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’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.
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.
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.
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.