Somalia: Military Reform Cannot Succeed Without Political Progress

AP has a nice article out on efforts to train the Somali military, which is technically commanded by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) but is mostly funded by the US, Italy, and others. The article notes that “Somalia’s armed forces — 10,000 soldiers, 5,000 police and assorted allied militias — have seen some improvements over the past year.” These improvements include new facilities and uniforms, payment methods designed to eliminate embezzlement, and closer contact between Somali soldiers and African Union (AU) peacekeepers. But the Somali military is still a deeply flawed institution:

In recent weeks Somali forces have shot civilians, each other, and looted food aid meant for famine-hit families. Yet these are the forces many aid agencies must rely on to protect vast amounts of food pouring into Somalia. They are also supposed to help the 9,000-strong African Union force secure the country’s capital after Islamist rebels withdrew from bases there this month.


But many now fear that with the Islamists gone, Somalia’s armed forces — still organized largely along clan lines — may simply fight each other and try to extort money from the civilians they are meant to protect.


Most Somali soldiers are loyal to individuals, not to the weak U.N.-backed Somali government, and most brigades are still organized along clan lines. Analysts say unless the government — widely perceived as divided and corrupt — must improve its performance and command loyalty.

That final line contains a typo, but it’s worth elaborating on the implied meaning, which is that military progress and political progress are inextricably linked. There are two points to make.

The first is that the TFG is a political mess. International Crisis Group wrote in February that the TFG “has squandered the goodwill and support it received and achieved little of significance in the two years it has been in office. It is inept, increasingly corrupt and hobbled by President Sharif’s weak leadership.” And that was before the ugly deal that Sharif and Speaker of Parliament Sharif Hassan Sheik Aden concluded in June, when they (with questionable legal basis) extended the TFG’s mandate and postponed presidential elections by a year (to August 2012). The deal also forced out Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, whose initial, public refusal to step down underscored how nasty the government’s infighting had become. If the TFG cannot resolve these crises and establish a legal footing that is credible at home and internationally, will it be able to run an effective military, even with massive outside help?

The second point is that the military’s brutality – which has, despite improvements, continued up to the present – undermines governance in TFG-controlled areas. Much of the commentary on Somalia’s civil war focuses on the brutality of the Shabab rebel movement, against which the TFG is fighting. There is no question that al Shabab frequently commits abuses against civilians. But as Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been pointing out since 2008, the TFG’s soldiers are no saints. This month, HRW’s report on the famine in Somalia assigned blame to all the major actors, saying their indiscriminate use of force was leaving civilians with no one to protect them:

All parties to Somalia’s armed conflict have committed serious violations of the laws of war that are contributing to the country’s humanitarian catastrophe…All sides have used artillery in the capital, Mogadishu, in an unlawful manner that has caused civilian casualties. Al-Shabaab has fired mortars indiscriminately from densely populated areas, and the TFG and AMISOM forces have often responded in kind with indiscriminate counterattacks. As a result, civilians have not known where to turn for protection. While al-Shabaab’s reported withdrawal from Mogadishu may bring some respite to civilians in the capital from the incessant fighting, future abuses are likely unless the warring parties take assertive measures to end them.

A government that does not offer basic protection, it seems to me, will have a hard time commanding more than superficial loyalty in Somalia.

What the TFG has then is a cycle where its political dysfunction exacerbates its military’s abuses, and the military abuses compound challenges of governance. And the political dysfunction, of course, owes much to the structure of the TFG as a government funded from the outside, staffed heavily by the diaspora, and imposed through a foreign (Ethiopian) military occupation. Those underlying problems are not going away. AP’s article ends with a quote by an AU trainer who gives a variation of the “when they stand up, we’ll stand down” line heard so often in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nothing is impossible – the TFG could rule over a prosperous and thriving Somalia five years from now – but given the government’s current problems, it seems unlikely that the Somali military will fully “stand up” any time soon.

I leave you with an Al Jazeera report on civilian suffering in Mogadishu:


Human Rights Watch on Somalia’s Civil War and Famine

If you thought the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces were the good guys in Somalia’s famine and civil war, Human Rights Watch has news for you:

All parties to Somalia’s armed conflict have committed serious violations of the laws of war that are contributing to the country’s humanitarian catastrophe, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. All sides should immediately end abuses against civilians, hold those responsible to account, and ensure access to aid and free movement of people fleeing conflict and drought.

