In the past week, the al-Shabaab militia and other insurgent groups have seized several towns in Somalia, including the strategic port of Merka. The new Islamic insurgency is still on the move, currently about 18 kilometers from the capital Mogadishu. On Saturday, President Abdullahi Yusuf said Somalia’s transitional government (TFG) maintains control only over the capital city and the town of Baidoa, which is the seat of parliament. Somali-born Professor Abdi Samatar of the University of Minnesota says that the latest military action signals a new phase of struggle for power in a country which has lacked a stable government for the past 16 years.
“The Transitional Federal Government virtually is non-existent, and therefore there seems to be a political vacuum. And the so-called Shabaab, or youth, will, I think, very soon be able to be on the outskirts of Mogadishu. And if there is an agreement between the Shabaab and the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), then the TFG virtually will be done,” he notes.
Professor Samatar says the Union of the Islamic Courts already occupies a strategic presence in Mogadishu, and he expects the rival al-Shabaab militia also to play a role. But he says that as long as neighboring Ethiopia maintains a five-thousand strong troop presence in the country, the Islamist groups will let the TFG’s influence fade away before moving to form a new government.
“The Ethiopians have not departed. They still have at least five thousand troops on the ground with significant armament. And so I think (Ethiopian) Prime Minister Meles could order the troops to immediately act, because last week, when the so-called Shabaab captured the town of Merka, which is about 90 kilometers south of Mogadishu, Ethiopian troops moved from Mogadishu into another town, Afgoye, on the way to Merka. So that is still a major factor,” he noted.
Professor Samatar, who teaches geography at the midwestern US university, says that under current circumstances, he thinks that Somalia’s various Islamic militias will strive to maintain a delicate provisional balance of power in the country until a clearer picture of conditions emerges.
“My sense is that I don’t think that the insurgency will move to create a new regime immediately, but it simply will make the old one defunct. The second thing to know about is that there are sufficient Ethiopian troops still in Mogadishu and Baidoa, and in a few other areas of the country. And so what will determine what becomes of this new insurgency is the ways in which the Ethiopian government will react to that, because in the past, it said that it considers the Shabaab as a terrorist organization and that it will not stand by the wayside to see them take over the country,” he explained.
The United Nations envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah has asked Somali factions to put aside their disagreements in the interest of achieving national unity. But dischord has been widespread. The President and Prime Minister are unable to agree on the makeup of a cabinet, and a rivalry as well has developed within the Islamist movement, which is split between a so-called moderate faction, based in Djibouti, and a more militant group of expatriates based in Asmara, Eritrea. In addition, Professor Abdi Samatar notes that the international community has been sidelined with only a very small role that it can play as the transitional government’s hold on power declines.
“The TFG, for all practical purposes except at the level of having recognition of the international community – the UN and the AU – are virtually done. So they don’t have any effect on the ground, except in small areas of Mogadishu and except in small areas of the small town of Baidoa, where the parliament is seated. And many of those parliamentarians are in Nairobi, Kenya,” he observes.
The African Union has maintained a small peacekeeping force in Somalia since March of 2007. But several African countries expected to contribute to the force have yet to do so. Professor Samatar says that at the current juncture, he believes an expanded UN or AU military presence might raise the level of tensions even further.
“I think the AU force has been relatively ineffective and impartial. But unless there is a political agreement between the so-called transitional government, the Ethiopians, and the Union of the Islamic Courts, and the local militias, injecting more groups into the ground from the UN or the AU may be counterproductive,” he said.