June 29, 2020: Governments don’t function well in Somalia but criminal organizations are another matter. The largest criminal organization in Somalia is al Shabaab. Given the history of Somalia that should not be a surprise.
Britain administered Somalia from 1884 to 1960 and after much effort imposed more peace, prosperity and unity than the region had ever known. That lasted until about two decades after independence 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 another warlord group called al Shabaab. That caused even more Somalis to flee their homeland and led to even more problems as Somali refugees throughout Africa and worldwide. While doing that Somalis acquired a reputation for organized violence and criminal behavior as well as entrepreneurial success.
Meanwhile, al Shabaab still has a lot of popular support. The majority of Somalis oppose Islamic terrorism but a significant minority (up to 20 percent) support or tolerate groups like al Shabaab. The main reason for the support is desperation for a solution to the poverty, corruption, factionalism and chaos that makes Somalia such a dangerous place to live in. Overcoming those ancient traditions is the main obstacle to peace and there is no quick solution. Al Shabaab survives because its leaders concentrated on finances and pay its bills.
For example, since 2018 al Shabaab has had an arrangement with Kenyan peacekeeper force commanders who will take bribes to allow al Shabaab controlled charcoal production and export of that charcoal to Dubai. This has long been the main source of income for al Shabaab. When al Shabaab lost control of the southern port of Kismayo in 2014, al Shabaab's income fell by more than half. Since then al Shabaab has established other income sources, mainly smuggling in areas it controls, along with extortion and anything else it can get away with. The charcoal operations is worth about $15 million a year to al Shabaab, which comprises over a third of the income that currently keeps about 7,000 al Shabaab members going.
So far Kenya has been reluctant to crack down, apparently because some prominent Kenyan families are involved. At least that is usually the main reason for ignoring clear evidence of corruption. While not as corrupt as Somalia, which is ranked the most corrupt of 180 nations worldwide, Kenya comes in 137th. Al Shabaab has worked a little harder to find a corruptible Kenyan official but finding someone is not impossible.
Al Shabaab still uses force when bribes won’t work. Force is not only cheaper but often more lucrative. In the last year about a thousand violent acts can be traced back to al Shabaab. Most of this violence took place in southern Somalia and northern Kenya and most were about economics, not religion. Al Shabaab members are more gangsters than religious fanatics.
There are still religious fanatics in Somalia and some are in al Shabaab. There they either keep their fanatic beliefs to themselves or move on and join the local ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) group in northern Somalia. That ISIL group has a hard time surviving because they don’t get along with the government security forces, local clan militias or with al Shabaab itself. As a result of all those distractions the local ISIL group could only carry out four terror attacks in May and in June there were even fewer attacks. The problem was the Somali ISIL group has fewer than a hundred active members and, despite their fanaticism, they get killed and there are not enough new recruits to grow the organization.
Covid19 Come And Gone
For a while, there was a growing fear of a covid19 coronavirus epidemic that would kill key political, military and terrorist leaders. The virus seemed to be more fatal to older people and most leaders were older and felt vulnerable. In early April the Somali Minister of Justice died of covid19. 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 3,000 Somali covid19 cases have been confirmed and 90 Somalis have died. That comes to 182 confirmed cases per million population and six confirmed covid19 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 those urban areas, there are many epidemic diseases and covid19 is not considered as much of a threat as existing threats like cholera, infections and a lack of antibiotics or annual influenza. In the West, there are easy cures available for all that but in Somalia, a lot of curable conditions are incurable threats. Covid19 is another incurable condition and not as nasty as many others Somalis deal with daily.
In Kenya, there are 113 infections per million and three deaths. Ethiopia has 50 cases per million and 0.9 deaths. Most of Africa is showing low rates of infection and death because health care throughout Africa is unable to handle, much less count, something like this.
June 27, 2020: The National Independent Electoral Commission has told parliament that it is impossible to hold elections for parliament and a new president as scheduled on November 27. That current presidential term expires on February 8, 2021.
The delay was blamed on the usual suspects; political deadlocks, poor security (bandits and Islamic terrorists), bad weather (floods this time) and covid19. To assure a minimum level of legitimacy the six million eligible Somali voters must be registered biometrically and requires special equipment that has not yet been obtained because the Electoral Commission does not have enough money and needs at least $70 million to set up 5,000 polling stations and carry out the biometric registration. More time is also required but it is not going to be enough. None of this is a surprise.
