Mogadishu: Armageddon on Steroids

‘The fighting in Somalia can no longer be dismissed as an obscure domestic struggle in an unimportant country of no wider relevance to the world. The crackle of machinegun fire in Mogadishu, the regular thwump of mortars, the ground-shaking shelling by Amisom tanks and the sporadic suicide attacks by delusional youths represent the frontline in the international fight against al-Qaeda.’

Africa Dispatches War on Terror
Flagging support: Somali women wearing the country's national flag during a ceremony marking President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed's first year in office

To listen to the UN security officer’s briefing in Nairobi prior to visiting Somalia, you would think Mogadishu was Armageddon on steroids. Each and every Somali would be extremely hostile, he warned, snipers around the presidential compound of Villa Somalia would pick me off if I stepped out on to a balcony and down at the seaport it would be raining bombs and mortars. The weather was harsh, the mosquitoes unbearable and the African Express flight was relatively secure only because the terrorist group al-Shabaab (literally, “The Youth”) used it so were unlikely to blow it up. He shook his head at this latest lamb heading off to the slaughter. “You’ll be lucky to remain safe,” he said. At least the swimming in the Indian Ocean was sensational, I ventured. “Good luck,” he shot back. “You will be welcomed by sharks.”

 (AFP/Getty Images)

From the manicured lawns of Nairobi, Somalia is indeed a dark and fearful place. For two decades the country has known little but war. As a result of this relentless fighting, the statistics are surreally ghastly. An estimated 3.2 million Somalis, or 42 per cent of the population, require humanitarian assistance. There are 1.2 million internally displaced people fleeing from the conflict. While acute malnutrition among the under-fives stands at 20 per cent, one in 22 children is severely malnourished and at a nine times greater risk of premature death than properly nourished children. Life expectancy, depending on who you believe, ranges from 47 to the mid-50s. GDP per capita stands at an estimated $600 — most statistics are estimated in Somalia — placing the country 224th out of 228 countries. The seaport, the country’s main commercial link to the outside, generates $11m a year. In 2002, urban unemployment was 65 per cent. “It can be assumed that the situation in Mogadishu has deteriorated since then,” says a UNDP report.

Conflict has a changing face in Somalia. What has been constant since 1991, when the military dictator General Mohammed Siad Barre was deposed by warring clans after 21 years at the helm, is bloodshed and instability. Clan warfare evolved into warlordism — epitomised by the anarchic savagery of “Black Hawk Down” in October 1993 — which in turn metamorphosed into religiously-inspired conflict. This was only brought to an end when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) captured Mogadishu in 2006, ushering in what some Somalis call “the six months of paradise”. The US-supported Ethiopian invasion in late 2006 quickly defeated the ICU, but it also had the unintended consequence of uniting Somalis of all political and religious hues against their old enemy. Fresh instability followed the subsequent Ethiopian departure.

Today the conflict pits the fledgling transitional federal government (TFG) of onetime ICU leader President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, supported by the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), against al-Shabaab, an unsavoury alliance of local Islamists, foreign al-Qaeda and the great unwashed, brainwashed and unemployed.

The fighting in Somalia can no longer be dismissed as an obscure domestic struggle in an unimportant country of no wider relevance to the world. The crackle of machinegun fire in Mogadishu, the regular thwump of mortars, the ground-shaking shelling by Amisom tanks and the sporadic suicide attacks by delusional youths represent the frontline in the international fight against al-Qaeda. “The instability in Somalia is a threat not only to its neighbours but more widely,” says Robert Macaire, the British High Commissioner in Nairobi. “The terrorist threat is very real. We’re concerned about the risk of extremists travelling to Somalia and returning to the UK to conduct attacks.” The Somali diaspora has also been well represented in terrorist attacks in the country.

 

To listen to the UN security officer’s briefing in Nairobi prior to visiting Somalia, you would think Mogadishu was Armageddon on steroids. Each and every Somali would be extremely hostile, he warned, snipers around the presidential compound of Villa Somalia would pick me off if I stepped out on to a balcony and down at the seaport it would be raining bombs and mortars. The weather was harsh, the mosquitoes unbearable and the African Express flight was relatively secure only because the terrorist group al-Shabaab (literally, “The Youth”) used it so were unlikely to blow it up. He shook his head at this latest lamb heading off to the slaughter. “You’ll be lucky to remain safe,” he said. At least the swimming in the Indian Ocean was sensational, I ventured. “Good luck,” he shot back. “You will be welcomed by sharks.”

