Somalia: All Sides Losing?

In the ongoing stalemate in southern and central Somalia, nearly every side – the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the rebels Hizbul Islam and al Shabab, among other groups – seems to be facing setbacks and problems.

The TFG

The TFG’s problem of the week has been confusion about its policy toward international aid agencies. Earlier this week, “Deputy Water Minister Abdirahman Yusuf Farah said Unicef, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Norwegian Refugee Council and Daryeel Bulsho Guud DBG would be blocked from working in the Horn of Africa nation after they didn’t attend a meeting on Dec. 13.” After some outcry from international observers, the office of the prime minister issued a press release to clarify the TFG’s policies, writing, “The TFG has not suspended the work of any aid agencies. We support and encourage humanitarian agencies to come to Somalia and help alleviate the plight of the suffering population. The TFG would never restrict the work of humanitarian agencies as this would run counter to our declared objective of raising the Somali people from the ashes of the last 20 years.”

Was this a simple case of miscommunication? Not necessarily. As one aid worker noted, “This isn’t the first time the TFG has made noise about banning aid agencies.” In late November, a TFG official in Mogadishu threatened to ban Somali aid agencies whom he accused of helping al Shabab. Whether the TFG ultimately follows through on such threats, tension between it and aid agencies suggests that the TFG is unable to effectively work with the agencies to deliver services. If the TFG cannot play a constructive, major, and consistent role in getting needed aid to the residents of southern Somalia, its claims to political legitimacy could start to seem even weaker to outside observers.

Battles for Mogadishu

As the TFG negotiates its relationships with aid agencies, the battle for Mogadishu remains bloody but inconclusive. This week, Garowe reports that al Shabab is on the offensive:

Al-Shabab has been since on Sunday carrying out sequence of attacks, against the Somali government soldiers and those of the African Union troops.

Al-Shababs is determined to cut off Maka-Almukarama which is the only street in Mogadishu where the Somali government officials and the African Union troops use for their especial purposes, such as going to the airport and other military bases.

A Somali government noncommissioned officer at the frontline has told the press that they had the upper hand in the battle.

Fighting in Mogadishu this week has not produced a clear victor, but has claimed several lives. I wonder how long the TFG can hold out against al Shabab’s repeated assaults.

Al Shabab vs. Hizbul Islam

Outside of Mogadishu, al Shabab and Hizbul Islam are fighting each other. Reversals of fortune in their struggle have occurred periodically, but recently al Shabab appears to have the upper hand: al Shabab captured territory from Hizbul Islam this week in the lower Shabelle region, though Hizbul Islam’s leaders are vowing to make a stand in the town of Agfoi.

Defeats for Hizbul Islam do not mean that al Shabab does not face problems of its own. Recently UPI reported the death of “Rajah Abu Khalid, an al-Qaida commander from Yemen fighting alongside al-Shabaab insurgents in Somalia.” At a broader level, despite gains elsewhere, al Shabab’s failure to (so far) capture Mogadishu raises the possibility that in the long run the group will expend many lives and resources without taking the capital. Nothing lasts forever, but the stalemate between the TFG and al Shabab in Mogadishu has proven quite durable.

Other Groups

I had a conversation the other day with a friend who studies the Somali diaspora, and we discussed whether Western analysts overstated the importance of clan affiliations in Somali life and politics. She affirmed the importance of clans, and I resolved to pay more attention to clan politics and violence (instead of my normal approach, which downplays the clan factor in what is probably a form of overcompensation for my perception that Westerners exaggerate clans’ importance in Somalia). On that note, this article offers another reminder that not all violence in Somalia stems from the conflict between Islamists and the TFG:

Clashes between rival clans in central Somalia have killed at least 20 people, residents said Tuesday [December 7th].

[...]

There have been sporadic clashes between the Majerteen and the Sa’ad clans over access to land and water for several weeks. The most recent fighting began early Monday.

It’s also a reminder that violent struggles in Somalia concern resources as well as political power.

Conclusion

To reiterate my opening point, every major faction in Somalia (with the potential exception of the Sufi militia Ahlu Sunna wal Jama, whose battles with al Shabab in November produced conflicting reports) seems to be facing problems of one kind or another, and no group appears to have clear momentum toward control of all of southern Somalia. In the meantime, the political and military stalemate continues to take a toll on Somali civilians. Their problems, which run the gamut from economic to environmental, could in turn produce more conflict in Somalia.

Saturday Africa Links: Kenya and Somalia, South Sudan, Chad, Mauritania, and More

After a recent al Shabab raid into Kenyan territory, Kenyan officials are investigating what happened. Meanwhile, heavy fighting broke out yesterday in Mogadishu. Garowe reports that al Shabab rejected a reconciliation offer from Hizbul Islam.

