African Union warns of bombing campaign in Somalia

African Union warns of bomb attacks in Somalia. Nigerian President Yar’Adua dies. Greek austerity protests turn deadly. Darfur’s largest rebel group pulls out of Doha peace talks. Mumbai gunman sentenced to death. All this and more in today’s briefing.
Josephine Whitaker
6 May 2010

AMISOM, the African Union peace keeping mission in Somalia, said yesterday it has received credible intelligence suggesting that Islamist militants are planning a wave of bomb attacks across the Somali capital.

According to an AMISOM statement, mosques and markets are likely targets in the expected attacks. AMISOM says that militants plan to use vehicles loaded with explosives and improvised explosive devices to target the civilian population, and warned Mogadishu residents to be vigilant.

The warning comes just one week after forty people were killed in mosque attacks in Mogadishu and the southern porty town, Kismayo.

Meanwhile, a Russian oil tanker hijacked by Somali pirates off the coast of Yemen on yesterday has been freed by a Russian warship. According to state-run RIA news agency, the pirates opened fire on the Russian warship, provoking return fire. One pirate was killed, and ten were captured by the Russian navy. An official from the defence ministry said this morning that all 23 crew on board were alive and well following the rescue.


Abdinasir/Demotix. All rights reserved

The openSecurity verdict: President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s Transitional Federal Government has been beset by Islamist militant groups committed to its overthrow since the Islamic Courts Union was ousted by a US-backed Ethiopian invasion in 2006. In its fight against the various splinter groups that emerged in the wake of the Islamic Courts Union’s downfall, the Transitional Federal Government is widely recognised to control just a few strategic blocks in the capital. Since 2007, 21,000 civilians have been killed in fighting between militant groups and the government. Over 1 million people have been displaced, contributing to one of the world’s worst humanitarian emergencies. Within Somalia, over half of the population depend on food aid, but agencies such as the World Food Programme have been forced to halt their activities due to continued insecurity. The flow of weapons and international militants in and out of Somalia is a cause of further international concern.

The government’s recent attempt to build an alliance with the moderate Sufi Islamist group, Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca, has been touted as a demonstration of the government’s commitment to bringing peace to the troubled country. The agreement gave Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca posts in the government, in return for support of a planned government offensive against the Islamist militant groups Al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam. However, there has been bickering with the government over fulfilling the terms of the deal, and it now appears that the deal is under threat. Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca is reported to have decided to withdraw its support from the government, although an Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca negotiator in Mogadishu has denied the rumour

As these most recent developments demonstrate, the problems faced by Somalia’s government remain grave. A flurry of articles and analyses of the situation in Somalia over the past week have presented a variety of different options for both the Transitional Federal Government and its international backers, but a peaceful resolution of these problems remains elusive.

Afyare Abdi Elmi, for example, advocates “a comprehensive state building strategy that addresses issues of security, the economy and political development is needed immediately”.  He argues that the focus of an international Somalia policy should be on rebuilding the state and securing strong local support for it. According to Elmi, the international focus, and in particular the focus of the US, has for too long been on preventing al-Qaeda from gaining purchase in Somalia, rather than taking constructive steps to rebuild the shattered state. Potential steps required by this strategy are, says Elmi, placing a committed peacekeeping force in Somalia, building the capacity of government security forces, strengthening the economy, reforming parliament and the electoral system, and the removal from parliament of perpetrators of past atrocities.

This might seem a logical strategy, but there is one major problem with an approach that focuses only on nation-building. This is that, without more widespread national support for the Transitional Federal Government, it has no hope of bringing peace to Somalia. As has been seen so far, even with US, United Nations and African Union support, the government has failed to exert control over the various Islamist groups at work in Somalia. Attempts at building the capacity of government security forces have not yet been effective enough to make a difference to the balance of power.

A second solution was put forward by Rashid Abdi and Ernst Jan Hogendoorn, two analysts for International Crisis Group, in The East African earlier this week. Their solution lies in stabilising central government through more extensive alliance building. As noted above, the government recently made a tentative alliance with Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca.The authors argue that the Transitional Federal Government-Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca is key to preventing more hardline Islamist groups, namely al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam, from seizing control of central and south Somalia. The key now, they say, is to extend alliance building efforts to Islamists disillusioned with al-Shabaab’s increasingly hardline approach.

