Officials have welcomed the 6 August move by Somalia’s militant Al-Shabab group to pull out of the capital, Mogadishu, saying this would boost the city’s security.
“There is no doubt that the departure of Al-Shabab would be a positive development and a step in the right direction for a city that has seen so much misery and devastation,” Augustine Mahiga, the special representative of the UN Secretary-General to Somalia, said in a statement. “But as we look forward, it is important that we acknowledge that real security risks, including from terrorist attacks, remain and must not be underestimated.”
Al-Shabab, which controlled at least six of the city’s 16 districts, including Bakara market, began moving out of Mogadishu on 6 August following a series of defeats in fighting with government troops, backed by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
Unconfirmed reports said Al-Shabab was actively fighting in Mogadishu as recently as 3 August when it killed four at a government checkpoint.
Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, the Al-Shabab spokesman, told journalists in Mogadishu that the group considered its withdrawal a “tactical” move, adding that it was planning to take control of other government-controlled areas.
Warsame Mohamed Hassan Jadoh, the deputy chairman in the security department of Mogadishu governor’s office, said the Transitional Federal Government was preparing “some battalions” to ensure the stability of the Al-Shabab-vacated areas in the city.
However, Sally Healy, an associate fellow of the Africa programme at Chatham House and a Horn of Africa specialist, doubted that Al-Shabab was merely retreating in order to build up strength and re-attack. “I think in the circumstances, with this shockingly serious famine in the areas that they control and which they are quite unable to respond to – because they can’t have dealings with the international bodies who are providing assistance – it seems to me that they’re facing a real crisis,” she said.
In Hargeisa, capital of the self-declared independent republic of Somaliland, university lecturer Abdi Ali said Al-Shabab’s withdrawal from Mogadishu was a sign of its total defeat.
“Al-Shabab has been defeated and no longer active; I expect that the TFG will soon capture all of south-central Somalia,” Ali said.
The UN’s Mahiga urged the TFG to use the opportunity to guarantee the security of its population and “do everything in its power to assist and protect the civilian population. The immediate priority must now be to focus on the humanitarian situation and I call on all parties, from the donor community to all parts of the TFG, to do everything possible to ensure and facilitate the immediate delivery of assistance to those most in need.”
A TFG military official, Abdikarim Yusuf Aden Dhega-badan, told reporters in Mogadishu that the army would not enter areas vacated by Al-Shabab before sending in demining teams to establish whether or not the militia had left explosives in those areas.
But the government believed the announcement marked the beginning of increased access to a population in dire need. “This will facilitate aid agencies to distribute aid to the needy,” the TFG’s Jadoh said.
“It seems to me that it’s very good news for humanitarian efforts that are needed, because people had already made their way to Mogadishu in large numbers, and there’s clearly the need for enormous and urgent humanitarian efforts that would only be compromised by having to negotiate with Al-Shabab,” said Healy.
But good news does not necessarily translate into good work. Healy said it remained to be seen whether the TFG had the capacity to be helpful partners in the humanitarian effort.
Al-Shabab continues to control most of south-central regions, including Bay, Bakool, Lower Shabelle, Lower Juba, Gedo and Jowhar.