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The London Conference and Prospects for Peace and Stability in Somalia

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A Somali soldier patrols next to the burnt-out wreckage of a car that was used by suspected Al-Shabab fighters on 16 April 2017. AFP

The 11 May London Conference on Somalia comes at a time when prospects for peace and stability have substantially improved, even as the threat of famine looms. The meeting aims for a surge in humanitarian aid, a recommitment of international political support and to review a Somali National Security Plan that could increase the army’s numbers to 18,000 troops, reform the chain of command, and set a budget. But overall progress towards ending the country’s 25 years of conflict will require the new President Mohammed Abdullahi Farmajo and his government to display resolve in promoting better governance, tackling corruption, restarting the stalled national reconciliation process, facilitating dialogue among federal states to tackle territorial- and resource-driven conflicts and conduct a constitutional review.

Farmajo, elected amid a surge of hope in February, inherits a corrupt and dysfunctional state, riven by deep clan and factional divisions, and hemmed in by Al-Shabaab, a ten-year-old violent Islamist insurgency that is still the greatest threat to the country. Farmajo is therefore subject to the same pathologies that have undone previous administrations. But his situation is not entirely bleak. His predecessors established rudimentary institutional structures of a viable state and his administration comes into office with high public approval ratings. It is more diverse and relatively inclusive, with several effective specialised army units and significant progress in the federalisation project.

National and sub-national state-building cannot occur without a comprehensive political settlement and reconciliation. True, every government since 2000 has paid lip service to reconciliation, but all have balked at crucial implementation stages. National reconciliation shouldn’t be about restoring a romanticised, organic relationship among clans. Rather, it is about fostering peaceful resolution of conflicts, rebuilding cohesion and mutual solidarity, encouraging inclusive local governance, addressing disputes over resource and, where possible, seeking creative ways to address past crimes. To achieve this, the federal and state governments should be co-facilitators of a bottom-up reconciliation process, providing resources, security, strategic guidelines and oversight, even as it steers clear of controlling the process.

Progress has been made toward finalising a federal structure. But the process was initially both contested and designed to lock out certain minority clans from power. The federal government came late to the game, at times legitimised a flawed status quo and at others manipulated the process to benefit certain factions. Territorial claims, if addressed poorly or not at all, are liable to provoke armed conflict. The government now needs to do more to facilitate dialogue among federal states to resolve inter- and intra-clan power and address grievances regarding resource allocation, as well as to support the committee created to resolve border disputes. As important, it should finalise and make permanent the constitution that will formally delineate the division of power and resources among the federal government and the states.

Of course, Al-Shabaab lies at the core of the security crisis. While the movement has been dislodged from many of its south-central strongholds by regional troops serving in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), it remains resilient and adaptable – combining rural guerrilla insurgency tactics with a violent terror campaign that now extends beyond Somalia’s borders. It owes its longevity and resilience not so much to its military genius as to its capacity to exploit Somalia’s protracted disorder, deep social divisions and fractured politics. As long as these conditions persist, the group will be able to rebound. In addition to addressing those circumstances, the government, with the support of international allies, should devise a strategy aimed at persuading less hardline Al-Shabaab elements to abandon jihad – in particular by proposing a well-structured amnesty program among other incentives. Somalia’s partners should signal they will not veto any such initiative.

This is all the more important insofar as AMISOM troop contributing countries have signalled they are seeking an exit. In 2011-2015, they dislodged Al-Shabaab from most urban centres in a series of costly offensives but the mission cannot pacify the entire country. Its biggest setback was its Somali allies’ failure to backfill and stabilise liberated territories, much of which remains plagued by localised conflict and discontent. The drawdown, which could start in 2018, should be orderly and synchronised with implementation of a coherent Somali National Security Plan. These reforms to the security sector are under negotiation among AMISOM troop contributing countries, donors and the Somali government but could take years to negotiate and implement if they lack full support from both the federal government and federal states, or if they are not carefully coordinated by all the country’s security partners, particularly the “S6” – Turkey, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), European Union (EU), U. S., UK, and UN.

The government has drafted a national security strategy barely three months after coming into office. President Farmajo has staked his reputation on reform and upgrade of the Somali National Army. There are positive signs: recruitment and clan diversity within the army and police are improving; forces belonging to the federal states increasingly are being offered training placements and the army’s competence and combat effectiveness generally are improving. Yet the proliferation of parallel bilateral training programs has inadvertently created a number of challenges. Skill levels among the troops are inconsistent; some units are better paid and equipped than others, provoking frictions and undermining cohesion; structures designed to achieve greater coordination between national and federal state troops are deficient; and, despite attempts to ameliorate troop integration, unit cohesion, loyalty and morale, they remain far from optimal. All of which is compounded by old problems – indiscipline, perceived clan bias, desertions, corruption, including pilfering of fuel, equipment and ammunition, as well as a weak command chain.

