In the past weeks, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has pushed back the Shabab rebel movement in the capital Mogadishu and in surrounding areas. The TFG has, according to reports, reclaimed much territory long held by al Shabab. The battles on the ground mirror a struggle in the international political arena: the TFG’s fight to demonstrate its value and legitimacy as the would-be central power in Somalia.
One of the TFG’s core goals is to bring Mogadishu and southern Somalia under government control, and TFG officials have long promised to carry out a decisive offensive in the capital. It does not seem accidental that this assault, which is one of the most sustained and effective yet, comes only months before the TFG”s mandate is set to expire (in August), and comes amidst major international image problems for the TFG. The military success the TFG achieves on the battlefield may translate into political success, as the TFG and its members look toward the next round of decision-making about the structure of official governance in Somalia.
We can see the political and symbolic aspect of the TFG’s offensive at work in President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s recent visit to the front:
The president wearing the military dress had visited more new bases of the AMISOM and the transitional government troops that seized recently mainly Warshadaha Street where the heaviest clashes happened in the past recent days talking more with the AMISOM troops for the strategy and how they would take over whole control of the Somali capital from hands of Al-shabab.
[…]It was the first time that president Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed visited the frontlines of the fighting in Mogadishu since the joint military operations of AMISOM and the government soldiers started for plans the government wants to take control of the Somali capital Mogadishu.
Sheikh Ahmed also held at least one press conference to emphasize the offensive’s progress.
Regional politics are also at work in the offensive. The Economist‘s Baobab blog writes that
There was probably also some connection between the AU advance and the general election in Uganda on February 18th. Most of the frontline troops in Mogadishu are Ugandan. Last year the Shabab attacked Uganda with sucide bombers. For domestic political reasons it was important for the President Yoweri Museveni to show voters that their troops were hammering the fanatics on election day.
Kenya and Ethiopia, for their part, have deployed troops along their borders to prevent a spillover of the conflict (and potentially, in Ethiopia’s case, to intervene in border zones). The fight in Somalia may not have the same electoral resonance in Kenya and Ethiopia that it does in Uganda, but those countries will be watching to see how the TFG performs in its closing months, and sentiments about the TFG in Kenya and Ethiopia will affect Somalia’s future.
I am not saying that the TFG’s leaders are cynics; I think they are fighting al Shabab because of convictions. But the conflict taking place in Mogadishu is both a military struggle and an attempt – perhaps the last major one – to demonstrate the TFG’s political relevance.