If you’re following Kenya’s Islamic courts controversy, here‘s another article worth reading.

The US threatens to withdraw Millennium Challenge Corporation grants from Senegal because of the country’s problems with corruption.

The UN, which has been making headlines a lot this week, expresses concern about South Sudan.

The United Nations estimates that 15 percent of the population of southern Sudan suffers from acute malnutrition, with women and children disproportionately affected.

On Thursday, [the UN's John] Holmes warned during a stop in the southern state of Warrap, that the situation would deteriorate in the coming months and “could jeopardise the final stages of the peace process.”

And in other Sudan news, South African President Jacob Zuma says Sudanese President Omar al Bashir will be arrested if he attends the World Cup.

The UN’s MINURCAT peacekeeping force will leave Chad later this year, and aid agencies are worried about the impact on refugee populations.

ReliefWeb looks at the food situation in Mauritania.

IRIN publishes an analysis of the recent interreligious violence in Jos, Nigeria.

Religion alone does not explain the crisis in Jos. Ethnicity, political power, discrimination and fears of cultural demise are other, powerful ingredients being stirred in what was once seen as a laid-back cosmopolitan city.

“The real divide is between indigenous people who claim it’s their land, and those they call settlers,” said Nelson Ananze of the NGO Community Action for Popular Participation (CAPP).

This seems to be the consensus explanation on this issue. I’ve been looking for a better term than “interreligious violence,” but haven’t found one yet. “Civil conflict”? “Settler-indigene struggles”?

What are you reading today?

Saturday Links: Niger Exodus, Ethiopia-Somalia Attacks, Guinea Elections

As famine continues in Niger, its people flee into Nigeria.

Ethiopian troops and Somalis skirmished on the border near a northern Somali town.

International Crisis Group looks at the divisions between al Shabab and Hizbul Islam.

And in the States, the White House met with the mayors of Minneapolis, Columbus, and Newark.

Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman and Newark Mayor Cory Booker were in Washington on Tuesday, as investigations continue around the country into alleged terrorist plots hatched at home. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak participated by telephone.

Possible online recruiting by overseas Somali terrorists is a concern in Columbus and Minneapolis because of their large Somali populations.

Guinea will hold elections on June 27, supervised by the military.

Colonel Nouhou Thiam, who heads a military task force set up to oversee the polls, said the army would “defend the territory of Guinea.”

He also promised the army would remain neutral during the elections.

More on this at VOA.

Later today I’ll have a roundup on the Ethiopian elections.

What are you reading?

Saturday Africa Links: Flintlock 10, Hizbul Islam Split, Nile Controversies

Christian Science Monitor discusses AFRICOM’s Flintlock 10 training exercise in the Sahel:

At one time, a military exercise like Operation Flintlock – which is now in its fifth year – would have set African opinion-page columns aflame and set a fair number of African politicians pounding on tables with their shoes. Some African nations worried that the newly announced but vaguely defined Africa Command (AFRICOM) of the US Army would herald a new colonial presence in Africa, complete with permanent military bases and political interference.

But today, AFRICOM’s military exercises often pass with little notice, and increasingly with the support of African leaders. In part, this is because African leaders now see a common threat: armed violent groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which have carried out a series of murders and kidnappings from Mauritania to Algeria to Niger and threaten to topple any government that dares confront them.

AQIM might have brought a change in attitudes. Or maybe the passage of time has softened criticism. More on Flintlock 10 here and here.

Speaking of AQIM, they’ve abducted another Frenchman in northern Niger.

One of Somalia’s two main Islamist rebel groups, Hizbul Islam, is facing a schism:

An influential splinter group has officially cut it ties with the Somalia’s militant, Hizbul Islam, vowing to wage war against rival Islamist group.

Abdiaziz Hassan Abdi, a spokesman for the Ras Kamboni faction, says senior faction members including Sheikh Ahmed Mohammed Islam ‘Madobe have decided to formally walk out of Hizbul Islam.

I’ll try and write a full post on this next week. I would love to hear any insights from readers.

The UN to hold a conference on Somalia. Meanwhile, IRIN updates us on the economic effects of the pirates’ departure from Harardheere. (Can we standardize the spelling of this town? Is it Haradhere, Harardhere, Harardheere, or Xharadhere, or something else?)

Vincent Ogbulafor, chairman of Nigeria’s ruling People’s Democratic Party, will resign next month.

The AP profiles Juba, South Sudan.

US Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration’s testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Food shortages in Burkina Faso affect livestock as well as people, producing a cycle of loss.