These are but some of the many challenges facing Somalia. If the new government fails to fulfil hopes of better governance, less corruption, more work on reconciliation and addressing conflicts among federal states, it should come as no surprise were London to host another conference, with precisely similar aims, in 2023.

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UPDATE: Somali authorities say troops rescue 32 children from “terrorist school”

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MOGADISHU, Jan 19 (Reuters) – Somali authorities said troops stormed a school run by al Shabaab on Thursday night and rescued 32 children who had been taken as recruits by the Islamist militant group.

“The 32 children are safe and the government is looking after them. It is unfortunate that terrorists are recruiting children to their twisted ideology,” Abdirahman Omar Osman, information minister for the Somali federal government, told Reuters on Friday.

“It showed how desperate the terrorists are, as they are losing the war and people are rejecting terror.”

Al Shabaab said government forces, accompanied by drones, had attacked the school in Middle Shabelle region. It said four children and a teacher were killed.

The Somali government said no children were killed in the rescue.

“They kidnapped the rest of the students,” said Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab’s military spokesman.

“Human Rights Watch is responsible for the deaths of the students and their teacher because it pointed fingers at them,” he added.

In a report this week, the New York-based rights group said that since September 2017, al Shabaab had ordered village elders, teachers in Islamic religious schools, and rural communities to hand over hundreds of children as young as eight.

The U.S. Africa Command said it had carried out an air strike on Thursday against al Shabaab targets 50 km (30 miles) northwest of Somalia’s port city of Kismayo, killing four militants. U.S. forces regularly launch such aerial assaults.

The al Shabaab militia, linked to al Qaeda, is fighting to topple the U.N.-backed Somali government and establish its own rule based on a strict interpretation of Islam’s sharia law.

Somalia has been plagued by conflict since the early 1990s, when clan-based warlords overthrew authoritarian ruler Mohamed Siad Barre then turned on each other.

In recent years, regional administrations headed by the Mogadishu-based federal government have emerged, and African Union peacekeepers supporting Somali troops have gradually clawed back territory from the Islamist insurgents.

(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh; Writing by Clement Uwiringiyimana; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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US wary of Islamic extremism growth in Africa

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PENTAGON — With the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate almost completely retaken in Iraq and Syria, many American leaders are concerned the group might try to create a new hub elsewhere.

Islamic extremism creeps up in impoverished, politically disillusioned populations with masses of young, unemployed Muslims, and these conditions can be seen across the African continent.

“Africa is going to be the spot; it’s going to be the hot spot,” Congressman Michael McCaul, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a hearing last month.

In a letter sent to congressional leaders on Monday detailing counter-extremism efforts, President Donald Trump said his administration had placed a “particular focus” on the U.S. Central and Africa Commands’ areas of responsibility.

While tens of thousands of American troops are deployed to the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where U.S. Central Command oversees military operations, the entire African continent has less than half the number of American troops deployed in the single country of Afghanistan.

But increases in terrorist activity are among the reasons why American military presence has grown rapidly on the continent, from 3,200 military personnel in 2009 to some 6,500 military personnel today.

The bulk of U.S. military personnel in Africa, some 4,000 Americans, are based in Djibouti, home to the United States’ only military base on the continent. The second-largest concentration is in the Lake Chad Basin, where some 1,300 U.S. military personnel work in Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad to help strengthen local militaries and counter Boko Haram, al-Qaida, Islamic State and other extremist groups. About 500 U.S. military personnel are based in Somalia, where al-Shabaab terrorists are battling the U.N.-backed Somali government and Islamic State operates in mountainous areas of Puntland.

John Campbell, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007, is critical of the United States’ policy toward Africa.

“There is African concern that the U.S. approach is becoming rather more militarized, or more concerned with military and security issues than had been the case in the past,” he told VOA.

Campbell said he believes that the main thrust of American effort on the continent should be on the “root causes” of extremism — poor governance and lack of economic development. But this effort will likely prove more difficult if the State Department’s budget is slashed, as proposed by the Trump administration.

