Discussion on country conditions with the Political Advisor of the African Union Mission in Somalia.

On October 18 2017, the IRB’s Research Directorate invited a Political Advisor with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to provide more insight into country conditions in Somalia. The Research Directorate regularly seeks expert opinion and research on countries of origin and other related issues that might impact a decision. The following is a full transcript of that discussion.

The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is an active, regional peacekeeping mission operated by the African Union with the approval of the United Nations. It was created by the African Union’s Peace and Security Council on January 19, 2007.

A. Good morning. 

I work as a Political Advisor to the African Union Mission in Somalia, (AMISOM). As Political Advisor, I monitor political and related developments in Somalia and analyze their implications on the mission’s mandate. I also advise the mission leadership and support the good offices of the Head of Mission, who doubles as the Special Representative of the Chairperson of the African Union.  We work closely with other international partners such as the UN, EU and IGAD, to support state building in Somalia, including federalization and state formation, the electoral process, as well as dialogue and reconciliation.

AMISOM is the key provider of security and its intervention in Somalia has contributed significantly to the renaissance of the country.  As you may be aware, Al-Shabaab has been severely degraded and driven out of all major towns though the group still remains a threat to the peace and stability of Somalia. Just yesterday, 11 security forces of the Somali National Army (SNA) were killed by Al-Shabaab and two days ago, a number of civilians were also killed in Mogadishu by the same group.  This is what I can say as way of introduction.

Q. So maybe I can just give you a brief overview of our work here. So our mandate at the Research Directorate is to provide information on conditions in countries operating of refugee claimants.  Somalia is a very challenging country for us in terms of accessing the information.  For us, the importance is always to gather information that is reliable and that is recent.  You gave a very good overview of the situation on the ground because of your experience.  We are particularly interested the daily lives of the people.

How does the AMISOM Mission improve and worked steadily to improve the security situation of ordinary Somalis?  How a Somali citizen that is perhaps targeted by Al-Shabaab feel any safer after the 10 years of AMISOM armed presence in Somalia?  Again, if you could tell us just maybe briefly on your insights on these sorts of conditions on the ground, and on the situation of Somalis in Mogadishu and those who are also in Somalia? 

A. Thank you. Somalia has made substantive progress since the deployment of AMISOM. In March this year, AMISOM celebrated its 10-year anniversary in Somalia, and part of this celeberation, an assessment of the mission’s achievements was conducted. It revealed that because of AMISOM’s intervention, Somalia has made progress on all fronts: political, security, economic and socio-cultural.

On the political front, AMISOM intervention in Somalia has created a condusive environment for dialogue and reconciliation as well as peaceful transfer of power through elections. Another indication of progress in Somalia is the influx of Somalis returning from the diaspora to help rebuild their country.

From 2012 to 2016, for example, about two-thirds of the Federal Parliament and cabinet ministers comprised of Diaspora Somalis. Today, the current President Mohamed Abdulahi Farmaajo is Somali-American, his Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khayre a Somali-Norwegian and the Mogadishu Mayor Mohamed Abdi Thabit a Somali-American.

Progress in Somalia is also visible as you drive through the streets of the sprawling city of Mogadishu. What you see are Somalis trying to rebuild their country, new buildings, hotels and small businesses cropping up, and children going to school. Mogadishu has indeed become a vibrant African city where traffic jam a common feature, pointing to the fact that life is returning to normalcy. Clearly, a new Somalia is now emerging, with the support of AMISOM and the international community.

What we are also observing is increased of international community in Somalia, through bilateral and multilateral cooperation. On 11 May, I was in London to attend an international conference on Somalia, which brought together Somalia government leaders and key international partners and donors.  The conference recognized the remarkable progress Somalia has made and adopted a new roadmap for the country known as the Security Pact. To implement the Pact, a framework known as the Comprehensive Approach to Security (CAS) was also adopted. CAS views security from a broader sense, including military, police, justice, rule of law, preventing and countering violent extremism, governance, welfare, service delivery.  This came from the realization that Al-shabaab cannot be defeated by the gun or military means alone.

Q. The people that come back to Somalia, do they have to go through security checks at the airport or any other form of data?

