Somalia conflict escalates: ‘We know al-Shabaab will take advantage’

In the ruins of his devastated hospital, Ali Omar Tarabi despairs at the violence that has come to the city of Guriel, a once peaceful haven in Somalia.

“The fighting, the war has arrived here. Look at this, look,” said the hospital chair, stepping on charred scalpels and forceps and taking care to avoid shattered glass as he points to the mangled beds and tables in what used to be an operating theatre.

Almost a year since Washington withdrew US troops from the country, which occupies a strategic position in the Horn of Africa commanding the busy southern approaches to the Red Sea, delayed elections have emboldened fighters, including Islamist militants al-Shabaab, threatening to bring the country into even deeper chaos. 

Al-Shabaab has been waging an insurgency in parts of Somalia for more than a decade, and has carried out deadly attacks in neighbouring Kenya and Djibouti.

The city of Guriel has been the site of some of this year’s deadliest fighting in a country that has been beset by decades of violence. Humanitarian and local officials estimate that since October 120 people have been killed in fighting between regional and federal forces and a splinter faction of Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a, a paramilitary and political group and until recently a government ally. More than 100,000 people have fled the area.

The biggest fear for the city’s residents is the approach of the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab, which has long terrorised the country and wants to overthrow the government. Al-Shabaab fighters are just 70km from Guriel, say local and humanitarian officials, and have made gains in the semi-autonomous central state of Galmudug for the first time in a decade.

“Al-Shabaab is taking advantage of the government fighting Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a at a time when the government has lost some military capacity to fight al-Shabaab,” said a senior western official focused on Somalia.

The US Africa Command estimates that al-Shabaab has between 5,000 and 10,000 fighters across the country of 15m and controls large swaths of southern and central Somalia. The US departure has contributed to a deterioration in the security situation, say analysts, and a planned pullout of the African Union mission to Somalia could exacerbate the situation.

Hospital chair Ali Omar Tarabi despairs at the violence that has engulfed the city of Guriel © Alyona Synenko/ICRC

The AU, which has almost 20,000 troops in Somalia, earlier this month voiced concerns about the government’s ability “to effectively hold on to territory liberated from al-Shabaab” and its “lack of required capacity to immediately take over full responsibility of guaranteeing national security in Somalia after December 31 2021”. The UN Security Council this month approved a three-month extension of the force until the end of March.

At the same time, a civil war in Ethiopia and a coup in Sudan have dragged attention away from Somalia, which has lacked an effective central government since the 1991 overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.

“As everyone focuses on Ethiopia, focuses on Sudan, Somalis continue playing their politics,” said Samira Gaid, a former security adviser to the Somali government and now executive director of the Hiraal Institute, a security think-tank in Mogadishu.

At the heart of the current crisis is the fact Somalia has had no legitimate national authority since February. President Mohamed Abdullahi, known as Farmaajo, and his prime minister Mohamed Hussein Roble clashed in April when the president unilaterally tried to extend his four-year term by two years, prompting skirmishes between rival army factions in the capital, Mogadishu.

The two sides have since forged a deal that allows them to remain in office pending an election to establish new local and national parliaments and a federal government. Despite an apparent effort to calm tensions, under the indirect elections system, no date has been set to elect Somalia’s next president.

Tensions rose again this week when the president “suspended” the prime minister for suspected “corruption” after having accused him of delaying the election. Roble, in turn, accused Abdullahi of an attempted coup, having “stormed” his office in an attempt to “prolong his grip on the presidency”. The UN, US, UK and others called on both leaders to “de-escalate rising political tensions” and to refrain from “use of force”, which is distracting from the fight against insurgents.

Groups such al-Shabaab and Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a have ramped up attacks. Adding to the instability, fighting between elements of Somali pro-government forces erupted in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland last week, killing at least 27, said humanitarian agencies.

“Their [Ahlu Sunna’s] plan is to just take the opportunity in this . . . vacuum time of the elections to press on,” said Farah Abdi Moalim, Guriel’s district commissioner and himself a former Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a fighter.

Hiraal Institute’s Gaid said: “With the Ahlu Sunna resurgence there’s going to be more conflict as al-Shabaab will take advantage. The elections are really why Ahlu Sunna is coming out at this time because they’re not innocent in this whole thing, they want to make sure that they have their representatives in the federal parliament. Everyone’s looking out for their own interests.”

And it is ordinary Somalis who suffer. “Intense shelling damaged several buildings,” said Mohamed Sheikh, who oversees the International Committee of the Red Cross operations in the area. “Medical facilities are there to treat the wounded from both sides and should never be attacked.”

Abduikadir Hassan Samatar
Local community leader Abduikadir Hassan Samatar: ‘When the fighting happens nobody is spared, it may spread everywhere’ © Alyona Synenko/ICRC

The violence in Guriel has also destroyed the city’s main borehole, worsening a severe drought, and another hospital. Empty rounds of ammunition lie by pools of dried up blood in a mosque.

“Everything was peaceful here before,” said Maryama Abdi Gurhan, a 40-year-old housewife who fled her house after its walls were pierced by gunfire. “Politics lie behind the violence. Now we live in fear, we hear gunshots every night and every day and we know Shabaab will take advantage,” she added.

“In Somalia sometimes things cook for a while and then explode out of nowhere,” said Abduikadir Hassan Samatar, a Guriel community leader. “When the fighting happens nobody is spared, it may spread everywhere. Political indecisions affect all of us.”

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