In Somali capital, a year without Islamist militia

One year after the forced departure of Islamist militia Al Shabab, Mogadishu is rebuilding and prospering. But residents worry the group may return.

Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP
A Somali soldier stands guard as Somalis gather in a stadium in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, Aug. 6. Somalis took to the streets Monday to celebrate the first anniversary of the ouster of Al Shabab militants, the culmination of years of warfare by African Union and Somali forces that has allowed Mogadishu to bask in a year of relative peace.

A little over a year ago, perhaps the most common sound regularly heard on a Mogadishu morning, after the muezzin’s call to prayers, was gunfire. 

Then, an army of African Union soldiers was battling Al Shabab, an Islamist militia encamped in foxholes and sniper positions dotted throughout Somalia’s seaside capital. 

Now you’re more likely to hear the clang of hammers and the drone of drills. 

Mogadishans will Monday celebrate a year to the day since Al Shabab, now partnered with Al Qaeda, slunk out of the city’s center under cover of darkness, leaving it to government forces. 

Within weeks, Al Shabab’s fighters would be pushed from Mogadishu’s margins, too. 

“This used to be a place where misdirected mortars always fell, where buildings collapsed and people were killed daily,” says Nur Ibrahim Adan, a stallholder at Bakara Market, once an Al Shabab stronghold. 

“Now there is a great change. There is no fear. There are no casualties. There are new buildings, new customers. Already my profit is much higher. 

“This is how it will stay, I think. Al Shabab cannot come back, not when the African Union soldiers are here. Unless they leave, I think we can hope to live in this new quiet situation.” 

Boom town, in the good sense

Somalia’s capital is in the midst of a transformation of greater significance, happening at greater speed, than at any time in the last 20 years, bringing cautious hope that a measure of peace may finally be taking root. 

The shift started with the removal of Al Shabab, beginning early Aug. 6, 2011, after months of daily bombardment by the African Union (AU) mission AMISOM

Now traders who no longer fear stray bullets or mortar blasts are repainting and fitting glass to their shop fronts. Solar-charged streetlights brighten evenings along newly patched roads that marked front lines just a year ago. 

Down at Lido Beach, where couples on Vespa scooters once cruised the palm-lined promenade in prewar times, the sea is again dotted with swimmers and teams play boisterous volleyball beside the surf. 

Above them, scheduled flights from Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Kenya come in to land at the refurbished Aden Adde International Airport, bringing with them Somalis returning home with money to invest after fleeing years ago to wait out the war.  

Inflows of remittances have increased by 20 percent since January, according to Dahabshiil, an international money-transfer firm. The Somali shilling has strengthened by almost 50 percent against the dollar in 12 months.  

“People realized that we now had security when we saw there was no more fighting and no more bombings, and every area became populated again,” says Farah Jimale, owner of Cosmetics Center at Bur Ubax in Bakara market.

“Now truly there is opportunity here and I have many new customers.” 

But then he paused. And in that pause was the largely unspoken reality that all this change is tenuous and fragile, and that Mogadishu’s brief spell of security could crash back to chaos at any time. 

“Al Shabab, though, it is a group full of clever tactics,” Mr Jimale adds. “I am concerned they can come back. Already they are killing government officials. It is hard not to worry.” 

Gone, not defeated

The Islamist army, while weakened, is very far from defeated. Only Mogadishu and a clutch of other towns are in government hands. Al Shabab still controls much of Somalia’s rural south and the major port city of Kismayo.

Its commanders boast that the withdrawal from Mogadishu was part of a strategic rethink that has seen it shift from being a guerrilla army holding territory to what one analyst termed “a true hit-and-run terror group.” 

“Now we are saving money, while the enemy pays more and more to secure land it seized, recruit new soldiers, pay for services,” Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim, an Al Shabab commander, tells the Monitor. 

“Do you think really they can continue like that forever? Already we are in Mogadishu every night, carrying out missions, and we will push on with such missions for years and years, and we will finally reconfiscate the whole town.” 

Suicide bombers are now Mogadishu’s main threat. They struck the National Theater, a place of great pride for Somalis, a fortnight after it opened in March, killing eight people including senior government officials. 

AU soldiers, members of Parliament, journalists, and even comedians have been killed. Last week, a major attack at a high-level constitutional conference was narrowly averted. 

The AU is unlikely to leave soon, but Somalia’s own national army needs strengthening  to be able to hold territory, said Ahmed Soliman, Somalia researcher at the Chatham House think tank in London. 

“And for that, we are going to have to ensure that the international community sustains its attention on Somalia,” he says. “Now is not the time to turn away.” 

The greatest obstacle to Mogadishu’s continued development is Somalia’s own leadership, said J. Peter Pham, director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington. 

“There’s still no government presence, in terms of offering services or administrating, in the space that’s been opened up by forcing Shabab out,” he said.  
“We’ve seen a lot of bellyaching from parliamentarians and ministers about a lack of resources, a lot of arguing about divvying up what spoils there are, but there’s no evidence that the money they have received amounted to anything. 

“The only substantive difference between these guys and the warlords of the 1990s is that you might get a receipt now when they rip you off.” 

By Aug. 20, a deadline described by donors including the United States as unbreakable, Somalia’s current transitional government must cede power to a new administration. 

There must be a new constitution – which was approved last week – a new president and the number of legislators must nearly be halved. 

“It’s impossible,” added Dr. Pham. “The mistake is that we see Somalia as a problem that needs to be fixed, when in fact it is a perfectly functional political economy benefiting a very narrow and selfish segment of the Somali elite. 

“Fixing it would be the worst possible outcome for them, even if it would vastly improve the lives of millions of ordinary men, women, and children.

“And meantime Shabab has downsized into a true hit-and-run terror group with a handful of extremists," Pham says. "They have not gone away, far from it.”   

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