Somalia: Perceptions and Priorities

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November 11, 2021: UN and AU (African Union) officials are having a hard time agreeing on whether the peacekeeping effort has been a success and how it should proceed. The local (Somali neighbors) AU officials point out that the fourteen-year peacekeeping effort has made a difference as al Shabaab and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) personnel and areas controlled have been steadily reduced. Both groups have started taking refuge in neighboring countries, where local security forces can deal with the Islamic terrorists even more effectively than the AU peacekeepers in Somalia. Once all, or over 90 percent, of Somalia is pacified it will be practical to revive foreign aid efforts that were crippled, and plundered, in the past. The AU points out that the UN keeps sending in the foreign aid before it is safe, or even possible, to distribute the aid to the intended recipients. One reason for this continued disagreement is that AU members have grown up with and continue to live with the Somali threat. Many UN officials are new to peacekeeping and aid delivery and out of ignorance and optimism underestimate the unique problems found in Somalia.

Some Somalis with an interest in more unprotected foreign aid are currently holding senior positions in the Somali government and the implications of that were seen a week ago when the Somali Foreign Ministry ordered Simon Mulongo, a Ugandan AU official connected with the AU supplied peacekeeper force, to leave the country within seven days. The expulsion was justified by accusations that some AU officials opposed UN suggestions that the 21,000 peacekeepers remain after the long-delayed elections are held and that more of the peacekeeper troops be replaced with technical specialists to help with reconstruction and improvement of public services like public health and infrastructure. Many AU countries, especially those neighboring Somalia, have long and painful memories of Somalis attacks and Somali inability to form a national government.

The AU nations do not want to repeat the mistakes made the last time Somalis were unified forcibly by colonial powers in the late 19th century. That lasted until the 1960s. At that point colonial governments were being turned over to local officials, most of them democratically selected. The election process was not always democratic but that was a problem left for the locals to sort out. Somalis did that by attacking neighbors and fighting each other. By the early 1990s Somalia was a perpetual war zone with local warlords fighting each other and foreign aid groups seen as a source of income by the warlords. The foreign aid groups demanded that peacekeepers be sent in and that caused some unity in Somalia, but no peace because the warlords united to fight the foreign invaders calling themselves peacekeepers. The peacekeepers left and stayed away for over a decade. The UN had ignored the practical advice British colonial administrators had developed in the late 19th century when they described the best way to deal with violent Somalis was to "shoot on sight, shoot first, shoot to kill, keep shooting." Not unexpectedly, post-colonial Somalia proved unable to govern itself because when the Somalis had no foreigners to fight and plunder, they went after each other.

For the last few years, the UN and AU have been losing patience with Somalia and the cost of peacekeeping operations there. Initially there were supposed to be 8,000 peacekeepers who would only be needed for six months in 2007. 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. Efforts to create Somali security forces (military and police) were, and still are, crippled by corruption and unwillingness to get anything done that did not serve clan or personal needs.

Efforts to work around these obstacles have led to a policy of recognizing the primacy of clan loyalties in Somali culture. Thus, the current federal system recognizes the four major clans and a coalition of smaller clans. This has made it easier to create a somewhat functional government but it has not made a major dent in the popularity of warlords. Al Shabaab is basically a traditional Somali warlord organization, dedicated to obtaining wealth and power for this temporary organization and its key members.

Religious and non-religious warlords have come and gone for centuries and the tolerance for this sort of thing remains strong in Somalia and among Somalis everywhere. Foreigners discover that this is typical behavior for armed groups in Somalia and that it is a historical fact. Force is the only thing that has worked in Somalia to control, or simply eliminate, the warlords. Many UN officials see sufficient progress in Somalia to justify reducing the shooters and increasing the helpers. The neighbors believe that too many Somalis still respect the shooters and see the foreign helpers as a source of income, not enlightenment. The AU officials insist that their proposals are a matter of survival for Somalis as well as their neighbors while the UN officials and many Somali leaders prefer more foreign aid personnel, but for different reasons.

Britain administered most of 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 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 brought their unique culture to other countries in Africa and the West. While doing that Somalis acquired a reputation for organized violence and criminal behavior as well as entrepreneurial success.

November 7, 2021: In Baidoa (250 kilometers southwest of Mogadishu) security forces arrested twelve al Shabaab members.

November 6, 2021: The U.S. has announced that anyone who provides information leading to the capture (dead or alive) of one of four al Shabaab leaders will receive $6 million. Those offers usually come with moving the informant and family members to another country where they are safe from revenge attacks by al Shabaab. The informant rewards program has been around for decades and the results are rarely publicized because of the need to safeguard the informants and their families. Despite that, in many countries wanted Islamic terrorists were suddenly found and killed or, more rarely taken alive, there are many locals who were aware of the rewards program and would often note who recently left, along with many family members, for a new home overseas that could not be identified. Finding out who played the dangerous informant game and won, as in lived to get out of the country with family, became a popular endeavor. Gossip travels faster and in more detail these days, what with cell phones and contacts in “safe” countries. This often-accurate gossip has helped the rewards program because it has demonstrated that if you have the opportunity and do it right, you can win big and live to spend the reward. Several al Shabaab and ISIL personnel have been killed in Somalia because of “information from a local informant” that is rarely identified by name, especially when a reward is involved.

