Many an African country is going through some form of internal upheavals. Nowhere has the situation proved intractable as in Nigeria in the west and Somalia in the east. Paradoxical in this state of affairs is the fact that whereas Nigeria leads the continent in several growth and development indices, Somalia often finds itself at the tail-end of things.
The nature of problems ranges from a corruption network running the show to anti-government forces challenging the legitimacy of the established order, often by sheer force of arms. But no other entity matches that of Al-shabab’s in terms of the level of threat it is posing to the duly-established government of Somalia. Al-shabab’s latest bloody attack on a contingent of peacekeepers there has led some observers to question the viability of the use of force in bringing about peace and stability in Somalia, or elsewhere for that matter.
Early on May 3, 2022, Al-Shabab launched a massive assault at Middle Shebele, killing 30 Burundian peacekeeping soldiers, three civilians and injuring over 20 soldiers. Ethiopian soldiers were also injured during a car-bombing incident followed by a shoot-out. In fact, Al-Shabab claimed it has killed 173 peacekeeping forces. However, the Burundian government officially stated that 10 Burundian soldiers killed, while 29 Al-Shabab fighters were killed during the fight.
IGAD, AU, UN and governments issued statements condemning the deadly act.
Al-Shabab launched seventeen attacks in 2022 alone, resulting in 336 civilian deaths, even though the exact number of casualties is not officially reported. Since 2010, Al-Shabab carried out 1,019 attacks, resulting in 8,952 civilian casualties, of which 3,465 were killed. Reports indicate that the frequency of the attacks is growing since 2015.
The latest attack on Burundian forces in Somalia came at a critical time when Somalis prepare to elect their president. It is also a key turning point for Somalia, as the AU and UN are considering withdrawing peacekeeping forces from Somalia after the election is finalized, leaving the task of ensuring peace and security in Somalia to the country’s forces. The African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), which recently replaced AMISOM, is slated to stay only through end of 2024.
Even after the attack on Lower Shebele, Al-Shabab attacked the airport in Mogadishu, where the election is taking place.
“Al-Shabab is now attacking peacekeepers’ camps, and the highly secured airport where last-round election is taking place. The group has developed an intelligence network and a military capacity that completely out-maneuvered both the Somali government and ATMIS,” said a security expert who talked to The Reporter on the condition of anonymity. “These are not small attacks Al-Shabab used to conduct in a market place or other civilian areas.”
Of course, the expert also relates the growing Al-Shabab capacity with the election feuds. “Al-Shabab’s resurrection is directly attributable to the division between President Farmajo and PM Roble, which is weakening the Somali government. Al-Shabab now has a strong base in the clan hierarchy, a decisive factor in Somalia’s government system. Al-Shabab is not expanding its territory. Rather, it intensively worked on expanding its control over the clan leaders. The group is even managing to elect its own people into the lower and upper legislative houses, persuading clan leaders who are staunch supporters of al-Shaba’s extreme Islamic principles.”
Of course, some experts suggest Al-Shabab is being used as a Trojan horse by some candidates, including Farmajo, to change the outcome of the election.
Insurgents have been expanding strongholds in several African states, ranging from Nigeria to Mozambique. The recommendation to deal with such factions is currently shifting from military responses to bringing insurgents and extremists to the negotiating table.
“US forces and AMISOM failed in Somalia. Now ATMIS is also edging closer to withdrawing from Somalia. There is no way Somalia government’s security forces can handle Al-Shabab alone. In the near future, Al-Shabab will expand its territory to neighboring countries including Ethiopia and Kenya. Ethiopia is busy with internal conflicts. Ethiopia cannot send forces to fight Al-Shabab in Somalia because of the domestic fight with TPLF. Therefore, the solution for the new government to be elected in Somalia should be bringing Al-Shabab to the negotiation table,” says the expert.
In the past, Somali governments tried to bring in some Al-Shabab leaders, giving them positions in the government hierarchy. However, other experts argue power sharing with Al-Shabab proved ineffective. Some experts think extremist groups have legitimate reasons for negotiations and power sharing with the government. But when it comes to al-Shabab, it cannot be effective.
“Al-Shabab is mainly driven by extremely high interest for exploitations. Its principles have no legitimacy in the population, though it seems. Its power rests on the loopholes in the government inability, not in public interest,” said a former official at AU, adding that Al-Shabab lives on piracy, contraband, human trafficking, charcoal, and taxing the people in its territory..
It is this affinity to corruption that is making the Somali government ineffective to fight al-Shabab, according to the official. “Somali government is saying it can fight al-Shabab, if the EU and USA provide the necessary funds to Somali security forces. But the EU and USA are setting conditions for transparency and accountability on the use of such funds. Even IMF and the World Bank withheld the government’s request for debt cancelation, making it contingent on financial transparency in Somalia government. Therefore, the future is very grim for Somalia, even if the election is conducted smoothly,” fears the expert.
The threat of Al-Shabab is not only limited to the neighboring countries, but also the international trade route passing through the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. In fact, about a dozen countries have already built military bases in the vicinity of this global trade artery. However, experts stress the lucrative ransom from hijacking ships remains top business if Al-Shabab continues gaining momentum in Somalia.
The experts put forward two key recommendations.
The ultimate solution to annihilate insurgents like Al-Shabab is drying the sea, according to the experts. Democratization and turning all clan leaders harboring Al-Shabab should be the priority. Creating new opportunities for the youth can also dry al-Shabab’s base for new recruits. Most Somali youth migrate to other countries to avoid such pressure. However, the UK, where most Somalis seek refuge, recently changed its refugee policy, outsourcing asylum seekers to Rwanda, which experts say will encourage more Somali youth to join al-Shabab.
The second recommendation is for global powers that have military bases in the Horn of Africa to collaboratively employ surveillance technologies and air attack capabilities, especially drones and robotic military weapons, to reduce casualties.
“Western countries are no more willing to fund any more missions in Somalia after such a trend proved a failure for decades. The cost of using technologies like drones on selected Al-Shabab targets is more effective and less costly than funding large peacekeeping missions. It is time global powers consider a new approach for dealing with Al-Shabab. Otherwise, the situation in Somalia is creating a fertile ground for Al-Shabab to mushroom and consume the region,” added the expert.