The 58-page report, “‘You Don’t Know Who to Blame’: War Crimes in Somalia,” documents numerous abuses during renewed fighting in the past year by parties to the 20-year-long conflict in Somalia. These include the Islamist armed group al-Shabaab, the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the African Union peacekeeping forces (AMISOM), and Kenya- and Ethiopia-backed Somali militias. The report also examines abuses by the Kenyan police and crimes committed by bandits in neighboring Kenya against Somali refugees.

There are no good guys among the major players.

I imagine a lot of people feel that abuses by the TFG and AMISOM are “worth it” in the fight against al Shabab. But whatever territory the TFG gains, it will have to rule, and not just through force, but through politics. Abuses against civilians now will have long-term effects.

To demonstrate that point, this is not the first time Human Rights Watch has pointed to patterns of violence and abuse against civilians in Somalia. During the Ethiopian occupation of Somalia from late 2006 to early 2009, when Ethiopia was supporting the TFG, “the worst abuses [were] by Ethiopian soldiers…Ethiopians…often indiscriminately attacked civilian areas and looted hospitals.” I suspect the brutality of the Ethiopian occupation gave al Shabab a boost in the early days of its insurgency, driving recruitment and pushing civilians into the arms of al Shabab.

Today, al Shabab may be pulling back, and the TFG may be gaining ground, but the TFG’s behavior is quite possibly setting the stage for future conflict, whether in terms of a resurgence by al Shabab or the rise of another rebellion.

Somalia: What Does Al Shabab’s Withdrawal from Mogadishu Mean?

On Saturday, al Shabab, southern Somalia’s Islamic rebel movement, pulled out of the capital Mogadishu. For months, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and approximately 9,000 troops from the African Union Mission for Somalia (AMISOM) had been battling al Shabab block by block in the city. In July, Boubacar Diarra, the head of AMISOM, argued in Foreign Policy that the battle for Mogadishu demonstrated what the force could accomplish with donor support. Diarra did not reveal what AMISOM’s strategy would be after taking Mogadishu, except to say that if donors provided the means to increase the force to 20,000, AMISOM could drive al Shabab out of Somalia. Now that the conquest of Mogadishu is at least momentarily complete, a moment of truth has come for the TFG and AMISOM. What comes next?

First of all, it is not clear that al Shabab’s withdrawal from the capital presages their imminent defeat. The optimism Diarra projected in July is not shared, for example, by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, whose recent report (.pdf, p. 12) said:

The response of Al-Shabaab to military setbacks in Mogadishu, the central regions and the Juba Valley has been to aggressively expand its control over the southern Somali economy. Given its lack of popular support, political fractiousness and military limitations, Al-Shabaab’s greatest asset today is its economic strength. The Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea estimates that Al-Shabaab currently generates between US$ 70 million to US$ 100 million per year in revenue from taxation and extortion in areas under its control, notably the export of charcoal and cross-border contraband into Kenya. Given the corrupt and predatory practices of the Transitional Federal Government, many Somali businessmen find Al-Shabaab to be better for business, and from a purely commercial perspective have little interest in seeing the group displaced by the Government.


Al-Shabaab’s core leaders have also responded to domestic difficulties by seeking to align themselves more closely with foreign jihadist entities and to provide a platform for like-minded groups in the region. The July 2010 Kampala bombings were the first successful Al-Shabaab operation beyond Somalia’s borders. They also signalled a new and alarming trend, in which East African extremist groups inspired and mentored by Al-Shabaab, including the Muslim Youth Centre in Kenya, might represent the next generation of extremist threats in East Africa and the wider region.

Reuters’ Richard Lough argues that al Shabab’s withdrawal indicates that within its divided leadership, the “international wing influenced by foreign fighters who favor guerrilla tactics like suicide bombings…won the day.” This wing’s victory, Lough adds, “could herald a wave of al Qaeda-style suicide attacks.” Whether or not that prediction proves true, the widespread reports of divisions within al Shabab suggest the movement’s tactics may soon change, making a conventional military campaign against them more difficult.

