Defeating Al-Shabaab Is Not The End of Somalia’s Problems
“Are they still fighting the Kenyan military in Nairobi?” a woman in the Waberi neighborhood of Mogadishu asked me as the siege of Westgate Shopping Mall in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, last September continued.
“The Kenyan security forces are striving to save the people trapped in the mall,” I replied. “Al-Shabaab has killed many people including women and children.” I then walked past her and the other women who stood chatting outside the house where I was heading.
“How many innocent Somali children and women have they [the Kenyan military] also killed in Somalia?” I heard one of them mumble as I knocked on the house’s gate.
Al-Shabaab’s supporters, such as these women, are everywhere in Mogadishu and other areas under the militant group’s control. Despite the growing military gains against al-Shabaab, its influence is still prevalent in the psyche of so many Somalis. That is why they are able to successfully mingle with the local population and carry out frequent attacks – whether in the capital or outside of it.
While the Somali government and the African Union forces focus on defeating the group militarily, the militants tactically withdrew with all their weapons and belongings. No major artillery or equipment was captured since the joint operations began. Where did all the military might of al-Shabaab go? They took with them and they are still on the run. Some of the militants indeed stream back to the same areas they fled – to plan attacks and get ammunition – probably hosted by their sympathizers.
From blocking roads to cutting humanitarian access to smaller towns, to terror attacks in big cities like Mogadishu and Nairobi, al-Shabaab’s guerrilla tactics have been effective so far. However, the group’s radical ideology, rooted deep into the minds of the ordinary people, will not be easily abated unless the federal government’s approach toward addressing extremism is changed.
Currently, the militants indirectly control some districts within Mogadishu where government presence is limited. The small police units in those areas experience almost nightly raids by the group, who use either mortar bombs, hand grenades or even direct attacks. The confrontations are so frequent that the police do not attempt to do any patrols in those districts, but only remain in a defense mode while the militants freely run about these neighborhoods, killing, intimidating and radicalizing the youths.
If you walk through these areas including the main Bakara market, you will definitely realize a sharp difference in the way people dress and talk with respect to al-Shabaab. This is radically different with regards to the areas, like the Hodan and Waberi neighborhoods, where government security agencies are concentrated. Here, residents enjoy the freedom of playing football in the well-lit streets and attend wedding parties till late in the night.
Recently, I met a gentleman called Ahmed who works with the government. He told me that his family lives in Huriwa district, one of these areas that is notorious for the presence of al-Shabaab militants. Ahmed stopped living there since he got the job.
“I live with relatives in Hodan district. I only visit my mother secretly once in a month,” Ahmed said, adding that if al-Shabaab militants see him there, “they will automatically kill me in broad daylight.”
I have to stay away from Huriwa, he said, “so that I can support my family with the little income I get from the job.”
While fighting al-Shabaab militarily is essential, it is important not to forget that it only is a cog in the big problems facing Somalia. Therefore, the government should put equal effort in treating the minds of its citizens and formulate programs that tackle extremist ideologies. Through grassroots approaches, the federal government and its international partners should support local organizations and youth programs that have direct contact with the communities.
Religious leaders are the key influential parties to address this. They should not only target young people but also the parents who support their already-radicalized offspring.
Somalia’s national process of forming federal member states has also proven to be fueling internal conflicts. The regional political elites in the existing federal member states are always at loggerheads over issues that don’t much strengthen the process of national unity. The formation of self-proclaimed federal states, backed by the United Nations and the central government, has been counterproductive in translating the recent security gains to political progress and development. Those people living under these feuding administrations suffer from lack of basic needs including food, water and health services; even as the UN raises alerts over rising malnutrition and food shortages.
On the other hand, the current political infighting between President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Prime Minister Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed over the cabinet reshuffle is set to cripple the progresses made so far in the country. It will also be a huge setback for the much-needed political and economic reforms that are needed ahead of the 2016 electoral process.
The top government leaders should set aside their differences for the sake of the people they vowed to serve. The international community should also collectively support the efforts that tackle the root causes of the issues undermining peace and statebuilding in Somalia.
Moulid Hujale is a Somali journalist based in Migadishu. Follow him on Twitter @MoulidHujale.