Are Corruption and Tribalism Dooming Somalia’s War on al-Shabaab Extremists?
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 4
After decades of conflict that have nearly destroyed the nation, Somalia now stands poised to make a final drive with international assistance to shatter the strength of radical al-Qaeda-associated Islamists in central and southern Somalia, but there are indications that Somalia’s leaders may be posing an even greater obstacle to Somalia’s successful reconstruction.
Arms Embargoes and Missing Weapons
In mid-February, the UN Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group issued a report to the UN Security Council’s sanctions committee claiming that weapons obtained by the Somali government under a temporary easing of UN arms sanctions were being sold to Somalia’s al-Shabaab extremists in what was described as “high-level and systematic abuses in weapons and ammunition management and distribution” (Reuters, February 13). A UN arms embargo was placed on Somalia in 1992, but in the last year the Somali government has been able to obtain once-restricted small arms and other weapons such as rocket-propelled-grenades under a partial lifting of the embargo designed to help fight al-Shabaab terrorists.
Among the observations contained in the report were the following:
- Shipments of weapons from Ethiopia, Djibouti and Uganda could not be accounted for.
- The Somali government cancelled several UN inspections of armories
- A key presidential adviser from President Hassan Shaykh Mohamud’s own Abgaal sub-clan was involved in planning weapons transfers to al-Shabaab commander Shaykh Yusuf Isse “Kabukatukade,” another member of the Abgaal.
- A government minister from the Habr Gadir sub-clan made unauthorized weapons purchases from a Gulf state that were transferred to private locations in Mogadishu for use by a Habr Gadir clan militia.
- The Monitoring team photographed rifles sent to Somalia’s national army for sale in the Mogadishu arms market with their serial numbers filed off (Reuters, February13; AFP, February 16).
The easing of the Somali arms embargo is scheduled to end in March. Though a final decision on its future has yet to be made, it seems likely that the easing will remain in place until a new report on arms violations is due in October. The Somali government is looking for a complete removal of the embargo, allowing it to obtain heavy weapons and sophisticated military materiel (Reuters, February 14). The Monitoring Group has recommended either the full restoration of the embargo or a heightened monitoring regime to accompany an extension of the partial easement.
Somali security officials have complained that the UN monitors have not provided them with any information regarding the alleged arms sales to al-Shabaab or the alleged activities of Abgaal and Habr Gadir insiders at the presidential palace arranging such arms sales. One security official complained that the UN allegations could not be proven without examining al-Shabaab’s arms: “If they haven’t inspected al-Shabaab’s [arms], how are they arriving at the conclusion government weapons are being sold to al-Shabaab. This is a dangerous and creative position by the UN” (Suna Times/Waagacusub.net, February 18).
The head of Somalia’s military, General Dahir Aden Elmi “Indhaqarshe” described the UN report as fabricated, false and without credibility, though he acknowledged an investigation into how al-Shabaab obtains its arms would be worthwhile, as the movement “does not get arms from the sky.” However, the Somali army commander sees darker purposes behind the work of the UN monitors: “The UN Monitoring Group want al-Shabaab to be an endless project in order to gain funds from the world while they are struggling hard to make Somalia’s government weak and nonfunctional” (Raxanreeb, February 17).
Shady Dealings and Economic Challenges
Some light was shed on the murky financial dealings of Somalia’s central government when central bank governor Yussur Abrar quit after only seven weeks on the job following repeated efforts to force her to approve dubious transactions benefiting members and friends of the government. In her resignation letter to Somali President Hassan Shaykh Mohamud, Abrar described corruption and constant government interference in Central Bank operations”
Turkey has been the main supporter of Somali reconstruction, offering technical support, materials, medical teams, hospitals, machinery and various other means of assistance, including, apparently, lots of cash. A recent Reuters report cited various officials within the Turkish and Somali governments that Ankara had decided in December to stop its direct financial support to Mogadishu, which took the form of $4.5 million in U.S. $100 dollar bills transferred to the Somali central bank every month (Reuters, February 13). However, three days later, the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that the payments were in line with procedure in light of the fact Somalia has no banking services and that efforts were “underway to provide budget support to the Somali Federal Government in the year 2014” (Hurriyet, February 16). The Turkish statement did not outline what measures, if any, were taken to trace the end use of these funds, but the potential for abuse is apparent in the absence of verifiable banking and accounting procedures in Mogadishu.
Over two decades of social and political chaos mean that the challenges to Somalia’s reconstruction efforts only begin with the elimination of al-Shabaab:
- Somalia lacks trade agreements with the West, lacks a proper certificatory regime and is not a member of the World Trade Organization, making exports difficult. The vast bulk of Somalia’s current exports consist of charcoal and livestock heading to the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen.
- Multiple currencies are in circulation, some of them worthless. Monetary control remains elusive with no new official bank-notes having been printed since the overthrow of Siad Barre in 1991, leading to a thriving black market in currency.
- The national government has begun signing oil and gas deals that are in conflict with deals signed by regional administrations like Puntland during the absence of an effective central government. (IRIN, February 14).
