THE United Nations compound in Mogadishu now bears the scars of the world body’s troubled return to Somalia’s battered capital. Suicide-bombers blew off its front gates on June 19th, letting gunmen of the Shabab, the al-Qaeda-linked movement that used to dominate the country, shoot their way in. In the ensuing battle, 16 people were killed, including eight local and foreign UN staff and the attackers. The UN has been tentatively beefing up its mission in the city as part of a wider re-engagement in Somalia, which had been previously considered a no-go area for all but the most intrepid of foreigners. Nick Kay, the Briton recently appointed as the UN’s special envoy to Somalia, gamely insisted there would be no retreat in the face of the assault. But it was a bloody reminder of the fragility of progress.
The country’s politicians, some of them former warlords, seem to have embarked on a new phase of arguing over who controls what, whereas the outside world may have concentrated too much on Mogadishu to the exclusion of events elsewhere in Somalia. For instance, in Kismayo, Somalia’s second city, five rival militia leaders now proclaim themselves “president of Jubaland”, a region that includes the port of Kismayo and the fertile lands to its south, bordering Kenya. At least 40 people were killed earlier this month when clashes broke out between the rival militias.
The most powerful of them is led by Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, whose Ras Kamboni brigade helped the Kenyan army to drive the Shabab out of Kismayo last year. With Kenya’s implicit backing, he has refused to let representatives from Somalia’s internationally backed federal government in Mogadishu, under President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, enter Kismayo.
Despite the encouragement and cash he gets from foreign governments and donors, Somalia’s embattled president still wields little power beyond the capital. While Britain and others have poured resources into rebuilding the country, Somalia’s neighbours, Kenya and Ethiopia, seem happy to let it it stay fragmented, with buffer zones they can control near their own borders.
Efforts to map out a federal state that would acknowledge the influence of the main clans and enable elections to be held, with luck, in 2016, have been stalling. The Shabab, though much weakened in the past two years, is still active, as its attack on the UN shows. Disaffected clan leaders who feel they are getting a raw deal in Mogadishu can always work with it to bash the fledgling federal government.
Meanwhile Kenya’s government has been pressing Somalia and the UN to start repatriating around 500,000 Somali refugees. It argues that many of them, especially in Kenya’s towns, present an “unbearable and uncontrollable” threat to Kenya’s national security, whereas Somalia is said to be no longer as dangerous as it was. Abdullahi Abdi, a Somali Kenyan who runs a relief agency called Northern Aid in the border area between the two countries, disagrees. “Southern Somalia is still at war,” he sighs.