It is also not clear that al Shabab has left the capital for good. Ali Mohamud Rage, a spokesman for group, promised that al Shabab would return, and some analysts take him at his word. Mogadishu remains vulnerable in part because of the TFG’s own operational and political weakness:

The rebels’ departure from the capital offers no guarantee that Somalia’s weak transitional government, which has let innumerable other opportunities slip through its fingers, will be able to gain control of Mogadishu, or that the city’s population will rally behind the government. The Transitional Federal Government has been propped up by millions of dollars of Western aid, including American military aid, but its leaders remain ineffectual, divided and by many accounts corrupt.


Mogadishu residents said that emissaries of various warlords were beginning to identify bases in the neighborhoods that the Shabab had just vacated, which could spell another problem for the troubled government.

Al Shabab may not even be completely gone. Reports say al Shabab was still launching some attacks in Mogadishu over the weekend.

The complications the TFG faces – guerrilla attacks from al Shabab, difficulty controlling Mogadishu, and a vast expanse of unconquered territory in southern Somalia – lead James Gundun to say that while al Shabab’s insurgency may have peaked, he expects prolonged and brutal fighting ahead if the TFG tries to push further into rebel territory.

Reinforcing the TFG’s military challenges are its political problems. Its legal mandate was set to expire this month, though a deal signed in Kampala in June delayed presidential elections for a year and temporarily resolved a dispute between President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and Speaker of Parliament Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden. The Kampala Accord bought the TFG some time, but also paraded the government’s weakness and internal fractures before the world. Donor confidence was waning earlier this summer, and even the victory in Mogadishu is unlikely to completely restore it. The clock is ticking on the time the TFG has left to show the international community that it can not only fight, but govern. As Ambassador David Shinn told the US Congress in July,

If [the TFG] cannot make significant progress by the end of its extended mandate, it is difficult to imagine there will be any support left for it in the international community. Many in the Somali-American diaspora and anumber of American scholars who follow the situation in Somalia have already given up on the TFG. I have not heard, however, from those who want to end support for the TFG an acceptablealternative entity to work with in Somalia. Nevertheless, if the TFG continues its internal squabbles and fails to make progress, I may find myself joining this group in August 2012 when there would hopefully be an acceptable alternative.

The “significant progress” that Shinn and others want to see would involve, I think, political progress even more than military progress. A lack of political will, in other words, could undo any gains made on the battlefield.

As the TFG attempts to consolidate its gains in Mogadishu and al Shabab pulls back to re-evaluate its tactics, something in Somalia’s civil war has definitely changed. But whether that change favors the TFG in the long run remains to be seen.

Somalia: PM Mohamed Resigns Amid Complaints about Ugandan Influence

In Somalia, an ugly political dispute has ended in the resignation of the country’s prime minister. This development came only after street protests backing the prime minister, who initially refused to step down. His ouster has some Somalis, especially in the diaspora, complaining that Uganda is playing too strong of a role in their country’s politics. This in turn fuels sentiments that the TFG lacks any real legitimacy or autonomy.

Kampala, Uganda

Kampala, Uganda

First, some background:

Recent political infighting within Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) made rifts between President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and Speaker of Parliament Sharif Hassan Sheik Aden a cause for regional concern. The dispute centered on whether to hold presidential elections in August 2012 (the president’s preference) or August 2011 (the speaker’s preference, and the original date for the expiration of the TFG’s current mandate). Deadlock on this issue threatened to undermine military progress that the TFG and the African Union Mission for Somalia (AMISOM) are making against the rebel group al Shabab in the capital Mogadishu.

The crisis was resolved with the signing of the “Kampala Accord” in Uganda’s capital on June 9, but resolution came at the price of the resignation of Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, whom the president appointed only eight months ago. The president will keep his job, but the speaker scored a victory in removing an important rival.

The strong role Uganda played in brokering the accord – Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni “will guarantee the implementation of this agreement,” one article reads (full text available here*) – reflects Uganda’s already strong role in Somali politics generally. Uganda supplies the largest number of troops to AMISOM; indeed, Uganda and Burundi supply almost all of AMISOM’s troops. President Museveni, who has been in power since 1986 and recently won re-election in February, is a figure with clout in the region. His influence was on display after the agreement. The New York Times writes, “In the end, according to several analysts, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, forced him to step aside. Uganda plays a bit of a kingmaker role in Somalia.”