According to the authors, over recent years, al-Shabaab has transformed itself from a mainly Somali Islamist group, motivated by local and national concerns, to being an al-Qaeda ally bent on global jihad. The authors claim this transformation has occurred as a result of infiltration by a number of extremists committed to al-Qaeda’s vision. In the authors’ view, disenchantment with this imported jihadism, which fails to speak to the concerns of most al-Shabaab supporters, could be a boon for the Transitional Federal Government. A “grand coalition” of the Transitional Federal Government,  Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca and disillusioned al-Shabaab members is the only way forward.

Unsurprisingly, the grand coalition approach is not without its sceptics. A key criticism, relevant also to the nation-building approach discussed earlier, is of unquestioning international support for the government. In particular, both the government and AMISOM have been criticised for their use of indiscriminate tactics against al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam. There are fears that civilian bloodshed will only increase with a forthcoming government offensive against these groups. Human Rights Watch in particular has criticised US supply of mortars to the TFG, some of which have ended up for sale in Mogadishu’s markets.

However, a more compelling criticism is that the alliance-building approach is unworkable at present. In an article for, Michael A. Weinstein argues that a proliferation of conflicting interests would prevent such a grand coalition from happening. Weinstein uses the current difficulties in the Transitional Federal Government-Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca alliance to illustrate his argument. The government is reportedly unwilling to relinquish its hold on power to offer cabinet positions to the Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca, with whom it has at least some common ground. This does not bode well for an alliance with disillusioned al-Shabaab members. The fact that al-Shabaab, in quite a secure military position, has little interest in dealing with the government, and the government’s donors are not overly supportive of it allying itself with hardline Islamist extremists, whether disaffected or not.

The third option, according to Weinstein, is a national movement in favour of self-determination, pitted against the trans-nationalism of an al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab, and not bidden to the international agenda that brands all Islamists as ‘bad’. Unfortunately, Weinstein in his article does not offer any concrete suggestions for how such a movement might develop, nor what the plethora of actors in and around Somalia might do to promote it. Nonetheless, given the government's difficulties, it may be the only course for international actors in Somalia to follow.

Nigerian President Yar’Adua dies

Nigeria’s president Umaru Yar’Adua died last night at around 9pm local time, according to a statement by presidential spokesman, Olusegun Adeniyi.

Yar’Adua had not been seen in public since returning to Nigeria in February, after three months of medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. His health condition has long been the subject of secrecy and intrigue, although he is believed to have been suffering health problems since taking office.

In a statement, acting President Goodluck Jonathan gave  his condolences to Yar’Adua’s family and said “Nigeria has lost the jewel in its crown, and even the heavens mourn with our nation tonight.” In a mark of respect, Jonathan also declared a seven-day mourning period.

Yar’Adua’s three-month absence from the country, between November and February, provoked a constitutional crisis when the president failed to transfer power to Jonathan, then vice-president. Jonathan was appointed acting president by a vote of the National Assembly on 9 February. Since then, questions about the constitutionality of this move, and uncertainty over Yar’Adua’s condition, sparked a power struggle between supporters of the two leaders. According to Nigeria’s constitution, Jonathan will now legally take over as president until elections scheduled for April 2011. Jonathan is expected to be formally sworn in as president at 8am local time today.

Yar’Adua was sworn in as president pledging to tackle graft in a country notorious for corruption, and committed to resolving the tense situation in the restive, oil-rich south. Since assuming power in Yar’Adua’s absence, Jonathan has struggled to retain control of the situation in Nigeria’s delta region, despite being a southerner himself. It remains to be seen whether his tasks will be easier now that questions about Yar’Adua’s health have been conclusively answered.

Greek austerity protests turn deadly

Three people were killed in a petrol bomb attack on a bank in central Athens yesterday as protests over the government’s new austerity measures turned violent. Two men and a pregnant woman reportedly died of asphyxiation inside a branch of Marfin bank, after protestors threw petrol bombs inside. More than twenty people were evacuated from the building by firemen, while police used teargas to dispel protestors.


