Somalia Rebuilds: A new offensive against jihadis aims to help transform a ‘poster child’ of failed states

Andres Schipani in Mogadishu

Officials in Somalia’s capital called it “yet another show of force” when in late January Islamist militants linked to al-Qaeda set off a bomb, then stormed the whitewashed building housing the mayor of Mogadishu, killing five civilians.

Faisal Arale Afrah, a senior official at Mogadishu’s municipality, was sitting at his desk when the building was shaken to the core by the blast. A group of jihadis of al-Shabaab disguised as Somali soldiers and armed with Kalashnikovs stormed the hallway outside his office.

Somalia Rebuilds, The Glass Is Now Half-Full
Faisal Arale Afrah, a senior official at Mogadishu’s municipality, survived an attack on his building by jihadis of al-Shabaab in January © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT

“I heard one of them telling the others ‘Finish them all’,” he recalls. As they charged in, he jumped from the first-floor window to save his life. “This was my fifth terrorist attack in eight years,” he says.

The difference this time was that the attackers were put down “swiftly”, says Arale Afrah, pointing at bullet holes on the floor, the only visible proof that the attack happened.

The militant group has stepped up attacks in the past year since President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s government launched the first major campaign led by Somali troops — with help from the US, Turkey, and the African Union, among others — since Al-Shabaab started opening fire 17 years ago. Several areas in central Somalia have been freed from the militants.

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Isse Mohamud Gure, deputy mayor of Mogadishu, says recent acts of terrorism are ‘just the last kicks of a dying horse’ © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT

“As they have been wiped out from some regions they had to come here to wage a terrorist attack to show ‘we are present, we are still alive’,” says Isse Mohamud Gure, the deputy mayor of Mogadishu. “But these acts of terrorism are just the last kicks of a dying horse.”

Repair works started at the mayor’s offices within hours. “On the one hand, we are eliminating the terrorist threat; on the other hand, we are rebuilding our country,” Mohamud Gure explains.

The defiant mood at the mayor’s office is felt across today’s Somalia as the country fights back jihadism in order to rebuild from the ashes. Beyond defeating Al-Shabaab, Somalia’s leaders hope to stabilize its government, introduce political reforms and put itself on a path to debt relief.

Their efforts make for a stark contrast with nearby Sudan, where a fresh bout of intense fighting between the army and a rival paramilitary group has killed more than 50 civilians in recent days.

Success in Somalia would strengthen security across the wider region, President Sheikh Mohamud tells the FT in his office in an art deco building in Villa Somalia, the presidential grounds built by the Italian colonizers in Mogadishu.

“Somalia is strategically very important for the stability, security, and peace in the Horn of Africa, and the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea as well,” he says. “So, if there is no peace in Somalia, there is no peace there.”

Progress would also transform how the world thinks about a country long riven by clan warfare, famine, and warlords.

Somalia was once “the poster child of failed states”, says a senior official at an international organization based in Mogadishu. But not anymore: “The glass is now half-full.”

Somalia Rebuilds, The Glass Is Now Half-Full
Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, president of Somalia, has expressed confidence that his new military offensive against al-Shabaab will defeat the al-Qaeda-linked Islamist group © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT

‘Clan is king’

Not long after the unification of the Trust Territory of Italian Somaliland and British Somaliland in 1960, Somalia began to come apart under socialist dictator Siyad Barre, who came to power in 1969. In 1991, weakened and internationally isolated after a war with neighboring Ethiopia, Barre was deposed. Then came years of conflict and hunger.

In 2006, as civil war raged, al-Shabaab jihadis took over much of Somalia. Although they were pushed out of Mogadishu in 2011, they still control parts of central and southern Somalia and often launch suicide attacks in the capital.

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Rickshaws crowd one of the newest commercial streets in the Wadajir district of Mogadishu © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT

All of this has hampered efforts to establish an effective central government. In 2012 Sheikh Mohamud, a former academic, took office for the first time and attempted to lay the foundations of a federal system with five member states plus the capital, Mogadishu — a compromise that does not resolve the longstanding tensions with the Republic of Somaliland. At the time, Somalia was renowned for piracy — its coast occupies a crucial position in the Horn of Africa for the busy approaches in and out of the Red Sea.

Sheikh Mohamud’s first tenure was mired in corruption scandals. This paved the way for the election of Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, popularly known as Farmajo, whose single term was beset by political infighting which, analysts say, helped Al-Shabaab regain lost ground. After delayed elections last year, Sheikh Mohamud came to power again.

For almost a year now the internationally-supported government of Sheikh Mohamud has been working to rebuild its institutions and rejoin the global financial system. The president has staked his legacy on either defeating al-Shabaab or cornering it to negotiate.

“Somalia had a large ungoverned territory for a long time. And this is why we are trying to squeeze and eliminate al-Shabaab. If there are no strong state institutions that control Somalia, there will not be peace and stability,” he says.