A. Am not aware of any security checks for people returning to Somalia. However, at the Mogadishu international airport, every arriving traveller goes through immigration check to have their passports stamped. But as you may know, many Somalis returning from the Diaspora have dual or multiple nationality. A Somali with a foreign passport is asked to pay the visa fee 60 USD. I have however met a few Somalis coming from the Europe and North America who managed to enter the country without having their foreign passports stamped, perhaps in order not to leave any traces of their visit when they go back. As you know, some Western countries have placed travel restrictions on Somalia.

Q. These people returning who might have a foreign accent, who talked differently than the locals, who are not members of the community anymore, are they fearing persecution or discrimination?

A. In my view, Diaspora returnees do not face any form of persecution or institutional discrimination. As I indicated earlier, the Somali government has a heavy coloration of people that returned from the Diaspora.  What I think they may face is the challenge of integration or resettlement, especially if they do not conduct themselves as the locals and speak with accent. Young Somalis returning from the Diaspora may also face clanism. Though Somalis are generally considered a homogenous community, due their common physical features, language, religion, they are paradoxically much divided along clan lines. In addition, some returnees have complained that they are not being accepted by the locals, who are aggrieved that they are taking away their jobs and opportunities.

Q. At the same time, attacks from Al-Shabaab tend to target mostly the Diaspora community, less the local community (?).

A. The Diaspora community is often targeted by Al-Shabaab because they are believed to represent and a spreading Western values and lifestyle, considered by the group as Un-Islamic and Un-Somali. And as many Diaspora returnees reside in hotels and frequent popular restaurants and beaches, it easy for Al-shabaab to identify and attack them. A good example was the attack on the popular Lido Beach in Mogadishu, in 2016. But Al-shabaab also targets the local population as well as government officials like ministers, members of parliament, tax collectors and security forces.

Q. From my understanding of current Somalia, Al-Shabaab has a relative control of part of the south of the country, near the border with Kenya. Elsewhere, it’s less important, though there can be some attacks.  But can you talk about places, elsewhere than in Mogadishu, where returnees, for example rejected asylum seekers in the West, could potentially resettle?  And, what about resettling to Mogadishu as it might become more difficult (lack of apartments, local price inflation, etc.), and the local infrastructure suffering the pressure of all those people going to the capital for whatever reasons (more security, drought, etc.)?

A. Thank you.  Al-Shabaab do not control any major town, but are present in a few remote areas.  AMISOM in collaboration with Somali security forces are planning joint offensive operations to flush the militants out of the remaining areas. It should however be noted that about least 60 percent of Al-Shabaab attacks are carried out in Mogadishu and its environs. The main security threats outside Mogadishu are along the main supply roads, where people can easily be ambushed or killed by improvised explosive devices planted by the terrorist group.

But interestingly, one of the major political developments in Somalia in recent years has been the implementation of the federal system, which has allowed the extension of state authority including security to the regions.  So a Somali who has been refused asylum in Europe or North America can simply go back to Somalia and to resettle in any of the regional state capitals or main towns, such as Kismayo, Baidoa, Adado and Jowhar, Barawe, Bulo Buto, where security forces are present. Also, Somalia’s-autonomous state of Puntland has had functioning institutions for decades and it’s much safer to live there.

Generally speaking, it is easier for a rejected Somali asylum seeker to resettle back home thanks to the solidarity spirit inherent in the clan system.  Among Somalis, it is customary for parents to teach their young children to memorize the genealogy of their clans i.e. from their father to the founder of their clan. So, if a returnee can recite the names of the ancestors of his clan, he is likely to benefit from the hospitality and generosity of clan members.

Q. I want to ask you.  How common is extortion by Al-Shabaab and how does it affect ordinary citizens?

A. Extortion by Al-shabaab is still a common practice.  Each time our mission is carrying out an offensive operation, Al-Shabaab militants usually do not resist because of our fire power. They simply withdraw or retreat to remote areas nearby, from where they would mount checkpoints to extort money from people. Other Al-shabaab checkpoints are found along main roads linking Mogadishu to the main towns, used by transporters, farmers, herders and foodstuff and charcoal traders. 

