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 happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage