Tobin Jones

World News


Somalia’s Bleak Future

MOGADISHU — When inaugurated in February 2017, Somalia’s president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, commonly known as Farmajo, meaning ‘cheese,’ took an oath to stabilize the war-ravaged country and end the decades-old conflict.

He was, during that turbulent time, seen as the least corrupt candidate among a conglomerate of corrupt politicians competing in the most corrupt election, thus making him stand out in a highly contested political scene; one marred by pervasive corruption, flagrant manipulations, gerrymandering and endless clan rivalries that divided the nation. It was a political scene described by many analysts, investigators and some Western diplomats as being ‘a milestone of corruption, one of the most fraudulent political events in Somalia’s history.’

Riding upon a wave of popularity, however, partly due to this 8-month tenure as prime minister in 2010 when he set up a payroll system for the Somali forces, Farmajo reassured the people of Somalia that he would crack down on corruption, deal with insecurity and restore people’s confidence in the government. “I will return the lost confidence between the government and the people, and I promise for the Somalis and the world that my government will change the perception that Somalia is a corrupt nation,” he declared.

Less than a year into office, however, not only has the president been unable to deliver on any of his promises, but has also managed to lose the confidence of the population as well as many government officials within just a few months. He is accused of betrayal and has propelled the country further into an abyss of endless violence. The president’s political virility has taken a sharp decline and he has managed to polarize political opinion in the country. He lacks charm and is often described as ‘atrociously uninspiring’ by some parliamentarians and cabinet members who accuse him of being secluded in an ivory tower. The government is mired in internal conflicts and is irreparably split on countless issues. Corruption is still as endemic as it has always been and continues to gnaw away at the heart of all government institutions, from the highest to the lowest echelons. So much so that it has become an open secret in Somalia that “funds and salaries allocated for the police and military never reach front line soldiers, as they are siphoned off along the way by those higher up in the ranks.”

One consultant who works with the government in Mogadishu called the president “a disaster,” saying that “both he and the prime minister [Hassan Ali Khayre] are out of their depth. They’ve taken positions that deliberately antagonize the federal member states and they can’t win anything, let alone against al Shabaab, that way.”

Somalia is still rife with governance problems. Political bickering is at its peak and the federal member states have turned into puppet states under the influence of their foreign sponsors. They do not have a say in most of their internal affairs while they are subject to the whims of foreign states who provide them military support. There is a deep political divide between the central government and the federal member states. They do not have a proper working relationship and are constantly at war over the distribution of resources. The diplomatic crisis in the Middle East has highlighted how fractured the federal system is, as federal member states made their own foreign policy declarations, leading to a political fallout and prompting the central government to hit back and reaffirm its neutrality.

Mogadishu Truck Bomb

A sluggish response following last month’s Mogadishu truck bombing that claimed the lives of 358 people as the government failed to respond immediately to the victims of the attack. Government officials took hours to respond, allowing hundreds of innocent victims to be incinerated in the fire. I witnessed first-hand the helplessness of the victims trapped under the rubble. I saw the pain and anger on their faces as they cried for help without government paramedics, firefighters or officials to come to their rescue. I heard their cries, but, being injured in the blast myself, there was little I could do. I saw the fire rage out of control, devouring everything in its path, with no firefighters to douse the flames. The least the people of Somalia expected from their government, after having already failed in its responsibility to protect them, was to provide them with urgent help during their hour of need. The government, however, failed to heed their cries.

The explosion revealed flaws in intelligence gathering, highlighted government weaknesses, and exposed its failures. Dozens of lives that could have been saved by a swift call to action were eventually lost due to a deplorably sloppy and sluggish government response and willful negligence. Had it not been for the efforts of the civilians who rushed to help, many more lives would have been lost. In the face of such damning failures, it always easy to blame the Al-Shabab bogeyman in order to absolve the government of all responsibility.

The efficacy and the very integrity of government is clouded by rising doubts amid the evermore-protracted cycle of insecurity gripping the nation. Two weeks after the devastating Mogadishu truck bomb attack, the capital city was struck again with a deadly double bombing that killed more than 27 people, most of them government officials. Despite the ‘tightened security’ cordoned around the capital, gunmen were again able to bypass all security checkpoints using intelligence service ID cars, defying all government measures, and lay siege to Hotel Nasahablood for more than 12 hours! Senior government officials, diplomats and personnel from the intelligence agency frequented the hotel, which is situated right near the presidential palace, in Mogadishu’s ‘green zone.’ You would expect the government to carry out exhaustive attempts and be extra vigilant following an attack as deadly as the Mogadishu truck bomb, yet the government’s ineptitude led to another attack, highlighting yet another disappointing failure. Since then, Mogadishu has been rocked by a series of car bombs. The most recent occurred in Mogadishu’s Hodan district and targeted government soldiers.

One wonders what ever happened to the thousands of military personnel and intelligence agents employed by the government! What happened to the 500 police officers, 500 intelligence officers and 500 military officers who make up the Mogadishu Stabilisation Force? What happened to the 40,000 strong Somali army in Mogadishu and surrounding areas? Why is Mogadishu still a frequent target of such devastating attacks?

Somali Army: A Collection of Clan militias Under a Single Flag

On the war front, the government does not have a cohesive army and is gradually losing ground. Al-Shabab has proven to be a tough nut to crack, despite the surge in drone strikes under the Trump administration. The group is quite resilient, repeatedly defying claims that it has been defeated. It continues to stage asymmetrical attacks in the country ( most of them in Mogadishu) attacks AMISOM bases in broad daylight, assassinates politicians and governors with impunity, and carries out complex attacks against Mogadishu’s top Hotels used by Somali politicians. It is estimated that the group has carried out 360 attacks since 2007.

