Soldiers rioted and residents protested across Mogadishu as word of the dismissal of Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, Somalia’s prime minister, had spread.
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
Published: June 13, 2011
NAIROBI, Kenya â€” Once again, the transitional federal government of Somalia has been handed a golden opportunity.
It seems the conditions are finally ripe for the transitional government, which for years has been boxed into a tiny corner of Mogadishu, the capital, to assert itself. But many analysts are doubtful that Somalia’s political leadership has the capacity or the will to seize the moment. In their view, the prognosis for the country, despite the recent military successes, remains grim.
Mr. Mohammed, a native of the Comoros Islands, off East Africa between Madagascar and Mozambique, was a master of disguises, a computer wizard and fluent in five languages, and was considered one of the most dangerous fugitives.
He plotted the bombings of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and devised a plan in 2002 that nearly brought down an Israeli airliner in Kenya. More recently, fomenting Somalia’s chaos had been his focus.
As a top commander for the Shabab, he was instrumental in bringing roadside bombs, suicide bombs and other Qaeda tactics to Somalia’s battlefields. Though the Shabab have vowed to take their jihad global, and demonstrated last summer in a pair of suicide bombs in Uganda that they were capable of killing many people outside Somalia, under Mr. Mohammed’s influence they seemed to have made a strategic decision not to attack Western targets.
So the impact of Mr. Mohammed’s death, analysts say, will not mean as much for Al Qaeda as it will for the Shabab.
“Fazul’s death will affect the movement in many ways, morale being the most important,” said Afyare Elmi, who teaches politics at Qatar University and writes frequently on Somalia.
Bronwyn E. Bruton, a consultant on democracy who wrote a provocative essay urging the West to withdraw from Somalia, said Mr. Mohammed’s death was a serious setback for the Shabab, which was “already visibly starved for funds and in retreat.”
In the past several weeks, African Union troops have routed the Shabab in several strategic neighborhoods. In southern Somalia, local militias allied to the government have likewise driven the Shabab back. Not so long ago, Shabab snipers were in rifle range of the president’s bedroom and the Somali government was pleading for outside help.
The government now seems to be puffed up with confidence, even though it was apparently by luck that Mr. Mohammed fell into government hands last week. Late Tuesday night, by Somalia government accounts, he got lost on the outskirts of Mogadishu and drove into a government checkpoint when he had thought he was heading to a Shabab area. Somali troops opened fire on his truck, and Mr. Mohammed and an associate were killed instantly. It was a surprise end for a man for whom the American government had been searching for years.
“We have overpowered Al Qaeda and Al Shabab in Somalia; they are weak and now melting away,” proclaimed President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed on Sunday.
The problem is, just as the military equation is changing in Somalia, the government is about to go through a seemingly pointless upheaval â€” again.
The president has made an agreement with the speaker of Parliament, Sharif Hassan Sheik Aden, an illiterate but wily livestock trader who used to be his friend and recently had become his nemesis, to extend the transitional government by one more year. As part of the arrangement, the two leaders also agreed to dismiss the prime minister, so the speaker could bring more allies into high positions.
This deal came after months of intense international pressure, and many diplomats who work on Somalia seem exasperated by the government’s seemingly endless capacity for squabbling.
“This is such a waste,” said one Western diplomat in Nairobi on Sunday. “It’s not like we’re trying to reconcile the government with the Shabab. We’re trying to bring two guys together who were together just a year ago.”
Somalia’s prime minister, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, is considered one of Somalia’s most capable politicians and had achieved a modicum of success in simple things like making sure that government soldiers were paid and that their salaries were not stolen by corrupt commanders, as had been the case for years.
As soon as word of his dismissal had spread, soldiers rioted across Mogadishu. Equally interesting, perhaps, were the huge protests by Mogadishu’s war-weary populace, who are predominantly from the Hawiye clan, while the prime minister is from a rival clan, the Darod.
Many analysts saw this as an important sign that after 20 years of clan-fueled anarchy, Somalis were willing to overlook clan rivalries for the sake of more important matters.
But most analysts believe Somalia’s transitional government â€” and there have been more than a dozen transitional governments in the past 20 years â€” has become the problem, not the answer.
In late 2006, Ethiopian troops pushed out an Islamist movement that briefly controlled Mogadishu, but the transitional government at the time squandered that opportunity, and soon the Shabab were taking town after town. In 2009, Sheik Sharif came into office with enormous expectations but soon enough, he proved ineffective as well.
J. Peter Pham, Africa director at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based policy institute, said that the transitional government’s internal conflicts “make it unlikely that it can take advantage of any momentum gained.”
Ms. Bruton agreed. She called the American support for the transitional government “embarrassing” and said that until it was “either thoroughly reformed or abandoned, all military victories in Somalia will be short-lived and ultimately futile.”
And then there is the reward. The State Department had offered $5 million “for information leading directly to the apprehension or conviction of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed.” Some people in Mogadishu have begun to wonder if the soldiers at the checkpoint would get it. But State Department officials said Monday that government employees were not eligible.
Moreover, a State Department official said the reward was for information. “We do not encourage bounty hunting,” the official said. “This a very important distinction.”