Human Rights Watch released a new report Wednesday entitled “Somalia: Pro-Government Militias Executing Civilians.” The report points to key problems in the Transitional Federal Government (TFG)’s campaign to reclaim areas held by the rebel movement al Shabab: brutality, sloppiness, and administrative ambiguity.
The TFG is assisted by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and coordinates in many ways with the forces of Kenya and Ethiopia, both present in Somalia. These groups have pushed al Shabab out of a great deal of territory in southern Somalia since last August, when al Shabab partly withdrew from the capital Mogadishu, and particularly since last October, when Kenya invaded. Yet the TFG’s chronic problem – establishing political control and goodwill in areas it controls – has surfaced in these newly reconquered areas as well.
Pro-government militias in Somalia have committed summary executions and torture in the towns of Beletweyne and Baidoa since occupying them with Ethiopian forces earlier in 2012, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should take immediate steps to stop the abuses and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said.
On December 31, 2011, the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and two Somali militia groups – Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a (ASWJ) and Shabelle Valley State (SVS) – ousted the militant Islamist group al-Shabaab from Beletweyne, the capital of the Hiraan region, which borders Ethiopia. Ethiopian troops and militias allied with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia took over Baidoa, the capital of the Bay region, on February 22, 2012.
Civilians told Human Rights Watch that since the transition, security has become worse in both towns due to abusive security operations by allied forces and, in the case of Beletweyne, rising tensions between militias vying for control. Although al-Shabaab no longer controls either town, its forces continue to attack the Ethiopian and other forces and target civilians perceived to support them.
One could say that these are pro-government militias and outside fighters, and not the government itself. One could also say that al Shabab is notorious for abuses against civilians. Both points would be true. But a would-be government hoping to establish rule in new turf can ill afford to have its allies alienating civilian populations. The actions of those who act in the name of the TFG reflect on the TFG.
Flashing back to 2008, when Ethiopia was occupying Somalia, we see the same kinds of problems. Ethiopia invaded in 2006 to topple the Union of Islamic Courts, which held Mogadishu, and they left in 2009 with the TFG nominally in control. But Ethiopia’s brutality, the rallying cry provided by the presence of foreign troops on Somali soil, and the fragmentation of the Courts Union helped spur the rise of al Shabab, formerly the youth wing of the Courts but now a self-standing group, one with ambitions to act as Al Qaeda’s chapter in Somalia.
I do not believe there is a one-to-one equation in which brutality by the Somali government and its allies drives people straight into the arms of al Shabab. But I do believe that such violence has serious political repercussions: namely the violence seems to ensure that many people will have little or no faith in the TFG and will, indeed, fear it just as much as they fear other groups. Somalia looks ahead now to an uncertain transition in August, when the TFG’s mandate technically expires. Core political questions – who controls what, and how – remain not only unresolved, but also grimly contested. And as happens so often, civilians find themselves tossed about between Sylla and Charybdis.