Struggling to emerge from al-Shabab’s shadow

The Somali capital is recovering from decades of factional fighting, but those outside Mogadishu still suffer.


Baidoa/Ras Kamboni, Somalia – Somalia has a new constitution, parliament and president, raising hopes the war-torn African country will finally shed the title of the world’s most failed state after two decades of anarchic violence.

The fighting and turmoil of the past has faded in the capital. Mogadishu now boasts bustling shops, new ice cream parlours and beachfront dining. But outside the capital, towns are hardly experiencing a renaissance.

For the past six years the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab group – known infamously for suicide bomb attacks, public amputations, and expelling aid workers – has occupied most of southern and central Somalia.  Alongside the political progress in Mogadishu, much anticipation surrounds the multinational military effort that has helped eliminate al-Shabab in most of these areas.

In recent months, African Union, Kenyan, and Ethiopian troops, alongside a coalition of Somali militia, have “liberated” many major towns from the group.

“Under al-Shabab, we were in prison. Now we have opened the doors, the windows, and we are waiting for fresh air.

– Governor Abdifatah Mohamed Ibrahim

Al-Shabab has shown little resistance, strategically abandoning its former bases and training camps, and adopting guerrilla tactics in the face of larger and better-equipped armies. Though many towns have been cleared of the militants, the bush in between remains insecure. 

“They point guns at you, they take the cigarettes, they blindfold and torture you, and then release you after five hours or so,” said Ali Abdi Hassan, who drives a commercial truck from Mogadishu to Baidoa, a city 256km northwest of the capital.

“The government can’t get past Shabab, they are the problem,” said Abdi.

Every morning al-Shabab militias block the road between Mogadishu and Baidoa with machine-gun mounted pickup trucks. They stop drivers such as Abdi, searching for food aid to burn. They also impose taxes on other cargo. Abdi pays $400 for a consignment worth $1,000.

Mired by the death of key leaders, infighting, revenue losses, and fleeing of foreign fighters, there is no doubt that al-Shabab has weakened. Most fighters have retreated to the port city of Kismayo, the Islamists’ last bastion and financial centre. Kenyan naval ships have already begun shelling Kismayo while allied forces approach by land.

But prophesying the end of the fighters underestimates their agility. Al-Shabab still wreaks havoc using land mines, car bombs, and improvised explosive devices.  

And the expulsion of the group from Kismayo could create a dangerous a power vacuum, testing the uneasy alliance between various Somali factions.

Abdi, an officer in the pro-government Ras Kamboni Brigade who asked that his full name not be used, said he believes his militia will control the lucrative port in a post-Shabab Kismayo. But other militia groups, currently allied, share the same goal.

“When we take Kismayo, I will be a port operator,” said Abdi.

Mogadishu is not Somalia

Abdifatah Mohamed Ibrahim, called “Gesey” by his constituents, still wears his old military fatigues around town. Now as the governor of Bay Region, of which Baidoa is the capital, his control is limited to a few pockets of territory secured by Ethiopian and Somali troops. Al-Shabab controls the rest.

“We have been here for six months and still have received no help from the Transitional Federal Government,” Gesey said. “They pretend Bay Region is not part of Somalia. The president and prime minister visited Balad and Baladweyne, while not Baidoa. We wonder why they don’t come.”

For now, Baidoa is safe. “Ask the people,” Gesey said. “Of late they have not even heard the shooting of a bullet.”

A combination of Ethiopian, Burundian, Ugandan and Somali soldiers patrol the city, in places they outnumber the civilians.

Despite the security, a food shortage afflicts Baidoa. Last year, drought and locust infestations befell the sorghum and grain fields of Bay Region, once the breadbasket of Somalia.

Most food now arrives overland from Mogadishu, but heavy taxes incurred at al-Shabab checkpoints inflate prices in local markets. One kilogram of rice costs 40 per cent more in Baidoa than in the capital.   

“Customers eat and say they will pay at the end of the month, but they do not have money,” restaurant owner Jamila Aden complained. While restaurants go up in Mogadishu, Aden considers closing hers in Baidoa.

“We have a problem. The people of Ras Kamboni do not trust in anyone’s uniform or in anyone carrying a weapon. We need to do something about this.

– Major Simbili, Kenyan officer 

Tempered expectations

Last October, the Kenyans and the Ras Kamboni Brigade captured Ras Kamboni, a fishing village in the Lower Jubba region. Social services in Ras Kamboni collapsed with the state in 1991. Since then, citizens have come to expect little from administrations in Mogadishu.

Like Baidoa, residents expected humanitarian relief to follow al-Shabab’s ouster, but it has been slow to materialise. “For the last nine months the security has been okay,” said Ali, a village elder. “(But) we expected the international community to help us.”

The first help arrived in July when the World Health Organisation established a health clinic at the former al-Shabab headquarters.

“Education, sanitation, water, health – all of these areas are very poor. We hope this is not the last mission,” Ali said.

The Kenyan soldiers in charge of the town say the people are wary of their presence.

“We have a problem. The people of Ras Kamboni do not trust in anyone’s uniform or in anyone carrying a weapon,” said the commanding Kenyan officer Major Simbili. “We need to do something about this.”

Livelihoods in Ras Kamboni have long depended on fishing and charcoal production. Aiming to stifle one of al-Shabab’s main sources of revenue, the Kenyan military enforced a UN resolution banning charcoal exports from Somalia. For several months the Kenyans also prohibited fishing, fearing fighters could return undetected by boat.

The actions taken to starve al-Shabab indiscriminately depressed the local economy, and no alternative livelihoods have emerged. The centre of town is full of idle people, a testament to the lack of coordination between civilian and military governance.

Places such as Ras Kamboni and Baidoa are microcosms of the largely unseen Somalia outside of Mogadishu. Observers say it is regions such as these that will test the transition from failed state to stable democracy.

As for al-Shabab, it remains to be seen if it is truly a defeated force after being pushed back in much of Somalia.

“If experience is anything to go by in Afghanistan and elsewhere, this will make the group much more hardline and much more jihadi oriented,” Somalia analyst Rashid Abdi told Al Jazeera. “In many ways the defeat of al-Shabab will catalyze radicalisation and give more deadly problems for Somalia.”

Despite the hardship Somalis face outside Mogadishu, the disappearance of al-Shabab from cities and towns is a sign of hope. “Under al-Shabab, we were in prison,” said Governor Ghesey. “Now we have opened the doors, the windows, and we are waiting for fresh air.”

Source: Al Jazeera