On 17 September 2009, four Islamic insurgents carried out a suicide bombing of the African Union (AU) peacekeeping base in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital city, according to the Associated Press. Posing as UN personnel, four insurgents had driven two bomb-laden cars into the base. The AU said five officials from the Somali government and AU peacekeeping forces were killed in the bombing, and according to allAfrica.com, 17 soldiers were confirmed dead and 26 others were seriously wounded.

Al-Shabaab, Somalia’s most prominent Islamic insurgent group, took responsibility for the bombings, claiming that they were in retaliation against the death of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, an African Islamic insurgent who had been killed by US security forces on 14 September 2009 in Somalia. Al-Shabaab also said the bombing was a message to future security forces planning to engage in combat with the insurgent group or any of their allies. Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, a spokesperson for Al-Shabaab, told Reuters: “We have got out revenge for our brother Nabhan. Two suicide car bombs targeting the AU base, praise Allah. We knew the infidel government and AU troops planned to attack us after the holy month. This is a message to them.”

People present at the scene of the event gave their accounts to news agencies present in the area. Farah Hassan, a Somali civilian who witnessed the event, told Reuters: “We thought they were real UN cars carrying white people, but moments later deafening thunder shook the ground. The area was covered with flames and clouds of smoke.” A Reuters reporter that witnessed the event said he saw six wounded soldiers, many whom were bleeding heavily, carried away from the site of the blast.BBC reporter Mohammed Olad Hassan said that following the suicide attack he saw missiles fired from the AU base towards insurgent-controlled parts of Mogadishu; according to MSNBC News, Ali Muse, the head of the Mogadishu ambulance service said that seven people were killed and 16 were wounded as a result of the counterstrike.

Al-Shabaab has been working with Hizbul Islam, another Somali Islamic insurgent group, against the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) to replace the country’s moderate Islamic laws with their own version of Sharia law, which involves a more rigid interpretation of the Islamic laws prescribed in the Koran. Their latest attempt to do so came on 20 September 2009 with a ban of school textbooks the groups consider un-Islamic. According to BBC News, Sheikh Rage claimed: “Some UN agencies like UNESCO are supplying Somali schools with textbooks to try to teach our children un-Islamic subjects. I call upon all Somali parents not to send their youngsters to schools with curriculum supported by the UN agencies.”

Tactical changes and possible dissent amongst insurgents

Many regard the suicide bombing, along with the textbook ban, to be signs of the insurgents’ increasing influence in Somalia, and the bombing, in particular, as marking stronger ties of unity between Somali Islamic insurgent groups. On 20 September 2009, Reuters reported that the leader of Hizbul Islam, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, spoke out in defense of the Al-Shabaab’s suicide bombings: “We are calling our brothers in the fight against Muslim enemies to increase suicide bombings, which I believe is an acceptable tactic in Islam when it comes to defending your people and your religion.”

Others see the suicide bombing as representative of relationships between Somali Islamist insurgents and Al-Qaeda, an Islamist insurgent group based in the Middle East and South Asia and believed to have originated in Afghanistan. Somalia has been at civil war for nearly two decades, but Somali Islamist insurgents have only been using suicide bombings as a combat tactic since 2007.

However, signs of dissension between Somali insurgent groups were exposed when members of Al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam each expressed disdain for the other group. Each group labeled the other’s recent actions regarding territorial administration as being the problem. Both Hizbul Islam and Al-Shabaab want control of Kismayu, a port city in Somalia located southwest of Mogadishu. Kismayu is a profitable source of taxes and other revenue from agricultural production. It had been under allied control of both Hizbul Islam and Al-Shabaab until 24 September 2009. Sheikh Hassan Turki, a deputy leader of Hizbul Islam, told insidesomalia.org: “The men who call themselves Al-Shabaab have formed an administration with disregard to the other mujahideen. No one should claim total control of the city. There should be mediation before there is bloodshed . . .”

Additionally, Radio Garowe, an independent news agency, reported that Hizbul Islam and Al-Shabaab have also disagreed over administrative control of Gedo, a region in southern Somalia that borders Ethiopia. On 23 September 2009, Hizbul Islam appointed a new governor, security chief and treasurer for the region, establishing a completely different administration for the region after the former administrative officials, who had been Hizbul Islam representatives, joined Al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab did not approve of this decision. Sheikh Barre Farah Qoje, a commander for Al-Shabaab, told reporters,“It is very unfortunate that a dispute that was resolved has been reignited and our organization will not accept this administration.”

Somalia’s crisis

Somalia has been in a state of civil war since 1991 with conflicts regarding the regime of Mohamed Siad Barre, the president of Somalia from 1969 to 1991. Many Somalis considered his regime repressive at the time, and a coup was staged to remove him from office. Subsequently, there was a counter-revolution attempted by Barre’s supporters to reinstate him as leader, leading to a cycle of increased violence and chaos in Somalia. Eventually, Somalia fell into a state of anarchy and the country’s situation grew into a major humanitarian crisis. The current phase of the Somali civil war consists largely of an armed conflict between the TFG, who are aided by AU security forces, and the Islamist insurgent alliance of Al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam with the support of Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a group of Sharia law courts that united to oppose the administration of TFG.

According to Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Somalia has some of the worst health indicators in the world. One in ten women die during childbirth, and more than one in five children die before reaching their fifth birthday. These deaths are not only due to the country’s deteriorating health system, but also because of the constant fighting between government forces and insurgent groups. In 2008, MSF reported treating nearly 2300 patients for injuries caused by mortar rounds and bullets in Mogadishu.

