Deadliest ever bombing highlights Somalia’s weakness

Somali soldiers patroling on the scene of the explosion of a truck bomb in the center of Mogadishu. Somalia's deadliest ever attack, a truck bomb in the capital Mogadishu, that killed at least 358 dead, highlights the fragility of the Somali federal government, analysts said. (AFP)
Updated 22 October 2017

Deadliest ever bombing highlights Somalia’s weakness

NAIROBI: Last weekend’s truck bombing in Mogadishu killed at least 358 people, making it the deadliest in Somalia’s history, an attack that analysts say underscores the fragility of the internationally-backed government.
With Somalia’s security forces disorganized and riddled with corruption, and deepening suspicion between central and regional governments, the Oct. 14 blast highlights the Al-Qaeda-aligned Al-Shabab’s ability to exploit state weakness and prosecute asymmetric war to deadly effect.
Militarily, the situation has been largely static in recent months.
Evicted from the capital in 2011, the Al-Shabab has maintained its control in many rural parts of central and southern Somalia. “There have been no recent strategic gains” on either side, says Roland Marchal, a researcher at Sciences Po in Paris — neither for the Al-Shabab nor the Somali army, backed by African Union troops and an increasingly active US military.
“On the surface at least, what we see is stagnation,” says Matt Bryden, founder of the Nairobi-based Sahan Research think-tank, who points out that the Al-Shabab has proven resilient, able to replace commanders and fighters killed by US airstrikes.
The International Crisis Group (ICG), however, said Friday that Al-Shabab has recently regained control of several areas outside Mogadishu, including Barire, a strategically significant town on a major road 45 km from the capital.
“Averting attacks in Mogadishu is ever harder when surrounding districts revert back to Al-Shabab control,” the ICG says.
The Al-Shabab’s intelligence network allows it to exploit flaws and weakness in the security apparatus.
For example, the recent Al-Shabab gains around Mogadishu were, the ICG says, permitted by the withdrawal of government forces in a row over unpaid salaries.
Attempts to establish new security checkpoints at the city’s gateways have also been subverted, as happened last Saturday, when the truck, though packed with explosives, was waved through by officers.
“We know from past experience that they’ve been able to infiltrate security forces, or to put their own people in government uniforms,” says Bryden.
Also significant: The bombing last weekend came days after both the country’s defense minister and army chief resigned, without explanation. The simultaneous departure weakened President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, a situation used by Al-Shabab to its advantage.
“It is not that the Al-Shabab is very strong, it is that the others are really weak,” Marchal says.
Federalism in Somalia has existed on paper since 2004, but only began to take shape five years ago. There are now five federal regional states, not including Somaliland, which claims independence and does not recognize the central government.
Relations between Mogadishu and the regions are fraught, as each struggles for a greater share of power and seeks foreign allies.
Security stakes are high because if the embryonic national army is only deployed in and around the capital, and the 22,000 AU troops secure outlying urban centers, then it is left to regional militias to fight the Al-Shabab in the bulk of the country.
Recently, the diplomatic crisis pitting the UAE and Saudi Arabia against Qatar “has aggravated such friction,” says ICG.
Some federal regional states have taken sides with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to the dismay of Mogadishu, which has sought to remain neutral in a bid to maintain the substantial it receives from both sides.
Marchal deplores the “chaos brought by the Gulf crisis, where any federal president, under the pretext of receiving funding, makes ill-judged foreign policy declarations.”
“Unless the government shifts its posture and engages with the federal member states so they become partners in fighting Al-Shabab, instead of trying to fight both Al-Shabab and the federal member states, I don’t think we’re going to see very much progress,” says Bryden.
ICG says political opponents could seek to take advantage of the latest crisis to bring down the president. It urges him to “work quickly to improve relations with federal states” and resolve quarrels over distribution of resources. Otherwise, analysts warn, the only winner will be the Al-Shabab. The worsening violence has prompted some UN officials to raise alarm over “early warning signs of genocide” in CAR, as did former UN aid chief Stephen O’Brien in late August.
Adama Dieng — the UN’s special adviser for the prevention of genocide who visited the country in early October — denied the country was in a “pre-genocide situation” but said the situation there is “serious.”
There are still “indicators” that could result “in crimes of genocide” if they are not tackled, he said.
Touadera, whose election with the full support of the UN and France sparked a wave of hope, also pushed back on the warnings, saying “talk about genocide at this stage... is not justified.”
Guterres previously said there was “ethnic cleansing” in many parts of the country, but he will invariably be asked to comment about genocide.
To the displaced population, a visit from Guterres is a welcome relief.
“The peacekeepers must help us more and be more visible,” said Regis, who was forced to flee from the east of the country to Bangui. “It is imperative that the UN chief make them understand that.”