Another form of extortion by Al-shabaab is the imposition of the Zakat or Islamic tax on the people. This means is used to confiscate people’s livestock. Those who refuse to pay are often headed and their houses burnt. Similarly, another extortion tactic employed by Al-shabaab akin to the Italian Mafia, is the ‘protection fee’ imposed on owners of big businesses and hotels.  Some of the recent attacks on popular hotels in Mogadishu have been attributed to the refusal by their owners to pay the “protection fees”. 

Q. Maybe just a follow-up on my colleague’s question.  If you are a manager of a hotel or even a small charcoal trader, is there any like assistance that those businesses can get, let’s say from police or the authorities where they can ask for help?  Is there any infrastructure or recourse if they don’t want to pay zakat?

A. Yeah, that is a very good question. In my interaction with Somalis, the question I am often asked is: Al-Shabaab is extorting money from our people at checkpoints, why can’t you help us stop this?  It is hard for me to explain to them that while AMISOM is focusing on the bigger task of degrading Al-shabaab and liberating the rest of the country from the terrorist group, it is the responsibility of Somali security forces to deal with the issue of extortion.

But the Somali security forces have challenges that are undermining their capacity to operate effectively. They are poorly trained, under-resourced and ill-equipped and sometimes go for several months without salary, causing indiscipline, low morale and lack of commitment. As a result, instead of protecting the population from Al-shabaab abuse, security forces have engaged in predatory activities such as mounting illegal checkpoints to also extort money from the people.

However, in July this year, the government took a decision warning business owners to stop paying any form of taxes to Al-shabaab or risk being dragged to court and having their businesses closed. But as Somali security forces cannot be relied on to provide the security to businesses, I expect many will continue pay taxes to Al-shabaab, in order not to be attacked by the group.

Q. How many African Union soldiers are on the ground?

A. There are 22,126 uniformed personnel, comprising the military (21,586) and the police.  Troops are drawn from Uganda, Kenya, Djibouti, Burundi and Ethiopia, and countries contributing police officers include Kenya, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria, and mostly recently Zambia.

Q. An important question in refugee definition is around State protection.  In Somalia, there is also the clans.  Can you comment on whether the clan can or cannot provide protection?

A. Yes, the clan system has been a vital source of protection and social security for Somalis for a long time. Working with Somalis, whether in Somalia or in the Diaspora, requires having some awareness or understanding of their clan system, as it informs attitudes and behaviors in many ways.  It should be recalled that when the Somali State collapsed in 1991, it created a governance vacuum that led a surge in inter-clan warfare and violence. To survive and protect themselves in such an environment, communities established clan-based militias.  However, Al-shabaab has always been adept at manipulating clan differences for its own ends.  

Q. But if I may, in the last 30 years, while at least until five or six years ago, it was pretty chaotic in the country, inside a “clan” or a sub-clan, there were different “chiefs”, leaders, sometimes “goons”.  Money was an extremely important part in the broad sense of, let’s say, their “political” actions or military actions.  Naturally, some of these persons, who in fact were sometimes receiving money or retribution from other goons or networks, well on a Monday, this group or leader was on one side of the fence, another day depending on who pays this person more, the group or leader was “changing allegiance”, was “turning its coat”. Where are we on that now?  I presume it is still continuing, though likely less naturally, than when it was complete chaos in the country. 

And the second question, partly in connection to the previous one: we read that Al-Shabaab is divided, might have split in different factions, some pro Al-Qaeda, others, I think, pro-ISIS.  And which may be fighting each other on the ground.

A. Thank you for these two questions.  Yes, Somalis have clan leaders or chiefs, called ugas, who play an important socio-political role in the society.  During general elections, they act as “king makers” as they are often given the responsibility to select electoral delegates or parliamentarians who would then elect the president.  During electoral campaigns, a lot of money is spent by candidates vying for elective positions to secure the support and allegiance of traditional leaders. But of course their allegiance keeps shifting depending on the context and who is offering more.

With regard to your second question, it is true that ISIS is now rivaling Al-Shabaab in Somalia. ISIS elements consists mainly of former Al-shabaab members who split from the group and declared their allegiance to ISIS.  However, presence and influence of ISIS in Somalia remains limited, as it is facing persecution from Al-Shabaab which does not want to be seen as weak and disunited.

