The withdrawal by rebel forces from Somalia’s capital may offer residents of the war-torn country some respite from a famine that threatens almost half its 7.5 million people.
Al-Shabaab, which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, quit Mogadishu on Aug. 6 following a series of military defeats, according to Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, prime minister of the Western-backed transitional federal government. The militant group confirmed the pull-back.
The withdrawal “shows the death of al-Shabaab as we know it,” Bronwyn Bruton, a Somalia researcher and former fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a phone interview from Washington Aug. 6. “They’ve been beaten down militarily and now have no ideological cohesion. They are short of cash, they don’t have the ability to launch a large-scale offensive any longer.”
Somalia’s two-decade-long civil war has compounded the effects of a drought in the Horn of Africa that the United Nations says is the worst in 60 years. A cessation of hostilities in Mogadishu will make it easier and cheaper to ship aid to the port city, which has seen an influx of about 100,000 people seeking food, water and shelter over the past two months, according to the UN.
Al-Shabaab has banned the World Food Programme and other aid agencies from working in areas under its control, causing the mass migration of people into the capital and refugee camps in neighboring countries. Its forces still control most of southern and central Somalia.
The withdrawal “is a glimmer of hope,” Ben Rawlence, Human Rights Watch’s team leader in the Horn of Africa, said in a telephone interview from London on Aug. 6. “At a minimum it should mean more people can get assistance. Al-Shabaab clearly has very bad record on human rights on areas under its control.”
Somalia hasn’t had a functioning central government since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s administration, backed by African Union peacekeepers, has been fighting to oust al-Shabaab from Mogadishu for the past four years. African Union forces captured three strategic locations to protect aid workers last week, helping sway the balance of power in the capital.
Al-Shabaab’s withdrawal won’t bring an end to Somalia’s woes, with the famine expected to last until at least the end of the year and the militia showing no signs of laying down arms.
Al-Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage told Mogadishu-based broadcaster Holy Quran Radio on Aug. 6 that the militia regards its withdrawal as a “tactical” move and it plans to win control of other government-controlled territory.
The UN Refugee Agency plans to fly to Mogadishu today to deliver its first shipment of emergency supplies in five years. The aid includes sleeping mats, plastic sheeting for shelter and jerrycans for water to Mogadishu.
The latest developments in Mogadishu are a “step in the right direction,” Augustine Mahiga, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s envoy to Somalia, said in an e-mailed statement on Aug. 6. “Real security risks, including from terrorist attacks, remain and must not be underestimated.”
Al-Shabaab may regroup and launch a new assault on the capital or redeploy its troops to other regions where they face less of a threat of being surrounded and destroyed, said Pierre Beaudet, a professor of international development at the University of Ottawa.
Al-Shabaab is “not just a small group of people with a mandate from al-Qaeda,” he said in a telephone interview from Montreal. “It’s much broader. There are a lot of young, angry people within it. They have legitimacy in the eyes of many people. They can remain having a presence in Mogadishu and do exactly what they were doing before: hit-and-run tactics.”
Joseph Lake, a New York-based analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, sees a decline in support for al-Shabaab as a result of the famine and signs of a rift among its leaders that may be compounded by the loss of its foothold in Mogadishu.
“Al-Shabaab’s unity against a divided transition federal government has been one of its biggest advantages,” he said in an e-mailed response to questions. “If this is starting to crack, it could represent a turning point in this bitterly sad conflict.”
The government says that now it has secured control of Mogadishu, it intends to step up efforts to eradicate al-Shabaab from the rest of the country.
“Rome was not built in one day and Mogadishu will not stabilize in one day, but this represents” a step forward in ending the conflict, government spokesman Abdirahman Omar Osman said in an Aug. 6 interview from Mogadishu. “This is the beginning of peace and development.”