack showed the militants had reliable intelligence, perhaps someone on the inside. This will be a problem for Somalia’s new leadership.

A foreign ministry official, Mohamed Maie, said security staff and African Union soldiers had let their guard down.

While al Shabaab is steadily losing ground, it can still regroup and easily infiltrate government-controlled areas. More worryingly, there are still disenchanted, radicalised Somalis ready to strap on explosive belts.

Among Mohamud’s biggest challenges will be to capitalise on the security gains made over the last year and reform a disparate and badly paid security force so that it pledges its allegiance to the country, rather than rival power-brokers.

The international media is full of analyses of how difficult Mohamud’s job will be. IRIN expands on this theme with commentary from several experts, while the LA Times approaches the topic through some “man in the street” interviews.

At the same time, some observers see real potential for change in Somalia at this moment. Part of that change, some say, should involve a shift in the international community’s strategy. Bloomberg editorializes,

Americans — the State Department, nongovernmental groups and businesses — can best help by ending the welfare handouts to the central government and shifting aid and investment directly to projects that change the lives of average Somalis. With al-Shabaab mostly gone, a good first step would be for UN agencies and charity groups, which decamped from country after a rash of kidnappings, to get their peaceful boots back on the ground.

Abdi Aynte, meanwhile, writes,

For years, members of the international community have been micromanaging the politics of Somalia from afar, often in pursuit of wrongheaded policies. The exception to this is the African Union peacekeeping force (AMISOM), which has shown a remarkable degree of neutrality.

In order for this government to succeed, external actors must take two steps: First, they should immediately cease their appetite for meddling and imposing their will on Somali governments. President Mohamud has an unrivaled legitimacy from the Somali people. The Nairobi-based politicians should give him space to chart his own path – and make mistakes along the way.

Second, the international community ought to change the culture of supporting individuals over institutions. Much of the failure of Somalia’s institutions stems from foreign powers giving an outsized influence to unelected politicians and armed groups.

It’s also, of course, very much worth hearing what the president himself has to say. His interview with South Africa’s eNCA (sent to me by a reader of this site) is excellent. His three priorities, he explains, are “security, and service delivery, and economic recovery” – but he adds, “Number one will be security, number two will be security, and number three will be security.” He also makes some interesting remarks on the ideological struggle with Al Shabab in the context of a country that is nearly 100% Muslim.

Somalia’s New President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud

Yesterday, Somalia’s new parliament selected Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as the country’s new president. The voting proceeded in three rounds; the first round yielded four candidates, including incumbent President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and former Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali. Ali and another candidate dropped out of the second round, and so Sheikh Ahmed and Mohamud went directly into the third round, which Mohamud won 190 to 79. As of a few weeks ago I had the impression that many analysts expected Sheikh Ahmed to win re-election; Mohamud’s selection comes as a surprise to some.

Reuters has a sketch biography of Mohamud:

Mohamud [born 1955 and from Jalalaqsi in central Somalia] graduated from the Somali National University in 1981 before obtaining a master’s degree in education from India’s Bhopal University in 1988.

During the early years of Somalia’s civil conflict, he worked for the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF.

In 1999, the fluent English speaker co-founded the Somali Institute of Management and Administration Development in Mogadishu, which later became Simad University, and served as its dean until 2010.

In 2011, he founded the Peace and Development Party.

Wikipedia and the BBC have more. The BBC states that Mohamud is from the Hawiye clan.

Both the United Nations and the White House have issued statements praising the outcome, each describing the election as a “step forward.”

International media coverage of Mohamud has been largely positive so far, although different outlets have characterized his background in different ways. A few examples:

  • Xinhua: “The civic activist and academic is seen as new breed of leaders coming to power in the war ravaged Horn of Africa nation following the similar landslide victory for the new speaker of the Somali parliament Mohamed Osman Jawari.”
  • New York Times: “Mohamud, a moderate political activist and academic, took on one of the world’s most challenging political posts on Monday.”
  • BBC: “Mohamud could represent a different kind of future for the country because he is not associated with the violence and corruption of the past.”

