Al-Shabab insurgents remain a potent force in Somalia, but there is no public hint of talks on the horizon to reach a political settlement.
The suicide bombing by Al-Shabab in Mogadishu on 4 October, which claimed the lives of over 100 people, underlined its ability to reach into the heart of the capital, despite its withdrawal from the city in August.
Its control of large portions of south-central Somalia requires international agencies to reach agreements with Al-Shabab commanders to access the millions in need of food aid.
The internationally-recognized authority in Somalia is the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which came into being in 2004 and owes its survival to a UN-backed African Union stabilization force, AMISOM. The political legitimacy of the TFG is rejected by many in Somalia, and not just by those associated with insurgent groups. It currently controls most of Mogadishu and a few other pockets of territory in southern and central Somalia.
Al-Shabab (full name Harakat Al-Shabab al-Mujahideen) emerged in 2005 and brings together several different groups with different histories and objectives united in wanting to topple the TFG. (For a detailed analysis of the movement, its history and objectives, see Roland Marchal’s The Rise of a Jihadi Movement in a Country at War)
IRIN spoke to a cross-section of Somalis, humanitarian workers, analysts and observers about whether engaging Al-Shabab in talks would help stabilize the country after more than two decades of war:
Laura Hammond, a senior lecturer in the Department of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, said it was very important to talk to the group. “I think that the only option for trying to respond to the emergency in the south, and probably for the political future of Somalia, is to talk to Al-Shabab. But I would not conflate these two things. What is important now is to negotiate with them on issues of access and service delivery.”
Hammond said it was important to have dialogue now at multiple levels. “Some of these [humanitarian] discussions are already going on, quietly, and they should be allowed to continue and not be influenced by political considerations.”
Mark Bowden, the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, said: “Most of the people in desperate need of assistance are living in areas controlled by Al-Shabab. It is thanks to dialogue with Al-Shabab that some humanitarian actors have been able to save lives in those areas. As humanitarians, our goal is to reach those in need, wherever they may be. We have the responsibility to talk and discuss with whoever will give us access to people in crisis.”
Sheikh Nur Baarud, a member of the Somali Ulamaa Council, a Mogadishu-based independent group of religious scholars which has in the past offered their services in opening up dialogue between Al-Shabab and the TFG, and also engages in fundraising for relief work.
“We have been trying to start a dialogue [between the TFG and Al-Shabab] since 2009, but every time they have refused. So to answer your question, we should not talk to them. There is no one to talk to and after what they did on 4 October I don’t see anything to talk about. Al-Shabab in my opinion is beyond talking. No one who has a basic understanding of Islam could carry out what they did. They are beyond Islam and beyond humanity.”
Hajio Basbaas, a Somali trader in Mogadishu, told IRIN she would like to see the TFG and the international community talking to the group. “We have had more than we can take. They [government and Al-Shabab] have been fighting for over four years and I don’t see anybody winning. All I see is us [the people] losing.”
Basbaas said that in those four years she had lost friends, relatives and property to the conflict. “Neither side will win this. Please talk and end our misery.”
She said the group was divided and it was a good opportunity to talk to those who were willing to talk and isolate “the hardliners and their foreign friends”.
Abdulle*, a businessman in Mogadishu who preferred anonymity because he fears for his own safety, however, believes that talking is a waste of time and resources. “These people don’t want to talk and even if they say they will talk they will never keep their word.”
He said the divisions within Al-Shabab were not significant. “The difference between the two groups is like the difference between donkey ears. No difference.”
Abdulle favoured using force. “They are currently in a very weak position. The opportunity is now to finish them. Yes, people will die but they are killing us every day. At least with them finished we can look forward to better days, but while they are still around, Somalia will never know peace.”
Mohamed*, a Somali civil society activist in Mogadishu, said not talking was no longer an option. “Even if Western powers, with their military might, take over our country, Al-Shabab will be with us. Any foreign intervention will likely boost them.”
The government and its Western supporters should talk to Al-Shabab, if only to show Somalis they are trying, he said. “People are dying so we cannot afford to allow more people to die because someone wants to isolate them… only a political settlement will end our nightmare.”
He warned those Somalis who believed they could defeat Al-Shabab with the help of foreign powers they were “dreaming”.
Ambassador Abdullahi Sheikh Isma’il, a member of parliament and in the parliamentary committee on reconciliation, told IRIN the only way forward was through dialogue. “The government must be open to talks with Al-Shabab and vice-versa, no excuses. Our people are dying.”
Isma’il said total military victory in Somalia was not possible, “so the only option available is through dialogue and negotiations around the table”. He said both Al-Shabab and the government should abandon “extreme positions and preconditions”.
Both Somalis and international community wanted peace and stability in the country, “and no one should be excluded”.
Roland Marchal, senior research fellow at the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris, told IRIN: “The policy followed for quite some years has been a military policy. We get rid of them, we shoot them, we kill them, we kidnap them and so on… But they are still around. So these policies are absolutely counter-productive.
“This is a guerrilla war. Guerrilla wars rarely get military solutions; they always get political solutions and what is very unclear with the current policy enforced by the West in different ways is basically: We don’t have any clue about what kind of political terms this policy defines as a solution.”
Al-Shabab “are Somalis, most of them. They have the right to express their views on what should be the state in their country and I don’t believe that to put the emphasis only on the Al-Qaeda dimension of that group – which does exist – reflects the whole reality,” he said.
“So what is the solution? I am not saying Al-Shabab provides the solution. What I am saying is try to better define more realistic terms for at least shaping what could be a solution. After all, political actors have to engage in a discussion, whether it is suitable for them or not. It’s a long process.”
*Not real names