Tiananmen anniversary marked by crackdown, Hong Kong vigil ban

Updated 18 min 6 sec ago

Tiananmen anniversary marked by crackdown, Hong Kong vigil ban

  • Hong Kong cancels annual candlelight vigil for the first time in 30 years
  • Tiananmen Square, where thousands of students had gathered in 1989, was quiet and largely empty on Thursday

BEIJING: China tightened controls over dissidents while pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and elsewhere sought ways to mark the 31st anniversary Thursday of the crushing of the pro-democracy movement centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
That came after authorities in Hong Kong took the extraordinary move of canceling an annual candlelight vigil in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory’s Victoria Park for the first time in 30 years.
Authorities cited the need for social distancing amid the coronavirus outbreak, despite the recent reopening of schools, beaches, bars and beauty parlors. Hong Kong has had relatively few cases of the virus and life has largely returned to normal in the city of 7.4 million.
However, China has long detested the vigil, the only such activity allowed on Chinese territory to commemorate victims of the crackdown, which remains a taboo subject on the mainland. Hundreds, possibly thousands of people were killed when tanks and troops assaulted the center of Beijing on the night of June 3-4, 1989 to break up weeks of student-led protests seen as posing a threat to authoritarian Communist Party rule.
Tiananmen Square, where thousands of students had gathered in 1989, was quiet and largely empty on Thursday. Police and armored vehicles stood sentry on the vast surface the square. Few pedestrians lined up at security checkpoints where they must show ID to be allowed through as part of mass nationwide surveillance measures aimed at squelching any dissent.
The cancelation of the vigil also comes amid a tightening of Beijing’s grip over Hong Kong, with the National People’s Congress, China’s ceremonial parliament, moving to pass national security legislation that circumvents Hong Kong’s local legislature and could severely limit free speech and opposition political activity.
In Hong Kong, a law is being passed to make it a crime to disrespect China’s national anthem and 15 well-known veteran activists were arrested and charged with organizing and taking part in illegal demonstrations. Those actions are seen as part of a steady erosion of civil rights Hong Kong was guaranteed when it was handed over from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
Despite the ban on the vigil, the Asian financial hub was bracing for “pop-up” protests of the type that raged around the city during months of anti-government protests last year that often led to violent confrontations between police and demonstrators.
Thousands have been arrested over the demonstrations, which were sparked by proposed legislation that could have seen suspects extradited to mainland China where they could face torture and unfair, politically biased trials.
The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic and Democratic Movements of China that organizes the annual vigil has called on people around the city to light candles at 8 p.m. and plans to livestream the commemorations on its website www.64live.org.
Alliance Chairman Lee Cheuk-yan said protesters still planned to gather at the park to mourn victims of the massacre and show their support for the democratic cause in China. It wasn’t clear what form the activity would take or how many would attend. The entrance to the park was blocked by police barriers on Thursday.
“Hong Kong government tried to please or show loyalty to Beijing and ban our gathering before even the national security comes in. But we are determined,” Lee said at a kiosk set up by the group to distribute flyers in the busy Causeway Bay shopping district near the park.
Other vigils, virtual and otherwise, are planned elsewhere, including in Taiwan, the self-ruled island democracy whose government called again this year for Beijing to own up to the facts of the crackdown.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo marked the crackdown anniversary on Tuesday, a day after federal forces used tear gas to clear peaceful protesters from a park in front of the White House.
Pompeo tweeted criticism of China and Hong Kong for banning the vigil before meeting privately with a group of Tiananmen Square survivors at the State Department. That too drew criticism from China.
Alongside the exchanges of rhetoric, China’s small, beleaguered dissident community has again come under greater scrutiny from the authorities. Many have been placed under house arrest and their communications with the outside world cut off, according to rights groups.
China has released the last of those arrested for directly taking part in the Tiananmen demonstrations, but others who seek to commemorate them have been rearrested for continuing their activism.
They include Huang Qi, founder of website 64 Tianwang that sought to expose official wrongdoing. Reportedly in failing health, he is serving a 12-year-sentence after being convicted of leaking state secrets abroad.