Controversy continues around a water-sharing agreement in Nile Basin countries. More here, and below is a video from Al Jazeera English:

Somali Journalists Face Murder, Threats

Being a journalist in Somalia is dangerous, and anyone who follows the situation there owes a debt of gratitude to the courageous Somalis who bring information to their countrymen and to the outside world. I was saddened to hear of a prominent journalist’s death last week, and alarmed to hear about exiled Somali journalists receiving threats even after leaving the country.

Here’s the Committee to Protect Journalists on last week’s murder:

Three gunmen shot dead veteran broadcast journalist Sheik Nur Mohamed Abkey on Tuesday evening as he was returning home from work at the state-run Radio Mogadishu, local journalists told CPJ. Gunmen abducted Abkey, left, near his residence in Wardhigley, southern Mogadishu, and shot him repeatedly in the head. Local journalists said they suspect Abkey was tortured after finding his body dumped in an alleyway in Wardhigley.

Al-Shabaab insurgents phoned journalists at Radio Mogadishu on Tuesday evening to tell them they had killed Abkey, local journalists told CPJ. Journalists at Radio Mogadishu said they suspect he was killed for his affiliation with the government-run station. Most local radio stations in the capital, Mogadishu, did not report the incident, fearing retribution by the insurgents, local journalists told CPJ.

“The brutality of this murder is shocking even by the standards of Somalia, which is the most dangerous country in Africa to be a journalist,” said CPJ’s Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “All warring factions in Somalia must respect the civilian status of journalists in conflict areas.”

Abkey, said by the station to be in his early 60s, was a news monitor and researcher for Radio Mogadishu and helped coach the younger staff. “He was my mentor, he taught all of us, but at the same time he was so humble and friendly,” one local journalist who asked to remain anonymous out of fear for his safety told CPJ.

This murder contributes to the tremendous pressure Somali journalists, especially radio broadcasters, face on a regular basis. In April, for example, Hizbul Islam forbade Mogadishu radio stations from playing music, prompting government personnel to threaten stations that cooperated with closure, saying that those stations were collaborating with the Islamists. Somali journalists have few friends, it seems.

The deaths of Somali journalists inside Somalia are tragic, though not surprising. But in even grimmer news, Somali journalists in exile are being threatened:

Fourteen Somali journalists exiled in Kenya said Thursday they are receiving repeated death threats from the hardline Somali Islamist group, the Shebab.

The journalists spent Wednesday night camped outside the headquarters of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Nairobi to publicise their plight.

The threats take the form of phone calls, emails and text messages, some of the journalists said.

[...]

“We left Somalia for fear of being killed and it’s unfortunate to see this harassment continuing now that we have found refuge in a neighbouring country,” said another journalist, asking not to be named.

By threatening journalists in Kenya, al Shabab is both asserting its capabilities to assassinate targets across borders and revealing that it considers journalism – even done from the outside – a major threat to its own agenda. I hope that al Shabab’s threats are just talk, but that seems naive; if and when Islamists gun down Somali exiles in Nairobi streets, it will signal a grisly escalation of the information war as well as the civil war more broadly.

More information at the National Union of Somali Journalists, and CPJ has a video about Somali journalists in exile.

Somalia: Islamists and Pirates in Kismayo and Harardheere

With turmoil in multiple coastal Somali cities, it’s getting hard to keep track of who’s doing what. Here’s my attempt to say who all the actors are and what they’re doing.

The Indian Ocean coast of Somalia has various important ports, including Mogadishu, the southern port of Kismayo, and a town called Harardheere, a base for pirate operations. Somalia also has two major Islamist rebel factions, al Shabab and Hizbul Islam, who are rivals. This rivalry owes partly to a struggle between the two groups over Kismayo that broke out in the fall (al Shabab ultimately retained control over the city). Now the rivalry has spread to Harardheere.

Last week news reports said that al Shabab was advancing on Harardheere. VOA stated that al Shabab had captured several towns in the region, and that attacking the pirate stronghold offered the chance to punish pirates for disrupting weapons shipments and also to solidify control over a key route to the capital. Al Shabab at least briefly entered Harardheere. This was not the first time al Shabab had invaded the city – it came there in 2008 and its predecessors in the Union of Islamic Courts cracked down on piracy in 2006.

The plot thickened over the weekend, though, when Hizbul Islam took Harardheere. Competition between Hizbul Islam and al Shabab partly motivated the move:

Mohamed Abdi Aros, Hizbul Islam’s head of operations, confirmed that his fighters had entered the town. He claimed that locals had requested that they enter to provide security. Militants al-Shabab, Somalia’s most dangerous rebel group, sent scouts into the town earlier this month.

