War-ravaged Somali capital Mogadishu is today confronted with a problem you wouldn’t expect it to have — traffic jams!
In Dar es Salaam, Kampala and Nairobi, motorists are running around losing their minds because of the insane traffic jams. Not so in Mogadishu. They are cheering and praying that the jams get worse.
As an official with the African Union peace-keeping mission in Somalia, Amisom, told The EastAfrican, “In Mogadishu, traffic jams are a sign of a return to normalcy.”
The tentative signs of this return to normalcy have left Amisom and the Mogadishu residents grateful for the smallest of mercies. Recently, Amisom issued a strange press release; it was crowing about the fact that Mogadishu residents had flocked to a beach for the weekend.
In Somalia though, that was significant and a sign of progress, because the beaches had been out of bounds for over three years because of the fighting and the control of the jihadist Al Shabaab militia.
Amisom trumpeted a return to the beach because it was, again, a crucial sign that the old Mogadishu was bouncing back.
This is not the first time the peacekeeping force or the fledgling Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu has talked up the prospects of a return to peace, only to see an Al Shabaab resurgence, or the wrath of nature — like a famine — reverse the gains.
This time, both the government and AU officials say it is different. On the face of it, they seem to be justified. In April last year, Amisom and TFG controlled only four of 16 districts of Mogadishu.
As of this November, they control all 16 of them, except the outlaying areas of Daynile.
Officials say there are enough things happening to show that the changes in Mogadishu are not ephemeral.
For example, road repairs have begun in Mogadishu, and a few potholes are being filled in.
But the most important victory, and power shift in Mogadishu — and possibly Somalia — happened in, of all places, a market.
The Bakaara Market in Mogadishu is the largest in Somalia, and a market like no other.
In the past, you could buy tomatoes in one stall, and move to the next one and buy a machine gun and grenade launcher.
Though officials are quick to deny it, some nosy journalists and humanitarian workers claim that in the past, you could buy a human being in Bakaara, and that to this day, it has an underground slave trade.
A few weeks ago, Amisom and TFG forces finally pushed Al Shabaab out of Bakaara Market as they consolidated their hold on Mogadishu. Though there were no deaths, as the allied forces just surrounded the market and left a narrow escape route for the militants — who took flight without a fight — it was a huge blow.
UN officials estimate that Al Shabaab was making anything between $30 million and $60 million annually from taxes and extortions from Bakaara. This, they think, was one to two-thirds of Al Shabaab’s gross revenue in Somalia.
This is why Kismayu port, which the Kenya army that entered Somalia a month ago says it aims to capture, is now more important than ever to Al Shabaab. Kismayu provided most of the rest of the Shabaab revenue.
For this reason, analysts say, victory for Kenya in the south has become an important plank in securing Mogadishu and the surrounding areas. By extension, it can be expected that the militants will not let go of the port without a fight.
Strategically, this suggests that the Kenya mission could, in the end, be reformatted as part of the Amisom force, a matter that was touched on in the meeting in Nairobi last week between Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, and Somalia’s President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.
Meanwhile, in Bakaara, in the past two or so months, prices have doubled. Poor Mogadishu residents complain, but the “big picture” watchers are cheering that too, saying it shows that demand is rising, and that people are earning some money and their confidence is rising, so they are buying.
If these improvements hold, then the AU mission will have rewritten the book on peacekeeping.
This is because Amisom is the most under-resourced internationally backed peacekeeping operation. Unlike in Darfur, with a smaller force and probably less risk, Amisom does not have even a single helicopter.
Between October 20 and 21, the Burundi Amisom contingent suffered one of its worst losses.
In fighting with the Shabaab, Burundi officially acknowledged losing six peacekeepers. The militants claim that they had killed more than 70.
Independent and more reliable information indicates that 17 Burundians were killed. Sources told The EastAfrican that a Burundian platoon moved to secure a forward position in the Daynile area that they had forced Al Shabaab to abandon.
The TFG troops were tasked to stay behind and guard the Burundians’ left and right flanks against a surprise Al Shabaab attack.
The TFG forces are notoriously erratic, and it seems they abandoned their position and went home to nap or for tea.
What had been feared happened. Al Shabaab sneaked up from the rear of the Burundians, and after fighting that lasted hours, the militants had overwhelmed the peacekeepers.
Barely a week later, on October 29, two suicide bombers “disguised as Somali Army troops,” along with an estimated 10 heavily armed fighters attacked the Ugandan and Somali troops based at the German Steel Factory in northern Mogadishu.
Al Shabaab claimed it had overran the base and killed 80 Ugandan troops, including the base commander.
Ugandan authorities scoffed at the claims, saying its troops “were not chickens” to be killed so easily and in such large numbers.
Fairly reliable sources say about 15 Ugandans were killed.
When the bodies were flown back home, the military prevented journalists from getting to Entebbe Airport, which suggests that the figure, though nowhere near 80, was high enough for the military to want to keep it out the news.
A military officer in Mogadishu told The EastAfrican that such incidents usually happen during the rotation window, when new troops come in to relieve the ones who have been on duty for months in Mogadishu. Because the new troops still don’t know their TFG counterparts in their early days, they are prone to being suckered.
Whatever the case, the lack of equipment, and the losses of those two weeks, weighed heavily on the minds of AU bosses.
A week later, at an AU conference on peace and security in Africa at the organisation’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, its Commissioner for Peace and Security Ramtane Lamamr reflected on the carnage of the previous few days:
“The AU has lost more men in Mogadishu in the past two weeks,” he said, “than we have lost in the peacekeeping mission over the past seven years”.
He would not be drawn on the figures, but according to the UN Mission in Darfur (Unamid) website, in the past seven years 66 troops, 21 police, one military observer, three international civilians, and 10 local civilians — 101 in total — have been killed.
This would leave the casualties from the attack on the Burundi and Uganda Amisom contingents in Mogadishu at near 66.
Lamamra, and pretty much everyone else working on Somalia, probably hopes that the deaths were not in vain. Based on the current buzz in Mogadishu, touchwood, it seems they were not.