JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — A long-awaited offensive by the weak, transitional Somali government may finally bring President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed some badly needed legitimacy, but it is almost certainly going to increase the hardship of tens of thousands of civilians who are being forced from their homes.
The conflict has the potential to spread outside of Somalia. The offensive is targeting the militant Islamist Al-Shabab rebel group who have threatened to launch a jihad, or holy struggle, against Kenya for its reported military support for President Sharif’s government.
The most recent bout of fighting began in January as thousands of Somali troops, newly trained in Djibouti, Burundi, and reportedly in Kenya, began to return to Somalia and take up positions on the front lines. Fighting in Belet Wayne, Dhuusamareeb, and the capital of Mogadishu has killed 258 in the past month, displaced some 82,000 others, and increased the number of Somali civilians who must rely on external food aid to survive, according to the United Nations.
Al Shabab’s deputy commander, Sheikh Hussen Abdi Gedi, told a reporter for the pro-Shabab radio station, Andalus, that the Islamic militia was prepared to call for jihad against Kenya.
“Kenya has prepared troops that comprise of Kenyans and Somalis, who are trained to attack and take over the regions,” Sheikh Hussen told Andalus radio on Sunday, referring to press reports that Kenya had trained some 2,500 Somali troops for the Sheikh Sharif government. “They are planning to attack us on the land, sea, and air. We are urging people to be ready and defend our land.”
A fresh chance for legitimacy – and stability
Somalia has been at near-constant war since the fall of its last functioning government, the dictatorship of President Siad Barre in 1991, so the current uptick in violence can be seen as just another sad chapter. But the Sharif government sees its current offensive as a chance to finally push back against the Al Shabab militia whose ties to Al Qaeda and use of suicide bombers make it an international menace. This might mean more hardship in the short term, experts on Somalia say, but it might mean more stability in the long term.
“Certainly in the short term, any concerted military offensive against Al Shabab is going to have humanitarian consequences, but the hope is that in the long term this can lead to a resolution of the conflict so that people can get on with their lives,” says E. J. Hogendoorn, director of the Horn of Africa Project at the International Crisis Group’s office in Nairobi. “This is a chance for the government to show the public, in places where they don’t control territory, that they can provide services and to show they are a functioning government.”
The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), backed by some 4,000 Ugandan and Burundian troops, has largely kept the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia alive over the past two years, since the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops in December 2008. Training up a Somali army that can defend its territory makes sense, yet a long-standing UN arms embargo against Somalia makes that difficult. And Al Shabab’s increasing use of terrorist methods is making the international mission more costly in lives.
Diplomats in Kenya privately confirm the East African country has come under pressure to step up its support for the Sharif government, training 2,500 Somali troops. Kenya has also increased its armored patrols along the porous border with Somalia. But officially, Kenya denies reports that it has trained Somali troops. “That report is not true and should not be taken seriously,” Kenyan Internal Security Assistant Minister Orwa Ojodeh told the Daily Nation newspaper in Nairobi.
Fighting over the past month has led some human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, to condemn the reported training and arming of government troops. “International concern for the future of the Somali government has not been matched by an equal concern for the human rights of civilians,” said Michelle Kagari, Amnesty International Deputy Director for Africa, in late January.
Naming Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Uganda as training sites for Somali police and military, and the European Union, France, Germany and Italy as providers of that training, Ms. Kagari added: “Mortar attacks continue to claim lives – it is time for international donors to apply tighter controls to their support for the government.”
Frequent artillery battles, between Shabab and government forces, take a deadly toll on civilians. Yet Shabab has reportedly begun withdrawing arms and troops from a few of its strongholds, including Mogadishu’s main Bakara Market, a sign that the militia takes the current offensive seriously.
Fighting now serves two purposes: to give the government some breathing room in Mogadishu, where it currently controls the airport, seaport, and just a few blocks around the presidential palace; and it helps establish enough credibility to encourage moderates within Shabab and another allied Islamist militia, Hizbul Islam, to come to the negotiation table.
“We do feel that the solution has to be a political one, not a military one,” says Mr. Hogendoorn of the International Crisis Group.