Africa News Roundup: Alleged Boko Haram Peace Talks Offer, Kismayo, Uganda and Somalia, Flooding in Niger, and More

A spokesman claiming to represent Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect has outlined conditions for peace talks with the federal government. Demands include holding the talks in Saudi Arabia and having former military ruler and presidential aspirant General Muhammadu Buhari as a mediator. Coverage from the Guardian, This Day,  Business Week, and News 24.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International released a new report, “Nigeria: Trapped in the Cycle of Violence,” on November 1, writing, “The brutal actions of Nigeria’s security forces in response to Boko Haram’s campaign of terror are making an already desperate situation even worse.”

Nigerian security forces reportedly killed thirty people in Maiduguri on Friday.

AP writes, “Weary from years of kidnappings, the inhabitants of Algeria’s rugged Kayblie mountains are finally turning against the al-Qaida fighters in their midst and helping security forces hunt them down. And that turnaround is giving Algeria its best chance yet to drive the terror network from its last Algerian stronghold.”

The BBC:

Nearly 400 people have been arrested in a major security operation in the Somali port city of Kismayo, officials there have told the BBC.

African Union troops, the Somali army and a pro-government militia gained control of the strategic port last month from al-Qaeda-aligned militants.

A militia spokesman told the BBC those arrested were believed to be supporters of the Islamist al-Shabab group.

Since al-Shabab’s withdrawal there have been frequent bombings in the city.

VOA: “Uganda is threatening to pull its troops from African peacekeeping missions, including the one in Somalia, because of a U.N. report that accuses Kampala of supporting Congolese rebels.”

IRIN on internally displaced people in Mogadishu.

Gambia has appointed its first female foreign minister, Susan Wafa-Ogoo.

Ethiopian Muslims continue their weekly Friday protests against alleged government interference in Muslim affairs.

IRIN writes that more flooding may occur in Niger.

What else is going on?

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.

Somalia’s New Constitution [Updated]

Somalia is completing a political transition – or what some analysts are calling “a transition to a transition.” The country’s leaders have missed certain deadlines. Yesterday, several weeks late, members of the Constituent Assembly voted overwhelmingly (621-13, with 11 members abstaining) to pass a new constitution, replacing the 2004 Transitional Federal Charter.

As the Christian Science Monitor writes,

Wednesday’s move is one of three key milestones on a “road map” to peace that includes a deadline of Aug. 20 for all of the current transitional government bodies to hand over power to permanent successors…Somalia’s leaders must before then also select a new 275-seat parliament and elect a new president.

You can read comments on the constitution’s passage from Somali government ministers and the president of the semi-autonomous Puntland region here, and comments from United Nations officials here.

I have not been able to find the text of the new constitution. (UPDATE: Commenter Quentin posted a link to this draft version of the constitution.) Of articles that I have seen, the BBC has provided the most detailed analysis of its provisions. The BBC waxes fairly pessimistic, saying that provisions ensuring universal education and banning female genital cutting – some of the planks that have attracted the most media attention – are going to be difficult to enforce. Even more seriously, core questions of how governance will work are left vague or unstated:

Somalia will have a federal system – however the status of Mogadishu, the borders and distribution of power and resources between the regions are yet to be decided.

[...]

This is where ferocious arguments are likely to develop, and possibly become violent.

If this happens, the transition process – in which so much time, money and hope has been invested – would simply cause the complexion of the Somali conflict to change, rather than bringing it to an end.

Pessimists (with whom I sympathize), then, are more doubtful about long-term success than they are about short-term transitional milestones. After all, chances look good that Somalia will hold presidential elections by August 20 or thereabouts, possibly resulting in the re-election of current President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.

CSM quotes one analyst who expresses the long-term challenges succinctly:

It will be years until national popular elections can be held, and analysts pointed out that the parliament would for some time be “selected rather than elected.”

“The new constitution is a major milestone in terms of the deadline of Aug. 20,” said Abdirashid Hashi, Somalia analyst with the Crisis Group’s bureau in Nairobi.

“But in terms of a true, good and democratic government for Somalia, it’s very far from that. Essentially, it’s handing over from one interim authority to another, from one transition to another.”

