On 1 June a suicide car bomb ripped through the front of the Ambassador Hotel, Mogadishu, before armed al-Shabaab militants rushed in with machine guns, firing upon civilians inside. In total, 15 people were killed. The conflict and disorder in Somalia, a nation whose name has become synonymous with war, continues with grim prospects of its resolve. Not only does the al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group hold territory in the south of the country, but the two autonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland are moving towards secession, further fracturing the fragile nation. The African Union peacekeeping force, AMISOM, is suspected of being used by neighbouring countries as a vehicle for their regional goals while Ethiopia and Eritrea’s “cold war” has developed a second theatre in Somalia. The country is rife with strategic rivalries and conflict, which can have significant destabilising effects upon the fragile region.
Al-Shabaab has long been the primary source of conflict within Somalia. The militant Islamist group, who in 2012 pledged its allegiance to al-Qaeda, has fluctuated in the amount of territory they have held, at one-point controlling almost a third of the African country. Conducting skirmishes and attacks upon the capital, Mogadishu, and infamously being the perpetrators of the horrific 2013 Westgate shopping mall attack in Kenya, al-Shabaab has been targeted by the US military and AMISOM for elimination. While losing some significant leaders, thus far they have remained persistent, holding territory in the countryside and making decentralised attacks on AMISOM, as well as government and diplomatic buildings in Mogadishu. AMISOM’s sluggishness in changing tactics from conventional warfare to counter-insurgency, a theme recurrent in militaries across the world, has limited their effectiveness at tackling these militants.
In the north, the regions of Puntland and Somaliland have made overtures to secession, capitalising on a weak central state. The international community has left their recognition, particularly that of Somaliland, to the African Union who fears that their recognition will prompt other small groups to form proto-states around the continent. On all sides the country has been disintegrating, but there is still hope.
2016 will prove to be a crucial year for the central Somalian government, who, in a pact with its international donors and community, must hold presidential elections and redraft its constitution to transition into a federalised state. Although some progress has been made, especially in the establishment of states, there is still a long way to go to meet these commitments.
Somalia has become the battleground for regional rivalries. Some suspect that AMISOM has not been seeking a resolution to the conflict, but prefers to keep Somalia weak and divided, allowing nations to influence regional dynamics and increase their standing on the international stage. There have been instances where AMISOM soldiers have contacted their governments before engaging with al-Shabaab, breaking the chain of command and risking lives.
Ethiopia and Eritrea have escalated their fledgling cold war within the borders of Somalia. Ethiopia, who assisted in the installation of the Somalian government, has accused Eritrea (a long-time rival) of funnelling weapons and money to al-Shabaab and supporting their insurgency against Ethiopian troops. These claims, supported by the UN but still lacking evidence, has prompted international sanctions to be imposed on Eritrea, a country that some have characterised as the ‘North Korea of Africa’.
Rivalries are not limited to nation-states asserting their influence over Somalia. Islamic State has reportedly attempted to expand their sway to the African Horn, by tempting al-Shabaab to abandon their alliance with al-Qaeda and band together with Boko Haram and Islamic State. Several propaganda videos have been published with IS leaders encouraging al-Shabaab to join the caliphate, prompting concerns at what this alliance may look like.
While a small country, with limited alliances and a low GDP, the conflicts raging in Somalia have significant international implications. Moderate African leaders, like Kenya, have been attacked and have seen al-Shabaab trying to establish training camps and recruitment centres within their borders. This has led to Kenya moving to quell and crush the group in the south of Somalia. Al-Shabaab’s desire to conduct attacks in neighbouring countries has caused fears about future attempts to destabilise and target African hubs like Addis Ababa, Kampala or Johannesburg, spreading an Islamist insurgency throughout the fragile continent.
Recently, however, Turkish President Recep Erdogan personally visited Mogadishu to pledge his support for the country and attend the reopening of the Turkish embassy. Turkey’s interest in Somalia has prompted questions about its ambitions at establishing itself as a regional leader in Africa.
Unsuspectingly, Somalia has become a focal point for regional rivalries and conflict. While the country has made significant gains in combatting internal violence, the continued insurgency by al-Shabaab, the cold war between Eritrea and Ethiopia and the flexing of regional interests through AMISOM has hampered stabilisation. In the north, secession threatens yet another division that the small nation must overcome. Somalia, a nation fractured in almost every conceivable way, has a long, difficult road ahead.
Joel Paterson is the International Security Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image credit: IRIN Photos (Flickr: Creative Commons)