There is an unprecedented build-up of military force in Somalia. African Union peacekeepers are set to double to more than 17,000 while Kenya and Ethiopia have launched their own invasions. Soldiers from the USA, Britain and France are targeting insurgents with foreign terrorist links. This military influx could prove counter-productive, given the lack of resources for stabilising local politics and strengthening the economy .
Charming and jovial, Tanzanian diplomat Augustine Mahiga worked the room hard as he talked about tangible progress in Somalia to an array of stern faces at the African Union’s (AU) Peace and Security Council on 5 January in Addis Ababa.
“This is the moment when years of investment in Somalia could finally pay off if we stay the course and move forward together,” Mahiga intoned in his role as the UN secretary general’s special representative to Somalia.
It was a hard sell convincing fellow diplomats about progress in Somalia after another year of famine, piracy, fist fights in parliament and battles with jihadist militias.
The irrepressible Mahiga wants to show that he believes that the progress is real by moving his UN office to Mogadishu following an offensive by the AU troops that drove the Islamist Al-Shabaab militia out of the capital last year.
THE AU AND MAHIGA have asked the UN Security Council to approve funding to add 5,700 troops to the current total of 9,500.
That will add to what has become a multi-million-dollar business in pacifying, or at least neutralising, Somalia.
African defence officials and private military consultants are in hot pursuit of funding from the UN and intervening governments for operations and procurement.
Governments in the region earn $1,000 for each peacekeeper per month, and it also builds up their armies’ combat experience.
With anti-pirate flotillas from more than 24 countries patrolling the Gulf of Aden, and French and United States forces monitoring terrorist targets from Djibouti (and occasionally sending special forces into Mogadishu on covert operations), there is an unprecedented build-up of military force in and around Somalia.
There is quieter talk of the mineral and fishing resources off the longest coastline of any African state.
This new militarisation could result in political progress, according to the executive secretary of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development.
Kenya’s Mahboub Maalim told The Africa Report: “Somalia is closer to being stabilised than at any other time.
It is mostly due to the lifting of the UN Security Council resolution limiting border countries from intervening in Somalia.”
That change by the UN has legitimised the operations by Kenyan and Ethiopian troops over the past few months.
The Kenyan government wants to join the AU mission so its troops can be eligible for funding from the UN.
For Maalim, the next critical stage in Somalia will be political: “There will be some far-reaching changes. Elections must be held by the end of August. A new government will be formed, and one that hopefully comes without the baggage of the current one.”
This is where Somalia’s divided political class is meant to work with African governments and Mahiga’s UN office.
Few Somalis outside the partisan political groupings have much of a voice: civic organisations have taken a terrible hit in the past two decades.
Some UN officials are now trying to reinvigorate the reconciliation strategy launched by veteran Algerian diplomat Mohamed Sahnoun that worked with clan organisations, the foundation of Somali society.
President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu is meant to hand over power in August when a new constitution based on the principle of decentralisation comes into force.
The transitional parliament, which has voted itself a three-year extension, will be central to any transition: its members want to push out Sheikh Sharif but cannot agree on a replacement.
For Simon Mulongo, former director of the Eastern Africa Standby Brigade and now a Ugandan MP, there is a clear imperative for regional states to intervene: “Somalia represents a black spot, an ungoverned space, and therefore precipitates concerns of organised crime, bandit economies, etc., which affect the region directly and indirectly … This invites those affected to take charge of the situation … especially when they have Somali elements that also operate in their countries.”
al-SHABAAB ORGANISED a bomb attack in Kampala in July 2010, so Mulongo insists that the Ugandan government has vital security interests there: “Somalia is not just a problem for Somalia alone.
Terror groups operating in the region are creating relationships. The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) have links with groups also operating in Somalia.
Jamil Mukulu, the ADF leader, trained in the Middle East and has organised some of his elements to be linked with some of the groups.
The ADF is based in the western slopes of the Rwenzori and western Uganda.”
An intelligence source said Britain has growing concern about Somali-linked terrorists
The headline news is that Somalia – whether its rebel groups are deploying terrorist militias across Africa and Europe or sending daring pirates to the Gulf of Aden, through which half the world’s container traffic passes – is a global threat.
Little attention is paid to the harsh living conditions that most Somalis have to endure or to the breakdown of health and education services.
It took another famine last year, which put five million Somali lives at risk, to take the world’s focus away temporarily from the outside obsessions of piracy and terrorism.
That explains some of the scepticism about British Prime Minister David Cameron’s plan for a conference in London on 23 February “to deliver a new international approach to Somalia.”
In November, Cameron listed the reasons for calling the meeting: “Protecting merchant ships passing through the Gulf of Aden, tackling pirates, pressuring the extremists, supporting countries in the region and addressing the causes of conflict and instability in Somalia.”
A European diplomat knowledgeable about the preparations plays down expectations: “We’ll see a call for stronger support for the AU and the UN. There may be some changes in the international management of diplomacy on Somalia. They want to find a way to give Turkey and Qatar bigger roles, but we’re not expecting any policy breakthroughs.”
The tight timetable would preclude wider consultation or much innovative thinking, he argues. A London-based intelligence source added that Britain has growing concern about Somali-linked terror groups.
After Al Qaeda operative Fazul Abdullah Mohammed was killed in fighting in south-central Somalia in June 2011, files were found on his computer detailing plans for attacks on the 2012 Olympics and other targets in London.
Jermaine Grant, a Briton also known as Ali Mohammed Ibrahim, was arrested in Mombasa in early January and charged with possession of explosives.