As a coda, it is worth mentioning the double suicide bombing that occurred outside the Assembly’s meeting place yesterday. One bomber was shot, and the other detonated his bomb, injuring several policemen. While the attack essentially failed, it symbolize’s the country’s continued instability and violence – as did a bombing at the rebuilt National Theater this April. Throughout 2012, the media has been reporting a renaissance and an economic boom in the capital Mogadishu, and my initial skepticism about those claims has slowly faded – yet, as one analyst told me, the gains in Mogadishu remain extremely vulnerable to politics (including the politics of violence).

The National Theater as a Symbol in Somali Politics and Western Press Narratives

Tuesday, March 20 (Reuters):

In the roofless, bullet-ridden building that houses Mogadishu’s National Theatre, Somali musicians staged a concert for the first time in 20 years, a sign of a marked improvement in security in the war-ravaged Horn of Africa country.

Under pressure from African Union and Somali troops, al Qaeda-linked militants withdrew from Mogadishu in August prompting a return to relative calm in the capital, although the rebels still manage to launch sporadic attacks.

Wednesday, April 4 (New York Times):

Outside, on Mogadishu’s streets, the thwat-thwat-thwat hammering sound that rings out in the mornings is not the clatter of machine guns but the sound of actual hammers. Construction is going on everywhere — new hospitals, new homes, new shops, a six-story hotel and even sports bars (albeit serving cappuccino and fruit juice instead of beer). Painters are painting again, and Somali singers just held their first concert in more than two decades at the National Theater, which used to be a weapons depot and then a national toilet. Up next: a televised, countrywide talent show, essentially “Somali Idol.”

Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, which had been reduced to rubble during 21 years of civil war, becoming a byword for anarchy, is making a remarkable comeback.

Wednesday, April 4 (AP):

Two weeks ago, Somalia’s National Theater reopened for the first time in 20 years for a concert that drew an audience in festive colors in a city trying to rise above war. A welcoming banner proclaimed: “The country is being rebuilt.”

On Wednesday, the theater was turned into a scene of screams, chaos and blood when a suicide bomber attacked another high-profile event, killing 10 people, wounding dozens and shattering a tentative peace in the capital of Mogadishu.

Maybe Mogadishu is in the early stages of a renaissance. Maybe Somalia is still a very dangerous and unpredictable place, whose would-be government is still a mess mostly propped up by regional and international powers. Maybe both. The point about the theater is, though, that if you – as a government or a news outlet – want to use a symbol in making your political argument, then others might decide to use that same symbol in making their (very different) political argument.

Only fifteen days elapsed between the re-opening and the bombing. What does the theater symbolize now? The fragility of the Somali government’s claims to progress, I would say.

Somalia: Al Shabab’s Post-“Withdrawal” Bombings in Mogadishu

Last August, the southern Somali rebel movement Al Shabab announced a “tactical withdrawal” from the country’s capital Mogadishu. The move occasioned celebration within the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the African Union Mission in Somalia, which supports the government. Many observers, however, predicted that conflict in Mogadishu would not cease, but would simply change character, shifting, in the words of Reuters’ Richard Lough, to “a wave of al Qaeda-style suicide attacks.”

That prediction has proven correct. By my count, there has been at least one suicide attack in Mogadishu per month since October, excepting January (October, November, December, February, March). Targets have included a hotel, government ministries, and the presidential palace. In January, a suicide attack targeted Ethiopian troops in Beledweyne. The latest suicide attack in Mogadishu, moreover, was followed earlier this week by mortar attacks on the presidential palace (see also here).

Mogadishu is not the only theater of conflict in Somalia – or East Africa – right now. Al Shabab has lost territory to Kenyan and Ethiopian forces since Kenya invaded Somalia in October. Kenya itself has seen some spillover from the conflict, with bombings in October and March in Nairobi (possibly linked to Al Shabab or to its sympathizers). Al Shabab has conducted raids into northern Kenya. Attacks in Kenya have real importance for the shape of the overall conflict involving Al Shabab. The bombers – if they are indeed affiliated with Al Shabab – perhaps hope to weaken Kenyan government resolve or turn ordinary Kenyans against the operation in Somalia.

In any case, I am not trying to rank the relative importance of bombings in different locations. But within the context of Somali politics, attacks in Mogadishu convey a particular message, both militarily (they show that military conflict is still ongoing in the capital), and symbolically (they underscore the TFG’s inability to secure the capital, and in some cases to protect its personnel). If the fall and winter provide any indication, more attacks in Mogadishu are yet to come, and al Shabab’s “withdrawal” is less meaningful than many hoped it would be.

