A growing fear of a coronavirus epidemic has slowed down military and terrorist operations. In early April the Minister of Justice died of covid19 (Coronavirus). He was brought to the capital a week earlier and taken to the only hospital in the country that can treat covid19. Tests showed that he was infected and he was isolated. This was the second covid19 death in Somalia. The first victim was a 58 year old man who had not been outside the country and died four days before the Finance Minister.
In March the government announced that one of four Somalis who had just returned from China had covid19. This was the first such case known to be in Somalia. If covid19 gets loose in Somalia the local health system won’t be of much help because the local health system is largely non-existent. So far about 1,200 Somali covid19 cases have been confirmed and 55 Somalis have died. That comes to 74 confirmed cases per million population and three deaths per million. There has been no widespread quarantines or restrictions on movement. Most Somalis still live in rural villages that get few outside visitors. But several million Somalis live in cities, refugee camps or large towns.
In Kenya, it is 13 infections per million and 0.7 deaths. Ethiopia has two cases per million and 0.04 deaths. Most of Africa is showing low rates of infection and death because health care throughout Africa is unable to handle something like this. There may be more cases in Somalia but the country has little or no access to modern medical care and people regularly die of undiagnosed afflictions. Since most of these involve a fever, caused by the immune system trying to fight off some kind of infection, people call many fatal conditions an unspecified fever, and such fatal fevers are common.
And Now For The Good News
Piracy continues to be absent from the Somali coastal waters. There are still pirates about. In late 2019, Somali pirates in the north released one of their four remaining hostages. This took place because the Iranian captive was very sick and in danger of dying in their custody after four years of captivity. The hostage was released without ransom and moved to the Ethiopian capital for medical care.
The pirates are still demanding high ransoms for the remaining three, which no one seems willing to pay, possibly because no one is certain the remaining hostages are still alive. Pirates continue to operate off the coast but are not considered a major threat to vital shipping lanes anymore. During 2016, in large part because of increased seaborne attacks by Abu Sayyaf off the southern Philippines, Southeast Asia replaced the coasts of Somalia and Nigeria as the area with the worst piracy problem. In 2015 there were 178 attacks on ships at sea worldwide but none off Somalia and less than a hundred off Nigeria. The most active area was Southeast Asia. In 2016 Southeast Asia accounted for over 35 percent of pirate attacks worldwide. By 2017 anti-piracy efforts by the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia had reduced the local threat and the current piracy hotspot is off the West Africa coast, particularly off Nigeria. By 2019 the Nigerian coast was the scene of most pirate activity.
Worldwide piracy has been declining since 2012 because most of the Somali pirates were shut down, showing that it could be done. At that point, activity shifted back to areas where it had been a problem for centuries, like the coasts of Malaysia and Indonesia and areas near the Malacca Strait. There most of the attacks are robberies of the crew and the stealing of portable valuables. The crewmen are usually not hurt and based on their experience it appears most of the pirates come from Malaysia and Indonesia and were largely amateurs. There were some professionals in action in 2014. These fellows were able to hijack ships long enough for cargo to be transferred at sea to someone who could resell it and this provided far more money for the pirates than the more common robbery incidents. But those professional pirates are gone, in part because theft that large left a data trail that police and intelligence agencies could pick up and follow. In 2015 Malaysia and Indonesia joined forces to run more helicopter and warship patrols through areas where most of these less costly robbery attacks were taking place. This sort of quick reaction patrol could move in quickly enough to catch pirates before they and their loot could disappear into one of the many coves or villages that dot the Malaysian and Indonesian coasts. Police also went after the middlemen (“fences”) who buy the valuable (and portable) electronics these “grab and go” pirates prefer. If you find the fence you can often find his suppliers. In any event, these robber pirates are more numerous and being amateurs can quickly drop out and, as far as the police are concerned “disappear.” Some of these small time pirates are believed to have been in the business, on and off, for over a decade. The police want to make some arrests and well publicized prosecutions (and convictions) to discourage many of these amateur pirates from returning to robbery.
The Somali pirates are victims of their own success. Because of their continued threat, the International Anti-Piracy Patrol remains and large ships take many precautions to avoid capture. Some nations have stopped sending ships to the patrol but most continue to do so because it’s good training for the crews and gives the ships a realistic workout. It also helps keep insurance rates down in the area and that translates into lower shipping costs for goods to and from northeast Africa.
Law And Order
The suppression of piracy relied mostly on the foreign forces off the coast. Throughout Somalia, there is not much law and order. Local security forces are still largely absent. Nearly a decade of effort and over a hundred million dollars was spent on the foreign training program to create a trained and capable 30,000 man Somali army but has only produced 10,000 troops who can actually carry out operations. The training program continues but is hobbled by a high desertion rate and corrupt officers. Security is still very dependent on the 21,000 AU (African Union) peacekeepers. This force has been around since 2007 and is not staying in Somalia permanently. It is expensive in lives and cash and foreign donors are losing interest. So far over 700 peacekeepers have died and nearly 4,000 wounded or injured. Somalia is the most dangerous peacekeeping duty in the world.