AMISOM Operations: Fighting Somalia’s War
The growing deployment of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), now 22,000 strong, includes troops from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone, as well as police from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Uganda.
While Ethiopia has continued to mount its own independent military operations in regions of Somalia bordering Ethiopia since its general withdrawal from Somalia in 2009, lack of coordination with AMISOM tended to give al-Shabaab militants space to withdraw and operate elsewhere until Ethiopian operations were concluded. It was therefore regarded as good news when Ethiopia decided to integrate its Somali operations into the AMISOM command in January [Dalsan Radio [Mogadishu], February 18). Ethiopian forces followed their integration by deploying to Beledweyne in Hiraan Region (where they are establishing a new base) and to Baidoa in Bay Region, where they will be responsible for security operations in the Bay, Bakool and Gedo Regions (Shabelle Media Network [Mogadishu], January 28). Uganda, which has roughly 8,000 troops in Somalia, has just rotated in 1,600 fresh troops under Colonel William Bainomugisha (Xinhua, February 14).
The Somali army is about to launch new operations in cooperation with AMISOM forces to re-take Bardhere in the Juba River valley and the last major port under al-Shabaab control, Barawe, which has also acted as an important headquarters and training base for the militants since the loss of Kismayo to Kenyan troops (Garowe Online, February 11; Raxanreeb.com, February 11). If successful, this new offensive would divide Shabaab forces, significantly reduce the area under its control and eliminate the movement’s last major source of revenue. Unfortunately, rather than align for a final push against the militants, some units of the Somali Army in the Lower Shabelle region have been using their new arms to fight each other, based on clan allegiances (Shabelle Media Network, January 28; January 30; Garowe Online, January 29).
According to AMISOM spokesman Colonel Ali Aden Humad (part of the Djiboutian contingent of 960 troops deployed in Hiraan Region), the offensive will suffer from a lack of naval forces (suggesting Kenya will continue its policy of consolidating the area it has taken in southern Somalia rather than move further north) and helicopters, which AMISOM hopes will still arrive from some African Union country. Most important, however, is the failure of the Somali Army to build up a force as large as AMISOM that could not only participate in operations in a meaningful way, but also undertake important garrison and consolidation duties that must now be carried out by AMISOM forces. Colonel Humad admitted it was a mystery that the national army remained small despite years of international training programs and funding: “AMISOM trained many Somali soldiers and equipped some. So, the question is where have they gone? When we train them, we turn them over to the government. So, where do they go? Where are they kept?” (Sabahi, February 7).
Al-Shabaab Leaders Go to Ground
The continuing American drone campaign in Somalia is a major concern for al-Shabaab, which has seen several senior members targeted and killed in the last year. The movement has responded with mass arrests of suspected spies believed to help in the targeting, including a number of al-Shabaab fighters. The drone strikes have also damaged communications within al-Shabaab and restricted the movements of its leaders, with many senior members, including al-Shabaab leader Abdi Godane, believing that contact with mobile communications equipment can be tracked to target drone strikes. Like the Somali army, there is infighting within al-Shabaab, which might divide into smaller groups if Godane is killed. Having narrowly survived at least two recent attempts on his life, Godane is reported to have even grown suspicious of his own bodyguards in al-Shabaab’s Amniyat intelligence unit (Sabahi, February 7). Al-Shabaab has actually succeeded in intimidating a major Somali telecommunications provider to cut internet service in southern Somalia to prevent any type of communications with U.S. or AMISOM intelligence groups (Suna Times, February 10). Last October, the United States began deploying a number of military trainers and advisors in Somalia.
Despite disappearing arms and soldiers and the distractions provided by incessant clan warfare, Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Shaykh Ahmad Muhammad says that, with international assistance, “The plan is to have al-Shabaab out of the areas that they control by the end of 2014” (Xinhua, February 19). Meanwhile, the insurgency continues to wreak havoc across parts of central and southern Somalia. New UN figures indicate that two million Somalis (of 10 million) suffer from food insecurity, with 850,000 of those “in desperate need of food.” Most of the latter have been displaced by fighting and insecurity (Independent, February 19). In recent days, al-Shabaab attacks in Mogadishu and its airport have been on the rise, including a February 13 suicide bomb that killed seven just outside of Mogadishu’s Aden Adde airport, which also serves as a secure base for AMISOM and foreign diplomats (Raxanreeb.com, February 13; Reuters, February 13). Eliminating the Shabaab threat will remain impossible no matter what degree of international assistance and funding is provided so long as service in national and local administrations in Somalia is seen as a means for personal self-enrichment and the furtherance of clan interests at the expense of national interests. Ultimately, the path Somalia will follow will depend not on UN assistance or AU military deployments, but rather on the interest Somalis themselves have in the national project.
Andrew McGregor is the Senior Editor of Global Terrorism Analysis and the Director of Aberfoyle International Security, a Toronto-based agency specializing in security issues related to the Islamic world.