Somali security forces keep vigil during the funeral of assassinated MP Abdullahi Qayad Barre in Mogadishu in February 2015. Photo: Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images
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What has happened to the fight against Somalia’s al-Shabab?

The situation is murky, but it is certain that al-Shabab remains undefeated and is still a real threat, not just to Somalia, but to the region as a whole.

News on Somalia has gone strangely quiet in recent weeks. Somali piracy is in retreat. Since 2009 the High Risk Area off the Somali coast suffered over 700 attacks from pirates, but last year there were only 11 pirate incidents and not a single ship hijacking.

Attacks have driven the al-Qaeda affiliated Somali rebel movement (al-Shabab) out of Somali cities and ports.

The operation, under the auspices of the African Union, has been a remarkable success. A detailed report in the Military Balance – just published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) – indicates how this was done. Operation Indian Ocean, from August to November last year, saw troops from Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Burundi undertaking co-ordinated operations against al-Shabab.  Linked by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) it succeeded in displacing the rebels from key strongholds.

But, as the Military Balance points out, “the group still has the potential both to slow AMISOM’s progress through its use of asymmetrical tactics and to conduct attacks on Somali and foreign targets”. To show just how much the African forces still have to do to defeat al-Shabab, a helpful map is included showing large areas of the country in a dark grey – regions in the north, centre and south of Somalia are still firmly under rebel control.

The real problem is that AMISOM is – as the report makes plain – “about 15,000 troops short of the strength believed required for concurrent operations to clear Somalia of al-Shabab.”  At least as worrying is the fact that international donors are beginning to tire of the burden.  Running the operation is costing $50m a month, and given the demands of Ukraine, Syria, Nigeria and the other international crises, this is a budget drain western militaries would love to be rid of.

But the International Institute for Strategic Studies report is as opaque as it is helpful.

For some reason there is not a word about the other major player in Somalia – the United States. The US military maintain a vast base in neighbouring Djibouti – Camp Lemonnier. From this 500 acre site the US operates missions across the region – many of them inside Somalia.

US drone strikes (also operated from an American base in Ethiopia) have been remarkably successful. Since September last year drones have killed senior Al Shabab figures including its leader Ahmed Abdi Godane and most recently its intelligence chief Yussuf Deq. The Somali government would like to see these stepped up.

Also omitted from the Military Balance is any indication of where al-Shabab obtains its funding. Asked whether the IISS has any evidence of Qatari financing of the movement (or of Boko Haram in Nigeria) Dr John Chipman, the centre’s director-general, said they had none.

If this is really the case it is a strange lapse.

In 2013 the US Treasury placed an adviser to the Qatar government – Abd al-Rahman bin Umayr al-Nuaymi – on a sanctions list. In October last year Britain (rather belatedly) followed suit.  

The Americans accused Umayr al-Nuaymi of being a vital financier for al-Qaeda affiliates in a number of countries, including Somalia. “Nuaymi is a Qatar-based terrorist financier and facilitator who has provided money and material support and conveyed communications to al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen for more than a decade”. This is not the sort of activity to have escaped the notice of Qatari security officials.

The Qatari government is also accused by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia of using its vast wealth to buy influence inside the country. In their 2013 report the Monitors found that Qatar both funded the election campaign of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and bought votes for the president by bribing MPs. Qatar is also reported by the UN to have “facilitated” negotiations between the Somali government and Hassan Dahir Aweys, then part of the al-Shabab’s military infrastructure.

But this is a murky world and since 2013 there appears to have been some falling out between al-Shabab and Qatar. In May 2013, a suicide attack was carried out inside Mogadishu, aimed at a government convoy transporting high-level officials from the Qatari security service. In June 2013, Aweys was taken into custody by Somali security forces, in circumstances that are still unclear.

What is certain is that al-Shabab remains undefeated and is still a real threat, not just to Somalia, but to the region as a whole. The decline in Somali piracy and the setbacks the rebels have suffered has reduced the international focus on the country. It would be a costly mistake if the west walked away from Somalia at this critical juncture.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.