Such deep ideological divisions within Al-shabaab have existed in the past, before especially, when there was a feud between two of its main leaders; Ahmad Abdi Godane and Mukhtar Robow. While Godane wanted Al-shabaab to become part of the global jihadi movement allied to al-Qaeda, Mukhtar Robow, wanted the group to focus on its nationalist agenda of creating an Islamic state and impose the Sharia law in Somalia.

Q. With the situation in Yemen, there must be an influx of refugees going or going back to Somalia. Do they have an impact on the situation and particularly on the security situation in Somalia?

A. Yes, definitely the war in Yemen it is having an impact in Somalia. Since the war broke out I think early last year, there is an influx of Yemeni refugees coming to Somalia, through the Puntland area and this is adding more to the problems Somalia is facing.  Also, thousands of Somalis who were living in Yemen either as refugees, doing business, and working as domestic servants, have been forced to come back. This poses both a security and a humanitarian challenge 

This poses a security threat to Somalia in the sense ISIS or Al-shabaab elements may infiltrate the refugees coming back, and may transport dangerous weapons into the country.  To prevent such from happening, there is a need to monitor the borders to identify those coming back. Should also be recalled that as a result on the ongoing war, many prisons in Yemen were destroyed and many prisoners escaped. They might have crossed into Somalia posing as victims. It is possible that a good number them have joined Al-Shabaab. So yes, I the war in Yemen is a threat to Somalia and am aware security actors including AMISOM are monitoring the situation.

Q. Is Al-Shabaab involved in human trafficking in this part of the Horn of Africa?  A couple of months ago in the news, there was mention of refugees who drowned in the northern part of the country, where militants had a presence.  Do you have any idea or have any comment on that?

A. I have no knowledge of any connection between Al-Shabaab and human trafficking. I think they have many more challenges to deal with than having to engage in human trafficking.  They should be more interested in recruiting people to join their diminishing ranks, which is forcing them to recruit children as young and 10 and 11 years old. What I am aware of is the fact that there is an agreement between the Somali and Saudi governments to facilitate the recruitment of Somalis to work in Saudi Arabia to work as domestic servants. This agreement been criticized by human rights advocates as a form of human trafficking. Since the collapse of the State in 1991, Somalis have been looking for means to flee the country for greener pastures elsewhere, such as in the Gulf countries. To achieve this goal, some are prepared to use any means at their disposal to, including traveling by boat with the risk of drowning.

Just to inform you that AMISOM has been partnering with the Canadian organization, Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, to fight against child soldiering in Somalia. Just last week we conducted, in partnership with the Dallaire Initiative, a training for the Somali security sector actors on “Prevention of the Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers during Armed Conflict”. Previous trainings for Somalis were conducted in Nairobi-Kenya, but this one took place in Mogadishu, another sign of progress.

Q. I have a few questions which might appear a little specific or “technical”:

Can you provide information about property transactions in Somalia: how do people if they want to sell or buy properties or land, how the transactions are registered? 

How does it work these days in Somalia about money exchanges and transactions between individuals, about money transfer, either inside or outside of the country?  Things and process might have improved recently

Biometric documents from Somalia, either the passports or other types of identity documents: what is the current situation?  If people are coming to Canada with such biometric documents, do you have comments about which documents might be more legitimate than others? 

Would you have any comments also regarding non-biometric documents?

If there is in fact improvements in the functioning of state institutions, and even more in Mogadishu, can people go to some of the institutions and obtain some official genuine documents?  Or what is the situation in regards to the capacity of the authorities to issue documents?

A. Thank you.  Let me start with the last question. State institutions are functioning, but not properly.  For now, we really can talk of a process whereby you can submit a request for a particular document such as a birth certificate and it gets issued in timely manner.  Issues about birth certificates and ID cards, passports is complicated in Somalia because there is no proper civil status registry. Many Somali operate without having a valid identification card.  If you are civil servant, you may be issued a badge by your ministry. State institutions especially at regional levels are still just emerging, and so it must be difficult for them to issue or authenticate a document, without having an institutional memory backed by a proper archival or record system.