Perceptions of increasing Ugandan influence in Somali politics have prompted complaints in different segments of the Somali political class. Kenya’s Daily Nation reports, “Somalis in the diaspora have continued to stage demonstrations in the US, Europe and other parts of Africa, especially in Kenya and Uganda, supporting Mr Mohamed’s position on the Kampala Accord. Somali MPs meeting in Nairobi took issue with the PM’s resignation terming the Kamapala Accord illegal.” An even more explicit complaint comes from the Somali publication Garowe, which even before Mohamed’s resignation published an editorial rejecting the Kampala Accord. Garowe assigns Uganda a primary role in bringing about the Accord, which Garowe says

in effect, is a new constitution. There is no parliament (as the Accord revokes parliament powers) and there is no president (as the president, similar to a parent-child relationship, is repeatedly given orders and chastised under the terms of the Accord). Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signs the document as a witness, but also as an enforcer.

Whatever one’s position on the desirability of the Accord or the role Uganda plays in Somalia, I think these complaints about Uganda are significant. President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed is already perceived in many quarters as illegitimate. His success in delaying elections and remaining in power will, indeed, heighten that perception, as will the feeling that Somali politics is subservient to the calculations and interests of outsiders. In many ways, there is nothing new in this: the TFG and its predecessors have long been widely seen as illegitimate transplants dominated by the diaspora and by outsiders. But the Kampala Accord and its aftermath seem to have left a particularly sour taste in many mouths, and the anger over this deal may persist for some time to come, targeting Somali as well as foreign leaders.

*I am not familiar with the site that hosts this document, but I believe the document to be credible.

Somalia: It’s Not Just the TFG That Has Problems, It’s AMISOM Too

In Somalia, the joint forces of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) are making military progress against the Islamist rebel group al Shabab. The TFG’s internal political problems, especially a dispute over election scheduling between the president and the speaker of parliament, regularly make the news. Yesterday, though, saw the appearance of several reports on problems within AMISOM. These problems, which could disrupt the force’s capacity in Somalia, concern Uganda and Burundi, the two countries that supply near all of AMISOM’s troops (Uganda contributes around 5,000, Burundi around 4,000).

The Ugandan government is upset at the UN’s approach to the TFG’s infighting, and is threatening to withdraw its soldiers:

President Museveni yesterday warned that Uganda would withdraw its troops from Mogadishu if UN-pushed presidential and parliamentary elections in Somalia spark renewed assault by al-Shabaab militants.

“This may allow the extremists to re-organise and cause problems, and also undermine the battlefield gains we have made. We can’t allow to be in that situation,” he said at the ongoing 19th International Contact Group on Somalia conference in Kampala.

“If the current system collapses, or if it is seriously undermined, we can have no justification to stay in that situation—we will leave Somalia,” he added.


President Museveni told the conference that the mandate of the Sheik Sharif-led Transitional Federal Government (TFG) – due to expire in two months – should instead be extended by a year.
“We believe that to have a win-win situation, we should allow the TFG complete their tasks, after all Somalia has been unstable for the last two decades. Why should one year be a big issue?”

With this statement, Museveni has taken sides in the TFG”s internal disputes, backing the president’s position over the speaker of parliament’s. Museveni’s threat, even he does not seriously intend to withdraw troops and is only trying to apply political pressure, raises the stakes for the TFG, the UN, and Somalia as a whole.

Burundi’s soldiers in AMISOM, meanwhile, have a different problem, but one that also undermines the stability of AMISOM: they are not getting paid.

The five months of arrears total an estimated $20m (£12m) for the nearly 4,000 Burundian peacekeepers.

Burundi’s army spokesman Col Gaspard Baratuza said the African Union had paid the money into the Bank of the Republic of Burundi.

But he said the central bank had not disbursed the salaries to the soldiers.

The soldiers, needless to say, are not happy. What happens when their frustration reaches the boiling point?

Between Uganda’s threats to pull out and Burundi’s disgruntled soldiers, AMISOM’s durability is looking a little bit less secure. These problems may not be enough to shatter the force, but combined with the TFG’s problems the situation in Somalia seems to be getting more and more uncertain. That uncertainty could be an opportunity for al Shabab, currently on the defensive, to mount a comeback.

A Pyrrhic Victory in Mogadishu?

