When the heavy rains let up, Kenyan soldiers will be able to continue their advance on Kismayo, Ethiopian troops will take Baidoa, and Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers may be able to completely clear Somalia’s capital Mogadishu of al-Shabaab militants. Al-Shabaab rebels have been in control of large swathes of southern Somalia but reports from the field suggest that the Islamist group’s draconian strictures on women, schools, music, and international relief efforts have already ended whatever popular following it once had. Nor is its self-proclaimed alliance with al-Qaeda likely to afford the group continued legitimacy or an enduring role in the volatile south of the country.
Al-Shabaab’s days as a sustainable and robust fighting force are rapidly coming to an end. The losses of Kismayo, Baidoa, Mogadishu and other southern towns will prove financially costly since al-Shabaab’s revenue stream derives substantially from fees, duties, and taxes on trafficked consumer imports and agricultural exports through those towns. The loss of its strategic centres and, conceivably, the fertile Juba River valley, will therefore cripple al-Shabaab as a movement and an ideologically cohesive Islamist enterprise. Its soldiers, after all, have to be paid, and al-Shabaab cannot battle on without costly ammunition and weapons.
If and when al-Shabaab goes the way of its hapless ancestor, the Union of Islamic Courts, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Somalia’s weak nominal authority, could theoretically replace al-Shabaab rule from Mogadishu to the Kenyan border.
Propped up by the United States and African Union, the TFG has lurched from crisis to crisis over the last seven years. (And its mandate has nominally expired earlier this year.) Within Somalia, the TFG is regarded primarily as a corrupt holding operation beholden to outsiders and one incapable of providing the kinds of new active visionary leadership Somalia desperately needs. The TFG has taken few initiatives to raise the quality of life for the people of Mogadishu and the cabal that runs the organisation is suspected of skimming cash from donors and relief agencies. It has little legitimacy or following. And without the threat of al-Shabaab, neither Somalis nor outsiders will have compelling reasons to continue to back President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s TFG.
One possibility is that the Kenyans and the Ethiopians could establish buffer zones along their respective borders and in them create long-term mini-states (along the lines of Israel previously in southern Lebanon). But that outcome is unlikely since the Kenyans are already stretched by their intervention into Somalia and ordinary Somalis fear, and are historically antagonistic to, Ethiopians. The Burundian and Ugandan peacekeepers of Amisom could gradually move south from Mogadishu, especially next year when they are joined by small contingents from Sierra Leone and Djibouti. But given Amisom’s limited mandate and the reluctance of both Uganda and Burundi to become military overlords of Somalia, such a scenario is also unlikely.
If the defeat of al-Shabaab and the removal of the fundamentalist Islamic yoke from Somalia is ultimately to improve the lives of ordinary Somalis, Africa - supported by the West - cannot rely on business as usual. Somalis, because of their own clan enmities and fratricidal distrust, have for much too long been relegated to the political margin. They have been visited by repeated drought and famine, denied opportunities for educational advance and medical availability, and been cast out from the global village.
Now is the opportune moment to break the cycle of internal war and troubled peace. Southern Somalia (Somaliland in the north functions relatively well) and its mostly impoverished people require security, central governance, basic services, and – over time – opportunities to allow their undoubted entrepreneurial skills to prosper. But there is little likelihood this will come about under the TFG and amid warlords, al-Shabaab remnants and pirates.
If the African Union, backed financially by the West and with oversight from the United Nations, placed Somalia in trust for a decade it might finally be able to end the influence of pernicious internal non-state actors and help Somalis learn to rule themselves once more as a nation.
An African-run trusteeship would be able to rebuild essential functions and arteries of commerce, restore educational and health services over time, and eventually provide Somalis with a working government dedicated to them and their interests as citizens.
Undertaking such a task would of course be immensely difficult. Somali politicians and warlords might lose many of their current perquisites and would object loudly even if some complementary role were found for the TFG. But Somalis in the south, in contrast to Somaliland, have been unable to re-construct their own state and to uplift their own people.
Africa needs to assume responsibility for Somalia and to delegate the task of trusteeship to its more advanced and better governed states. South Africa, Botswana, Mauritius, Ghana, Mali, and even Zambia know how to build nations. Someone like former president Thabo Mbeki of South Africa or former president Festus Mogae of Botswana would make ideal viceroys. Under their oversight, and with their appointees controlling Somalia’s budget and finances, a trusteeship arrangement could be the making of Somalia and of enormous immediate and long-term benefit to every Somali.
What, after all, is the alternative? More bloodshed, renewed famine, stunted lives, and opportunities denied? Every Somali deserves better.
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