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The Greek prime minister, George Papandreaou, has described the deaths as “a murderous act”, and defended its decision to cut public spending to save the country from “bankruptcy”. The deaths come as the government is expected to push massive spending cuts through parliament. The cuts, totalling $40bn, were announced earlier this month in order to secure a European Union-International Monetary Fund rescue package. With a budget deficit of 13.6 percent of gross domestic product, the deal, worth over $140bn, aims to prevent Greece defaulting on its debts.

Yesterday, tens of thousands of people protested in Athens against the government’s austerity measures, which are intended to tackle the country’s spiralling debt crisis. Since the cuts were announced earlier this week, Greece has been rocked by a series of public sector protests and strikes. Tuesday saw smaller scuffles between protestors and police, but there were no reports of injuries.

Analysts fear that protests might weaken government resolve to force through the cuts. The Greek economic crisis has sent jitters throughout the Eurozone, with Greek stocks falling by nearly 4 percent, and markets remaining sceptical about whether bailout is enough to prevent a default.

Darfur’s largest rebel group pulls out of Doha peace talks

The largest rebel group in Darfur announced on Monday that it is suspending its participation in the Doha peace talks because of government violations of a ceasefire agreed in February this year. The Justice and Equality Movement alleges that “continuous aerial and ground assaults” have been conducted against its forces in West Darfur state. Although these allegations are yet to be confirmed, according to The Sudan Tribune there have been over forty clashes between the two sides since the initial agreement was signed in February.


Albert Gonzalez Farran/Demotix. All rights reserved

The government reaffirmed its commitment to the Doha talks in a counter-statement on Tuesday, labelling the Justice and Equality Movement's accusations “pure fabrication”. Top government negotiator Amin Hassan Omer said that the Justice and Equality Movement's decision to freeze participation in the talks was linked to other political motives. While the government in Khartoum routinely denies that it conducts military action in the area, which borders Chad, the Sudanese army has apparently confirmed the clashes, blaming the Justice and Equality Movement for violating the deal.

In February, the Justice and Equality Movement signed an agreement with the government, committing itself to a framework for further peace talks on the Darfur conflict. Talks currently ongoing in Doha, sponsored by the Qatari government, are seen as the first serious attempt to resolve the conflict since talks in Abuja in 2006 ended in failure. However, a Justice and Equality Movement spokesman said that government violations of the deal have forced the group to “freeze its participation in the Doha peace process”, and the delegation was thought to be preparing to leave Doha on Tueday.

The announcement comes just weeks after President Bashir won re-election in Sudan’s first multiparty elections for almost 25 years. The elections, however, have been much criticised for failing to meet international standards. They have also stoked fears of a return to violence both in Darfur and South Sudan.

Mumbai gunman sentenced to death

Mohammed Ajmal Amir Qasab, the Pakistani man convicted over the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, was sentenced to death today.

Qasab, 22, the sole surviving gunman from the 2008 terrorist attacks which left 166 dead and heightened tensions between India and Pakistan, was convicted on Monday on 86 charges, including waging war on India and destabilising the government. Two Indian nationals, charged with aiding the attackers by supplying maps of the city, were acquitted on grounds of lack of evidence.

Presiding Judge ML Tahaliyani, describing Qasab as a menace to society, said the death penalty had been awarded because there was no chance for Qasab to be rehabilitated. Ujjwal Nikam, public prosecutor in the case, described Qasab during sentencing as “an agent of the devil himself, a disgrace to society and the entire human race”. The calls of Qasab’s lawyer for leniency, on grounds of his young age and claims that he had been brainwashed by extremists, went unheeded. Tahaliyani said that Qasab had joined Lashkar-e-Toiba, the group responsible for the attacks, of his own free will.

Capital punishment remains legal in India, but is used only for the “rarest of rare” crimes. Qasab’s case may take years to be processed as the appeals process is lengthy.

The attacks, which India blames on Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), led to the suspension of Indo-Pakistani peace talks.

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