Al-Shabaab has been weakened financially, militarily and politically in the past year, the top United Nations official for Somalia said in an interview with the Nation.
The country's devastating drought is draining Shabaab's treasury because many local communities now lack the resources to meet the militant group's demands for payments, observed UN special representative Michael Keating.
“A lot of financing for Al-Shabaab comes from taxing economic activity in areas it controls,” Mr Keating said. “When that goes down, the tax base goes down.”
The Islamist insurgents have been “put on the back foot” as a result of the stepped-up tempo of US airstrikes and ground operations conducted in conjunction with Somali government troops, Mr Keating added.
More than 200 Shabaab fighters are estimated to have been killed in 2017, with many of those deaths occurring in the months after the Trump administration streamlined procedures for launching missile and drone attacks.
Shabaab has lost some political support as well, mainly as a result of its October bombing in Mogadishu that killed more than 500 civilians. “That did more damage to their reputation than anything else,” Mr Keating commented.
But the 12-year-old guerrilla organisation simultaneously retains political strengths, the special envoy acknowledged.
He said Al-Shabaab is able to exploit conflicts among Somali clans by making deals for reciprocal support. The country's feeble justice system gives Shabaab militants additional “entry points,” Mr Keating said, noting that “in many parts of the country they can out-perform state and local authority in terms of delivering justice and preventing corruption.”
NO NEW RECRUITS
Shabaab, which is thought to include about 5,000 fighters, also has little difficulty drawing new recruits from the country's mainly youthful population, he added.
“A lot of kids in the 10-18 age group don't have many options in life. Shabaab has a certain appeal for some of them, not only by offering a minimum income but also providing a sense of purpose.” Mr Keating said.
In addition, the group may be replenishing its ranks by abducting children from communities unable to make protection payments, he suggested. "If you can't give us resources, give us your kids," he imagines Shabaab leaders telling locals.
The collapse of the country's agricultural sector is simultaneously reducing the government's resources.
“The drought has hurt the economy and temporarily impacted the Federal Government of Somalia’s tax collection efforts,” the International Monetary Fund said in a recent report. It projects a “subdued” annual growth rate of less than two percent, while inflation is expected to climb to close to four percent.
CORRUPTION IN SOMALIA
Official corruption remains rampant in Somalia, Mr Keating said. Little outside assistance has specifically targeted graft, with most donor funding going to the security sector, he noted.
Despite these long-running and large-scale investments, the country's military and police remain incapable of fighting Shabaab on their own.
“There hasn't been sufficient focus on institution building and political co-ownership of security forces,” Mr Keating said. The national army is “still seen as associated with particular parts of the country or particular clans.”
With no prospect of Somali forces' taking effective charge of national security anytime soon, the African Union Mission (Amisom) must continue to act as the main element in the war against Shabaab, Mr Keating said.
But Amisom is experiencing morale problems 11 years after its first detachments were deployed and in the wake of an unreported number of deaths likely to total several hundred. There is increasing talk of a substantial forthcoming reduction in Amisom's uniformed troop strength of about 22,000.
The large difference in pay between the African Union's peacekeepers in Somalia and United Nations peacekeepers in other countries constitutes “a source of great unhappiness,” Mr Keating said.
The European Union, which pays Amisom troops' salaries, reduced its allotments by 20 per cent two years ago—from Sh 100, 000 ($1,028) to Sh 80, 000 ($822) per month, per soldier. A UN peacekeeper is now paid Sh 140, 000 ($1,410) a month.
Despite the discontent and frustration within Amisom and the political pressures for withdrawal in some troop-contributing countries, a powerful countervailing factor makes a large-scale drawdown unlikely. The governments of the five countries that assign troops to Amisom — Kenya, Djibouti, Burundi, Uganda and Ethiopia — each get a cut of the funding provided by the EU, along with training of their soldiers.
A major short-term cut in Amisom's troop strength would amount to “a gift to Al-Shabaab,” Mr Keating told the UN Security Council last week. He warned that for all its difficulties Al-Shabaab retains the ability to carry out devastating attacks.
In his interview with the Nation, Mr Keating emphasised that Shabaab cannot be defeated solely by military means. A political element is highly important, he said. “You have to offer both carrots and sticks.”
Asked whether an effective strategy should involve negotiations with Shabaab, Mr Keating pointed out that “it's very rare for armed insurgencies to end primarily on the basis of a military victory. Typically,” he continued, “they end through a combination of military pressure and some form of negotiations.”
Any decision on whether to hold talks between the government and Al-Shabaab “must be a Somali decision,” he said. President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” has repeatedly said he is willing to accommodate defectors from Shabaab, Mr Keating noted. “He clearly believes there needs to be a political as well as a military approach.”
Negotiations are unlikely to occur anytime soon, Mr Keating added. “There's a long way to go before that could happen,” he said.