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Friday, May 24, 2013
- Both the U.S. government and the United Nations warned Wednesday that new fighting in a key rebel-held area of Somalia needed to ensure the safety of civilians, in a battle that could be a critical turning point following the country’s recent surprise election results and decades of lawlessness.
While the U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR, reported some 6,000 people have fled the southern port town of Kismayo in recent days, officials with the agency say they are predicting some 55,000 more may soon leave the area as fighting commences with fighters with Al Shabaab, the country’s most powerful rebel group.
“The Kismayo port is the single biggest issue at hand,” Ken Menkhaus, an associate professor of political science at Davidson College and one of the United States’ top Somalia experts, said in Washington on Wednesday. “In the future, Shabaab will probably try to continue to hold large rural tracts, but it will become increasingly weakened without ports access.”
Just a day after reports surfaced that Kismayo residents had seen rebels fleeing ahead of advancing African Union troops, on Wednesday Al Shabaab reinforcements were reportedly flowing back into the city, a lucrative stronghold for the group over the past half-decade of insurgency.
The immediate concerns for civilian safety notwithstanding, the battle for Kismayo has long been anticipated and would be seen as a significant further weakening of Al Shabaab, which as been losing both public support in recent years and territory under an African Union-led military operation.
But the rebel group was dealt a particularly resounding setback last week, when an election in an interim body resulted in the surprise victory of Hassan Sheik Mohamud, a moderate and longtime civil-society stalwart who founded one of Somalia’s most successful universities. Significantly, he is also one of the best-known members of the intelligentsia to have remained in the country over the past two decades of civil war and lack of government.
Mohamud’s victory was all the more fascinating because it came from a process widely seen as seriously flawed, but out of which a disparate group of civil-society members, including Mohamud, were able to band together and force through the final result.
Indeed, the eventual parliamentary vote was so lopsided that the corrupt, inept previous president, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, an Islamist who had previously run a parallel government, had little recourse but to quietly step down.
Mohamud, who was sworn in over the weekend, immediately weathered an assassination attempt, and analysts say he will continue to face significant security concerns from both Al Shabaab and cronies of Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s kleptocracy.
Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991. While a stumbling U.N.-led transition process has for nearly eight years been unable to make any significant headway in improving the situation in Somalia, the surprise results of the recent elections, in which nearly all observers assumed that the old regime would win again, have offered the brightest point of optimism in two decades.
“I haven’t seen Somalis this excited in a long time,” Menkhaus said Wednesday. “I think we’ve seen the end of 20 years of state failure.”
Menkhaus, who was in the capital to brief U.S. policymakers on the recent changes in Somalia, is clear about the obstacles ahead for Mohamud. These include almost completely rebuilding a state structure after two decades of devastating chaos, uniting a poverty- and famine-stricken country riven by clan loyalties and suspicions, and ultimately writing an entire new constitution.
Yet in this process, even – or especially – given the recent glimmer of good news from Somalia, Menkhaus is warning the international community against becoming overly involved. For this new government, he says, a newfound sense of sovereignty is going to be a central theme, and the United States and other international actors need to provide some space for the government – and be sure not to get in the way.
“Somalis right now are absolutely adamant that they want an end to jihadism, an end to warlordism, but also an end to foreign domination,” Menkhaus says. “This is a strong, visceral sentiment: it’s been 20 years of being at the mercy of peacekeeping forces and U.N. operations and donors that are telling them what they can and can’t do.”
It is in this context that Mohamud’s steadfast residency in Somalia over the past two decades could be particularly important.
Today, Somalia has a spectrum of armed foreigners within its territory: some 20,000 African Union forces, in addition to a large contingent of private security forces and U.S. operatives in counterterrorism operations. While Menkhaus foresees Mohamud’s government quickly beginning to insist on its new sovereignty, it is unclear how exactly he will choose to do so.
Almost certainly there will be some pushback by the new government, which may lead to new, lessened roles for the international community – ironically, just as donors and development workers will be looking to increase their own role in the country.
“There will be a scramble by donors to position themselves within Somalia, which is going to manifest itself in a very immediate way with pressure to relocate to Mogadishu – the idea that ‘If we’re going to be a player there, we have to be there physically,’” Menkhaus says.
“But after the events of this past week and the disaster in Libya, I don’t think that’s advisable. Some people say that we need to show support to the government, but there are other ways to show support – don’t create a thousand new security headaches for the government.”
The United States in particular needs to be willing to take a chance, he says, and to expect the new Somali government to make decisions that are met with distaste and frustration in Washington. Two realistic but particularly difficult scenarios could be the possibility of negotiated settlements with parts of Al Shabaab and the cooption of certain warlords.
While proposals for the former have been on the table for a long time, the U.S. has adamantly blocked such measures in the past, most recently earlier this year. But in the changed post-elections context, Menkhaus suggests that now, with the rebels at perhaps their weakest point, could be “the ideal time” for the new government to reach out to certain elements within Al Shabaab.
In that case, he says, the rest of the world just needs to sit back and wait to see what happens next.
“For the first time, Somalis can learn from other Somalis – from Somali-Kenyans, from Somali-Ethiopians,” Menkhaus suggests. “Maybe this time we don’t need to rely on U.N. consultants. Now is the time to tap into local repositories of experience and knowledge.”