AFP‘s article on Mohamud is well worth reading – it stresses how little the world knows about him, and includes a few morsels on his religious background and his experience holding talks with Al Shabab. AFP stresses, “Unlike many Somali political figures, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is not part of the diaspora. The new president has never served as a minister, nor, up until the past few days, as an MP.”

Last but not least, here is an article on Mohamed Osman Jawari, the new speaker of parliament.

What is your opinion of the election, and of Mohamud?

Somalia: Presidential Selection Open Thread [Updated]

Today Somalia’s new parliament will select a new president for the country, marking the culmination of Somalia’s formal political transition.

More than two dozen candidates are vying for the position, including the current president and prime minister, as well as prominent Somalis who have returned from overseas.

If no one candidate secures a two-thirds majority in the first round, and a simple majority in the second the election would go to a third round.

[…]

Some presidential contenders and Somalis have criticized the election process saying it will merely bring in a new government that will look much like previous ones.

A diplomatic source in Mogadishu said millions of dollars were being used to bribe lawmakers to vote for the incumbent, President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed.

Consider this an open thread for election-related news.

[UPDATE]: Somalia has a new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. See commenter Ahmed and AP for more.

Somalia’s Transition Remains Incomplete

Yesterday was to mark the end of Somalia’s political transition, and be the date of presidential elections. Yesterday did see an event of political significance – the swearing-in of 215 new parliamentarians – but the election did not take place, meaning the transition will continue to stumble forward.

Monday — the last day of eight years of Somalia’s U.N.-backed Transitional Federal Government — was the day by which the U.N. repeatedly said a new president would be in place. But political bickering, violent threats and seat-buying schemes delayed progress, guaranteeing the day would come and go with no new leader in place.
Nonetheless, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon congratulated the people of Somalia “on reaching this watershed moment on their road to peace, stability and political transformation,” U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said.
He urged clan elders to complete the seating of all parliament members within a few days and called on the new parliamentarians to prepare for elections of a speaker and president so that the country’s political transition can be completed promptly and peacefully “in an environment free from intimidation,” del Buey said.

Other steps in the transition have been delayed too, but missing the deadline for the presidential election is the biggest hitch yet.

Nearly all commentators, even the optimists, are sounding notes of caution about the viability of the new government. As the International Crisis Group, which takes a critical and fairly pessimistic tone, points out, the transition has been problematic and is set to remain so.

The current political process has been as undemocratic as the one it seeks to replace, with unprecedented levels of political interference, corruption and intimidation. The end of the transition roadmap process – that is supposed to usher in an inclusive political dispensation – may fail to bring stability. Convening an incomplete parliament and electing a contested, tainted leadership in Somalia’s polarised political environment could easily unravel the painstaking humanitarian, political and security progress made in the past three years.

One problem for the immediate future is the absence of a publicly announced timeline for the presidential election. Crisis Group predicts

Barring a full-blown meltdown, the selection and ratification of the lower house parliamentarians (however tainted) could still be completed in coming days if not weeks. But then the new body must elect a speaker, deputies and a president. The president also has to appoint a prime minister within a month who must then assemble a cabinet in 30 days, pending approval of the parliament. All these tasks will take time and the earliest Somalia could realistically have a fully working government is late October.

For another perspective, I recommend reading this interview with the BBC’s Mary Harper, who is somewhat more optimistic about the new government’s chances of success:

I think there’s so much will, both from within Somalia and also from the international community, which is thoroughly fed up with basically holding whatever Somalia administration exists, kind of holding it in its hands and financing it, and directing it and trying to influence it. And I think Somalis in Mogadishu, where I was recently, they’re so fed up with violence. And you kind of get the feeling that there is a momentum building now, whereby people will have more to gain from peace than from war.

And if that balance can be kind of shifted, then I can imagine that the new political administration might have enough of a sort of energy for it to establish not peace and security that the rest of the world might understand, but, relatively speaking for Somalia, something that would enable that territory to advance economically and therefore, become less likely to fall back into this endless cycle of violence.

What do you think? Where do you see this transition heading?