Somalia: Al-Shabab & Hisbul-Islam insurgents intensify attacks against government forces


 Weak leadership and internal divisions have prevented Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) from exploiting splits among its Islamist insurgent enemies, say analysts. Al-Shabab and Hisbul-Islam insurgents have, in the past two months, intensified attacks against government forces and allied African Union (AU) troops. Clashes in Mogadishu between 1 and 3 October, for example, left at least 50 people dead and 174 wounded, according to local human rights organizations. 

However, divisions within insurgent ranks have increased to a point where rival groups are close to confrontation, sources said, allowing TFG and the AU troops to make some gains. 

"They had promised to topple the government by the end of Ramadan, but they did not," one civil society activist working in conflict resolution told IRIN. "They are divided over policy, but the TFG did not or cannot take advantage of this opportunity. It is a sign of how weak the TFG is."

According to the activist, the divisions among insurgents are an opportunity that a shrewd government could exploit to reach out to some insurgent factions. "The TFG has failed on multiple fronts," he said. 

The latest major setback for the TFG was the resignation of Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke on 21 September, following a power struggle with President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed. A successor has yet to be appointed, highlighting the difficult clan balance that must be maintained. 

"If a non-Majeerten becomes prime minister, the verbal support the government used to get from [the semi-autonomous northeastern region of] Puntland will be replaced by unbridled hostility," another Somali observer said. 

"Similarly, if an Isaq is selected, Somaliland [a self-declared independent state in the northwest, where this clan is numerically and politically dominant] will feel threatened and will take an antagonistic posture vis-à-vis the TFG,” he said, explaining that such an appointment would be seen as a renewed attempt by the TFG to exert its sovereignty over Somaliland. 

“The selection of a new PM will win President Sharif few friends and many more enemies," he said. 

New PM "soon" 

Abdulkadir Ali Omar, the Minister of Interior, and a close ally of Ahmed’s, denied the claims against the government. The president, he told IRIN, would appoint a new PM as soon as he finished his consultations, making this the fourth incumbent since the TFG was formed in 2004. 

Photo: Siegfried Modola/IRIN 
Mogadishu in ruins. Fighting intensified again this month (file photo)
"The president will appoint a new PM who will assemble a new, smaller and more effective cabinet with the ability to deal with problems facing the country," he said. "The priority will be security." 

Although preparations are behind schedule, a new constitution and elections are due once the TFG’s mandate ends in August 2011. This deadline means “the new prime minister and his cabinet will not only have to end the infighting, but end the insurgency once and for all and bring hope to the population", he added. "It will be a tough few months, but the government will succeed." 

Isse Weheliye, a member of parliament, said the new PM should have a serious plan to tackle the myriad problems facing the TFG. "What is missing is a strong and united leadership," he added. "If we get that we can overcome everything else. Let's hope that the new PM will foster such leadership and infighting will be a thing of the past." 

Other analysts said the key problem was that the TFG itself badly needed to build popular support. "The Somali TFG is very weak and suffers a lack of popular support," said Laura Hammond, a senior lecturer in the department of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. "Changing the prime minister or even reshuffling the cabinet will not fix things." 

A similar opinion was expressed by Michael Weinstein, an expert on Somalia and professor at Purdue University in the USA. "I expect the structural divides in the TFG to persist, regardless of who is named as the new PM," he told IRIN. 

According to Hammond, any chance of moving out of the current impasse will have to involve dialogue between those engaged with the TFG and those who support other movements. "This may mean widening the circle of people involved in the TFG [and] coming up with something new, a new coalition of those willing to bring Somalia out of conflict. 

"And the international community, those who have been supporting the TFG as well as those supporting Al-Shabab and other groups, need to be open to that possibility, rather than thwarting it." 

Insurgency divisions 

According to insiders, a group of Al-Shabab commanders, mainly from south-central Somalia, led by Mukhtar Robow, feel marginalized by Ahmed Godane, his deputy, from the northern Somaliland region and foreign fighters who support him. 

The divisions are “about taxes collected and funds used for fighting and the role of foreign fighters", one Somali analyst with ties to the TFG said. Robow and his group are in talks with Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the leader of Hisbul-Islam, to form a united front. 

Robow and his group favour talks to resolve their differences with the TFG and also want aid agencies to greatly expand their area of operations, currently very limited by insecurity, to have access to the needy, the analyst added, noting that a united front between Aweys and the Robow group would create a major headache for Godane and his foreign militants. 

"If they [Aweys and Robow] form an alliance, then Al-Shabab [Godane wing] and their foreign friends will have a difficult time finding a refuge in southern Somalia," he said. 

He suggested the divisions within Al-Shabab were the most important development in Somalia since the end of 2006, when, with the help of Ethiopian troops, the Union of Islamic Courts government was toppled. 

The divisions should be exploited for the benefit of Somalis, he said, going on to describe Robow and his group as "nationalists in Islamist garb" with whom the TFG should find ways of opening dialogue. 

Photo: Mohamed Amin Jibril/IRIN 
More than 1.4 million Somalis have been displaced by fighting (file photo)
"I hope whoever is the next prime minister will have the courage and freedom to enter into a dialogue with the group," he added. "It is the only way forward." 

International interest 

The wrangling within insurgent ranks and further weakening of the TFG come at a time when the international community has expressed growing interest in resolving the Somali question. UN Security Council members, in Africa last week, mulled the idea of increasing support to African peacekeeping efforts. 

On 8 October, the AU appointed former Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings as High Representative, to "work towards the successful conclusion of the peace and reconciliation process in Somalia". He is expected to strengthen the AU Mission, broaden the political base of transitional institutions and build the capacity of the TFG. 

But analysts said recent international efforts had yet to have a significant impact. "The international community has to first learn the lessons from their blunder in 2006 when a homegrown solution was aborted by the international community at a cost of tens of thousands of dead Somali civilians, and nearly two million either displaced or in refugee camps," a political analyst said. 

"Why not attempt to work with the Islamists? The alternative is to fight a long-term insurgency and [end up with] clan-based ‘Bantustans'." 

Weinstein added: "The international coalition of the US and UN has no domestic partner and holds no cards, yet they have the money bags and won't leave the situation alone, thereby preventing any moves for fusion within Somalia." 

According to Hammond, dealing with Somalia primarily in terms of its terrorist threat was unlikely to be constructive, while the crackdown on financial flows and travel to the country by Somalis had been severe. 

"People who want to invest in relief and development inside the country, even in peace-building, are afraid to do so," she added. "They fear that if they engage, they will be accused of supporting the insurgents. This will have a very negative impact on Somalia, a country that relies on its links to the diaspora for its lifeline." 

An estimated two million Somalis need humanitarian assistance, according to the UN. Some 1.4 million others are displaced inside the country, while more than 600,000 are refugees in neighbouring countries. Since January, the three main hospitals in Mogadishu have recorded over 500 deaths resulting from war-wounds. 

13 October 2010 (IRIN)