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Chasing peace in Somalia

By Michelle Shephard
National Security Reporter
Sunday, January 31, 2010

 

The transitional government is trying to unite the troubled nation, but after a year in power it controls little more than a small area of Mogadishu

An African Union soldier takes a picture of a Star reporter taking a picture of him from his post guarding the prime minister's compound in Mogadishu. (Jan. 27) MICHELLE SHEPHARD/TORONTO STAR


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MOGADISHU, Somalia–Major Ba-Hoku Barigye has two cellphones and both constantly buzz with text messages. One he looks at religiously. The other he often ignores; he knows what it will say.

 

"You are going to die today," went one message last Sunday, as he donned a flak jacket and helmet and boarded an armoured vehicle for the journey to the president's compound.

 

Later, another: "Yo are the begest enimy of Somalia so you have too go to the country ergently otherwise you will meet consequence."

 

"It's the Shabab," says Barigye, chief spokesman for the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia. He guesses he's had 900 such messages in the past two years.

 

He keeps most of them, including one that makes him laugh: "Al Shabab very very good."

 

Friday marked one year since Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the teacher-turned-politician, was declared Somalia's president and members of a new transitional government were appointed.

 

But without the 5,300-strong presence here of the Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers (known as AMISOM), Somalia's Transitional Federal Government would not survive.

 

Even with African Union's protection, the government's reach in the city appears to only extend from the airport to the seaport and to pockets along the road that leads from the AMISOM base to Villa Somalia, where the president and prime minister work and reside.

 

Al Shabab, a radical Islamic guerrilla movement that has pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda, has managed to hit those areas, too. Twin suicide bombers killed 17 peacekeepers in September, and as recently as Monday, a bomb exploded at an AMISOM-run medical outpost, killing one peacekeeper and at least four Somali patients.

 

TWO MORTARS interrupted a government ceremony Friday to celebrate the anniversary. A Somali civilian and Ugandan peacekeeper were killed. A government press release later said the ceremony went on "undaunted."

 

Sharif came to power last January with the backing of the UN and blessing of the West, praised by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as "the best hope we've had in quite some time."

 

But it is hard to see hope on Mogadishu's battered and sparsely populated streets. Gun battles, mortar attacks and bombings happen daily in certain neighbourhoods as the Shabab fights Hizbul Islam, a breakaway rival Islamic group, or the AMISOM forces, which have a mandate to hit back if attacked first. They often hit back harder, with heavy artillery and Katyusha rockets, and there are civilian casualties.

 

Along Al Mukarama Rd., the city's main thoroughfare where a 2008 bomb killed 21 women who had gathered to collect the never-ending rubbish, government soldiers hang off jeeps or walk with Kalashnikovs and belts of ammunition, resembling militias of the past rather than a uniformed force.

 

The most jarring sights are lines of bright laundry strung between crumbling buildings, or schoolgirls in matching lime green hijabs – signs that life goes on where is seems impossible that it could.

 

AMISOM's forces roar along the streets in Casspirs, behemoth South African-made vehicles built to withstand the mines and improvised explosive devices the Shabab has buried along the roadside. Part of their route to the president's compound passes K4 – kilometre four – a chaotic yet vital intersection that's much fought over.

 

One day last week, as the convoy kicked up sand navigating around blast barriers at the intersection, passing AMISOM's small, sandbagged outpost, children ran out and waved, as their parents just stopped to stare.

 

Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke – a Canadian citizen, like so many members of the transitional government and their advisers – agrees the government only controls a small part of the city and the Shabab has a strong presence in the south. Then he quibbles over the use of the word "control."

 

"For the Shabab to control, it's to intimidate and kill, nothing else," he said in an interview with the Star last week at his guarded compound at Villa Somalia.

 

"But for us to control, we must bring law and order. We must perform all the services the government must do and we must deliver basic services like health and education."

 

That's what Sharif did the first time he came to power four years ago.