From the manicured lawns of Nairobi, Somalia is indeed a dark and fearful place. For two decades the country has known little but war. As a result of this relentless fighting, the statistics are surreally ghastly. An estimated 3.2 million Somalis, or 42 per cent of the population, require humanitarian assistance. There are 1.2 million internally displaced people fleeing from the conflict. While acute malnutrition among the under-fives stands at 20 per cent, one in 22 children is severely malnourished and at a nine times greater risk of premature death than properly nourished children. Life expectancy, depending on who you believe, ranges from 47 to the mid-50s. GDP per capita stands at an estimated $600 — most statistics are estimated in Somalia — placing the country 224th out of 228 countries. The seaport, the country’s main commercial link to the outside, generates $11m a year. In 2002, urban unemployment was 65 per cent. “It can be assumed that the situation in Mogadishu has deteriorated since then,” says a UNDP report.

Conflict has a changing face in Somalia. What has been constant since 1991, when the military dictator General Mohammed Siad Barre was deposed by warring clans after 21 years at the helm, is bloodshed and instability. Clan warfare evolved into warlordism — epitomised by the anarchic savagery of “Black Hawk Down” in October 1993 — which in turn metamorphosed into religiously-inspired conflict. This was only brought to an end when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) captured Mogadishu in 2006, ushering in what some Somalis call “the six months of paradise”. The US-supported Ethiopian invasion in late 2006 quickly defeated the ICU, but it also had the unintended consequence of uniting Somalis of all political and religious hues against their old enemy. Fresh instability followed the subsequent Ethiopian departure.

Today the conflict pits the fledgling transitional federal government (TFG) of onetime ICU leader President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, supported by the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), against al-Shabaab, an unsavoury alliance of local Islamists, foreign al-Qaeda and the great unwashed, brainwashed and unemployed.

The fighting in Somalia can no longer be dismissed as an obscure domestic struggle in an unimportant country of no wider relevance to the world. The crackle of machinegun fire in Mogadishu, the regular thwump of mortars, the ground-shaking shelling by Amisom tanks and the sporadic suicide attacks by delusional youths represent the frontline in the international fight against al-Qaeda. “The instability in Somalia is a threat not only to its neighbours but more widely,” says Robert Macaire, the British High Commissioner in Nairobi. “The terrorist threat is very real. We’re concerned about the risk of extremists travelling to Somalia and returning to the UK to conduct attacks.” The Somali diaspora has also been well represented in terrorist attacks in the country.

On 1 February, al-Shabaab announced it was making common cause with al-Qaeda in an effort to establish an Islamic state in Somalia and fight for Muslims across the Horn of Africa. Islamists gravitate towards failed states as water finds its own level. In fact, the UN recently upgraded Somalia from “failed” to “fragile” state, but the point is the same. The level of insecurity and lack of centralised law and order provide ripe conditions for repressive Islamists to flourish.

Major Ba-Hoku Barigye, Amisom’s spokesman in Mogadishu, has daily contact with al-Shabaab. His phone beeps and rings every few seconds, day in, day out, as hundreds of texts and calls come in. Although they attempt to be blood-curdling, including repeated (and unfulfilled) threats to kill him, most are moronic, some unintentionally hilarious. “You are infidels and hypocrites the doomsday you are and your friend allah will punish as hell amisom i,m muslim and my religon is the best religon?” reads one.

Al-Shabaab controls much of southern Somalia and a good deal of Mogadishu. As an example of its concern for the wellbeing of ordinary Somalis, it recently forced the World Food Programme to suspend its activities in most parts of the south and said foreign humanitarian organisations were no longer welcome. Forty-seven aid workers, most of them Somali, were killed in 2009 and many were abducted. Al-Shabaab doesn’t really go in for human rights, much less women’s rights. According to Amnesty International’s 2009 report on Somalia, “Aisha Ibrahim Duholow, aged 13, was publicly stoned to death on 27 October [2008] by some 50 men in Kismayo. She was convicted of ‘adultery’ by a Sharia court without legal defence after she reported to local authorities that she had been raped by three men. The men were not prosecuted.” Al-Shabaab justice often comes at the end of a blade. The most serious transgressors are beheaded, other miscreants have their limbs hacked off. Some are simply shot.

