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By Emma Emeozor
It was a gift that came too soon for newly elected Somalia President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed. Perhaps, this explains the cloud of excitement that enveloped the Presidency Thursday when the leader of the dreaded Al Shabaab Islamist group, Hussein Mukhtar, surrendered to government forces in Baidoa town, south of the country.
The development immediately raised hopes that the terrorist group would be eradicated soon, just as it cheers up the new administration.
When he assumed office on February 8, 2017, after his election, the former Prime Minister made a strong and passionate appeal to members of Al Shabaab to lay down their arms and embrace peace.
He promised those who surrender “good life.” He told them: “You have been misled, destroyed property and killed many Somalis. Come and we shall give you good life.” And for militants who may not be willing to heed his appeal, he warned: “To those who work with Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab and Islamic State, your time is finished.”
The surrender of Mukhtar is good news not only for Somalia but also for the entire African continent, particularly countries that are contending with the menace of insurgency. Al Shabaab has been one of the vicious militant groups that had tarnished the image of Africa as a land of peace and love.
Though Somalia has been engulfed in civil crisis since 1991 when the first civil war was fought following the overthrow of former President Siad Barre in a bloody coup, the emergence of Al Shabaab added a horrific twist to the fortunes of a country that was struggling to build a new life on the ruins of war.
It started as the youth wing of the former Union of Islamic Courts, one of the factional groups that once controlled the capital, Mogadishu, in 2006. After it metamorphosed into an independent body and adopted the Wahhabi version of Islam, it made a desperate move to introduce strict Islamic rule across the country.
The Wahhabi version of Islam has been described by scholars as a reactionary sect that insists on the return to the practice of the religion the way it was during the “first three generations of Muslims (starting with the Companions of the Prophet), otherwise known as the Pious Predecessors.”
The attempt by Al Shabaab to forcefully ‘convert’ Somalis who are Sufis has been a bloody task not only for the country but also for neighbouring countries like Kenya. In 2013, the terror group launched an attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi, killing those who could not recite the Koran. And in April 2015, it attacked Kenya’s Garissa University, killing no fewer than 148 people. Christian students were its main target. In 2016, it carried out another attack on a Kenyan base in Somalia’s El-Ade town, killing about 180 soldiers.
All its antics to win over the majority of the people had always been futile. Using the apparatus of propaganda and terrorism, the group was able to win support to the extent that it was able to wage war against a ramshackle government and capture a large expanse of the country, including the capital, Mogadishu.
Inspired and aided by Osama Bin Laden’s al Qaeda, al Shabaab is now an ally of the Islamic State. It gained ground at a time when impoverished Somalis were yearning for a ‘saviour.’ The group had promised the people security and a better life under its administration. Reports said the people had a rethink after the group turned down Western food aid during the 2011 drought and famine. This act would mark the beginning of the rejection of the group. Today, it has lost control of most of the territories it once controlled, including Mogadishu, though it continues to carry out suicide bombings to emphasise its presence in the country.
The import of Mukhtar’s surrender is that the hierarchy of the organisation is beginning to disintegrate. It points to commotion in the house of the militants and there is growing apathy on the part of followers. The defection of a committed and fearful leader like Mukhtar is bound to have a bandwagon effect with many junior officers of the group deciding to follow in his footsteps and embrace the government’s amnesty.
The African Union in Somalia (AMISOM) has not only welcomed the news but has called on others to also surrender and join the “Somali people to rebuild their country.” In a statement, it said: “AMISON hopes that other sons and daughters of Somalia who have been misled into terrorist acts will emulate the courageous action of Mukhtar.”
It is instructive that Mukhtar has chosen to surrender at a very crucial but trying moment in Somalia. Currently, the country is contending with five challenges: “the threat posed by extremist groups, a looming famine, weak institutions, feuding factions and rampant unemployment.” Statistical reports say “more than 70 per cent of the population is under the age of 30.”
In the face of these challenges is the toll the reduction of foreign aid by Western donors is having on the country. The situation has been further complicated following the new immigration policy of United States President Donald Trump. Somalia is among the six countries he has banned from entering the US due to the involvement of Somalis in terrorism.
Therefore, it is expected that the government would consolidate on the gains of Mukhtar’s surrender and deploy efforts to assuage the sufferings of the people, particularly those in areas liberated from Al Shabaab. It should implement the letter the amnesty holistically to convince militants that their security and wellbeing are guaranteed.
The authorities must guard against a situation where ex-militants return to the ‘bush’ to wage guerrilla war due to dissatisfaction with government response to their needs. The Somali government must be reminded that though it controls the cities and the capital, Al Shabaab is still a force to reckon with in the rural areas, where illiteracy is a factor.
Mohamed has promised to fight corruption and all other vices that are corroding the fabric of the country. Previous leaders made similar promises but failed to fulfil them. The hope is that Mohamed will make a difference. This is one of the challenges the surrender of Mukhtar poses to his government because Mukhtar’s ‘message’ to his former colleagues in arms, as it is now, is that the horizon is brighter on the side of the government.
But as the surrender of Mukhtar is being celebrated by the government of Somalia and its allies world-wide, it is pertinent to draw attention to other countries of Africa that are faced with the challenge of insurgency. The surrender of a leader of a militant group in one country is a victory for all. It attests to the fact that militants, wherever they exist, can be eradicated. On the other hand, it is a warning to militant leaders to have a rethink and follow the path of peace and nation building. Still, it is a signal to foreign militant groups that believe Africa is a good launchpad for their nefarious activities.
In Somalia, pirates once unleashed terror on travellers off the Somali coast, dispossessing them of their money and taking hostages for ransom. It was a boom era for the pirates. But a time came when they were defeated and the waterways made safe for travellers.
Western countries must always remember that a safe Africa is in the interest of their businessmen. Though Africa lacks technology, it provides a veritable market for the raw materials and market needed by their industries. Therefore, the West must conscientiously stand behind African countries. They must remain actively involved in the fight against insurgency.
Beyond the fight against insurgency, the West must begin to play a more neutral role in the political affairs of African countries, assisting in their political progress and governance.
With sanity beginning to return to Somalia, the expectation is that the entire country would learn from the past and work toward a better future, where insurgency would not be allowed. Somalia or any other African nation should not be a breeding ground for militants.