Somalia Parliament Controversy

Will controversy in the Somali parliament, coming at a time of serious violence in the capital, further undermine the Transitional Federal Government? First, a look at the dispute among lawmakers:

Speaker Sheikh Aden Madobe said he had called on the country’s president to form a new government. A member of the parliament secretariat who did not want to be identified confirmed the vote’s outcome.

“280 voted against the government, 30 in favour and eight remained silent. Therefore we will request President Sheikh Sharif to form a government urgently,” Madobe told Reuters by telephone.

But events remained unclear, as some parliamentarians contradicted the speaker and said the vote never took place, and they would in fact be voting shortly on Madobe’s own position.

“We did not give him the opportunity to hold the vote of no confidence. Every MP was shouting at him, telling him ‘you are not the speaker’,” lawmaker Sheikh Ahmed Yusuf told Reuters.

Some analysts said the no confidence vote, if real, was unlikely to be taken seriously by President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed whose administration is fighting a war against Islamic militants and exerts very little central power.

Parliamentary business has been paralysed this year, with many legislators living in Kenya, Europe and America because of security fears. The chamber has also been split by a bitter feud over the term of the chamber’s speaker and his competence.

At least one observer argues the confusion in parliament plays to Islamist rebels’ advantage:

The escalating political struggle in Somalia will embolden hard-line Islamic insurgents, including al-Shabab, to launch fresh attacks to overthrow President Sheik Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s government, said political analyst Ali Abdullahi.

He described the ongoing Somali political power struggle as a constitutional crisis that needs immediate resolution.

[...]

Abdullahi said the “untouched” Somali national charter is to blame for the power struggle.

“The charter has not been refined at all, (and) the charter is vague on a number of issues. Right now, who has the power to convene parliament? It is the speaker of parliament. And, what he has done was to call his troops who are the parliamentarians and he has said, ‘Gentlemen, what is the agenda on the table?’ And, the agenda on the table was how efficient has the government been and they voted it (government) out, and the prime minister is out,” Abdullahi said.

He also said deep rifts exist between President Ahmed and Prime Minister Sharmarke, as well as deposed speaker of parliament Madobe.

Some accounts, including (as you can see) this one, are saying that Speaker Madobe’s opponents have already removed him.

As if to demonstrate how directly parliamentary discord can embolden Islamists, rebels launched mortars at the parliament while it was in session.

This moment will likely not decide much in Somalia’s politics, but it does show two things: that the TFG faces internal as well as external problems, and that Islamists are ready to capitalize on those problems. That combination contributes to the difficulties the TFG will encounter in trying to oust al Shabab from Mogadishu and suggests, bluntly, that the TFG could do itself in before outsiders do.

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.

Saturday Links: Radio in Somalia, Habré Trial, Southern Sudan, Mauritanian Education

VOA, one of my favorite sources for news on Africa, has been having a tough time in the Horn lately. First Ethiopia threatened to jam some of VOA’s broadcasts, and now al Shabab is banning VOA and the BBC in southern Somalia. Somalis will still have Radio Mogadishu though.

Speaking of Somalia, fewer refugees are heading to Yemen now in comparison with last year.

And speaking of Ethiopia:

A rebel group in Ethiopia’s southeastern Somali region has agreed to lay down arms after decades of guerrilla war, Communications Minister Bereket Simon announced Friday.

Leaders of the United Western Somali Liberation Front (UWSLF) had, after talks with the government, “accepted totally to abide by the constitution of Ethiopia and operate legally and abandon the armed struggle,” Bereket told a press conference.

[...]

Created in the 1970s, the UWSLF was active during the 1977-78 war for control of the Ogaden, in which Ethiopia defeated Somalia. But the rebel movement has seen many divisions and became increasingly inactive.

From what I understand the more powerful Ogaden National Liberation Front will continue fighting the Ethiopian government.

Senegal needs $38 million in assistance in order to try former Chadian President Hissène Habré “for crimes against humanity.” I hope they get the funding (more background here).

Three pieces on Southern Sudan: The Guardian has a photo essay on ethnic violence there, Reuters looks at oil troubles, and Reuters AlertNet rounds up expert views on the future of the region after Sunday’s elections.

