President of Somalia sets top three priorities: Security, security, security

All the more important as an MP from the new parliament is gunned down in a Mogadishu street.

In Mogadishu you are never far from an AK47.

In fact the proliferation of small arms in this once beautiful Indian Ocean capital city is as equally pressing an issue as al-Qaeda linked al-Shabab’s latest string of terrorist attacks, although the militant Islamist group’s recent use of suicide bombers and random grenade attacks in many parts of the city can also be seen as a last ditch attempt in their slowly declining power struggle with the newly-elected Somali Government.

Of course such attacks are likely to increase, particularly as Somali and Ugandan forces from the east and Kenyan forces from the west are fast approaching the port town of Kismayo, a once key al-Shabab stronghold, and as they lose ground in open battle they will resort to terrorism. Journalists, MPs, entrepreneurs, in fact any civilian that happens to be at the wrong place and at the wrong time is now "fair game", as al-Shabab applies their bloody terror tactics in an attempt to derail the stabilisation process and reverse any progress made in the last twelve months. They know creating an atmosphere of fear in Mogadishu can unsettle local militias, raise old tensions, and coupled with the wide availability of AK47s, easily create chaos again in this city once famed for its Islamic architectural heritage and home to the oldest mosques on the East African coastline.

In his second full day in office, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, Somalia’s newly elected president made clear his number one priority: "security", then quickly added that it’s also his second and third. All understandable when considering the assassination attempt made minutes earlier by al-Shabab which left four Somali security forces members dead along with a soldier from the African Union Mission in Somalia. Three suicide bombers attacked the temporary residence of the president, the newly built but unopened Jazeera Palace Hotel located on a main road near the airport. As the attackers reached the heavily guarded hotel compound two of them detonated their vest-bombs killing the five soldiers while the third attacker was shot dead by security forces before he could trigger his device. Inside the hotel the President was hosting a visit from the Kenya Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Ongeri, and after hearing the explosions, glanced at his slightly concerned visiting dignitary and calmly responded: "Don’t worry, you’re in safe hands."

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the estimated eighteen people killed in Thursday’s double suicide bomb attack in a popular restaurant across from the national theatre in the old quarter of Mogadishu, and two days later for Mustaf Haji Mohamed, the first member of the new parliament to be assassinated - gunned down in a Mogadishu street as he left a mosque following evening prayers (the MP was the father-in-law of Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the former president). Striking soft targets in the city is becoming a conspicuous feature of al-Shabab tactics as evident in recent weeks with over a dozen grenade attacks throughout the city using improvised explosive devices. Although an all-out gun battle also occurred during a night attack at a security post in the north of the city the targeting of innocent civilians is now their modus operandi.

In another incident and again not far from the Jazeera Palace Hotel and the fortified UN compound an individual was shot dead in broad daylight and while the killing this time was linked to criminal activity it does highlight the problem when small arms are easily available on local markets, along with fruit and veg, and all the other household necessities (new AK47 retails at $1,000).

Last week after returning from a visit outside the city with two local colleagues and our obligatory two security staff, a militia gunman routinely stopped our 4x4 at a check point located on the fringe of the city. Before the head of our team could brief the militiaman on our activities an argument had broken out between the militiaman and one of our own security staff, both were armed with AK47s. In a rage the hyped-up militiaman ran over to the passenger side of the vehicle and pointing his weapon at our security staff started screaming at him in Somali to drop his gun and get out the vehicle before he shoots him. My colleagues were pleading for calm, but as fast as the incident occurred it blew over, and the now pacified militiaman was shaking all our hands. In his bloodshot eyes were the signs of qat, the addictive stimulant plant that triggers erratic behaviour, often chewed by the militiamen. The episode was a simple reminder of the volatile nature of "security".

For many Somalis, particularly the residents of Mogadishu, these recent security incidents have been yet another reminder of the immense challenges that the country still faces despite successfully electing their first president since 1969 (the year when President Shermarke was assassinated less than five months after being elected to office). Now as President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud takes the helm, following his historic election victory, he faces stormy seas before Somalia, or even Mogadishu alone, is in "safe hands". That is only likely to happen once the al-Shabab issue has been resolved, local militias have been disbanded, the eradication of small-arm weapons commences and the Somali government is empowered and able to provide security for all its citizens.

Anonymous Geographer works in Somalia

Newly elected Somali president Hasan Sheikh Mahmud arrives at the Jazeera hotel in Mogadishu after surviving an assassination attempt. Photograph: Getty Images
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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era