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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Don't bet on James Brokenshire saving devolution in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland secretary's decision to extend talks makes a settlement less, not more, likely. 

The deadline for the parties at Stormont to form a new executive has passed without an agreement. Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire has – as was inevitable – taken the least difficult option and opened a “short window of opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”.

Talks have been extended for a “short few weeks” – Brokenshire’s interpretation of the “reasonable period” allowed after the initial three weeks after the election elapsed. Despite his earlier warnings, there will be no snap election (for which he conceded there was “no appetite”).

Unhelpful though the tortured semantics of “a short few weeks” are, we can assume that new negotiations may well as last as long as the impending Commons recess, which begins on Thursday and ends on April 11th – after which, Brokenshire said, he will bring forward legislation to set regional rates in the absence of an executive. This, though not quite direct rule, would be the first step in that direction.  

So what changes now? Politically speaking and in the immediate term, not a great deal. For all the excited and frankly wishful chatter about the two parties approaching the final talks afresh after Martin McGuinness’ funeral last week, Sinn Fein and the DUP remain poles apart.  

The former declared talks to have failed a full day before the deadline, and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has since said there has been “no substantive progress” on the key issues at hand – particularly the DUP’s “minimalist” approach on the Irish language and marriage equality. Seemingly unassailable differences remain on a new Bill of Rights and measures to deal with the legacy of the Troubles. As such, both Adams and Sinn Fein's new leader Michelle O’Neill continue to stress their election lines: equality, respect, integrity, and, perhaps most tellingly, “no return to the status quo”.

Brokenshire clearly recognises that there will be no new executive without some movement on these issues: yesterday he referred to the talks to come as an “opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”. He is right to do so: Sinn Fein’s demands are, for the most part, as yet unimplemented provisions from the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements of 2014 and 2015. 

But will the DUP budge? It appears unlikely at first glance. Sinn Fein’s approach to negotiations has only heightened tensions between the would-be coalition partners, whose relationship has regressed to the openly adversarial (DUP leader Arlene Foster yesterday expressly blamed Sinn Fein for the collapse in talks).

There looks to be little appetite for compromise on Sinn Fein’s headline demands. The DUP’s opposition to historical prosecutions of Troubles veterans is well-publicised, and appears to be aligned with UK government thinking.

Nor does there appear to have been any real shift in the party’s position on legal recognition for the Irish language. Speaking on the BBC’s World at One yesterday afternoon, Ian Paisley Jr stressed in pretty woolly terms to the DUP’s commitment to “promoting minority languages”, which, however true, is not the commitment to an Irish language act that Sinn Fein are asking for. That the spirit of Paisley’s remarks was essentially the same as his leader’s contrarian take on the issue – she said, provocatively, that there was much a need for a Polish language act as an Irish language act – is not a promising sign.

The continuing fallout from the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal that triggered last month’s election also complicates matters. Though the London press have already relegated this public spending scandal to the footnotes, the full ramifications are yet to be seen. A full list of claimants was last week published by the Belfast News Letter, and the longer the process of negotiation and renegotiation drags on, the clearer the answer to the question of who exactly benefited from the scheme’s mismanagement becomes. Though, Foster's penance in the wake of the DUP’s calamitous election performance has gone some way to rehabilitating her public image, the taint of corruption could retoxify the brand. It isn’t difficult to see why veteran Stormont horse-traders like Reg Empey, the former leader of the UUP, believe an executive may well be unachievable until the inquiry into "cash for ash" delivers its ruling – a process which could take a year.

The political impasse, then, looks as insoluble as ever. Leaders of smaller parties such as the non-sectarian Alliance have blamed Brokenshire for the startling fact that there were no roundtable talks at any point during the past three weeks. The Northern Ireland secretary’s decision to extend talks for another fortnight could bury power-sharing as we know it for good. From Wednesday, the civil service will take control of the province’s budget, as per Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act. The permanent secretary of the Department for Finance will immediately have access to just 75 per cent of available funds, and, if the situation persists, 95 per cent.

In the worst case scenario, this means cuts could well come hard and fast. All the better for Sinn Fein - as I wrote earlier this month, the imposition of austerity and Brexit from London offers an opportunity to parlay short-term pain into long-term political gain. Meanwhile, Brexit secretary David Davis has admitted that Northern Ireland would automatically rejoin the EU in the event of a border poll. The path to a united Ireland via direct rule looks clearer than ever before.

Unionists are not blind to this existential risk – and here Brokenshire’s bizarre insistence that he was ready to call Northern Ireland’s third election in twelve months exposes his political naivety. He maintains there is “little public appetite” for a new poll. He might be right here, but that doesn’t mean a revanchist DUP would refuse the opportunity, if it arose, to go back to a unionist electorate it believes have taken frit at Sinn Fein’s post-election manoeuvring. Some in the party are keen to do so, if only to put to bed what they deem to be premature and melodramatic talk of imminent Irish unity.

Another election would suit Sinn Fein’s long game. The more dysfunctional and unworkable devolved politics in the North, the stronger the logic for a quick transition to a united Ireland in the EU. Much of the Northern Irish political establishment deem Brokenshire a lightweight - as do many in his own party. That he seems not to have realised that threatening a new election wasn’t much of a threat at all – or foreseen this avoidable mess - does nothing to dispel that notion. 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.