Al Shabab exit is an opportunity in Mogadishu

The Islamist withdrawal from Mogadishu can't be called a victory but it does give the feeble government, and its foreign friends, a fine opportunity.

Al Shabab, Somalia's fierce Islamist militia, have abandoned Mogadishu. Sharif Ahmed, the president of the feeble Transitional Federal Government (TFG), promptly popped up this week to claim "victory", an absurd assertion considering that the TFG has controlled just a fraction of the city, and that only because it is backed by African Union troops.

This is nothing like victory. But it is at least an opportunity, which the government and its foreign friends should grasp firmly. Delivering food and order to the city could make this event, which Al Shabab call a tactical withdrawal, into a genuine turning point.

Al Shabab remain well-established elsewhere in Somalia, especially in the south, where the famine is hitting hardest. The militia's actual motives for abandoning Mogadishu are far from clear, but may well stem from food shortages.

As famine adds misery to Somalia's lawless and impoverished hinterlands, tens of thousands of people have been pouring into the city, which had an estimated population of 1.3 million before the migration. Al Shabab have neither the resources nor the inclination, it appears, to feed the hungry. It has rejected offers of foreign food aid for hungry regions it controls.

The TFG has been more transitional than federal or a government, but it does at least have the ear of international allies and aid groups. Aid for the city was in the pipeline before Al Shabab withdrew: three plane loads of United Nations supplies are expected to reach Mogadishu today, as is a first shipment from Turkey. UAE relief agencies are already distributing aid around the city as well as working with famine refugees on the Ethiopian border. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are helping.

Just because Al Shabab have departed does not make Mogadishu safe. But African Union forces, under the umbrella of the TFG, and aid groups have a chance to make inroads into the capital, and begin to win Somalis' loyalty with much-needed, long-overdue aid.

Al Shabab will very probably be back. The former Islamist power, the Islamic Courts Union, were forced out of the capital in 2006. The government declared victory then, too, but Al Shabab splintered off from the Islamic Courts, asserting themselves across the south, and then took back most of the city.

This time the TNG and its friends have a chance to establish themselves across the city, not only as a fighting force, but as the beginnings of an effective government. The opportunity is too good to waste.

Published: August 8, 2011 04:00 AM


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