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Where does Somalia's Al Shabab suicide attack leave the government?

Tuesday's suicide attack by Somalia's Al Shabab, which killed more than 30 people, including six members of parliament, leaves the transitional government's tenuous hold on power even weaker.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / August 25, 2010

Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, a spokesman for Somalia's Al Shabab militia, told reporters Tuesday that members of the group's 'special forces' had carried out Tuesday's deadly suicide attack against those 'aiding the infidels.' Scores of people, including several members of parliament, were killed in the attack.

Mohamed Olad Hassan/AP


Johannesburg, South Africa

They came to power as Somalia’s best hope for peace, a government composed of traditional Somali elders, clan leaders, and businessmen under the leadership of a religious scholar, President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.

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But if Tuesday's attack on Somali parliamentarians in the heart of their own territory in Mogadishu shows anything, it is that the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia – put together at a conference table in Djibouti in January 2007 after a six-month long occupation by Ethiopian forces – is a government in name only.

In the past three years, and under two separate presidents, the TFG has only managed to hold onto a few city blocks, the airport, the seaport, and the presidential palace – and only with support from African Union peacekeepers. The so-called African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has proved to be a mixed blessing, in fact, because it has relieved the Somali government of its most basic responsibility: to protect itself.

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“The reality is that the TFG is not faced with an existential threat, and that is the dilemma,” says E.J. Hogendoorn, head of the Horn of Africa program at the International Crisis Group office in Nairobi. “There is no incentive for the TFG to change. If the TFG were told by AMISOM, ‘we’re done, we’re leaving in two months,’ I can assure you that the issue of security sector reform would be worked out.”

In the meantime, Somali government forces are “poorly paid, poorly trained, poorly motivated,” and “the result is poor protection,” Mr. Hogendoorn says.

History of weak government

The current stalemate in Somalia is just the latest chapter in a three-decade-long saga of war, anarchy, displacement, and hunger. Somalia has not had a stable government since 1991, when the presidency of Siad Barre was overthrown, and has largely relied on international assistance for mere survival.

That very anarchy has created a hunger for strong-armed governance and simple policies, a situation that favors politicians with a religious bent. It has also attracted a small but well-trained cadre of foreign fighters who hope to use Somalia as a base for a broader conflict between Islamic culture and the West. In such a scenario, having a weak and dithering government is a recipe for disaster.