Police say he was one of the 200 or so foreign fighters working with Al-Shabaab, of whom about 50 are said to have British passports.
Whatever the agenda for the conference, Cameron’s team has drawn up an impressive guest list including Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and Somalia’s President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.
AL-SHABAAB LEADERS Ibrahim Haji Jama Mee’aad and Hassan Dahir Aweys, both under UN sanctions, are not invited even though their organisation will be under discussion.
Some African diplomats will urge talks with what they see as a more tractable faction of Al-Shabaab under Mukhtar Robow, while others argue that AU troops must press home their military advantage before opening talks.
Experts such as BBC journalist Mary Harper warn that “one of the biggest failures of policy towards Somalia has been the fixation with lengthy and expensive internationally sponsored peace conferences.”
In her new book Getting Somalia Wrong, Harper argues that these conferences “have produced a succession of weak transitional governments [which] have paid lip service to federalism but have tended to be highly centralised. They lack popular legitimacy because Somalis tend to see them as foreign creations.”
A better policy course, she says, would be to focus on the more stable regions and administrations such as Puntland and Somaliland.
Belatedly, the US and Britain have backed those strategies, speaking of a “dual track” approach which means recognising the Mogadishu government but building up independent relationships with the self-governing areas.
Working with other semi-autonomous areas such as Galmudug, Ximan and Xeeb may be more problematic, although there are signs that UN and AU officials are moving in that direction.
Attempts by governments such as Ethiopia and Uganda to back self-governing areas are often dismissed by Somalis as attempts to carve up the country.
Uganda’s Mulongo describes a web of competing interests among the states intervening in Somalia: “For Ethiopia, it is about control of the sea.”
Ethiopia has been landlocked since Eritrea’s independence in 1991. According to Mulongo, Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki believes in stabilising southern Somalia “to stand up to Ethiopia and counter its hegemonic interests.”
The status of Ethiopia’s own Somali-speaking population in the country’s Ogaden region is of obsessive importance to the government in Addis Ababa.
An all-out war was fought between Ethiopia and Somalia over the Ogaden in the late 1970s.
Mulongo says this complicates regional policy: “The Ogaden war still lingers in the minds of Ethiopians. They cannot just sit back and allow the formation of a semi-autonomous Jubaland region led by the Kenyans. It will obviously reopen the Ogaden issue.”
Mulongo and others see an escalating contest for influence among regional states in Somalia. Few, even in Nairobi, seem clear about why Kenya invaded Somalia with a more than 2,000-strong expeditionary force in October on the narrow pretext of hot pursuit against attacks by terrorist groups based in Somalia. It quickly emerged that Kenya’s intervention would not be over in the promised ‘matter of weeks’.
Instead, Kenya’s army is bedding down for a lengthy operation aiming to seize the southern port of Kismayo, which provides Al-Shabaab with revenues and taxes of more than $70m a year, according to UN investigators.
A tough battle looms ahead. Prime Minister Odinga has tried to calm TFG fears about the motives behind the invasion, saying that Kenya had no territorial interest in Somalia.
Questions persist about the creation of Jubaland last April, a semi-autonomous region in south-central Somalia, akin to Puntland and Somaliland.
Led by former TFG defence minister Professor Mohamed Abdi Gandhi, the new authority is meant to help force back Al-Shabaab and create a buffer zone for Northern Kenya.
Somali nationalists see it as another incursion by Kenya, whose last major dispute with Mogadishu sparked the 1964 Shifta War in Northern Kenya.
Because the TFG is politically weak in the south, Jubaland has never been popular in Mogadishu.
Ethiopia and Djibouti also oppose the creation of Jubaland, arguing that with a fragile government in Mogadishu, it’s a bad time to encourage more balkanisation.
Kenya’s expanding campaign raises questions about its relationship with Uganda, the senior partner in the AU peacekeeping effort.
Ethiopia prefers to stay out of the AU forces but sent its troops into western Somalia in December where they seized Beledweyne and a cluster of other towns from Al-Shabaab.
Addis Ababa remains profoundly sceptical about plans for a buffer zone – known as the Jubaland project – between northern Kenya and southern Somalia.
It would be yet another division of Somalia’s territory and a useful enclave for oppositionists who could easily cross into Ethiopia’s Ogaden region.
THERE IS ALSO an immediate problem of command and control for operations in Somalia.
After four years in the field, Uganda’s commanders may be unwilling to cede command of the AU mission, suggests a Kampala-based security expert: “Who will give orders to the Kenyan troops – [Uganda’s] General Fred Mugisha or the Kenyan command? Will we see a reorganisation into sector commands or will there remain an overall command structure?”
As diplomats and commanders grapple with these organisational complexities, many Somalis worry about the implications of this influx of outside interests.
Some fear that instability and terrorism could increase, arguing that Al-Shabaab will resort to more car bombings and targeted assassinations once it is evicted from its current bases.
Diplomats warn that those intervening should not ignore some of the successes of the regional administrations and that the country is still far from the picture of universal anarchy as commonly portrayed.
Despite the debilitating conflict in Mogadishu and Kismayo, there has also been some impressive economic growth in areas such telecommunications, financial services and livestock farming.
Widespread internet access offers Somalis a vital link to the diaspora and the wider world.
The tremendous success of Somali traders in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Nairobi’s Eastleigh district points to the potential for the country’s economy, if Somalia’s people can find their own political solution as international pressure mounts.