Ripe for recruitment

Africa’s growing young, male population is ripe for recruitment, Africa Command’s senior enlisted leader, Command Chief Master Sergeant Ramon Colon-Lopez told VOA in an exclusive interview.

“When you have no options and here comes an extremist that is offering you a motorbike and a bride, what do you think you’re going to do? Your family’s starving, you can’t provide for them and somebody’s giving you an option,” he said.

The Trump administration this year changed rules governing U.Smilitary operations in the area, expanding the ability to strike al-Shabab and IS fighters in the war-torn country of Somalia. The change allowed offensive strikes against the terrorists rather than limiting attacks to defending African allies and their American advisers on the ground. This matches a similar expansion of strike authorities this year against the Taliban in Afghanistan, where under President Barack Obama, the Taliban had to be in close proximity to Afghan National Security Forces before they could be targeted.

The new authorities have led to an increase in strikes in Somalia. The latest of the more than 30 U.S. strikes across the west African country this year came on Tuesday, taking out what U.S. military officials said was an al-Shabab car bomb planned for use in an attack in the capital, Mogadishu.

Colon-Lopez said the new authorities have “definitely” helped the counter-terrorism mission in Africa.

The U.S. has also used air strikes this year to target IS militants in Libya. Just last month, the U.S. and Niger reached an agreement permitting armed American military drones for use against jihadist terrorist groups in the African nation, according to a U.S. official. It is still unclear whether the drones in Niger will be used to carry out targeted strikes or solely as a defensive measure.

Special operations forces

In the past decade, Africa has also seen a vast expansion of U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF), elite military units that are specifically trained and use special weapons, and tactics.

In 2006, Special Operations Forces made up just 1 percent of U.S. military personnel. Today, there are about 1,200 Special Operations Forces deployed to Africa, or about 15 percent of the total deployed force, a U.S. military official told VOA on the condition of anonymity.

Their jobs range from short-term training to long-term partnering with African military units that place American troops in potentially dangerous locations.

That’s what happened in Niger in October, when four American soldiers died in an IS ambush, and in May, when a U.S. Navy SEAL died aiding Somali security forces against al-Shabaab.

“I worry about the outposts that have U.S. military members that are getting after this threat,” Colon-Lopez said. “I worry about them because we can see what happened out there when the enemy decides to overpower the United States of America.”

The number of times that U.S. troops are exposed to danger in Africa are rare, a U.S. military official told VOA, adding that Special Operations Forces limit their involvement with local partners because of the strong desire to find “African solutions to African problems.”

“Our role is more like preventative medicine in Africa than emergency surgery,” the military official said.

However, if the security need grows in the coming months, more Americans troops could find themselves in dangerous situations across the continent.

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Somalia to Probe Evictions of Thousands of Displaced Families

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NAIROBI — The Somali government responded to widespread criticism by aid agencies on Wednesday, promising to investigate reports that thousands of families fleeing drought and conflict were forcefully evicted from more than 20 informal camps.

The United Nations and groups such as the Somalia NGO Consortium say more than 4,000 families, or about 20,000 people, had their homes bulldozed last month inside settlements on the outskirts of the capital of Mogadishu.

The demolitions on private land were unannounced, they said, and pleas by the community — largely women and children — for time to collect their belongings and go safely were not granted.

Some aid workers who witnessed the evictions said uniformed government soldiers were involved in the demolitions.

“Regarding the forced evictions, we are really deeply concerned. We are investigating the number of evictions,” Gamal Hassan, Somalia’s minister for planning, investment and economic development, told participants at a U.N. event.

“We have to make sure we investigate and have to make sure we know exactly what happened. And then we will issue a report and you can take a look at it and see what happened and how it happened,” he said by video conference from Mogadishu.

The impoverished east African nation of more than 12 million people has been witnessing an unprecedented drought, with poor rains for four consecutive seasons.

It has also been mired in conflict since 1991 and its Western-backed government is struggling to assert control over poor, rural areas under the Islamist militant group al Shabab.

The U.N. says drought and violence have forced more than 2 million people to seek refuge elsewhere in the country, often in informal settlements located around small towns and cities.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on Wednesday condemned the demolitions, and said the fate of those evicted did not fit with the progress Somalia has made.

“Not only did these people lose their homes, but the basic infrastructure that was provided by humanitarian partners and donors, such as latrines, schools, community centers — has been destroyed,” said Peter De Clercq, head of OCHA in Somalia, at the same event.

“I reiterate my condemnation of this very serious protection violation and call on the national and regional authorities to take necessary steps to protect and assist these people who have suffered so much.”

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