When Somalia’s latest Prime Minister, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, released a streamlined, 18-member cabinet earlier this month, his list was widely praised by independent analysts and Western officials alike. The two groups rarely agree, and Mohamed’s new cabinet appeared to be bright silver lining within the Transitional Federal Government’s (TFG) constant strife.
Unfortunately the new cabinet faces the same challenges threatening the old one: corruption, clan loyalty and divisions, political and economic opportunists, and a skeptical audience. The cabinet’s approval finally boiled over in parliament after protests interrupted the ratification process, with several lawmakers coming to blows. Voice of America, the U.S. government’s foreign propaganda outlet, watched its headline degrade from “New Somali cabinet brings hope of progress,” to “Future of Somali government in doubt.”
Backtracking is a common theme in Somalia.
African Union (AU) officials stuck to this script a day after AU troops gunned down two civilians in Mogadishu. Two buses had collided and spilled a group of people into the street, which AU troops supposedly mistook for an al-Shabab roadblock. A day later the AU did right by counterinsurgency in apologizing for the high-profile incident, rather than try to cover it up.
“We are not certain whether the soldiers were responding to a perceived threat,” AU force commander Maj. Gen. Nathan Mugisha said in a statement. “However, all the soldiers involved have been arrested and taken into a military custody while a full inquiry is launched into the precise circumstances that took place. We understand people may be angry. But it is an isolated incident.”
Before the recent spotlight generated by the Kampala bombings, the AU's detachment was widely accused of the same neglect al-Shabab treats civilians with. During Kampala's immediate aftermath the Associated Press released a report documenting such acts, provoking AU officials to criticize those who've never been to Somalia. But despite their public posturing, commanders rightly view civilian deaths as harmful to the force and have attempted to minimize the collateral damage through PR maneuvers. It remains to be seen whether those AU troops in question are held accountable.
The New York Times adds, “Residents of Mogadishu said that Ugandan soldiers, who make up the bulk of the 7,000-member peacekeeping force, routinely fired their weapons into the air to disperse crowds.”
Just one dichotomy in a long line of them.
No matter where one looks in Somalia it’s impossible to separate the good from the bad, causing mutually-exclusive errors: overreacting to and blocking out good news. Both routes lead to flawed estimates of the situation, making it essential to fuse the positives and negatives to yield an accurate image. Unfortunately bad news always seems to outweigh the good in Somalia.
The TFG just lost Hizbul Islam’s main detractor in Sheik Yusuf Mohamed Siad, who received a cabinet position from Mohamed. Hizbul Islam as a whole tentatively allied itself with the TFG in 2009 after al-Shabab overran its territory, only for half of its factions to rejoin al-Shabab in 2010 - persuaded by better organization and the threat of AU troops. And after reportedly holing up in Mogadishu under AU protection, Hizbul Islam chief Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys has since resumed operations against the TFG.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Siad announced that the TFG violated their power-sharing agreement and declared his group “independent.” He did, however, call for the international community to support his own efforts against al-Shabab.
Siad also mentioned new clashes in the central region, where al-Shabab continues to battle with Sufi militia Ahlu Sunna Waljama'a. For months al-Shabab, the TFG, Ahlu Sunna, and its Ethiopian support troops have vied for Somalia’s central region, the decisive staging ground whether al-Shabab moves north or the TFG pushes south. No side possesses the force capable of permanently securing of Gedo, Hiiraan, Bakool, and Galguduud, and the TFG has relied heavily on Ahlu Sunna and Ethiopia to lead its underpaid soldiers.
al-Shabab and Ahlu Sunna recently clashed in Galguduud, which Ahlu Sunna controls but al-Shabab has been challenging for. Both sides claimed victory, as usual, yet al-Shabab’s active presence in the north indicates that the group remains on the initiative, from Beled Hawo to Mogadishu to Dhuusamarreeb.
al-Shabab recently distributed a foreign recruitment video to boost its offensive.
There’s also no telling how long the fragile pact between Ahlu Sunna and the TFG will last. Shut out of its previous power-sharing agreement, Mohamed allocated two cabinet positions to the group and won praise from its clerics. But with clan politics and ideological differences already interfering with the new cabinet’s approval - the same obstacles that blocked Ahlu Sunna’s initial ministry positions - the group isn't assured a spot in the TFG. Or a reason to remain on its side.
The two entities are allied by al-Shabab’s threat, not a common viewpoint. Such paradoxes are routine in Somalia and constantly undermine the slightest evidence of progress.
If the TFG does get its act together long enough to approve a new cabinet, which it presumably will, an overriding dilemma still faces the government, its AU shield, and the Western donors who fund them. With less than 10 months until the TFG’s mandate expires, Washington and African states have been debating what to do at August’s end. Some consider this window a win-win situation.
Either the TFG will improve itself enough to warrant an extension, or the West will allow it to collapse and attempt to rebuild a more functional structure.
However a capable government isn’t assured simply because the TFG is gone, and waiting for its inevitable demise could ultimately haunt the West and AU. This leaves them with the strategic decision of how much interim support to offer the TFG. With Western confidence in the TFG running low and the risks of escalation increasing, Washington supposedly prefers a regional construct involving Somaliland and Puntland - and a new government in Mogadishu.
But Uganda and Ethiopia want to go in big now.
Diplomats from Western states and the UN recently converged on Addis Ababa to debate the future of AMISOM with the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Brig. Gen. James Mugira, Uganda's chief of military intelligence, revealed the summit’s objectives as studying the links between insurgent groups and their source of arms. But the main goal remains an increase in troops, which Uganda adamantly favors.
Ethiopian Foreign Minister Hailemariam Desalegn confirmed that Burundi, one of two contributors to the force, will deploy a battalion within the week to raise the AU’s troop level to 8,000. But he added that the UN hasn’t offered enough support, citing hesitation over a no-fly zone and naval blockade. Uganda is still pressing the West to fund another 12,000 troops.
Some AU commanders believe 20,000 are necessary just to secure Mogadishu.
A middle option appears to be the most realistic strategy going forward: a gradual increase in AU troops calibrated to the TFG’s reform. The West cannot hype Somalia’s threat and then abandon the AU force propping up the TFG. Lack of action followed by an international attack would also result in overreaction, as America is prone to do.
Conversely, increasing the number of AU troops without a simultaneous expansion of the TFG’s abilities and services will bog down the force, along with Somalia’s general counterinsurgency. Don't clear what can't be held. If more AU troops are deployed without a government to fill its security bubble, new battalions will hit the same slippery slope plaguing their comrades on the ground.
There are no easy answers in Somalia. Do answers exist?