Somalia’s recent progress remains under threat from Al-Shabaab

After being plagued by decades of conflict and the more-recent insurgency of militant group Al-Shabaab, Somalia has long been labelled as a failed state. However in recent years the situation has stabilized: Al-Shabaab militants have been pushed back, and much of the country is now under the control of a functioning legitimate central government – the first in Somalia for 25 years.

Since the landmark election of President Hassan Sheik Mohamud in September 2012, steady progress has led to an atmosphere of cautious optimism; with UN Envoy Augustine Mahiga describing an ‘’unprecedented opportunity for peace’’. However, Somalia’s new-found stability is fragile: the presence of Al-Shabaab is a continuing worry, whilst long-term challenges remain after 25 years of upheaval.

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The African Union has deployed more than 22,000 troops to Somalia to fight Al-Shabaab militants (Image Source: AMISOM)

Somalia first collapsed into anarchy in 1991, following the overthrow of the military regime of President Siad Barre. In the following decade, rival warlords tore the country apart in the absence of a legitimate central authority, leading to the deaths of more than 500,000 people as a result of war and famine.

In the 2000’s the violence took on a new dimension, with a coalition of Islamist Sharia Courts seizing the capital Mogadishu in 2006. This once-powerful group known as the ‘Union of Islamic Courts’, was quickly defeated by Ethiopian and African Union (AU) forces – however, this was not the end of Islamist insurgency in Somalia.

The group’s radical youth wing, Al-Shabaab, rose from the ashes to mount a sustained and bloody challenge to the Somali state. Al-Shabaab advocates the Saudi-inspired Wahhabi version of Islam, and has imposed a strict version of Sharia Law in areas under its control: this has included the stoning to death of women accused of adultery, and amputating the hands of thieves.

Al-Shabaab has pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, and is estimated to have between 6000-7000 fighters. It initially made rapid territorial advances to control almost all of central and southern Somalia by 2010, including the capital Mogadishu.

However, this success was short-lived after the intervention of outside nations. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has been working in the country since 2007, and was initially made up of a coalition of troops from Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Sierra Leone. After making steady progress in pushing-back the militants, Kenyan troops joined in the effort to help force Al-Shabaab out of Mogadishu in August 2011, which was followed by their retreat from the crucial port-city of Kismayo in September 2012.

The US has also played a key role, providing $204 million in humanitarian assistance and launching drone strikes from its base in neighbouring Djibouti – one of which killed Al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane in September 2014.

Al-Shabaab is now severely weakened – it has been pushed out of many of the towns it once-controlled, and has retreated to its heartlands in the rural south. In August 2014 AMISOM made further progress after launching Operation Indian Ocean, which seized almost all of Al-Shabaab’s coastal territory and killed many of its key leaders. Somalia is now an example of how close regional co-operation can result in successful military outcomes: in stark contrast to the current regional divisions in the Middle East over the conflict in Syria.

The mood in Somalia is more optimistic than it has been in decades: it finally has a stable government and a legitimate president. Since the 2012 election of President Mohamud, the country’s economy has been re-energised and its banking sector re-established, the military has been built-up and the UN has ended its 21-year arms embargo. There has also been increased foreign investment, with Turkey helping to fund a new airport and hospital in Mogadishu.

Internal unity has also been strengthened, with the central government now controlling all of Somalia’s regions except for Somaliland: the far north-west region which has been autonomous since 1991. There is no doubt that the country is on an overall upward-trajectory: aside from the successes on land, piracy has declined and Mogadishu is now experiencing a small property boom.

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Somali President Hassan Sheik Mohamud has led the country since September 2012 (Image Source: AMISOM)

However, the militant threat still lingers beneath the surface. Al-Shabaab remains prominent in some rural areas, denying basic rights to citizens under its control, committing widespread sexual violence against women and carrying out public executions, whilst also restricting humanitarian access. It has also carried out deadly attacks in government-held areas, such as the February 2015 suicide car bomb targeting a UN convoy near Mogadishu Airport, which killed 6 civilians.

Worryingly, Al-Shabaab has extended its reach by launching over 150 terrorist attacks in neighbouring Kenya. The most deadly of these was the April 2015 massacre at Garissa University, in which 147 students were killed by gunmen. This followed the widely-publicized 2013 attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall, in which at least 68 civilians were killed.

So despite the recent strides forward, Somalia still faces huge security challenges. Civilians continue to be killed and wounded: over 120,000 people have been displaced since the start of 2014, whilst the Armed Conflict and Event Data Project reported that 4,365 civilians were killed during 2015 alone. In Mogadishu, military checkpoints and roadblocks remain, whilst Al-Shabaab continues to carry out frequent gun and bomb attacks.

The humanitarian situation is also desperate: the UN says that over 1 million people face acute food insecurity, whilst living conditions in refugee camps are dire. Children in Somalia regularly die from preventable diseases such as malaria, whilst there is a lack of access to education and healthcare. And this is aside from the severe mental scars which must be present after more than two-decades of devastating conflict and suffering.

Looking to the future, the Somali government and its neighbours have the huge task ahead of re-building a state savaged by war, and facilitating sustainable economic development which could finally put an end to the cycle of violence. The country’s new political system has so-far been successful, yet is still unproven: the next key test of Somalia’s stability will be elections scheduled for later in 2016. The outlook remains positive, but a sense of perspective must be maintained, as future progress in Somalia is likely to be slow, difficult and fraught with setbacks.

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