Al-Shabaab and post-transition Somalia - By Abdi Aynte
September 5, 2012
For the first time in four years, the militant group al-Shabaab is not the
center of attention in Somalia. Since the fighters were ejected from the
capital Mogadishu a year ago by the African Union peacekeepers (AMISOM) and
Somali government troops, they've sustained dramatic losses in central and
southern Somalia - their traditional bastion.
In the last few weeks, al-Shabaab fighters have been withdrawing from major
towns ahead of an assault by AMISOM and Somali troops. This is a radical
shift from their recent past, when they lost upwards of 200 ill-trained
troops (mostly young pupils) defending the Bakara market in Mogadishu.
Somalia's largest market was by far the most important revenue source for
The decline in al-Shabaab's fortunes is driven by a confluence of factors.
Primarily it is down to their abject failure to articulate a broad, coherent
vision for Somalia since they formally joined al-Qaeda in February 2012.
After coming to the fore in 2006, the militants have straddled a nationalist
platform, which worked in their favor, and a global jihadist vision, which
proved to be disastrous - the Somali people consistently and overwhelmingly
For almost five years, al-Shabaab recruited thousands of impressionable boys
across the country on a largely nationalist, anti-foreign occupation
platform. Exploiting a popular anger among the Somali people as a result of
Ethiopia's invasion in 2007, the militants successfully fought against the
regional powerhouse, eventually forcing the Ethiopians to ingloriously
withdraw their forces.
With Somalia's 'arch rival' out of the picture, al-Shabaab turned their
attention to AMISOM - a 17,000 strong force comprised of Ugandan and
Burundian soldiers, with few hundred coming from Djibouti. But their attempt
to portray AMISOM as an invading force hasn't worked. Despite causing
serious collateral damage, AMISOM is by and large viewed as a neutral force
that, unlike the so-called 'frontline states' (Ethiopia and Kenya), does not
meddle in the internal affairs of Somalia.
Always agile in this regard, al-Shabaab shifted its core message from AMISOM
to the Somali government, which it successfully portrayed as a deeply
corrupt entity, led by irreconcilable egos. During 2009 and 2010, al-Shabaab
convinced a good number of the Somali population that the weak, incompetent
government was not only a foreign concoction, but also a group of disparate
clan chauvinists who are in it for their own personal enrichment, not for
material betterment of the Somali people. In this manner the militants
presented themselves as a credible alternative.
The government's actions lent weight to these assertions. It failed to
provide rudimentary services and establish basic state functions, this
contrasted to al-Shabaab's then sophisticated governing system, which used
an advanced tax regime and provided the most reliable security to citizens
under its domain. The Somali government was also notorious for infighting,
state-sponsored theft, predatory soldiers and sheer incompetence.
Despite making commendable improvements since former Prime Minister Mohamed
Abdullahi Farmaajo formed a short-lived technocratic cabinet in November
2010, the Somali government continued to be shaped by individualistic
ambitions rather than institutional policies. Corruption has also remained
endemic, as documented
> by a recent UN
The 12-year-long transition is coming to an end in Somalia. A new, leaner
parliament is expected to choose a president in September, followed by the
formation of a new cabinet. It is billed as a glorious dawn for a country
ravaged by 21 years of internecine war and extremism. And there are plenty
of reasons for optimism.
But if the new government, likely to be dominated by some of the old guard,
doesn't establish transparent state institutions, the militants (currently
marginalized) will almost certainly exploit the vacuum.
For more than a year, al-Shabaab has been fine-tuning its military strategy.
The consensus among its leaders was to morph into a guerrilla movement and
abandon traditional warfare by withdrawing into 'Somalia's Tora Bora' - the
mountainous region in Sanaag in the northeast, and into Ras Kamboni - a vast
area of inaccessible jungles in Lower Jubba, near the border with Kenya.
Both locations have been extremist hideouts for two decades.
Yet it's al-Shabaab's political strategy that's likely to be more effective
than its military one. The group now plans to rebrand itself as the
alternative to the new Somalia government, should the latter becomes yet
another playground for rapacious men.
Notwithstanding their brutal justice system, al-Shabaab has a track record
of delivering three fundamental things that successive Somali governments
have utterly failed to achieve: basic security, stemming corruption and a
non-sectarian governing structure.
Unlike the new Somali government, which has a four-year term to achieve
something, al-Shabaab is neither bound by term limits nor by a legal
framework. Its faceless leaders are prepared to stay in the periphery until
the new government commits suicide.
Now that it is the center of attention, the new Somali government must
Abdi Aynte is a Somali-American journalist and researcher
Received on Tue Sep 04 2012 - 22:23:50 EDT