Going out into Mogadishu in an armoured personnel carrier with Amisom’s Ugandan troops reveals the scale of the challenge they, the fledgling government and the Somali people face. With azure skies, a streaming breeze and foam-flecked seas beneath a fiery sun, Mogadishu could be a preternaturally beautiful place. Instead, the decades of fighting have reduced homes, streets and buildings to rubble. Kabul has nothing on Mogadishu in terms of being razed to ground zero. Bombed-out and shot-out shells rise from pot-holed roads and mud tracks. Cattle and goats saunter along past old men in white skullcaps and veiled women in a blaze of bright colours. There is no electricity except from generators. Government services are virtually non-existent. Squalor is the norm.

The night before the first anniversary celebration of President Sharif’s administration, the ground shakes for four hours during fierce fighting between Amisom and government troops and al-Shabaab. The BBC reports at least 11 people killed. The next morning we drive across town to Villa Somalia, the presidential enclave on a modest bluff overlooking an astonishingly green city. Somali poets, singers and comedians take to the stage to entertain the president, prime minster, cabinet and assorted MPs. The joyful mood is suddenly shattered as mortars explode only metres away, killing one Ugandan and one Somali and injuring several more. An Amisom tank responds with gusto and then there are no more mortars. The show goes on. “The opposition has no programme but killing,” President Sharif says later in an interview.

A couple of days later, I speak to Ismail Mahmoud, 21, a former member of al-Shabaab. He was injured in an attack against an Amisom position late last year. Two men fighting alongside him were killed. He was taken to the Amisom hospital and had his left leg amputated. There is nothing menacing about Mahmoud. He is a pitiful young man with a worn-out, hunted expression and an uncertain, unenviable future. Like so many Somalis his age, he has had no proper education. Now that his jihad is over, I ask whether he will find work and get on with his life. “When I had two legs, I was not able to find a job,” he replies. “How will I be able to when I only have one?”

Although Somali society is fantastically complicated by clan histories, loyalties, divisions and strife, this latest conflict is simple at the most basic level. What it boils down to is this: al-Qaeda and its supporters are providing al-Shabaab with men and materiel. According to Major-General Nathan Mugisha, Amisom’s Force Commander, they are well resourced and becoming more battle-hardened and resilient by the day. Expertise is mobile and comes from the battlefields of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East. “With time, al-Shabaab is becoming a credible force,” he says. “We don’t need to give them this time.”

The international community, by contrast, is dawdling on the sidelines. “At the moment, it’s only paying lip service to Somalia,” argues Jibril Mohammed, a Somali businessman. The UN’s position is clear. On 30 January, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it would not deploy troops until the fighting stops, employing the old adage that peacekeepers need a peace to keep.That leaves a desperately under-strength, under-financed African Union force of 5,300 Ugandans and Burundians manning the barricades in one of the world’s most fragile states. According to Amisom’s Major Barigye in February, its soldiers had not been paid since August. Whatever their promises of assistance, in practice African troop-contributing countries are deterred from providing manpower by the low levels of payment they receive compared with supporting other missions, such as the much better resourced joint UN-African Union force in Darfur. It may seem an unimportant bureaucratic quirk but on such questions of finance key decisions turn in the developing world.

The future necessarily lies with the TFG, but it too will need to be properly funded to kick-start a government that is able to provide the most basic service of all: a modicum of law, order and security. There is a long way to go.

“Take out Amisom and the TFG would collapse in 30 minutes,” says one analyst. Again, the signs suggest the international community understands neither the urgency nor the gravity of the situation. In the latest UN report on Somalia, issued last December, it was reported that of the $58m pledged to the TFG by foreign donors in Brussels last April, the government had received $5.6m. It is difficult to build an army from that. “If the TFG can get a small, capable and loyal force going, this could make a significant difference on the ground,” says Ernst Jan Hogendoorn, the Horn of Africa project director for the International Crisis Group in Nairobi.

The most terrifying thing I encountered in Mogadishu had nothing to do with the UN security officer’s apocalyptic warnings, not even the cluster of mortars that dropped on us in Villa Somalia. Instead it was a story about a Somali child who came back from school in Mogadishu one afternoon to find his father listening to pop music. “Dad, you’re an infidel,” the child said. The father decided there and then that it was time to leave Somalia and took his family to Kenya.

If the international community fails to respond urgently to what is happening in Somalia, another generation may soon be lost to the toxic delusions of Islamic fundamentalism. “I don’t think the West understands the magnitude of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and its influence in the Horn of Africa,” says Abdusalam Omer, a government adviser. “There’s not a three-year-old in Somalia, Djibouti or Yemen who isn’t affected. At the moment, al-Shabaab is in the ascendant, opening schools in many cities. Yet if a reasonably modest investment is made in TFG they can defeat al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda for the first time in any country.”