Moreover, according to UN estimates, about one million Somalis have fled their homes due to the fighting. On the road from Mogadishu to Afgooye, a Somali town located about 25 kilometers west of Mogadishu, over 250,000 displaced Somalis were reported to be living in makeshift shelters and extremely crowded conditions; the numbers keep increasing as the fighting continues. Many Somali citizens also try to escape the country. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, more than 200,000 Somali refugees lived in one of three refugee camps in Kenya. Those who cannot escape to Kenya try to get to Yemen, smuggled in densely packed boats. According to the United Nations, about 43,500 people attempted this in 2008, but many suffocated or drowned before reaching the shore.

Can Somalia recover from being a “failed state”?

By international standards, Somalia is considered a failed state. According to the Fund For Peace, a nonprofit research and educational organization dedicated to preventing war and alleviating the conditions that cause war, a failed state is characterized by twelve political, social, and economic indicators, the most significant of which are: an ineffective central government that has little practical control over much of its territory; a lack of or deteriorating public services; widespread corruption and criminality; refugees and involuntary movement of populations; and a sharp economic decline. Somalia has exhibited all of these characteristics since its destabilization in 1991.

Some believe that solutions for Somalia exist in the end of the war between TGF and Islamist insurgents. Others label the Somali Islamist insurgent groups as the problem with Somalia, and that their defeat would be the first step towards restoring stability in the country. On 18 September 2009, the AU called for more weapons to be sent to the Somali government by the international community. AU’s force in Somalia, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), currently operates with 5000 soldiers, with pledges of more troops from Nigeria and Ghana. The UN has also said it will take over the mission, but no date for the takeover was provided.

However, it is argued that Somalia’s problems can be traced back to the end of the colonial era, and that Somalia should allow its indigenous population a greater voice in the country’s affairs in an effort to empower the people and reduce the influence of not only insurgents, but of corrupt government officials as well. George B.N. Ayittey, a Ghanian economist and a professor at the American University of Arts and Sciences, uses Botswana as an example of an African nation that achieved stability in doing so, and believes that Somalia should follow their actions. In a paper entitled “The Somali Crisis: Time for an African Solution,” Ayittey said: “…Botswana did not ignore its indigenous roots. It built upon its native system of kgotlas. In fact, cabinet ministers are required to attend weekly kgotlas to inform and consult the people … giving true meaning to such terms as ‘participatory development’ and ‘bottom-up development.’”

Ayittey also believes that the only successful solution for Somalia’s problems can be one that is inherently an African one, and not one based upon foreign or multinational troops entering the nation. In the same paper, he noted: “Somalia is an African problem, requiring long-term African solutions. …The gung-ho attitude that the Marines can be sent into Somalia and quickly take care of the problem sends the wrong message. …It gives African governments little incentive to shape up and do what they are supposed to in the first place.”

Vicki Huddleston, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Africa at the US Department of Defense, believes that because foreign forces are already involved, they will have to continue to be involved to bring stability to Somalia. In an editorial article published by the Washington Times, she writes: “ …. the United States and the European Union will have to help the government and local authorities to begin to rebuild the country. With the several air strikes we have launched in an effort to aid the Somali government, we have become an active partner in this conflict. This time we cannot walk away. We will have to be part of the solution in order to stem the rising tide of terrorists, pirates, and opportunists in this chaotic land.”

Others agree with Ayittey’s perspective of reduced foreign involvement, especially in light of information on foreign aid and its effect of Somalia’s economic conditions. The United Nations estimates that about 1.5 million people are in danger of death due to starvation in Somalia, and the nation relies on an influx of relief food for displaced people and civilians. However, relief food proves to be an obstacle for local produce on the market. As prices for local produce plummet, so does the standard of living for Somalia’s farmers, which, in turn, has a detrimental effect of Somali economic stability. Willet Weeks, a member of the charity organization Save the Children who works on resurrecting farming in Somalia, told The New York Times: “We are terribly afraid the current trends in the market will hold and that the corn that’s planted will be valueless. The quantities of relief food which have come flooding in here have devalued the market for local produce.” Weeks believes that instead of importing foreign food aid, relief agencies should discuss the possibility of a price support program, in which they would buy the crops of farmers at prices that make farming profitable.

Islamic Relief (IR), an international relief and development charity, argues that the dire needs of Somalia’s internally displaced people (IDP) require immediate aid. According to IR, Somalia’s IDPs have little or no access to basic sanitation facilities or shelters. Mahamoud Auke, IR’s coordinator for southern Somalia, says: “Most of the immediate needs are related to food and medicine. The poverty level is very high and people have a lot of problems, especially with regards to war and the recent floods in Somalia. So there are a lot of needs – in terms of food, in terms of shelter, in terms of sanitation, medicine, it’s a lot.” IR has issued an urgent appeal for €1.5 million to assist 30,000 people in Puntland, a region in northeastern Somalia, and 90,000 people in southern Somalia.

An alternative perspective is that establishing an effective administriation in Mogadishu is the essential step towards peace and security throughout Somalia, and that the upcoming elections in Puntland will be an example of a viable approach to stability in Mogadishu. The outcome of the election could potentially provide obstacles for Islamist insurgents, which News Garowe currently views as the biggest instigators of Somali instability. According to News Garowe, pursuing peace in the Puntland could translate into pursuing peace for the rest of Somalia as well: “A constitutional government with peaceful boundaries is in Puntland’s long-term interests and the only way to attain both is support for foundations of a federalist system in Mogadishu . . . the success of a Puntland regional autonomy will provide an alternative argument to the rising wave of Islamist political doctrine in southern Somalia.”