Students for and against “Arabization” of education protest in Mauritania. And Arab nationalists in Mauritania “announced the setting up of an umbrella group whose ideological reference is the Libyan leader, Mouamar Kadhafi.”

In the Niger Delta, ex-militants debate a return to violence.

What news are you following today?

Uptick in Somalia/Mogadishu Fighting

News outlets are reporting dozens of casualties in Mogadishu after two days of fighting between the Transitional Federal Government and al Shabab. The fighting injured and displaced many others.

AP states that al Shabab initiated this round of fighting.

Militants attacking from the north on Wednesday reached to within a mile (2 kilometers) of the presidential place in the heart of the capital, Mogadishu, before African Union peacekeepers in tanks reinforced government troops, residents said.

[...]

Neither the Islamists or the U.N.-backed government can take and hold enough ground for a decisive victory.

The government is supported by around 5,300 African Union peacekeepers, whose tanks and armored vehicles help them to outgun the insurgents. The insurgents favor mobile hit-and-run attacks, using snipers and mortar fire to make it hard for the government’s poorly trained and irregularly paid soldiers to hold their position.

The peacekeepers used tanks to help government forces when the insurgents got within a mile of the presidential palace, said resident Omar Salad. Other residents confirmed his account.

This uptick in violence, then, does not mean that a planned TFG offensive against al Shabab has begun:

The government urged residents to vacate the areas where fighting had taken place as it planned to take on the rebels again, but said it had not yet started a long-awaited offensive to dislodge the insurgents from Mogadishu once and for all.

Nor has this round, as the quote above mentioned, produced a clear victor:

Both sides claimed victory after the fierce battles in the capital that had died down by late Thursday.

“We drove away al Shabaab and captured most of their strongholds in the north of Mogadishu,” Sheikh Yusuf Mohamed Siad, Somalia’s state minister for defence, told Reuters.

Al Shabaab’s spokesman said his fighters had set ablaze an armoured vehicle belonging to African Union troops.

What may be new – and I hope commenters will correct me if I’m wrong – is the intensity of involvement by AU troops not just on defense but on some degree of counter-offensive fighting as well. Al Jazeera English reports that “[recent] deaths occur[r]ed after government troops backed by African Union peacekeepers raided a position held by armed opposition in the north of the war-torn capital.”

Is the larger government offensive going to come? Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed says yes, and is open to Western backing. But for the moment, the TFG is still playing defense. Stalemate continues, with civilians once more bearing the brunt of the suffering.

Saturday Links: Polio in West Africa, US and Somalia, Niger Junta

The UN and its partners fight polio in West and Central Africa. And the WHO says Nigeria is making significant progress fighting the ailment.

Nigeria has struggled to contain polio since some northern states imposed a year-long vaccine ban in mid-2003. Some state governors and religious leaders in the predominantly Muslim north alleged the vaccines were contaminated by Western powers to spread sterility and HIV/AIDS among Muslims.

But traditional leaders throughout the country pledged in January 2009 to support immunisation campaigns and are pushing parents to have their children vaccinated, the WHO says.

“Traditional and religious leadership has facilitated us reaching more children. The number of cases has collapsed,” [WHO spokesman Rod] Curtis said, noting there was a total of 388 cases last year.

The US backs the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia in the buildup for the battle of Mogadishu.

A little stimulus for the Niger Delta?

Christian Science Monitor updates us on recent violence in Darfur.

Without a delicate balance, rainfall causes problems: too little and you get devastating drought, too much and you get flooding and disease.

The junta in Niger releases several detained politicians.

And to end on an uplifting note, here’s the story of Hicham Baraka, a Moroccan who runs a camp for migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

“In Muslim culture if someone knocks at your door and asks for bread or water, you give it,” Baraka said.

Baraka’s group provides food, clothes, and blankets to the migrants.

“They always came to this place with some food and they help us,” migrant Fred Ogbeifuu said. “So I use this opportunity to thank them. Mr. Hicham’s organization.”

The group also monitors human rights abuses and lobbies authorities to treat migrants better.

Baraka says because so many Moroccans migrate to Europe, Morocco should set a better example. “If Morocco attacks these migrants, it gives carte blanche for my brother in Spain, my brother in Belgium, for the authorities in Spain or Belgium or France or Italy to attack Moroccan immigrants,” he said.

Feel free to treat this as an open thread for Africa-related news and discussion.