Last year, AMISOM supported the Somali national police to have a biometrics system. When that was done, AMISOM began conducting biometric verification exercise of both the federal and regional police forces which the view of having an accurate representation of the human resource capacity of the police towards the establishment in future of a human resource management database.

About money transactions, there is the Somali shilling but which few people are using because most of what is in cirulation is counterfeit. Consequently, business transactions are mostly done in US dollars.  But there is also a mobile money system called EVC Plus, quite similar to the M-PESA in Kenya, which permits people to do e-transfer from their cellphones. It is operated by a private telephone company called Hormuud. The government does not have any control over the system, and it may find difficult to track monetary transaction. However, there are about two internationally recognized banks with the ATM system as well as a number of money transfer agencies that facilitate cash money from the diaspora.   Conducting business in Somalia is mostly done through the thriving informal sector.

Q. I have one question concerning the clan system.  I would like to know if you would have either sources to suggest concerning the clan system.

A. Yes.  There are sources and there are many documents I can share with you. So be prepared to do a lot of reading.  It will take a long, long time to get to fully understand the Somali clan system, as myself, I am still trying to understand it.  You will read about the four dominant clans namely, Hawiye, Darod, Dir and Rahaweyn, but which are further divided in multiple sub and sub-sub clans.    You will also read about the existence of minority clans of which the Bantu form a major part. Though Somalis appear homogenous, it appears their settlement pattern even in the Diaspora follows these clan lines.

Q. Yes, a follow-up to the question about clans and State protection.  I wanted to know are police forces subject to clan influence and is this impacting on management of complaints and ultimately investigations on crimes?

A. When AMISOM was deployed to Somalia to support the Somali security forces, it started doing so with the understanding that they are all Somalis. However, the AU mission soon realized and it became clear that some Somalis would not accept security forces that are not of their clan.  They would reject security officers hailing from rival clans, considering them as an occupying force.  With this reality, the principle of inclusion and clan representation is now being applied in the selection, training and recruitment of young military and police officers. In regions where security officers were recruited locally with representation from the differrnt clans, they accepted, trusted and respected and supported by the community.

Q. Does it affect, does clans affect the way that the police cares when dealing with investigations?

A. Definitely but I think it could be more as a result of mistrust and public perception, as even a good police officer who is trying his best, may not be accepted in a particular, by the mere fact that he is from another clan. However, you should note that there is no proper judicial system operating in much of Somalia, particularly in the rural areas. So don’t expect to hear of a judicial process involving police investigation, trial in a magistrate’s court and imprisonment. Justice is administered by the customary system of law, known as called Xeer, which is widely accepted and respected by the population. This system depends on clan chiefs or traditional elders for its functions. It usually ends with an agreement requiring the person found guilty to pay compensation to the victim.  This may apply even to serious crimes like murder.   

Q. Are there any organizations that protect women who are victims of violence, or is it the clan system also?

A. The customary system cannot be relied on to protect the rights of women, because in my view it’s one of the perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence.  While working in Somalia, I have supported efforts to fight against female genital mutilation (FGM), an issue that is so entrenched in the society that it is accepted widely as a cultural heritage that should be protected.  It is therefore not surprising that Somalia has one of the highest FGM rates in the world. 

Working in partnership with a local organization, we have established a hotline known as Ceebla line through which, victims of SGBV, whether perpetrated by our troops or the population can call anonymously to lodge complaints. This followed false reports alleging that our troops were committing sexual exploitation and abuse, in in violation with international humanitarian law.  However since Ceebla line was launched two years ago, we established a hotline, there has not been even a single complaint registered against Amisom troops. Meanwhile, so many women have called to complain about different forms of gender-based violence including domestic violence perpetrated against them by the husband or other family members.

For example, a female colleague of Somali origin came to my office one morning to explain why she didn’t report to work the previous day. According to this lady, who had lost her husband a month before, members of her late husband’s family came to her house in her absence and took away all her children. Asked why they would do such a thing, she explained that it was to prevent her from inheriting the late husband’s wealth.

Q. I would like to thank you very much for your time and for sharing your expertise.  It was a great value for us to listen to you.  Thank you very much for coming.

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