Somalia’s president has declared a state of emergency following weeks of intense fighting between Islamic militants and pro-government forces. Over the weekend, the government requested help stabilizing the nation from troops in neighboring countries.
Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has blamed al-Shabaab, a radical Islamist group with ties to al-Qaeda, for the surge in violence. Control over the failed state is split between many groups.
The nation has had no effective government since 1991, and one third of the population requires food aid.
David Shinn, a former ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, and Lynn Fredriksson, a researcher on the Horn of Africa for Amnesty International, join Worldfocus to discuss the spiraling crisis in Somalia.
Worldfocus: What are the two sides embroiled in the current fighting, and how much of Somalia is currently controlled by either side?
Ambassador David Shinn: There may actually be more than two sides in this struggle. There is the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) led by President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, which is the government recognized by the United Nations, African Union and the international community. A moderate Muslim group known as Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a is allied with the TFG.
The primary group opposing the TFG is the extremist al-Shabaab organization, which has links with al-Qaeda and now has the support of several hundred foreign jihadis. A Somali organization known as Hizbul Islam, led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, is aligned with al-Shabaab. President Ahmed and Sheikh Aweys were partners in 2007, when they controlled much of Somalia under the Union of Islamic Courts.
The TFG controls a small part of the capital of Mogadishu and some of the area along the Ethiopian border. Al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam control most of Mogadishu and much of southern and central Somalia. Other jurisdictions such as the Puntland administration control the rest of the country.
Worldfocus: President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed came to power in January, and he has since instituted Sharia law. Why hasn’t this appeased Islamic groups?
David Shinn: Strictly speaking, President Ahmed has not been able to implement his version of Sharia because he controls so little of the country. More importantly, this is a power struggle among different Islamic groups. Virtually all Somalis are Muslims. Al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam insist on a stricter version of Sharia similar to the one advocated by the Taliban in Afghanistan. President Ahmed wants a more moderate version of Sharia — but this struggle is more about political power than it is about Sharia.
Worldfocus: The Somali government is pleading for foreign military assistance. How would the Somali public feel about outside help, given past tension over the Ethiopian troop presence in the country (and current reports that Ethiopian troops have returned)?
David Shinn: This poses a huge dilemma for the TFG. The vast majority of Somalis do not want foreign troops of any kind in the country. This includes Ethiopians, African Union forces, United Nations forces and foreign jihadis fighting for al-Shabaab. My own view is that foreign troops can not prop up the TFG. What is required is urgent international training and equipping of Somali security forces who support the goals of the TFG. Ultimately, only Somalis are going to resolve this situation. Because of their training and experience, foreign jihadis provide al-Shabaab with a short-term advantage. It might even be enough to give them a temporary victory. But eventually Somalis are going to turn against any foreign presence and any philosophy that does not fit Somali tradition.
Ethiopian forces do periodically cross their lengthy border with Somalia and may have ventured a little deeper into Somalia in recent days. I doubt, however, that Ethiopia will commit forces deep inside Somalia.
Worldfocus: Is it in the interest of other countries in the region to intervene in Somalia?
David Shinn: In my view, it is not in their interest except for hot pursuit across the border. They should protect their sovereignty at the border and do what they can to support Somalis loyal to the TFG to regain the initiative in the country. I think the engagement of foreign troops inside Somalia will only alienate more Somalis. At the same time, the international community should take all feasible steps to prevent foreign jihadis from entering Somalia.
Worldfocus: How do you see this ending? Will the TFG retain power?
David Shinn: The international community would not support a Somali regime run by al-Shabaab and its al-Qaeda patrons. In this sense, the TFG will retain power somewhere in Somalia. More than 4,000 African Union troops remain in Mogadishu. One of their tasks is to protect the TFG, although the force does not have a mandate to go after al-Shabaab. It is possible that al-Shabaab could seize power in Mogadishu and then claim to represent Somalia. I don’t believe many Somalis would willingly support an al-Shabaab government. Eventually an al-Shabaab government would take actions contrary to the views of the vast majority of Somalis and then fall. In the meantime, it could do a lot of damage.
Worldfocus: What has been happening on the ground in Somalia over the last month as fighting has worsened? Does Amnesty International have a presence in Somalia?
Lynn Fredriksson: Amnesty International not currently have access to Somalia due to security concerns. However, we have recently conducted research with Somali refugees in Nairobi and Dadaab camps in Kenya, and in the Ali Addeh camp and the city of Djibouti. We have also conducted interviews in Hargeisa, Somaliland and will continue to pursue access to Somalia or the region in order to continue this research.
Fighting between al-Shabaab and other insurgent forces against the TFG over the past several weeks has resulted in the displacement and re-displacement of more than 100,000 Somali civilians, and it has left many dead and hundreds wounded. Amnesty International continues to call on all parties to the conflict to protect civilians and refrain from all indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, including in civilian populated areas.
Worldfocus: How has the violence curtailed humanitarian operations?
Lynn Fredriksson: Humanitarian assistance is always affected by heavy fighting and these past few weeks have allowed no exception. The population of Somalia is heavily dependent on food and other emergency assistance. More than 3 million Somalis have become aid dependent. Donor governments, United Nations agencies and the African Union must take effective action to ensure unhindered access for the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable in Somalia, including newly and repeatedly internally displaced persons.
Worldfocus: What should be done to address the humanitarian concerns in Somalia?
Lynn Fredriksson: The International Contact Group, donor governments, the United Nations Security Council, the African Union and other concerned parties must send strong and consistent messages that ongoing human rights abuses by all parties against civilians will not be tolerated. They should work to strengthen the current U.N. arms embargo on Somalia, and ensure vetting, transparency and oversight of any security sector assistance provided to the government of Somalia. They should support concrete steps toward the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry or related mechanism to investigate recent and ongoing human rights abuses in Somalia. And they should provide immediate support to human rights defenders, journalists and humanitarian aid workers who continue to place their lives on the line to report and alleviate the dire conditions under which Somali citizens continue to suffer human rights abuses every day throughout much of southern and central Somalia.
Worldfocus: Do you think the spiraling crisis will improve or worsen?
Lynn Fredriksson: There is no way to predict this, but one can hope that recent political changes — along with strong and consistent international actions in support of civilian protection and human rights — will create the space necessary for the Somali people, together, to bring about the peace, stability, justice and development they have been waiting for.