Somalia: 'Newly Liberated Areas' - What Comes Next?
By James Smith, 11 April 2012
Ethiopian troops have played a crucial role in liberating parts of Somalia
from Al Shabaab, but their time there will be limited.
Somalia's Islamist militia, al Shabaab, is on the back foot. Each week
brings news of another town seized. The forceful departure of al Shabaab
however does not necessarily imply victory for the inhabitants of the 'newly
In late 2011 Ethiopian forces together with pro-government Somali militias
captured Beledweyne, not far from the Ethiopian border. Eight weeks later
Baidoa, a strategically important city in the south, fell to Ethiopian
troops and pro-government militias. In late March Ethiopia overran El Bur,
one of the group's main bases in central Somalia. Kismayo, on the southern
coast, is now the last major city held by al Shabaab.
The mission to remove al Shabaab's black flag from Somalia's urban centres
throughout the south-central region is advancing more rapidly than many
thought possible. But ridding a town of one militia is just the beginning.
Filling the power vacuum left behind by al Shabaab unearths a new set of
problems underscored by one key factor - a willing, capable and legitimate
alternative remains elusive.
It comes as no surprise that Ethiopian forces are making the greatest
headway in south-central Somalia. The Ethiopian military is well trained,
well equipped and one of the largest on the continent. It has more
experience in Somalia than all other forces currently fighting put together.
Ethiopia however has made clear that it does not intend to hang around. Nor,
if it did, would it be welcome.
The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is developing plans to replace
troops in Ethiopian held towns throughout south-central Somalia. Baidoa is
now host to the first contingent of AMISOM troops outside of Mogadishu.
2,500 troops will be deployed in phases to strengthen and later replace
Ethiopian forces. Another contingent is expected to arrive in Beledweyne in
the coming weeks.
It has taken AMISOM four years to build a fragile trust with Mogadishu's
residents. Outside of the capital, winning the 'hearts and minds' of a
population who are understandably dubious of (if not openly hostile towards)
external interventions will be a challenge for troops from Uganda, Burundi,
Kenya and Djibouti.
How local residents in Baidoa and Beledweyne receive them will provide some
indication of the extent of the challenges that lie ahead. According to
_at_HSMPress, Al Shabaab intends to "employ every available avenue in the
fulfillment of its objectives." Those thought to be siding with or
facilitating the "African invaders" and the Transitional Federal Government
(TFG) are also considered legitimate targets. Open support of AMISOM during
this uncertain phase of expansion presents a formidable risk to local
Even if welcomed, AMISOM's capacity to secure the 'newly liberated areas' is
questionable. Despite Kenya's recent integration into the mission and new
commitments made at the London Conference, AMISOM is overstretched. Despite
al Shabaab's 'tactical withdrawal' from Mogadishu in mid-2011, 12,000 AMISOM
troops supported by the TFG's own forces still struggle to secure the city.
Last week's suicide bombing at the newly re-opened National Theatre serves
as a reminder that al Shabaab is still able to penetrate supposedly safe
areas of the city with devastating consequences.
UN Security Council Resolution 2036 (2012) requested the African Union
increase AMISOM's force strength to a maximum of 17,731 uniformed personnel.
This leaves less than half the force strength currently unable to secure
Mogadishu to defend the south-central towns and cities from al Shabaab. Even
if successful, foreign troops holding towns surrounded by vast tracts of
ungoverned land is not a durable solution. The legitimacy and capability of
whoever eventually governs and administers the 'newly liberated areas' will
determine whether they can break free from the cycle of instability and
violence that has characterised the last two decades.
The TFG Prime Minister Abdiwali Mohamed Ali has announced that his
government intends to create regional administrations for all 'newly
liberated areas'. Already the appointment of new regional administrators has
become another source of contestation. Following the capture of Beledweyne,
the TFG officially declared a new administration in the Hiraan region and
appointed Abdifatah Hassan Afrah, President of the Shabelle Valley
Administration (SVA), as TFG provisional regional chairman. By doing so, the
TFG publicly snubbed the moderate Sufi group Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa (ASWJ)
who, alongside the Ethiopians and SVA, captured Beledweyne from al Shabaab.
Fighting has since broken out between ASWJ and SVA in Beledweyne. Human
Rights Watch has accused both ASWJ and SVA of summary executions of
civilians in the town, naming SVA militias as the worst offenders.
Unsurprisingly the TFG has denied the claims. Al Shabaab has been able to
take advantage of hostility between ostensibly 'allied' forces within the
town with a series of low-level attacks targeting military bases.
The TFG's mandate expires in August, terminating its official engagement
with 'newly liberated areas' sooner than AMISOM's. How Mogadishu engages
with the local administrations and how they in turn engage with local
residents in post-TFG Somalia will at least partly determine what comes
However, in light of the uncertainty surrounding the political structure of
Somalia after August, competition for authority is set to intensify in the
coming months. Leadership battles, both local and national, may well receive
greater attention among the political elite than the establishment of a
Ousting al Shabaab from towns throughout south-central Somalia is widely
perceived as a major step forward for the country. Optimism abounds that
this will prove to be a defining moment. Without a lasting political
solution however the Ethiopian and 'allied' forces' take-over of towns
throughout the country is just the latest in a seemingly endless series of
James Smith is the Horn of Africa Project Manager for the Rift Valley
Institute in Nairobi. The views in this article are his own, and do not
represent a collective position on the part of the Institute.
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Received on Wed Apr 11 2012 - 13:06:10 EDT