Many foreign aid efforts in Somalia have been shut down because of the persistent, and extreme, corruption. That’s the main reason the peacekeeping force is going to start withdrawing in 2021. It is mainly about money and limited resources. Peacekeepers are expensive and over a decade of peacekeeping in Somalia has produced meager results. There is a demand for peacekeepers in other parts of the world, often in places where peacekeepers make more of a difference. Somalia is considered a wasted effort in a world of too much demand and too little supply. This is a common situation with failed states and Somalia is the worst of the worst. The Americans and UN have concluded that a more effective way to deal with Somalia is to pull out the expensive peacekeepers and provide more assistance to Somali neighbors Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti to deal with al Shabaab and Somali misbehavior in general.
The UN and AU (African Union) have been supplying Somali with peacekeepers and the money to pay and sustain them since 2007. Back then the plan was for 8,000 peacekeepers who would only be needed for six months. That force did not disappear by the end of 2007 but kept growing and quickly reached 22,000. It made some difference, but in the face of massive corruption in the Somali government and various Somali communities that demanded help from the peacekeepers, the operation proved far more expensive and time-consuming than expected.
The peacekeepers are nearly all Africans from neighboring countries and their commanders understand the violent nature of Somalia, which has been sending raiders into neighboring areas for centuries. Somalis are more accepting of this sort of thing than the neighbors. That may explain why Somalia can be so corrupt while also having a population that considers themselves relatively well off.
The only effective law and order is still supplied by local organizations, using clan (tribe) based forces strong enough to keep the bandits, warlords and al Shabaab out. This form of law and order is fine when it works but it often does not and into that chaos gangsters and warlords thrive. Al Shabaab has ceased to be very religious and is now mainly a criminal enterprise with a thin veneer of religious fanaticism. The original al Shabaab was worn down by nearly a decade of defeats. Between 2006 and 2011 al Shabaab was a major force throughout Somalia, but by 2012 that power had been broken by a large peacekeeper force supporting local, usually clan, militias in reducing al Shabaab power.
Al Shabaab is surviving because it is paying more attention to money. Al Shabaab leaders have always paid attention to finances, something unsuccessful Islamic terror groups generally put less effort into. It’s a Somali specialty to pay attention to the financial opportunities and that is one of the factors that fuel corruption in the government. All that foreign aid is considered fair game for whoever can grab it. Donor efforts to reduce the corruption often meets with indifference masked by insincere agreement to cooperate. The money keeps disappearing before getting to where the donor specified it should go. The looting of the donor funds has become so lucrative that even al Shabaab is recruiting government financial officials to aid the Islamic terrorist efforts to get a share of the looted aid funds.
Many Somalis realize that al Shabaab is unlikely to gain control of the government or most of the country. But as a determined and heavily armed criminal gang, the financial opportunities are enormous. It’s like the ancient Chinese description of government bureaucracy; “the object is not to win or lose but to keep the game going.” Among Islamic terrorists who have survived for a while and operated in different countries, al Shabaab has a reputation of being more mercenary than religious zealot. This is one reason al Shabaab has been hostile to foreign Islamic terrorists, who are more likely to find acceptance in the smaller, and much less prosperous and successful, Somali ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) faction.
The downside of this mercenary version of al Shabaab is that the leaders who are more effective at raising and managing money have more power. In true Somali fashion, this has led to disputes between al Shabaab leaders. Some of this tension is caused by al Shabaab expanding into Kenya, where the ethnic Somali Kenyans often do not get along with the Somalia Somalis. Nothing serious so far. The financial pressure and factional anger are building and unless a settlement is reached there will be another spasm of self-destructive violence that will weaken but destroy al Shabaab.
May 8, 2020: Al Shabaab released an Italian woman they had been holding as a hostage for about a year. Back in November 2018, the woman was taken while working
southeast Kenya for a foreign
gangsters were responsible for the initial
. The Somalis wounded five bystanders (most of them children) in the process. This took place 300 kilometers from the Somali border but because most of the Somali Kenyans live in coastal areas it is
for Somali gangsters and Islamic terrorists to blend in. The last time a kidnapping like this took place was in 2012.
Efforts to find the Italian woman did reveal that the gangsters sold their captive to al Shabaab, who had the contacts and experience to obtain a large ransom for such captives. This turned out to be the case and Italy paid several million dollars. Paying a ransom is illegal in most Western nations but public opinion can change that. Italy denied paying a ransom but al Shabaab boasted of getting one. Al Shabaab also made much of the fact that they persuaded their captive to convert to Islam. Al Shabaab made it clear that the ransom money would be used to carry out more violence and seek additional foreign hostages. Paying the ransom has, as usual, encouraged more kidnapping efforts.
May 4, 2020: In central Somalia (Bardale) Ethiopian troops guarding the local airport grew suspicious of an approaching twin-engine transport and suspecting it was a gangster or Islamic terrorist controlled flight, opened fire with their 23mm anti-aircraft gun and brought the 11 ton EMB 120 aircraft down. This killed the six people on board and destroyed over a ton of medical supplies, mainly related to covid19 treatment. Ethiopia apologized.