Somalia: Traditions To Die For


November 13, 2017: So far this year al Shabaab carried out about 40 major bomb attacks in Mogadishu, often using a vehicle. These attacks have killed nearly 900 people, most of them civilians. Most of these dead occurred during the October 14 th attack, the largest death toll in Somali history. While most Somalis oppose al Shabaab and other Islamic terrorists the region has been subject to outbreaks of fanatic violence like this for centuries. The worst of it tends to come from Somalia.

Naturally because of this relations between Somalis and their neighbors have never been good and they got worse when Britain decided to leave in the 1960s and allow the Somalis, united for the first time ever, to sort things out for themselves. That has not gone well and there are two proposed solutions to the problem.

The UN and foreign aid groups urge peaceful means to bring peace to Somalia. But this has not worked after more than two decades of effort. The world is no longer willing to pay for this.

The other alternative is not attractive either. Historically force is the only thing that has worked in Somalia. British 19th century colonial administrators learned that the best way to deal with unruly and extremely violent Somalis was to "shoot on sight, shoot first, shoot to kill, keep shooting." Al Shabaab and ISIL qualify for that but few outside the region want to admit it. The neighbors are fine with this, they have been doing this for a long time, long before the Westerners showed up.

Not unexpectedly, post-colonial Somalia proved unable to govern itself. Britain (and Italy, until 1940) administered Somalia from 1884 to 1960 and after much effort imposed more peace, prosperity and unity than the region had known for some time. That lasted about two decades and then the usual bad habits began tearing Somalia apart again. The tribal (“clan”) rivalries kept the pot boiling and even the rise of a "clean government" party (the Islamic Courts) after 2001, based on installing a religious dictatorship, backfired and turned into al Shabaab. That caused even more Somalis to flee their homeland and led to even more problems as Somali refugees throughout Africa and worldwide acquired a reputation for violence and criminal behavior. The traditional solution was a few well-armed and relatively wealthy coastal cities surviving by providing useful trade items for the clans of the interior and maintaining sufficient military resources (locally and via distant allies) to deal with the periodic major outbreaks of violence in the badlands. The current outbreak is al Shabaab but there have been several others in the last century or so, usually involving Islam and Somali fondness for mayhem against anyone nearby who seemed vulnerable enough and wealthy enough to make it worth the effort. No one wants to go back to the old ways but no one has come up with a more effective new way to deal with the problem.

Donor nations who provide the billions each year to make UN aid and peacekeeping possible are crossing Somalia off their list of “acceptable causes”. There are many other areas where the money and peacekeepers are needed and would have more lasting impact. The neighbors, especially Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia are getting ready for the worst, a return to old school rules along the lines of shoot on sight, shoot first and so on. Somalis call this unfair. The neighbors call it self-defense.

The American Presence

There have been about 25 American airstrikes in Somalia this year, most of them against al Shabaab but some against the local ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) group. There are about 500 American troops in Somalia, mainly to help with training, advise Somali officers and help provide air support. The U.S. (and the West in general) want to keep Somalia from becoming a base area for international Islamic terror groups. The main American base is in nearby Djibouti, a nation with a Somali majority (about 60 percent of a one million inhabitants) but a tradition of making deals not mayhem. Several foreign powers (France, America, China) pay well to maintain bases in Djibouti, which keeps the outlaws out and provides income to an otherwise impoverished part of the world.


Ethiopian troops recently returned to Somalia, after dealing with their own Somali problem inside Ethiopia. Unrest among ethnic Somalis next door in Ethiopia was a problem for much of 2017 but by October the government had calmed things down and Ethiopians displaced by the violence began returning home. The Ethiopian government returned its attention to the Somali problem in Somalia.

The Ethiopian problem was not about violence against Somalia but between ethnic Somalis in eastern Ethiopia and the non-Somali Oromo people who live to the west. The Ethiopian province of Ogaden, which comprises most of eastern Ethiopia contains a largely ethnic Somali population. To the west of Ogaden is Oromia, where the largest minority in Ethiopia (the Oromo) predominate. There have long been territorial disputes along the Ogaden-Oromia border and these have flared up again in 2017 and took a while for the government and armed forces (many withdrawn from Somalia) to deal with.

Meanwhile many Somalis believe Ogaden belongs to Somalia. Islamic radicals in Somalia have long sought to conquer Ogaden but the Ethiopians have been defeating these efforts for generations. That is not going to change, especially since oil and gas has been discovered in Ogaden, and drilling is underway. In 2015 Somalia and Ethiopia signed an agreement to not provide rebels from the other nations with sanctuary.

November 11, 2017: In the south (Middle Juba, 400 kilometers southeast of the capital) an American UAV used a missile to kill several Al Shabaab gunmen spotted setting up an ambush. The UAV was in the area supporting a major ground operation against al Shabaab camps in the area and further north in the Bay Region. After several days these army raids left nearly a hundred al Shabaab dead and large quantities of weapons captured along with dozens of vehicles and other equipment.

November 10, 2017: About 50 kilometers north of Mogadishu an American airstrike killed 13 al Shabaab gunmen.

November 9, 2017: Some 160 kilometers west of the capital (Bay Region) an American UAV used a missile to kill several Al Shabaab gunmen.