“Two days ago Hizbul Islam sent agents to the coastal towns saying they wished to move into the area before al-Shabab and demanded a slice of the business, but the pirate leaders ignored the request. That is why they moved in today,” said Abdiwali Gadid, a self-proclaimed pirate.

It’s not just Harardhere where competition is playing out. A mosque bombing in Kismayo, one of several recent mosque explosions in Somalia, may indicate that the inter-Islamist rivalry is entering a phase of severe, multi-city violence.

The victims in Saturday’s attack were mostly members of al Shabaab, an insurgent group linked to al Qaeda that has been fighting the Western-backed government since the start of 2007.

Another insurgent group, Hizbul Islam, is also battling to topple the administration of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, who is himself a former Islamist rebel.

It was still not clear who was behind the mosque blasts as no one has claimed responsibility. Residents suspected they could be the result of infighting between the insurgent groups.

As every news outlet stresses, control of ports means control over millions of dollars in revenue, and presumably affects the ability to import arms. The high stakes help explain the ferocity of the competition, which could increase if al Shabab makes a move against Hizbul Islam in Harardhere or if the violence in Kismayo continues. The pirates have, probably wisely, declined to engage either group militarily (I assume they do not have the manpower or the inclination – “live to plunder another day,” the logic may run). But with the pirates clearing out of one of their port strongholds that leaves the field to the Islamists, who may be aggressive enough – or desperate enough – to ramp up their internecine warfare another notch.

An AQAP Influx into Somalia?

Commanders of Al Shabab in Somalia and of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen have been talking about exchanging fighters for months now, but for the most part it seemed like just talk. This week I started hearing rumors about actual movement of AQAP personnel from Yemen to Somalia (first on Twitter from a private account, so no link), then in outlets like the Saudi Gazette. Now the story is hitting major US and international news outlets.

At least 12 al Qaeda members have crossed from Yemen into Somalia in the last two weeks, bringing money and military expertise to Somali rebels battling the Western-backed government, a senior Somali official said.

[...]

A smaller group — Hizbul Islam — which has an alliance with al Shabaab in Mogadishu, expressed its loyalty to al Qaeda on Wednesday for the first time and invited Osama bin Laden to Somalia.

“Our intelligence shows 12 senior al Qaeda officials came into Somalia from Yemen in the last two weeks,” said Treasury Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman, adding that he had been briefed by Somalia’s intelligence agencies.

“They were sent off to assess the situation to see if al Qaeda may move its biggest military bases to southern Somalia since they are facing a lot of pressure in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he told Reuters by telephone on Wednesday.

Osman did not say who the al Qaeda members were nor their positions in the organisation.

[...]“They brought money to al Shabaab which had been facing difficulties to recruit more fighters because of cash shortages,” Osman said.

Some of the foreign commanders had landed in airstrips in the south disguised as humanitarian workers and two were in Mogadishu, he said.

Hizbul Islam’s invitation to bin Laden is a non-story in my eyes. It may tell us something about Hizbul Islam’s rhetorical tactics for claiming the mantle of hardline Islam, and it may tell us something about the rhetoric of Islamist politics in Somalia in general, but jihadi groups around the world would all love to have bin Laden join them. I don’t think he’ll be showing up in southern Somalia any time soon, so it’s just talk too.

The reports of exchanges between AQAP and al Shabab have more meat to them. The story still needs further corroboration in my eyes, and the cynical might say that Somali government officials are seizing an opportunity to tout their anti-terrorism credentials, but if the story is true then it means the links between al Shabab and al Qaeda are getting a significant boost right now. The prospect of collaboration between militants on either side of the Gulf of Aden is unsettling, though AQAP seems to be largely on the defensive now, and al Shabab has not been able to make substantial headway against its foes in the last few months.

This movement between Yemen and Somalia also raises questions about the wisdom of Washington’s strategy in the “Global War on Terror”: what is the point of pushing Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan into Pakistan, out of South Asia into the Gulf, and out of the Gulf into the Horn of Africa? These guys will always go somewhere, no matter how much force the US directs at them. That doesn’t mean the US should give up and let Al Qaeda do whatever it wants, but it does say to me that what the US is doing is simply shifting militants around the globe, killing some of them (as well as scores of civilians), but not really solving problems.

Here’s a video from NTV Kenya on the current situation in southern Somalia. It will say little that is news for people who follow the conflict closely, but it gives a nice overview of some of the aspects of the crisis:

Somalia: Fragmentation Persists Even As Battle for Mogadishu Approaches

The pull of political fragmentation waxes in Somalia. The Transitional Federal Government looks unlikely to win a major victory in its assault on al Shabab, the TFG’s alliance with pro-government militia Ahlu Sunna looks shaky, and the conflict between al Shabab and Hizbul Islam continues.

