Hasan Madey jumped from his seat outside his tin-shack restaurant in Afgoye, southern Somalia, as two explosions detonated outside the town’s police station a third of a mile away.
After reassuring phone calls from friends that there were no casualties, Madey, 26, sat down and surveyed the deserted roads and shuttered shops. Days after African Union and Somali soldiers freed the town from the rule of al-Shabaab, the al- Qaeda-linked militia, residents and the 460,000 displaced people in the area still fear reprisal attacks from the Islamist militants, Madey said.
“Al-Shabaab threatened to kill anyone who collaborates with African Union and government forces,” he said in an interview in the town on May 28.
Somalia’s army extended its control of southern Somalia in a series of advances that began in August, when the militants fled the capital, Mogadishu. Victories since then have included Baidoa, the third-biggest city, and towns such as al-Fitr, where al-Shabaab sought to impose its rule by amputating the limbs of people caught stealing, banning music on radio stations and taxing farmers. The military gains haven’t stopped the rebels from carrying out suicide bombings and grenade attacks.
“Al-Shabaab has been massively undermined by both the increase in troops and the increasing attention being paid to Somalia from outside,” Adjoa Anyimadu, research assistant for the Africa program at Chatham House, said in a phone interview from London. “The problem with al-Shabaab is that it’s not one army against another. Somalia is fighting a conventional war, but al-Shabaab isn’t.”
Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed got first-hand evidence of that on May 29 when his convoy was ambushed by suspected al-Shabaab fighters on the road between Mogadishu and Afgoye, injuring three presidential guards. Sheikh Sharif was visiting Afgoye for the first time since it had been freed.
Capturing Afgoye, in Somalia’s agricultural heartland, gives the government control of a route linking Mogadishu with Baidoa in the southwest and ports in Kismayo and Merka. It may also sever a financial artery for al-Shabaab. Income from Somalia’s southern ports earns the militia as much as $50 million a year from trade in sugar, charcoal and contraband, according to the United Nations.
Kenyan forces working alongside the African Union peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi in Somalia plan to target Kismayo next, after announcing they’d captured the towns of Afmadow and Hoya, Kenya Defence Forces spokesman Emmanuel Chirchir said on May 30. Kenya began an incursion into southern Somalia in October following cross-border raids by gunmen in which at least four foreign workers were abducted and a British tourist was killed. Ethiopian troops captured Baidoa in December.
Eritrea, which is under UN sanctions because of its alleged support for al-Shabaab, signed an agreement with Uganda to help establish a national government in Somalia and ensure security in the region, President Isaias Afwerki’s administration said yesterday in an e-mailed statement from the capital, Asmara. Eritea denies backing the insurgents and says the sanctions aren’t justified.
“We must agree on time-bound programs to consolidate peace in Somalia, to support a legitimate and inclusive political process, and to jump-start recovery, reintroduction of the rule of law, and post-conflict reconstruction and development,” Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said today in a speech in Istanbul.
Somalia has been wracked by civil war since the ouster of the former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre two decades ago. The conflict has forced more than 1.3 million people to flee their homes, creating the world’s largest concentration of internally displaced people in the so-called Afgoye corridor, according to the African Union.
Regaining control of Afgoye will enable aid workers, previously blocked by al-Shabaab, to provide food and shelter to people who have sought refuge there. The victory will also comfort donors, who pledged at a conference on Somalia in the U.K. in February to increase support to combat piracy and promote political stability, Anyimadu said.
Somalia’s government is implementing a so-called political road map that envisages parliamentary and presidential elections being held by Aug. 20, following the adoption of a new constitution on July 1. The accord is aimed at ending a series of transitional governments that have failed to stop Somalia’s two-decade-long civil war. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned in London that the current government, whose mandate expires in August, will face sanctions if it doesn’t step down.
Piracy off the coast of Somalia cost the global economy almost $7 billion last year, according to the Colorado-based One Earth Future Foundation. About 20 percent of world trade passes through the Gulf of Aden between Yemen and Somalia, which is used to get to Egypt’s Suez Canal, connecting the Red Sea and Mediterranean. It is the fastest crossing from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean.
Political reform has been slowed by fractious political leaders and corruption, Rashid Abdi, an independent researcher on Somalia who consults for non-governmental organizations, said in an interview on May 28. These divisions may prevent the government from cementing its grip even as al-Shabaab cedes more territory to African troops, he said.
“The truth is that there’s a huge difference between the military track and the political one,” Abdi said. “The military is making progress, but on the political track there is a stalemate and it’s terribly dysfunctional.”
Al-Shabaab’s ability to carry out guerrilla attacks will be difficult for the government to contain, Anyimadu said. Al- Shabaab said on May 28 it withdrew from Afgoye in a tactical move and will continue with hit-and-run assaults. More than 15 people were killed in April when a female suicide bomber blew up Somalia’s national theater.
Madey, who was born in Afgoye, says he has to set aside his fears over security and stay in the town, because he has nowhere else to go.
“Al-Shabaab was a ruthless group,” he said. “They were very unkind and they terrorized us all the time, but we are worried now because we don’t know if the government forces will remain here and make peace.”
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