The End of Al-Shabab in Somalia?

Are we witnessing the end of the revolutionary Islamist group al-Shabab, which has  terrorized large swathes of Somalia for so long? Conventional wisdom suggests that this is indeed happening.

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The turning point seems to have occurred in August 2011 when African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops, together with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces, pushed al-Shabab fighters out of the capital, Mogadishu.

In recent months AMISOM has remained on the offensive against al-Shabab fighters and AMISOM’s numbers have been augmented by troops from Djibouti and Kenya. In addition, Ethiopia, which is not part of AMISOM, has joined the fray against al-Shabab.

In recent months Ethiopian troops have captured Beledweyne and moved rapidly into the central regions of Hiran and Galgadud — and further into the Shabelle River valley. Kenya meanwhile has liberated Gedo and Juba whilst AMISOM forces spearheaded by the soldiers of Uganda have pushed al-Shabab hundreds of kilometres from the capital.

At present, AMISOM seems to be preparing for one final push to capture the al-Shabab stronghold of Kismayo on the coast. The port city of Kismayo holds tremendous strategic importance. It is literally the financial lifeblood for al-Shabab. For some time al-Shabab has engaged in the deforestation of vast swathes of areas under its control, thereby contributing to the famine in this region. The trees are used to make charcoal which is exported to Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. Such funds are then used to fill the movement’s war chest.

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Shutting down the financial lifeblood of the movement, by capturing Kismayo, is therefore one of the primary military objectives of AMISOM. On this issue, more needs to be done by the international community to stop Iran from supporting al-Shabab through Eritrea. Without funds, al-Shabab will find it difficult to function.

While al-Shabab is certainly on the ropes, it is far from down and out. Instead of engaging in conventional battles with AMISOM, al-Shabab fighters simply disappear to become part of clan militias. It then becomes exceedingly difficult for AMISOM to distinguish between clan militias and al-Shabab fighters. Moreover, given the fierce bonds of clan loyalty, there is little information being shared between clan elders and the AMISOM forces. Safely ensconced in these militias, al-Shabab has increasingly embraced asymmetrical warfare against both AMISOM and the TFG.

The major problem confronting AMISOM, though, is not military, but lies in the political sphere. The notoriously corrupt TFG has earned the ire of Somalis for literally stealing development aid. As a result, services are not being provided to areas liberated from al-Shabab control, thereby losing hearts and minds.

In the process, the TFG is increasingly viewed as illegitimate while AMISOM is perceived as a foreign force of occupation as opposed to liberators or peacekeepers. To complicate matters further, the TFG in Mogadishu parachute governors who are not of the same clan into newly liberated areas, thereby inflaming tensions further. Under the circumstances, one senior AMISOM official lamented, “We are winning the battles and losing the war.”

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If the fight against al-Shabab is to be won, it is imperative that the international community lean on the TFG to be more responsive to Somali needs. Equally as important, a closer interface is required between the military strategy and the political vision post-Kismayo.

What would a new, more inclusive political vision entail?

In order to understand the central problem to the current political order we need to return to the 2002-04 Somali peace conference which proposed a clan quota for the distribution of power,  commonly known as “the 4.5 formula.” The four refers to the majority clans of the Darod, Dir, Hawiye, and Rahanweyn and the 0.5 refers to all the minority clans. If you belonged to a minority clan, it means that you are forever doomed to occupy junior positions in government under this formula.

Not surprisingly, 70 percent of al-Shabab recruits belong to minority clans. By stressing a radical Islamist identity as opposed to a clan identity, minority clans can merge with other clans to check the power of the big four clans. The Islamist identity therefore provides minority clans with an alternative way to gain power.

If there is any hope for political stability in Somalia, this “4.5 formula” will need to be revisited. A more inclusive political system will need to create a scenario where both bigger and smaller clans can participate in the political process but where no one clan can dominate the entire political apparatus. Such a political system will also need the international community to assist it at the level of economic development assistance, which will provide the necessary incentives for citizens and clan elders to be part of the new political system.

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