Sunday, June 03, 2012
For the first time in three-and-a-half years Somali farmers in the strategic Afgoye region outside Mogadishu say they can breath a sigh of relief, as the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabaab has been ousted from their lands. Farmer Hassan Arab says he is overjoyed by the new "freedoms" brought to the area this week, after Somalia government soldiers backed by African Union troops sent al-Shabaab fighters fleeing.
"The (Islamist) regime here in Afgoye and the nearby villages used to force farmers to pay heavy taxes. Otherwise they would either label you as a heretic or their fighters might even kill you in cold blood," says Arab. Farmers interviewed by dpa said al-Shabaab would impose taxes equal to about 40 to 50 per cent of their income, leaving them with little means to care for their families.
Al-Shabaab used the money to finance their war against the Somali government, ongoing since 2007. Additionally, they often stole food to feed their fighters. The group would also kill or torture anyone thought to be supporting the government. It instituted strict Islamic Sharia law, which included limb amputations and stoning as punishments for alleged offences.
Local businessman Omar Hashi says that with al-Shabaab on the run, he can again look to make money in the Afgoye region. "We will invest in local farmers living here in Afgoye, and that will lead to better production. And, it will not be as oppressive as when we had to work with the al-Shabaab administration," Hashi told dpa. The freeing of Afgoye, located about 30 kilometres from the war-torn capital, has also been good news for the residents of Mogadishu.
In the days since the AU forces beat al-Shabaab, trucks of fruits and vegetables have once again been making their way to the city for the first time in years, lowering prices. The new influx of produce is a welcome sign for another reason too. The goods are coming from some of the areas hardest hit by the drought and famine last year, which killed tens of thousands of people.
The rains have finally come and are allowing farmers to get back to their main task of feeding the nation. While production levels are low, any improvement is seen as a positive step. But some farmers, having lived through 21 years of civil war, are wary of rejoicing too soon. They want to make sure al-Shabaab is soundly defeated before they believe a new dawn is on its way.
"If we want to plant new produce, like mango, maize, bananas or grains, we have to be certain al-Shabaab is losing control not only over the Afgoye region but the entire Lower Shabelle province," says farmer Ahmeday Isak. A resident of Qoryoley, a small village in the province still technically under the control of al-Shabaab, Isak is worried the militants might yet stage a comeback.
He says the militant group's tax regime and brutal methods of control wrecked the quaint farming area - and he worries the damage may be permanent. "Herders and camel owners did not want to see al-Shabaab taking their livestock without paying money for the animals. Residents here have no leanings towards this so-called Jihad idea which al-Shabaab is talking about," Isak says.
"Here in Qoryoley, some farmers gave up farming because of the high taxes by al-Shabaab. Others just got up and fled from here and went to Mogadishu. Now they are not sure if they want to come back and rebuild their farms," added Isak. The farmers also admit that while the government forces are largely seen as liberators, the new soldiers in town can often be brutal too. The Somali government regularly fails to pay its troops, who then go on to steal from the locals as a way of earning a salary.
Somalia President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed visited Afgoye this week. Part of the reason for his visit was to calm local concern that they would come under another unfair regime of unaccountable men with guns. The president - whose convoy came under attack during the visit, highlighting how insecure the area still remains - also warned his soldiers to be concerned for the well being of the population.
The Somali government says that if it gains the support of the population and continues to receive international support it can capitalise on the gains against al-Shabaab and succeed in rebuilding a country that has been at war with itself for a generation.