In part two of our interview with Roland Marchal, find out why the war in southern Somalia is changing but not ending, and why the road map process may soon run into trouble. For part one of the interview, click here.
It seems that you are quite cautious about the current TFG offensive, and the prospects that it will be over soon. So military victories and territorial gains are not the only story there is to tell?
The question is, and we see that everywhere, what kind of political answer you give to the population after having beaten Shabaab. In Beledweyne and Baidoa, two big cities that have been taken from Shabaab, the Ethiopians promoted their friends, their allies. That makes a lot of sense. But if you don’t have local reconciliation with clans that explicitly supported Shabaab – because they had some good interest to do that, some very real interest beyond the jihaadi rhetorics – if you don’t do that, then sooner or later you create tensions and new problems come up.
That’s what happened in Beledweyne. Beledweyne is an unsettled city because of the very old problem of who should rule the place, the Galjaal or the Hawadle clan. This problem has not been resolved by the Ethiopians; they basically gave power to the Hawadle, and as a consequence you now have a whole clan that shifted its support to Shabaab again. Now people don’t care very much about Beledweyne because it’s not the capital city, but the situation there is not quite as the postal card would tell you.
Baidoa is the same. It’s a complicated story because the dominant clans of the area had different agendas, but the simple fact that you give priority to one section of the clan against another means that tensions are growing. You have of course some terrorist attacks that will kill one, two, three people, but that is not the key issue. The key issue is that socially there is a discontent that is growing, and that may express itself at the right time, either by organising new armed groups that will be supported by Shabaab, or by providing new recruits to Shabaab directly. And of course it’s the same question in Gedo, Lower and Middle Juba, considering what Ethiopian and Kenyan troops are doing there.
So if you look at the very short term, you may believe that there are still incidents, but there is no longer a battle, and therefore the situation is going to improve. If you take a longer perspective, however, then it becomes a very concerning issue. Look at Mogadishu: the number of people who were killed last week is basically the same as the number of people who were killed ten or twelve weeks ago, so that means that the intensity hasn’t diminished. What has changed is the targeting.
To put it in a nutshell: it is very dangerous for the Somalis and the international community to assess the condition of the current war with the parameters of what was the war in 2011. And I believe that is exactly the mistake the Ethiopians made in 2007. They had been able to crush Shabaab in December [of 2006] in a very easy and very radical manner, because they fought face-to-face, and of course Shabaab couldn’t confront a professional army and therefore lost with many casualties. But then Shabaab shifted to an urban-style guerrilla, and that created a new problem for the Ethiopian army.
I believe this is exactly where we are today. The conditions of the war are changing, the dissent within the leadership is addressed – other affiliates of Al-Qaida, such as Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or even Al-Qaida central, are trained to mediate between the different factions, and they have some leverage. And on the ground Shabaab fighter feel that the kind of war they waged for years is over, so they have to find new ways to make their influence felt by the population. They are discussing whether they should shoot everyone, or only the foreigners, and whether they should target state officials, or only the security and the police, and you can tell that they are testing. Which means that, as I wrote in January, Shabaab makes itself ready for a long war, while before – and that was probably one of many the mistakes they made – they felt like they could win in a matter of a few months.
Let us end with a look at the political transition process. The reports that came out of the Addis Ababa meeting last week indicated that the main stakeholders seemed to be in a real hurry to stick to the road map and get things done before August. Where does this new sense of urgency come from?
Well, if you don’t sign up to the road map, you are a spoiler. And if you are a spoiler, then you are targeted by the international community. The principal signatories feel that if they antagonise, if they raise any questions and show reluctance to commit to the road map, then the international community will act in a way that will make it harder for them to win the elections. So everyone is paying lip service to the road map, the delays that need to be ended… But whether all of that is actually going to happen is highly debatable.
First because many issues are not under the control of the principal signatories. Take for example what has happened with the elders. The elders should already have appointed the 825 members of the Constituent Assembly. They haven’t even started, because they are divided among themselves on a number of important issues. And we are now nearly a month late in what should have been done.
Secondly, among the principals people may at one point start to reflect on the process, and they will have to decide whether to move ahead, or whether a kind of blockage of the current situation is better for them. That’s exactly what happened last year. And at some point there might also be states in the region that could decide that they prefer the status better over getting the wrong president. So the story is not yet written. I believe the international community has money and influence and leverage enough to impose whatever it needs on the signatories. But the Somalis themselves, I don’t believe you could bribe all of them to get what you want.
And that’s what is happening with the constitution. The way the constitution has come to the top of the agenda, the way it hasn’t been discussed by the Somalis themselves, the way the signatories try to keep control of the text means that there is something fishy. So people oppose it – maybe on very wrong reasons – and they feel that the constitution is a dictate from the international community. And then the quality of the text is, let us say, poor. This is not primarily the fault of the international community, it is most often the fault of the Somalis themselves. But who cares at this time? You blame the foreigners, and you stop the process.
Interview by Toni Weis. Many thanks to Roland Marchal.