With the prospect of the UN and AU withdrawing most peacekeepers starting in December and into the next year Uganda has offered 5,000 troops for use against al Shabaab in Somalia if someone provided the same pay and benefits (training, logistics support and new equipment) normally provided for UN sponsored peacekeepers. This proposal is pitched Western nations and Gulf oil states. Ethiopia and Kenya would also like of that help but don’t want to sent more troops into Somalia long-term.

November 7, 2017: The AU (African Union) announced it would withdraw 1,500 of the 21,000 peacekeepers in Somalia by the end of the year. The UN resolution authorizing the 21,000 peacekeepers in Somalia expires by the end of May 2018 and major reductions in the Somali peacekeeping force would come after that.

November 6, 2017: Peacekeepers launched a major operation to clear al Shabaab groups along the 90 kilometer highway from Mogadishu to the Ballidogle airport north of the city.

In the south (Middle Juba) al Shabaab executed four men in public after accusing of them of spying for the Ethiopian and Somali governments.

November 4, 2017: The United States ordered non-essential embassy personnel to leave Somalia because of the growing al Shabaab threat in Mogadishu.

November 3, 2017: In the northeast two U.S. airstrikes hit ISIL camps using six missiles and killing several Islamic terrorists in and around the remote Puntland village of Buqa. This was the first American airstrikes against ISIL in Somalia and was believed to be an effort to kill or injure the senior leadership. ISIL is not a major presence in Somalia or northeast Africa in general. The local ISIL affiliate attracts the most fanatic Islamic terrorists and they get themselves killed off quickly and antagonize other Islamic terror groups as well as the population in general. But ISIL has set up shop in a remote area of Puntland and the local government, which cooperated in reducing the piracy problem, appreciates all the help it can get.

November 2, 2017: Kenya is undergoing another political crises because of tribal divisions corrupting the 2017 general elections. The problem is another outbreak of election fraud based on tribal divisions. Five tribes comprise about two thirds of Kenya’s population. For decades, the Kikuyu (the largest minority, with nearly a quarter of the population) dominated, led by the Kenyatta family. But since 2007 candidates from an opposition coalition led by the Odinga family (of the Luo tribe that comprises about one-eighth of the population) won the support of most voters. In 2007 the Kikuyu president tried to change the numbers, got caught, and this set off widespread fighting between Kikuyu and other tribes. This killed over a thousand people, and caused over a half a million people to flee their homes. The 2007 crises was solved by creating new procedures to supervise elections and quickly settle disputes. That worked during the 2013 elections but has stumbled during the 2017 elections. With a population of 49 million, there is now a possibility that Kenya could fall into the same chaos that Somalia, and so many other African nations, have. This is mainly about family politics because the Kenyatta and Odinga clan were leaders of the fight to gain freedom in the 1950s and dominated politics ever since. While both clans deny dynastic aspirations, both have grown rich from corrupt practices while in office. Most Kenyans see this as more about money and power than the welfare of the voters in general but the Odinga are seen as less corrupt and more likely to push through more reforms.

November 1, 2017: In the southwest (Gedo, 320 kilometers from Mogadishu) about a thousand Ethiopian troops in 30 trucks crossed into Somalia to assist in operations against al Shabaab.

In the north (Puntland) one protestor was killed in the port town of Bosaso. Locals were protesting a recent deal with Dubai to spend $336 million from Dubai for expanding the Bosaso port facilities. The locals believe the Dubai firm will raise port fees once the upgrades are done. Part of this is the usual Somali distrust of and dislike of foreigners, especially Arabs, who have been investing in Somali coastal towns and cities for centuries. The locals tend to believe they are not getting a fair share of the profits.

October 30, 2017: In Mogadishu the government fired the heads of national police and the national intelligence agency because of the inability to prevent the last two al Shabaab terror attacks in the city that left over 400 dead. There has been a lot of disagreement in the government over how to deal with the al Shabaab threat. Days before the October 14 bombing the defense minister and head of the army both resigned because of disagreements over how to deal with al Shabaab. In reality the former defense minister and army leader were political rivals who had problems working together and complained that other government leaders would not cooperate with them (or each other) either. Family and clan come first and anything thing else is either an opportunity or obstacle. Ancient traditions do not die easily or at all in most of Somalia. The few Somali leaders who believe otherwise (usually because of living and working for years in the West) are considered odd, or troublesome if they get in the way of what more traditional Somali leaders do.

October 28, 2017: In Mogadishu five al Shabaab men, including two suicide bombers, attacked a heavily guarded hotel near the presidential palace. Two of the attackers died and three were captured but not before 29 people were killed.

October 24, 2017: In the south (Barire, 50 kilometers southwest of Mogadishu) al Shabaab used a suicide bomber to attack a police station and kill four people.

October 16, 2017: Some 55 kilometers southwest of Mogadishu an American UAV used missiles against suspected al Shabaab gunmen.

October 14, 2017: In Mogadishu an al Shabaab suicide truck bomb left 358 dead and over fifty missing. The explosion took place at a crowded road junction next to a hotel. The explosion caused the occupied hotel to collapse and ignited a nearby fuel truck. This caused an unusually high death toll.

In the south (Barire, 50 kilometers southwest of Mogadishu) al Shabaab moved into the town as troops were withdrawn and sent to Mogadishu.


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