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Security guards patrol along a street near Lido Beach in the city of Mogadishu © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT

On a wall in his office, Sheikh Mohamud has a list of his ten ambitious priorities. They include liberating areas from al-Shabaab control, securing debt relief, and finalizing the process for the first Somali constitution since the fall of Barre. He says that before the end of his term in 2026, “we will have a constitution”. He also wants to change the electoral process to a system of one-person, one-vote with political parties, rather than the current indirect dispensations.

Many believe this will be hard to push through. Somalia is loosely glued by an ethnic make-up of nomadic pastoralists and a language that was only formally scripted in 1972. In the end, the “clan is king”, says a presidential adviser referencing a Somali adage that goes “me and my clan against the world”

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Soldiers guard the ruins of Mogadishu Cathedral, built in 1928 by the authorities in the former Italian Somaliland © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FTb

At present, political representation in Somalia is allocated according to the “4.5 system”, which divvies up parliamentary seats as well as influential roles according to four key clans — including the president’s Hawiye clan — and a plethora of smaller ones that fall under the “point five”.

“One of the contentious issues is the democratization and state-building process, basically, what Somalia’s politics would look like,” Sheikh Mohamud says. “Now it’s mainly clan-based. It’s not written anywhere, this is a gentleman’s agreement among the clans. We don’t have political parties, all we have is clans.”

“Somalia is coming from 30 years of no governments or weak governments where there were either no laws or the laws were not respected,” says Awes Haji Yusuf Ahmed, a veteran political adviser to the president. “This brought along corruption, clan impunity — ha sporcato tutti”, or tainted everyone, he adds in Italian. Somalia continues to be at the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

The first Somali state, Puntland, was born in 1998 in the northeast and considers itself autonomous; the other four were established during Sheikh Mohamud’s first term. “The ultimate goal is a peaceful and prosperous Somalia and a key step to achieving that is for Somalis to come together and agree on what the federal state of Somalia would look like and enshrining that in a constitution,” says Anita Kiki Gbeho, head of the UN mission in Somalia.

However, argues a former adviser to Farmajo, “Federalism is an idea not really put into in practice here. The Somali dream doesn’t really like federalism.”

That is patent in the thorny relations with Somaliland, which for over three decades has been lobbying to gain international recognition. In recent months there have been deadly clashes in Laascaanood, a city disputed by Puntland and Somaliland.

Sheikh Mohamud expresses willingness to “dialogue” with Somaliland’s president, Muse Bihi Abdi, but stresses that, in the end “there won’t be a secession, it is part of Somalia”, a claim that Somaliland’s government rejects.

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Parts of the country are undergoing a construction boom © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT

Strategic thinking

In a country where war has been a constant for so long, Sheikh Mohamud is confident his offensive is on course to finally “defeat” the al-Shabaab militants. The terror group’s aim is to overthrow successive governments they dub apostate lackeys of foreign powers.

With support from the US and Turkey in both the training of elite Somali forces and drone strikes, the offensive is part of a “three-pronged” strategy. To help on the “ideological front”, Sheikh Mohamud roped in Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, a repentant former deputy leader of al-Shabaab, as his cabinet minister for religious affairs. This effort also involves clerical leaders condemning Al-Shabaab as “anti-Islam”.

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The Arbe Café occupies a prominent position in the commercial Wadajir district © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT

The final part of the strategy is a financial crackdown in which bank and mobile money accounts suspected of belonging to al-Shabaab are frozen. Accounts seized so far have contained millions of US dollars. By cutting off their funding, the government hopes to put the jihadis on the back foot.

The government has also taken advantage of local discontent with the jihadis’ extortion and forced recruitments amid one of the worst droughts on record, which has fuelled a humanitarian crisis for more than a third of Somalia’s population of 17mn, putting millions on the verge of famine.

“Clans are armed in the rural areas because they need to defend their livestock. The call was to give them ammunition and organize them under the command of the Somali army,” says Hussein Sheikh-Ali, the national security adviser.

Having the Somali army backed by these clan militias “is a totally new approach to fighting,” says a senior US official with experience in Somalia. “All the international partners are supporting — but this is a Somali effort.”

In May, US President Joe Biden approved the establishment of some 450 US troops in the country. The move was a part-reversal of the Trump administration’s withdrawal of 750 troops. But it was also a response to growing concerns about the global threat posed by al-Shabaab, “the largest and most deadly al-Qaeda network in the world”, according to the US military.

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Hodan Osman, right, a senior economic adviser to the president, says ‘not many pay taxes at the moment’ © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT

Before Sheikh Mohamud’s offensive, the US Africa Command estimated the group had as many as 10,000 fighters. “They lost a couple of thousand in casualties in recent months,” says Sheikh-Ali, “By the end of this year we should be able to minimize their threat by at least 80 if not 90 percent.”