AU Peacekeepers Prepare for Deployment to Somalia

AP reports on preparations for a battle in Mogadishu:

In signs the offensive is approaching, close to 1,000 additional troops arrived from Uganda last week to support the African Union’s forces in Mogadishu, and the Islamists have been digging trenches across the capital’s streets to impede AU armored cars. The AU backs the beleaguered Somali government and has more than 5,000 troops stationed in the country.

But Somalia’s government, whose forces are weak and poorly trained and equipped, has not described how it would consolidate any gains made in the offensive or win the support of the people, who are splintered into hundreds of clans.

Experts say the government does not appear to have a political plan ready to deploy after the end of the fighting, which is likely to kill scores of civilians.

Meanwhile, the TFG and its allies are not necessarily on the same page:

Doubts surround a recent pact with a militia faction aimed at consolidating the power of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia after a section of the militia leadership disowned the deal.

In a sign of leadership struggles within the Ahlu Sunna, the most prominent moderate Islamic group in Somalia, vice chairman Sheik Hassan Sheik Abdi convened a press conference in Nairobi’s Eastleigh area to denounce the purported agreement as well as question the leadership of his chairman, Sheikh Mahammud Sheikh Hassan, who was leading “a non-representative delegation” at the talks.

The agreement, signed this week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was aimed at bolstering efforts of the fledgling government to root out radical Islamic militias but protests by Ahlu Sunna Wal-Jamea leaders are likely to collapse the drive.

The latest turn of events cast doubts on earlier reports that ongoing talks between the pro-government Islamist group and the Africa Union-backed government had made headway after both parties agreed on certain issues.

But divisions within Ahlu Sunna and weakness within the TFG do not necessarily play to al Shabab’s advantage at a time when Islamists are still fighting each other:

Sheikh Daud Ali Hasan, a senior commander of al-Shabab, an armed group fighting to topple Somalia’s government, has been shot dead near Kismayo.

[...]Hizbul-Islam denied having a hand in the killing, but said it would step up attacks on Dhobley after a raid on Friday night in which it said it killed a number of al-Shabaab militants.

Neither the TFG nor al Shabab appears able to build consistent momentum toward defeating the other. Neither is stronger than it was six months ago, I would say. And with observers directing allegations of clannism at both, it’s possible that the claim each group most needs to make convincingly – “we can provide a blueprint for Somali unity” – is less and less tenable for either at this point. We’ll see what happens when and if the battle starts, but if neither can make or consolidate gains, the fighting could leave both groups weaker.

Saturday Links: Habre Trial, Next AQIM Summit, Wade’s Third Term, Qaddhafi and Nigeria

Another delay in trying Chad’s ex-leader Hissene Habre.

The Mali-Mauritania rift is still on:

Mauritania on Friday voiced disapproval of the choice of Mali’s capital Bamako to host the next summit on security in the Sahara and the Sahel nations, the foreign ministry said.

“While Mauritania agrees with the principle of holding this summit, it considers that it was premature to settle on a venue” during a diplomatic meeting of seven nations in Algeria on March 16, a ministry statement said.

The foreign ministry said that because of its opposition to Bamako, it “has not signed” the post-summit statement released after the Algiers gathering, which was devoted to coordinating regional efforts to fight terrorism.

Mauritania’s declaration came against a background of tension between the Nouakchott and Bamako governments, after Mali last month freed four Islamic radicals who were wanted by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). After these men were released, AQIM on February 23 freed a French hostage, Pierre Camatte.

Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade is confident he will win a third term in 2012.

IRIN on malnutrition in Niger.

Hizbul Islam vs. Ethiopia?

The Islamist fighters of Hizbul Islam in Hiran region in central Somalia have vowed that they would attack Ethiopian troops who reportedly reached at parts of the region recently, officials said on Friday.

Sheik Mohamed Wehliye Odowa, the spokesman of Hizbul Islam organization in Hiran region had held press conference in Beledweyn town said that Ethiopian troops had made military maneuver in parts of region asserting that they would assault for the coming hours.

And, last but not least, some diplomatic tensions: Nigeria recalls its ambassador to Libya over Muammar Qaddhafi’s comments about partitioning Nigeria; “Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has blasted the latest U.S. State Department human rights report, saying it is full of lies and loopholes that expose its authors to ridicule”; and the US denies reports about a possible US military intervention in Nigeria.

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