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.

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 Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.

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.

“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.”

For the meantime, Somali government forces are “poorly paid, they are 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 simply 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.

“What do we have?” asks a Somali academic in Nairobi, who requested anonymity. “We have a very incapable government, a very weak government with no coherent policy on security, on development, on the way forward. Now, in the international community and in the diaspora, everyone seems to be focused on: ‘What next? What will the next government be like?’ ”

A Big Setback at a Bad Time

On the surface, the attack on the Muna Hotel in Mogadishu would appear to be just one of many violent attacks in the Somali capital, remarkable only because many of the victims were members of parliament. A statement by the Somali Ministry of Interior blamed the Islamist militant group, Al Shabab (the Youth) for the attack, in which a pair of gunmen, dressed in army fatigues, opened fire into the hotel lobby, killing 31, six of the victims being parliamentarians.

Yet the attack occurred at a time when the Somali government has been steadily receiving reinforcements, Somali soldiers trained by various countries, including Ethiopia, Kenya, and the European Union at a training camp in Uganda. The reinforcements were supposed to provide the government with the sufficient forces to launch “a grand offensive” against Al Shabab and its allies, Hizbul Islam and to give the government enough breathing room to start providing services to the Somali people and to demonstrate its ability to govern.

Six months on, the promised offensive has never materialized. Reports say that the newly trained soldiers have begun to defect to Al Shabab, more for economic reasons than ideological ones. The Somali government has received international donor money for army salaries, but it has no proper system in place to pay soldiers.

Who’s Side are Government Forces Really On?

For allies of the Somali government, including the moderate Islamist militia known as Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa, the Somali government is hard to support.

“We know that 50 percent of the government are Wahabbists,” says Mahamud Abdi Elmi, an Ahlu Sunna spokesman in Nairobi, referring to the hardline Wahabbi sect of Islam based in Saudi Arabia, of which both the Saudi royal family and Osama Bin Laden are adherents. “So we refuse to mix our forces with their forces, because we can’t compromise our people.”

“These Wahabbists are the same people who are providing security for the Members of Parliament, so that is the reason for these attacks,” adds Mr. Elmi. “We support the government, because we don’t want anarchy. But this is why we can’t mix our people with theirs. We know who they are.”