The first parliamentary elections finally took place in 2016 and the new legislature was installed at the end of 2016. This was supposed to have taken place months earlier but did not because too many of the current politicians regard elections as a threat to their income (from corruption). Some foreign donors correctly saw the delays as a ploy so the interim government could stay in power longer and steal more aid money. This led to threats to halt aid if elections for parliament and president were not held. That worked, sort of, and the electoral process lurches forward, if only to keep the free money coming. The presidential election (or selection, by the parliament) was supposed to take place by the end of January 2017 but took a lot longer. Part of the problem is political with many of the clans (tribes) maintaining armed militias and refusing to abide by a “one man, one vote” system. That is, some clans demand more (foreign aid and other resources) than their numbers justify. A compromise was worked out to accommodate that. In effect, the new parliament was created by a “selection” rather than a national election. The national parliament has 275 members who were elected by 14,025 “voters” selected by 135 clan elders. The 54 members of the upper house of parliament are selected by local (state or regional) assemblies. A Western style election (in which all adult citizens can vote) was not expected until the early 2020s, if ever. The current president was selected by the 2016 parliament and what means all manner of deals were made in return for support of one candidate or another. The major aid donors have quietly made it clear if the new government does not curb the rampant theft of foreign aid, there will be a lot less of it and thus the new president is expected to be more effective in curbing corruption. The current government did not do much to reduce the corruption and foreign aid has declined.
Somalia has a hard time pleading poverty because so much foreign aid gets stolen by Somalis before it can reach the people who need it and whose desperate plight caused foreign donors to donate. The failed, so far, election preparations can be expected to continue failing with or without additional time and money. No one wants to admit that Somalia is a failed state but fewer and fewer donors want to keep sending aid to Somalia only to find that most, or all of it was stolen. There are many other needy areas where most of the aid gets to those who need it.
June 23, 2020: In Mogadishu, an al Shabaab suicide bomber tried to attack the Turkish military training center compound but was shot by Somali guards and detonated his explosives far from the entrance. A civilian was killed and two Somali trainees were wounded. Al Shabaab took credit for the attack.
Al Shabaab is particularly hostile to the Turks because the Turks will not pay protection money to the Islamic terrorists to avoid violence like this. The Turkish training facility has, since 2017, trained four Somali infantry battalions and a fifth is being trained. The Turks ran separate training programs for officers (150 graduates so far) and NCOs (250 grads so far). The Turkish military reputation is respected by Somalis and the training is tough, thorough and effective. The Turk trained battalions are visibly more effective against al Shabaab and the Islamic terrorists would like to see it shut down.
June 14, 2020: In the southeast, a
cross the border in Kenya (Mandera country) two al Shabaab gunmen were killed when Kenyan police caught them trying to destroy a cell phone tower. A policeman also died. Al Shabaab extorts money from Kenyan and Somali cell phone companies to ensure al Shabaab does not attack cell phone company property. That extortion effort works better in Somalia than in Kenya, where the security forces are more effective.
June 8, 2020:
In the southeast (Lower Shabelle region), peacekeepers defeated an ambush attempt by al Shabaab gunmen. None of the peacekeepers were injured in the brief firefight and the al Shabaab got away with at least one wounded man. The ambush took place in a populated area and three nearby civilians were killed and two wounded by the crossfire.
June 1, 2020: Outside Mogadishu, a roadside bomb hit a civilian van carrying family members to a funeral. The bomb may have been meant for one of the many security forces and government vehicles that use the road. No one, including al Shabaab, took credit for the attack indicating someone screwed up and set off the bomb on the wrong vehicle.
May 28, 2020: Outside Balad (30 kilometers north of Mogadishu), soldiers were accused of kidnapping and killing seven health workers and another civilian in response to a recent roadside bomb attack that had killed nine soldiers. The army denied the accusation and pointed out that al Shabaab and bandits often wear army uniforms when they carry out attacks. Al Shabaab may have been trying to extort money from the medical foreign aid group the victims worked for.
May 17, 2020: About
125 kilometers off the south coast of Yemen two pirate speed boats tried to seize a British chemical tanker. The armed guards on the tanker fired on the approaching speedboats and the pirates fired back. There was some bullet damage to the tanker, including some glass that was shattered on the bridge. The armed guard on the tanker was more accurate and disabled one of the speedboats and the other one also stopped to deal with that. It was unclear if the pirates were from Somalia or Yemen. Some of the Islamic terror groups in Yemen has tried to rob or seize ships off the coast. There are still some pirates operating out of small northern Somali ports but of late the more successful attacks have come from Yemen based pirates.
Meanwhile, the piracy threat has moved to the other coast of Africa. The waters off the Nigerian coast have, over the last few years, become the scene of most pirate activity on the planet. This happened gradually and Nigeria does not want to keep this dubious achievement. No one ever does.
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 the 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.