Africa: Politics and Societies South of the Sahara

Somalia: A Profitable War

Posted in African Politics, Global Africa, Kenya, Somalia by ruben eberlein on February 1, 2016

The Somali terror group al-Shabaab strikes soft targets in Mogadishu and attacks troops of the African Union. Meanwhile, severe allegations are raised against the Kenyan contingent of the African Union Mission to Somalia (Amisom).

It is a message clearly adressed to Blacks and Muslims in the United States: In January, the Somali terror militia al-Shabaab released a propaganda video via its channel al-Kataib entitled “Path to Paradise”. This slick piece with a length of 51 minutes shows pictures of police violence against African-Americans and uses quotes of Malcolm X. It concludes that there are only two possible ways for Muslims in the US and the West in the face of the alleged aggravated persecution: Either one fights in situ against the infidels or one goes on the journey to the “land of jihad” – Somalia – in order to take up arms against the “kuffar”.

Blow-by-blow, especially some of those young Muslims hailing from Minneapolis are portrayed who romanticise the solidarity among the holy warriors in Somalia and who long for death in the fight against the hated West and its African allies. A possible presidential candidate, too, occurs in the publication of al-Shabaab: Eagerly, the Islamists used the speech of Donald Trump in which he called for a general ban for Muslims to enter the US. Forced discrimination and concentration camps for Muslims, it is alleged, are the logical consequence.

But not only in matters of Public Relations, al-Shabaab is once again in attacking mode. On Thursday last week, half a dozen fighters of the militia assaulted a restaurant on the beach of Mogadishu that is popular among Somalis and foreigners alike. They shot randomly on visitors before entering the Liido Seafood Restaurant and killed more guests. 20 people are said to have died in course of the assault. Time and again, the Islamist which were chased out of most parts in Mogadishu in 2001 succeed to spread fear and shock with spectacular attacks.

Strikes against so-called soft tagets in Somalia’s capital are quite regular in the country that experiences war for almost three decades. But it is a novelty that al-Shabaab again directly confronts the 22.000 soldiers of Amisom which are based in Somalia. The week preceding the attack on the Liido Seafood Restaurant, the Islamists attacked a military base maintained by Kenyan forces in the South West of the country. In course of the attack, up to 100 soldiers are reported to have been killed. Al-Shabaab captured military equipment and vehicles.

With this new push, the terror group proves that it is still a force to reckon with. During the past months, much has been speculated on its imminent demise in face of the loss of important cities and harbours in the South of Somalia. But today, the picure is different: The bloody deeds of the Jihadists cumulate, and again and again targets in neighboring Kenya are attacked. Kenyans still remember the massacre of Garissa in April 2015 where 148 people – most of them students – were killed, as well as the hostage crisis at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in September 2013.

Observers also hoped for a split of al-Shabaab because of the rivalry between the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaida. In fact, it was reported recently that some fighters revoked the cooperation with al-Qaida that persists since years and convert to the IS. But in spite of all international proclamations of loyalty, the transnational recruiting strategy and the intermittent logistical support by external Jihadists, al-Shabaab is still, after all, a Somali and East African phenomenon. Moreover, the regular killings of high-ranking terrorists by US drone attacks did not succeed to weaken the group decisively.

Since August 2012, Somalia has once again a government and a parliament selected by a council of elders. International donors like the US, the European Union and the United Nations all push for state building. But the government in Mogadishu is primarily the show of a minor upper-class in face of the strength of warlords and militia leaders in the provinces. Without the support of Amisom and foreign military consultants, it would implode quickly.

Even the monitoring group of the UN issues an abysmal testimonial for parliamentarians and ministers. “For many among Somalia’s political and business elite”, reads a report of the UN from October 2015, “the capture and securing of State resources in urban centres of power takes precendence over the consolidation of an effective form of governance and the expansion of public services. The current focus on short-term gains threatens the long-term success of a fragile political process.” Many parliamentarians, it is reported, sell their votes to the highest bidder.

The official objectives of the EU and the US with regards to state building are ambitious. But the frustration on the side of those who have the chance to follow the actions and inactions of the “international community” in Somalia closely is equally huge. In an interview with Deutsche Welle from April 2015, Stefan Brüne – who counselled the EU training mission in Somalia on behalf the the German Department of Foreign Affairs – detailed his deflating experiences: “Thus, one sits there on the airport in a military compound behind sandsacks, alongside the United Nations, likewise behind sandsacks. One doesn‘t have an opportunity to experience the situation in Mogadishu. I myself succeeded only once to visit the seat of government – for two hours in course of five months”.

Brüne summarised his experiences in a short paper for Friedrich Ebert foundation that is named “Helpless in Mogadishu?”. It is evident, he writes, that “the international community grasps the reasons and dynamics of inner-Somali conflicts predominantly uninformed, depleted of strategy and accompanied of its own interests”. The peaceful resolution of conflicts any time soon is not in sight. One more reason for this situation, Brüne explains, is that the Somali armed forces are not paid regularly and adequately. Frequently, they switch sides to al-Shabaab which pays them better. Moreover, the official army and Amisom commit numerous war crimes. For this reason, they are perceived by most Somalis as only another faction which cannot offer any security.

The international attention for Somalia heavily decreased after the hype around the military intervention against piracy on the shores of the country in 2008. Thus, it is left to local journalists on the spot to point to some of the most serious contradictions of Amisom. In November of last year, the organisation “Journalists for Justice” based in Nairobi reported about the illegal deals within the Kenyan Amisom contingent that also include agreements with al-Shabaab. Leading commanders, reads the report “Black and White. Kenya’s Criminal Racket in Somalia”, enrich themselves through the export of charcoal as well as the import of sugar.

Kenya provides – alongside Ethiopia, Uganda and Burundi – most of the soldiers for the African Union in Somalia. After the conquest of important havens in the south of the country by Amisom, Kenyan troops now have full access to export deals with charcoal that are reported to be worth serveral hundred thousand US-Dollar a year. The profits are allegedly shared between local militias and their leaders and high-ranking commanders of the intervention force. Al-Shabaab, in turn, is said to tax the import and transport of sugar that is sent to Kenya via landroute. Because of the high taxation on official sugar imports in Kenya the business is worth 200 to 400 million US-Dollar a year, reads the report. All players – local powerholders, Jihadists and the Kenyan troops – are said to profit from these deals.

The prolonged instable and violent situation in Somalia, thus, produces a rewarding dividend for a number of actors. It is not a functioning state of Western model but the continuation of insecurity and a constantly challenged monopoly of violence that is in the interest of most of the conflict parties. The ruthless behaviour and the criminal deals of the AU troops with their supposed enemies strenghtens al-Shabaab.

A perspective beyond war, violence and displacement for Somalia is not in sight. The international interventions support those entrepreneurs who can capitalise on a combination of military might and business interests. In view of this situation, the huge Somali diaspora – which allows many people in the country to survive through their remittances – will not be convinced to return and stay for good.

A German version of this text appeared in the weekly Jungle World (28 Jan 2016). You can download a pdf of the page here.

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