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 4×4 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