Four years ago, al-Shabab controlled large parts of central and southern Somalia, including most of the capital, Mogadishu. Security forces have since pushed the armed group out of Somalia’s major cities, but al-Shabab continues to launch periodic attacks, including an assault on the presidential palace in Mogadishu last month. Al Jazeera talks to Somalia’s Prime Minister Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed, whose government is struggling to provide security and tackle corruption.
Al Jazeera: How do you rate the success of this offensive that started earlier this month?
Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed: This is a significant success and we’re quite happy with what the Somali national forces and AMISOM [African Union Mission to Somalia] forces have managed to do. They have taken nine key towns in south-central Somalia which were controlled by al-Shabab, which they used to recruit people, indoctrinate young people and to raise funds. This is a significant contribution to the change in the security landscape of Somalia. It’s good progress, we’ll continue until we take all our territory back from al-Shabab.
AJ: You are taking towns but al-Shabab still very much controls much of the countryside. They have cut off supply [routes]. In a place like Hudur – the capital of Bakool – the cost of living has skyrocketed. Commodities have tripled in price. How do you deal with that?
Ahmed: We are hoping this will be a temporary situation. We’ll have to adjust the situation to ensure supplies reach those towns. This will be done by clearing the roads from al-Shabab so that there’s a clear flow of goods and commodities to the towns. Al-Shabab cannot survive for long in the countryside because they will not be able to raise funds, they will not have all the resources they used to have when controlling the towns. After a while they will lose credibility. Yes, we have problems in the short term but we’re quite confident that once al-Shabab are no longer controlling the major towns, their strength and confidence will drop.
AJ: What is the long term plan, especially when it comes to governance? Al-Shabab had administrative structures in place – now there’s a political vacuum. We know unmanaged politics in some of these areas could lead to serious clan contestations. If not well managed and if people don’t get the services they need, al-Shabab might just be welcomed back.
Ahmed: In the short term, immediately after we recover those lands we have to address the immediate needs of the people, [specifically] food supplies. We are sending a convoy of food to Qoryoole and I’m sending my interior minister to some of the other towns to assess the food situation there – we will have to provide food to those communities. We are also putting in place local administrations until we are able to have communities organise themselves to elect their own administrators. The immediate plan is to focus on social services. Al-Shabab destroyed most of the infrastructure. In Eel Bur they destroyed the wells.
After we sort out the basic needs then we start on the long term solutions of creating jobs for the people and addressing the economic needs so that they can go back to their homes, do their farming, raise their cattle.
AJ: Even as you push al-Shabab out of towns in south and central Somalia, they have still managed to stage a series of bold attacks in Mogadishu, including an assault on the presidential palace, the airport and a United Nations compound – highly fortified installations. That seems to take back the gains that had been made especially in providing security in Mogadishu.
Ahmed: There’s this saying: “A dying horse’s last kicks are the hardest.” Al-Shabab is desperate, they are dying. They will do whatever they can to create news so that people say they are still there. We’re managing that – we’re getting the intelligence. Just this week, we captured several vehicles loaded with explosives, we arrested some of the masterminds. We dismantled some of the finance instruments used by al-Shabab. The capacity of al-Shabab to undertake those high impact operations will go down. I’m not saying it will not happen – it will happen and it happens everywhere in the world. But we are getting more and more prepared to avoid those accidents from happening.
AJ: Many people are saying that perhaps what is needed is a political solution. Are you open to that?
Ahmed: We have sent messages to members of al-Shabab who are not hardcore. The hardcore [members] are those with extreme foreign ideologies, not home-grown ideologies. The others who are influenced by these ideologies, we are reaching out to them; we are sending messages. We are sending some members who used to be part of al-Shabab so we are working very hard and we have seen the results. In many places there are defectors coming to us. We’ll continue engaging with them until what is left is only the extreme members and they cannot survive by themselves in the bush so they’ll have to leave the country.
AJ: Somalis had very high expectations of the government. Now there’s a lot of criticism of the government’s complacency and inability to provide what it promised. People are feeling disconnected from your government.
Ahmed: Things are changing. My ministers are engaging very closely with the people in Mogadishu. The strategy is to work very closely with the people. We are sending ministers to consult in many other areas outside Mogadishu. When it comes to providing services, we have a well-planned stabilisation programme with which we will demonstrate that the government is concerned about the needs of the people.
Many things will be said, it’s natural. We are travelling to engage with international partners because they are critical to the success we are achieving. It’s not the entire government that is travelling, you know the government is not just the president and prime minister.
AJ: A confidential UN monitor’s report warns of “systematic abuses” by Somalia’s government. It says elements in the government allowed the diversion of weapons that Somali authorities purchased after the UN Security Council eased an arms embargo on Mogadishu last year. Some of the arms may have ended up with al-Shabab. What do you say to this?
Ahmed: None of the investigators have come to talk to us but we take those allegations very seriously. We are investigating. I am not aware of any arms being diverted to clans, militias or even to al-Shabab.
AJ: Is it too early to talk about an African Union forces exit plan?
Ahmed: We plan to build security forces for Somalia, owned by Somalis. Just two weeks ago, IGAD [Inter-Governmental Authority on Development] member countries made a decision that they support the formation and the reformation of the Somali national armed forces and the rebuilding of the Somali security policy and intelligence networks. It’s part of the work plan to reform the security forces so that the Somalis can manage and own their security forces. As soon as we are able to handle the security ourselves our brothers can then go home.
AJ: But that will not be very soon.
Ahmed: It will take some time. Realistically, for a country that has been under destruction for 20 years, bringing the pieces together will take time. We are trying to bring the pieces together and we hope we will do that.