Ugandan AMISOM troops at the site of the al Shabaab bombing in Mogadishu. (Tobin Jones)

Despite the millions of dollars invested by the United States, United Kingdom and other countries in training programs, Somalia still does not have a capable army. The Somali national army remains, in the words of Matthew Bryden, the director of Sahan Research, a Somalia-focused think-tank, “a collection of clan militias under a single flag.” Somali soldiers are highly undisciplined, fragile, segmented along clan lines and do not operate in an integrated fashion. There is a deep mistrust among different sections of the army and infighting is quite common, with civilians often killed in the crossfire. Like their AMISOM counterparts, the movements of the Somali army are greatly hampered by deadly Al-Shabab ambushes, forcing them to move in large formations in order to perform very simple tasks. Poorly paid soldiers live through extortion at checkpoints, take bribes, and sell their weapons as well as uniforms in Mogadishu’s black market or, even worse, to their own enemy, Al-Shabab. All of this is greatly compounded by a chronic incompetence that has stalled the government’s advance outside Mogadishu. Al-Shabab’s last 4 major attacks (Buulo Guduud, Baladxaawo, Ceelwaaq, and Bariire) targeted Somali army bases, inflicting heavy casualties.

Both the defence minister and chief of the armed forces resigned following last month’s attack in the town of Bariire, 50 km (30 miles) from Mogadishu. Al-Shabab claimed to have killed more than 90 Somali solders in the attack. Shortly thereafter, the Somali military withdrew from Bariire, apparently, for ‘tactical reasons’ and Al-Shabab recaptured it, almost immediately, without firing a single shot.

On the other hand, the government’s counterintelligence capabilities are grossly inefficient and there is no unified command and control structure in place to coordinate its operations. The intelligence agencies are disorganized, dysfunctional and inept. They are also still in gross violation of human rights. In a letter addressed to the United States, Britain and the United Nations in May, Somalia’s minister of internal security highlighted an unhealthy climate of competition, mistrust and secrecy among different intelligence agencies, complaining that the “multiple actors involved means this process is highly disorganized…causing a severe problem for the governmental counter-terrorism efforts.”

Needless to say that without foreign assistance; without the support of US drones strikes and the thousands of AMISOM forces garrisoned around in vital government institutions, the Somali government would cease to exit.

Draining the Stagnant Pond

Currently, Somalia is at one of its lowest points, despite all the efforts of the international community. Economically, the country continues to rely on donors’ grants and remittances from abroad; militarily, it is trapped in a mutually destructive stalemate that benefits Al-Shabab in the long run and the social fabric is gradually wearing thin. The government does not have a feasible strategy to defeat Al-Shabab. Even if it did, can military might alone defeat Al-Shabab? The answer is a resounding no! Al-Shabab cannot be defeated through war. The foreign troops are struggling because of AMISOM’s incompetence and the impracticality of US drone strikes wiping out the entire group. Therefore, there is no hope of a clear, decisive Al-Shabab defeat in the foreseeable future. That is the common consensus of the Somali population and military analysts alike, because the biggest obstacle to achieving that goal is the Somali politicians themselves.

As the famous Somali proverb goes, ‘qawda maqashii waxna ha u qaban.’ which roughly means ‘pretend to help them but offer no genuine help,’ Somali politicians are marked by duplicity. None of them genuinely have the interest of the Somali people at heart. They are all vying for power and ascendancy for their own personal gains. I challenge anyone reading this article to point out a single Somali politician, just one, who is driven purely by altruism and a genuine desire to help his fellow Somalis rather than by excessive covetousness and self-interest! You will not find any even among the returning technocrats. As long as our politicians are driven by the motives of self-interest, as long as that way of thinking remains the prevailing status quo in the country, Somalia will never prosper.

For decades without end, the “goal of much of the political class in Somalia” has been, in the words of Professor Abdi Samatar, “not to create peace, but to engage in endless political gymnastics in pursuit of their own interests.” For them, what matters more is their prestige and their salary; a salary that is in no way commensurate to their appalling performances as government officials who are accountable to the people they serve.

Somali politicians have compromised their dignity and the security of the country with their conflicting interests and foreign sponsors, and continuous squabbling over the most trivial matters. To get rid of the tedious, weary languor that has beset the Somali political scene now requires a complete paradigm shift, a new way of thinking, a fresh approach and fresh, young minds to replace the clan-infested minds of the senile warlords. The political pond has become stagnant and the water is fully contaminated. Treatment methods have failed to cure the accumulation of algae and kill the harmful bacteria, so the only solution would be to completely drain the pond before it becomes an incubator of all sorts of deadly parasites. Failure to do so would cause considerable harm to the Somali society.

We have had enough of hollow promises and meaningless rhetoric. The president’s inauguration promises were sweet on the palate; melting like cheese in one’s mouth. Some were even intoxicated with delight. Now, however, we are beginning to feel the bitter aftertaste. The president has been unable to deliver on any of his promises. The Somali government has failed the Somali population and the only honorable action ‘Mr. Cheese’ can take is to save face and resign. Perhaps another sweet-talking politician will fill his shoes before he, too, is declared ‘dead on arrival’ and the vicious cycle will repeat itself all over again.