In Somalia, the forces of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) are poised to take control of Bakara Market, a key rebel-held position in the capital of Mogadishu (see here and here). Analysts are saying that control of Bakara could translate into a decisive advantage within Mogadishu, but that the TFG/AMISOM victory over al Shabab rebels could cause more problems than it solves.

The push toward Bakara has already come with costs, including disruptions for the traders there. Some fear that as fighting continues, casualties will run high among both fighters and civilians.

That’s not the only problem with the campaign. At Reuters, Richard Lough argues that military control will not automatically bring about political progress:

Winning Mogadishu might expand the government’s capital prison a little, but it is unlikely to bring any tangible peace to the rest of the nation.

“Has enough emphasis been put on a political strategy of holding that territory and putting in a civilian administration which is acceptable, legitimate and can provide minimal services that help win hearts and minds?” said Rashid Abdi, Somalia analyst at the International Crisis Group.

For now, the answer appears to be no.

The United Nations’ patience is running out with Somalia’s bickering leaders who are locked in acrimonious feud about what should happen when the government’s mandate runs out in August.

Some donor aid, the Somali government’s life support machine, could be pulled if the president and speaker of parliament, who covets the top job, fail to overcome their differences, Security Council members have said.

AMISOM also says the political row is undermining military gains in the capital. The aim is to capture the capital and install a government that can at least make progress and demonstrate to the rest of the country that peace is viable.

Since the TFG’s offensive began several months ago, I’ve argued that the military campaign is a political campaign too: the TFG hopes to prove its viability to its international backers. As Lough points out, though, progress on the battlefield will not mean as much when the civilian government is racked by infighting and corruption.

Lough adds that, as far as the rebels are concerned, losing control of Mogadishu

would deal a major psychological blow to al Shabaab, but it would not be a mortal blow to the four-year insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives.

The militants hold sway over much of central and southern Somalia and can lean on other sources of revenue, including taxes from ports under their control and a cut of some ransoms paid to pirate gangs.

Whether or not the TFG takes Bakara, August will be a major turning point for Somalia’s would-be government. The continued progress of the offensive could make some difference to the TFG’s political fortunes, but it seems that much will depend on whether the TFG addresses its internal flaws as well.

Somalia: The TFG and Its Partners Stumble Toward 2012

Despite deepening dissatisfaction among international donors regarding Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the would-be state will likely stick around for at least another seventeen months.

Following an extraordinary meeting held in Mogadishu on Sunday afternoon, the cabinet of the transitional federal government of Somalia resolved an extension of one year for all the Transitional Federal Institutions (TFIs).

According to the government spokesman, Mr Abdi Haji Gobdon, the ministers considered the current situation in Somalia and decided to propose an extension for a period of one year for the parliament, cabinet, presidency and the judiciary, effective 21st of August this year.

The extension will last till August 2012 to give the Somali government an opportunity to deliver on promises made to secure a number of pending tasks.

The delay also means postponing presidential elections scheduled for this August. The postponement plays into the TFG’s internal politics, favoring a faction led by incumbent President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed over a rival faction that had hoped to defeat him at the polls.

How will the TFG’s decision affect its relations with the international community? On the one hand, the extension may receive a poor welcome in Washington, London, and elsewhere. The adoption of this one-year extension follows the Transitional Federal Parliament’s decision, taken in February, to grant itself a three-year extension. That move disgruntled the US, the UK, and the UN, among others. On the other hand, world powers who are at their wits’ end in seeking a solution for Somalia’s twenty-year crisis may be quietly relieved to put hard choices and confrontations off by a year. I predict they will allow the extension to stand.

Going forward, then, a major factor in the TFG’s international popularity will be its fight against the Islamist rebel force al Shabab. The TFG’s current offensive against al Shabab (undertaken in partnership with the African Union Mission for Somalia or AMISOM) is not only a military operation, it is a political performance for a world audience. As the TFG has made some recent progress, more support appears to be forthcoming. Uganda and Burundi will send 4,000 more troops to Somalia, significantly boosting the 8,000-strong force already in the fight. One source also reports that the EU will donate $93 million to AMISOM (though note, for what it’s worth, that this money will not go directly to the TFG). Assuming world powers grudgingly accept the extension, the next year and a half will likely tie the TFG’s political prospects to its performance on the battlefield.