Mogadishu is emboldened by some of the territorial gains of recent months in the states of Hirshabelle and Galmudug. But the coming operation, for which Somalia enlisted military support from Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya, will be tougher as parts of Jubaland and South West are historic jihadi strongholds.

“Both the federal government and the clans are committed to sustaining their momentum,” says Omar Mahmood, senior Somalia analyst at the Crisis Group think-tank. “But the new phase is going to be a completely different ballgame.”

Others are concerned that in the “liberated areas” disputes among clans, and even with the state, could flare. “They have a common enemy — for now. But Somalis have a 30-year-long history of clans not agreeing with each other and now the government is flooding them with ammunition. How will this end?” asks a senior humanitarian official in Somalia.

Sheikh Mohamud plays down such concerns: “Clan conflicts were always there. They will remain there. But they are not national conflicts, they are very localized.”

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Swimmers brave the shark-infested waters off the coast of Mogadishu’s old town © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT

Bust and boom

The government has a “stabilization plan”. In the short-term, this will deliver aid, but over time it aims to re-establish services such as health and education to liberated areas. At an estimated cost of roughly $300mn over the next three years, partly paid for by Western donors, some fear it could be a hard slog to raise all the funds needed to grow a state presence across a war-ravaged country with little infrastructure and Africa’s longest coastline.

“The government doesn’t have enough revenue. Why? Because of al-Shabaab, it cannot move around the country. By liberating the country, there will be a space open for the government to collect revenue,” says Sheikh Mohamud. He adds that he is focused on securing debt relief. In turn, multilateral lenders expect Somalia to expand its tax revenues — currently at a meager 2.7 percent of gross domestic product; far less than the African average of 16 percent.

“Not many pay taxes at the moment. People think ‘Why pay taxes if we don’t feel secure? We need to feel secure to pay taxes’. So, it’s a chicken-and-egg situation,” says Hodan Osman, a senior economic adviser to the president.

The country is in debt distress. But Kristina Svensson, the World Bank’s country manager, expects Somalia to reach the “completion point” later this year for a debt forgiveness program that will see debt fall from 42.7 percent of GDP in 2022 to 6.6 percent, turning it into one of Africa’s lowest levels.

To that end, Mogadishu has paid off arrears to most of its creditors, including the Paris Club, while negotiations to pay back others, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, are underway.

For the first time in the history of Somalia — where until recently the wages of bureaucrats and soldiers were paid through coffers of cash in an economy in which most local banknotes are fake — the states reached an agreement on a federal fiscal framework to share revenues. This would boost a nascent $7.6bn economy that is reliant on budgetary donor support and underpinned by remittances coming from the Somali diaspora, exports of camel livestock to Arabian Gulf states, and fishing licenses given to Chinese companies.

“If you look at Somalia only at a specific moment in time, it’s chaotic, the sky is falling,” says a senior African diplomat in Mogadishu. “But if we take the long view, we have to recognize that there’s been progress.”

Business is already thriving for established local players like the ubiquitous Dahabshiil, the biggest African-based remittances provider, with interests spanning from banking and energy to ports and telecoms. Last month, Premier Bank became the first Somali bank to establish a majority-owned banking subsidiary in neighboring Kenya.

Last year, Somalia’s central bank granted its first foreign banking licenses in decades to Turkey’s Ziraat Bank and Egypt’s Banque Misr as it seeks to lure international investors, including private oil companies to drill offshore. Parts of the country are undergoing a construction boom. “It’s almost impossible to buy land here that doesn’t cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, often millions,” says Bashir Osman, a Mogadishu-based entrepreneur who is building a hotel in the capital.

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People shop at the Hayat Market in downtown Mogadishu © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT

In downtown Mogadishu, customers buying imported groceries and televisions pack the new Hayat Market. It is walking distance from the Hayat Hotel, where in August almost two dozen people were killed in a 30-hour assault by al-Shabaab.

By the seafront, where swimmers brave the shark-infested waters of the Indian Ocean, truckloads of men with ammunition belts holding Kalashnikovs break through crowds exiting a football match at a nearby stadium. On the grounds of a marbled mosque built by a local tycoon and opened last year in an upmarket area of Mogadishu, dozens of youngsters in their best garb and sporting fancy trainers take selfies to post on Instagram.

“Everybody here is trying to catch up with the rest of the world. We were one foot behind with all the years of war,” says Amal Dirie, the founder of Beydan, a new coffee shop with branches across Mogadishu, including at the mosque.

The mood in the battle-hardened streets of Mogadishu is one of hope that Somalia may finally be at an inflection point. Sheikh Mohamud still has three years to prove that “nobody tolerates al-Shabaab any longer”, as Arale Afrah from the mayor’s office put it.

“I usually ascribe whatever is happening in Somalia not to the leader, but to the community surrounding the leader,” says Nuruddin Farah, the famed chronicler of the country. “It’s the society that determines the type of leader they can tolerate.”

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