 

Since Mohammed Siad Barre's dictatorship was overthrown in 1991, Somalia has been at the mercy of its warlords, squabbling clans and failed foreign interventions. But for six months in 2006, Sharif led a self-appointed government called the Islamic Courts Union, which managed to cross clan lines, conquer the warlords (who were covertly backed by the CIA), and bring some sense of stability.

 

There were concerns with the ICU, dubbed by some in Washington as "Somalia's Taliban." Among its members were radicals on international terrorism watchlists. Women's rights and press freedom were curtailed.

 

But there were also moderates in the leadership, hoping to cooperate with the West. If nothing else, the movement had widespread support and credibility within Somalia – a first in 15 years of war.

 

In the end, the voices raising alarm were louder. A U.S.-backed invasion by Ethiopia, Somalia's predominantly Christian neighbour, dismantled the ICU and the much-despised warlords were back in power.

 

RATHER THAN conquering the ICU's militant wing, the invasion by Somalia's historic rival only bolstered the ranks of al Shabab and drew foreign fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Chechnya, Yemen and neighbouring African countries. There was a time when the U.S. even contemplated targeting Sharif as he fled with other leaders.

 

Two years of devastating war later, with Ethiopia's defeat and a change in the White House, Sharif suddenly emerged as Somalia's best hope.

 

There's a slight defensiveness when government and AMISOM leaders talk about what they've managed to accomplish in a year.

 

"You'll forgive me," Sharmarke said, "if I point out the international community doesn't control Afghanistan, regardless how much has gone into keeping it safe and secure."

 

Ahmedout Ould Abdallah, the UN special envoy to Somalia, made the same comparison in a surprise visit last week, chastising outside critics who provide little help but wag their fingers at Somalia.

 

There's no doubt 19 years of war and 14 reconciliation conferences are a testament to how difficult Somalia's problems are to solve.

 

But in many ways, the Shabab has been the most savvy in learning from past mistakes, both in how to deliver its message and provide for its people – key factors in winning over a war-weary population.

 

For instance, the first time the rebel group took over the strategic port town of Kismayo in 2006, it shut down businesses and banned the use of the ubiquitous and much-loved leafy narcotic khat. Today, businesses may operate if they pay a security tax, and there are reports that Shabab tolerates khat vendors dealing outside the city limits, provide they turn over part of their income to the rebels. (In principle, Shabab still deems khat non-Islamic.)

 

Shabab and Hizbul Islam leaders have also preached violent jihad in southern mosques, and foreign fighters have trained young recruits since 2006, building a force of willing martyrs. Their message, mainly transmitted through the Internet, has extended into the U.S., Britain, Sweden, Australia and most recently Canada, luring much-prized Western recruits.

 

Many of the Shabab's attacks, such as Monday's attack on the AMISOM medical outpost, horrify Somalis. But the Shabab has largely been able to control the narrative of these assaults, saying Monday's target was retribution for attacks by AMISOM forces on civilians.

 

Mogadishu's recently appointed mayor, Abdirasak Mohammed, says the government understands the importance of economics in winning over the population. He argues that for the first time in 19 years the government has passed a budget and begun collecting taxes at the port and airport.

 

BUT IT WILL be a long time before that translates into social programs for the population and the sad truth is that starvation, drought and disease will kill more Somalis than the fighting will. Thousands suffer in refugee camps both inside the country and just across the border in Kenya. The fighting has forced almost all humanitarian organizations out of the country.

 

So bringing security is still the first priority.

 

As Mogadishu's mayor acknowledges: "I start the morning and say, `Today, you will die.' In the afternoon I say, `Blessed is the God.' We are always around risk."

 

The oft-repeated message from government ministers is give them time. And they plead for international attention – of the right kind. They point to the failed Christmas Day airline bombing attempt, which thrust nearby Yemen into the news after Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for that plot. That's what many fear here most – a knee-jerk international reaction should the Shabab carry out a foreign attack.

 

Says Sharmarke: "I'm afraid the moment the international community understands the gravity of the situation in Somalia, it might be really too little too late."

 

Source Toronto Star