November 2, 2021: In the north (Galmudug) the army and al Shabaab continue trying to force each other out of the region. The problems are that when al Shabaab takes control of a town they make threats or promises to the locals that will help al Shabaab regain control of the town if the army pushes them out and then withdraws because no local s can be found willing to defend the town against an al Shabaab return. Some towns in Galmudug have been occupied by the Islamic terrorists several times since 2011 and the peacekeepers, Somali army or local militias always take it back. In April Somali troops withdrew because of the election crises in Mogadishu and al Shabaab moved in. This time they arranged to stay by making a deal with the local clans to keep the peace and not retaliate for losses inflicted by clan militias in the past. The government took longer than usual to assemble a force of soldiers and peacekeepers to take the town back because of the election crisis in Mogadishu. This time the army’s efforts to get local clans to defend their towns was more successful.

Mudug consists of territory stretching from Ethiopia to the Indian Ocean and from Puntland south to the Hirshabelle region. During the 1990s clan wars in Mudug caused the province to be divided. The northern part joined Puntland while the southern half, which is 750 kilometers north of Mogadishu did not. Somalia wants to reunite Mudug and Puntland sees that as aggression and has so far retained its portion of Mudug.

November 1, 2021: After finally reaching an agreement on how and when to conduct the long-delayed elections, voting began to select the 275 members of parliament and after for the 54 members of the senate. About 30,000 clan delegates will select members of parliament while the local legislatures in the five federal states will select the 54 senators. At that point the combined senate and parliament will elect a new president. Like previous agreements, this one might not actually work. After a year of bickering and threats of civil war followed by the withdrawal of foreign aid, there has been one delay after another as election agreements fell apart after agreements were achieved. These elections were supposed to be held in December 2020 but were delayed over a year because of difficulty in agreeing on how and when. Somalia has not had a popular (every adult can vote) election since the 1960s and that did not work out too well.

October 30, 2021: In the north (Puntland) al Shabaab attacked a Bari region military base. Using machine-gun, assault rifle and mortar fire the attackers killed two soldiers but the attack was repulsed. Al Shabaab was in this area to fight ISS (Islamic State Somalia, the local ISIL faction), which wants to destroy al Shabaab for being too moderate. This has been going on for several years after al Shabaab carried out a major offensive against the much smaller ISS based in the mountains around Bari at the northeast tip of Puntland. There was some success but ISS survived and al Shabaab made itself unpopular with local security forces, which are more effective in autonomous Puntland than in the rest of Somalia.

October 27, 2021: In central Somalia the army recaptured the town of Guriel (400 kilometers north of Mogadishu), which had been taken by a local Sufi militia a month ago. Recapturing the town took three days and caused a total of 600 casualties, including 120 dead, among those involved. Because of the widespread nature of the fighting over 100,000 civilians fled their homes. The army and the Sufi militia have been at odds with each other since late 2014. So far there have been several thousand casualties from seven years of skirmishes and fire fights. Since late 2011 Sufi militiamen have been defeating al Shabaab in central Somalia. The Sufi Ahlu Suna Waljama militia spent nearly a year to force al Shabaab from most key towns they held in central Somalia.

Sufis are believers in a more mystical and peaceful form of Islam, and are looked down on by many radical Sunni groups. But the Somali Sufis got tired of being harassed by al Shabaab and in 2008 began to arm and organize themselves for defense. In 2010 the Sufi militias became allies with the TNG (Transitional National Government) and Ethiopia, which keeps lots of troops on their Somali border, occasionally crossing into Somalia in order to discourage al Shabaab from raiding into Ethiopia. Since 2013 there has been growing friction between local Sufi leaders and the officials the national government sent to set up the local government. The Sufi complain that they are being ignored and taken advantage of. The corruption of the government officials doesn’t help either. The Somalis Sufis don’t trust the majority Somali Sunnis to abide by any peace deal.

October 25, 2021: In neighboring Uganda there were two bombings in the last week that left two people dead and many wounded. What was worrying was that the attacks were carried out by two different Islamic terror groups that are rarely active in Uganda. The first attack was by the ADF (Allied Democratic Forces) that has been active in neighboring Congo for years because Uganda was too dangerous for them. Congo has become a lot more dangerous for ADF lately and that may explain the return to Uganda. The other attack was claimed by ISS, the local ISIL affiliate which has long been confined to coastal areas of Puntland, far to the north. The army and security forces of Uganda, Kenya and Somalia are all searching for answers about these latest appearances by long absent Islamic terror groups.

 

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