Mogadishu still not a safe place

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As Somalia celebrates the first anniversary of the end of the transition, there is concern about the perceived slowdown in the fight against the Islamic militant group Al-Shabaab.

Andrews Atta-Asamoah has just returned from a visit to Somalia and says the security situation in Mogadishu is still precarious, even though a lot of progress has been made. He says the decision by the humanitarian organisation Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) to pull out of Somalia after 22 years in the country could be seen as a coded message to those who are considered to be too lenient towards Al-Shabaab.

In the last few months since the inauguration of the new government in August last year, there has been cautious optimism that peace is now a real possibility in Somalia. Was it safe to visit Mogadishu?

For many Somalis travelling on their own it is much safer than in the past. But for foreigners and those attached to the United Nations (UN) and the African Union Mission for Somalia (AMISOM) there are a number of critical no-go areas.

AMISOM is largely controlling four sectors in Somalia, including Mogadishu, where it has succeeded in creating a huge buffer around the airport, known as the Mogadishu International Airport (MIA). Within this secure area you find a number of UN agencies, diplomatic missions like the British embassy and other international actors. If you need to go out of this well-protected area, you often need to go with a convoy of the African Union (AU).

It sounds as if the foreign military force in Somalia could be perceived as an ‘occupying force’, huddled around the airport, a bit like the US forces in Iraq. Is this true?

One has to understand the context. Everywhere you find a UN presence; there are very strict security measures. The MIA is the most protected area because of the UN and AMISOM presence, although AMISOM is also deployed in strategic parts of town. It protects the university and sport stadium. But even its convoys get attacked from time to time.

Generally, though, I think the security situation has improved greatly from what we know Somalia used to be, but it is still very far from what one would expect in a stable country in Africa.

Does that mean the 18 000 soldiers of AMISOM are not as effective on the ground as one is led to believe?

In a place like Mogadishu, for instance, AMISOM was able to deliver 80% of Mogadishu to the government. However, we still see significant attacks from Al-Shabaab, largely due to the guerrilla tactics of the group. When you move out of the city you find less and less government presence, especially in the south-central parts of the country.

MSF has announced its withdrawal from the country after 22 years in Somalia. Although 16 MSF staff members have been killed in Somalia, this doesn’t come after any specific attack, so why withdraw now?

It’s very interesting because MSF has been in Somalia even at times where there was no government. From the official communication from the president of MSF, one gets a sense he is blaming the civilian leadership for condoning some of the attacks on MSF staff. I think it is a coded message that speaks to a perception in the larger Somali community that there has been a slowdown in the fight against Al-Shabaab. There is also a perception that some of the leadership in the current government do not seem to have the appetite for sustaining the tough military onslaught against Al-Shabaab.

Why would there be a slowdown?

Some people believe the slowdown is because there are individuals in the current government belonging to the Damul Jadid (‘new blood’) faction of Al-Islah, and who are generally lenient towards Al-Shabaab. Even if these individuals are not necessarily supporting them in any way, there is a sense that there is a lack of willingness to directly continue confronting them and to continue to use the military approach.

When the president was elected last year, he also decided to change many leaders in key positions, including those leading the onslaught against Al-Shabaab in the security sector. This ended up slowing down the whole fight against Al-Shabaab, which could be an unintended consequence of something the government was doing in good faith. Another important aspect is that AMISOM is overstretched.

What does this mean in terms of the humanitarian situation on the ground in Somalia?

It is going to be very difficult for any other humanitarian organisation to step in and take over MSF’s role. There are other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) present in Somalia, but they also have challenges. The NGOs from Turkey were perceived to be very neutral and they made a point of not being identified with the UN and being only in Somalia to help their Islamic brothers and sisters, but we recently saw a hit on a Turkish convoy and an attack on the Turkish embassy, so it is becoming more difficult for them as well.

The federal government of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was established on 20 August 2012. One year on, things are not looking that good for the government.

The withdrawal of MSF and the announcement by the Puntland government that it is cutting ties with the government are signs that all is not well. It puts a lot of pressure on Mogadishu to do things differently or else it is going to be very difficult for it to sustain its credibility in the eyes of the people for four years.

There has also been strife between the central government and the local leaders in Kismayo.

The new constitution provides for a federal system, but there is disagreement over who should drive the formation of these federal states, the central government or the local administration.

Clearly, the government also finds itself in the context of being constantly in the middle of a push from the international community on the one hand, and a local pull on the other. In its bid to attract international attention and to reposition the country, it appears to be doing more internationally, instead of doing things to please its local constituency.

What about the promises of the new government to root out corruption?

One year on, corruption persists. If you look at the recent report by the UN-monitoring group, there are indications that disbursements from the Central Bank still pass through individual hands and not through any specific government institutions. One gets a sense that it is not necessarily corruption but a lack of strong institutions on the ground. Some of these things should have changed by now.

Piracy has drastically been reduced off the Somali coast. Are some of the punitive measures, like those against money laundering, finally working?

All these responses are paying off, including the fact that ships now have their own security and are avoiding hotspots. One also has to give credit to the response of the Puntland government in trying to dismantle some of those groups who were behind the piracy, through imprisonment and legal responses.

The underlying issue is that piracy is a fall-out of worsening insecurity in Somalia, so any time the security situation improves, you find that also reflected in the piracy situation.

What are the key issues that will determine whether the present government succeeds?

The first issue would be the strength of the government and its ability to project itself as doing something for the people and being a credible partner to the international community.

Secondly, is the ability of the government and the international community, particularly AMISOM, to deal with Al-Shabaab and stretch beyond the areas they are holding. AMISOM is overstretched and it cannot go beyond the territories it has liberated, so it is now on the defensive and if you do this you become more and more vulnerable.

Finally, the question will be whether the international forces in Somalia can position themselves to win the hearts and minds of the people. If you’re on the ground and you’re not really making a huge impact, over time you will start to be seen as an occupying force.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant



Republished with permission from the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Africa. The original story can be found here