Somalia Prime Minister Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed declared he is willing to drive the Islamist al-Qaeda-related terrorist group al-Shabab out of the country by the end of 2014.
Just two days after his statement, two car bombs and seven gunmen attacked the presidential palace in the capital of Mogadishu on Feb. 21.
Another bomb blast on Feb. 27 blew the facade off of a teashop where intelligence officers are known to congregate, killing at least 11 people, according to police.
The attacks prompted Somali government together with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to announce they are preparing a plan to fight back the extremists.
But experts warn that the ultimate success for driving them out is up to the government.
“The major responsibility lies on the federal government of Somalia,” said Abel Abate Demissie, senior researcher at the Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development (EIIPD), based in Addis Ababa.
The first and foremost thing, said Demissie, is that the Somali government should be more committed to providing security, economic empowerment, better infrastructure development, and most importantly—it should show them it is an enemy of corruption.
“People are exhausted,” said Demissie, who was in Mogadishu two weeks ago to monitor security in the country.
“When I spoke with ordinary people, they said they are fed up with the government, with al-Shabab, and with the warlords. They said, al-Shabab is the worst, the warlords are very bad, and the government is bad,” said Demissie.
The two attacks were a painful reminder of the situation in 2009 when al-Shabab was at its peak. It basically controlled all of central and south Somalia, including the capital. The group terrorized the civil population with attempts to implement Islamic Shariah. The government’s presence was too weak to be seen. And that was further to a two-decadeslong civil war that went on from 1991 to 2006.
Although al-Shabab is considered to be at its lowest point now and its controlled territory has shrunk as a result of AMISOM army intervention since 2007, the inefficiency of the government and the rampant corruption among officials has led to support for al-Shabab—especially from the poor and from those who feel neglected by the central government.
“Al-Shabab is in no hurry to seize control of Somalia,” said Dr. Laura Hammond, head of department and senior lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
“So they will be willing to operate in the shadows for a long time, hoping that the government fails on its own to live up to its promises and that people will, out of disillusionment, turn to them as an alternative.”
Hammond said to defeat al-Shabab, it needs to be dismantled from within by convincing its rank and file members to leave it, and others not to join.
“This can only happen with a strong governance system in place, and will take several years even under the best circumstances,” she added.
To enforce the security in Somalia, the U.N. Security Council raised the number of AMISOM troops in January to a total of 22,000. They are from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda.
But EIIPD’s Demissie criticizes the authorities in Mogadishu for using international help from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the African Union (AU), Washington, and the U.N. to prolong their time in power and to keep legitimacy, rather than bring security to its citizens.
“Unfortunately that support is used by the clans supporting the government to coerce, subjugate, and attack other clans, and turn them into enemies,” said Demissie.
Unlike many other countries, the clans are very powerful in Somalia. So the federal government consents to the clans and religious leaders on every important issue. In some cases, however, some clans are not represented fairly, said Demissie, and that is where the international community can help.
“If the international community wants to see a viable Somalia, it should influence the government to include every citizen of the society in politics.”
The cause of eliminating al-Shabab will remain impossible as long as it is used for “personal self-enrichment and the furtherance of clan interests at the expense of national interests,” wrote Andrew McGregor in an article for Jamestown Foundation. He is the senior editor of Global Terrorism Analysis and the director of Aberfoyle International Security, a Toronto-based agency specializing in security issues related to the Islamic world.
“Ultimately, the path Somalia will follow will depend not on U.N. assistance or AU military deployments, but rather on the interest Somalis themselves have in the national project,” McGregor added.
To make things worse, U.N. Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group issued a confidential report to the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions committee in February. The report, published by Reuters, claimed that weapons were diverted from the Somali government to al-Shabab.
The evidence presented included: unaccounted shipments of weapons from Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Uganda; the Somali government’s cancelling several U.N. inspections of armory; alleged involvement of a presidential adviser from the same clan as the president (Abgaal) in the weapons’ transfer to al-Shabab, and unauthorized weapons purchases made by a minister from the Habr Gadir sub-clan for beneficiaries in Mogadishu.
Although the Somali National Security Agency objected to the report—demanding proof that President Hassan Sheikh has been indirectly assisting al-Shabab—it cast a shadow of doubt on the motives of the Somali government.
In order to defeat al-Shabab, the most important task before the federal Somali government will be to put aside personal interests, unite all of its citizens and prevent the jihadis from gaining new ground.
To put aside is to “practice genuinely inclusive politics, disallowing al-Shabab the opportunity to entrench itself among disaffected clans and communities, and working with local partners to ensure security in newly recovered territories,” wrote Matt Bryden, director of Sahan Research, a think tank located in Nairobi, Kenya, in the report “The Reinvention of Al-Shabab: A Strategy of Choice or Necessity?”
“Previous transitional Somali governments have neglected these responsibilities, permitting al-Shabab to recover from successive military defeats. … It remains to be seen whether the current federal government leadership is capable of rising to the challenge,” Bryden added.