Somalia: The Battle for Hearts & Minds
September 1, 2010 8 Comments
The battle for hearts and minds in Somalia has long been fought and won on the basis of tribe and tribal allegiances. But with the rapidly changing political landscape, particularly here in Southern Somalia, a recent shift in perspective has had a tremendous effect on the Somali population. Today the battle of hearts and mind is fought and won on the basis of religion and the people of Somalia judge the worth of an administration by what it can do to alleviate the suffering of the population or by the number of services they can provide the public; and here there is a great divide.
In the congested streets of the Bakara market, an unusual event took place today. Al-Shabab, the Islamist force waging a bitter battle against the Western-backed Transitional federal Government (TFG), have launched a new ambulance service to help those injured by the bullets and mortars. It is out of the ordinary of a group labelled a ‘terrorist organisation’ to set up an ambulance service, But Al-Shabab seem to be defying the norm.
Unveiling this news service, Al-Shabab’s governor of Banadir region spoke at the scene with assurance that his administration was determined to help a population suffering at the hands of the ‘crusaders’ as he put it. Wearing a white overcoat, Sheikh Ali Mohamud Hussein or better known as Ali Jabal, addressed the amazed public:
We see that the enemy is shelling the city without discriminating between soldiers and civilians; and even during the nights when people are praying Tahajjud (night prayer) they keep shelling us. They claim that mortars were fired from the Bakara market, but I ask you by Allah, are there any mortars fired from the Bakara? You live and work here, so have you ever seen the Mujahideen firing mortars from this market? Even if we did fire from here, wouldn’t the public run away from us?
A loud reply came back: MAYA! (no!)
This only reveals to us the enmity of these crusaders. And since these enemies keep shelling our people indiscriminately it has become incumbent upon us to establish an ambulance service to give aid to our injured people instead of carrying them on wheelbarrows. This service is completely free of charge for everyone and you can call free on either 118 or 117 and an ambulance will be with you within minutes.
With the sirens wailing in the background, Sheikh Ali Jabal’s words were received with strident chants and praises by a crowd of cheerful onlookers. The Islamists have scored some high points on this one and their attempts to gain massive support from the population living under their administrations seem to have finally paid off. The ambulance service is the latest in their long list of specifically targeted campaigns to win the support of the population.
Some of the earlier operations undertaken by Al-Shabab to win the hearts and minds of the Somalis include:
- Construction and refurbishment of roads
- Construction and refurbishment of canals and bridges:
- Iftar sessions for the needy
- Assistance of the needy through Zakat, particularly after the closure of WFP and other aid organisations
- Market refurbishment and establishment of separate livestock markets
- Elimination of Checkpoints used for extorting money
- Reconciliation between tribes and settling of age-old tribal feuds: in particular the centuries old tribal feud between the Garre and Gaaljecel tribes.
- Establishment of Islamic courts to fairly adjudicate between people. This has given the poor people and those considered by society to be inferior to justly demand their rights.
Though Al-Shabab initially started out as an insurgency, employing tactics of guerrilla warfare, they have now metamorphosed into something of a formidable administration. Controlling all the 10 regions in Southern/Central Somalia (except for the few blocks in Mogadishu controlled by the government), Al-Shabab have, within a few years and to the astonishment of many people, managed to set up working institutions and bring back peace and stability to the regions they govern.
But while to take control of a region is fairly a simple matter, it is to win the hearts and minds of those living in the region which is the difficult task. For this the Islamists have dispatched their senior leaders, such as the Abu Manour Roobow and Fuad Mohamed Khalaf and other officials to deliver constant speeches and lectures on Fridays and establish that personal relationship with the people. This has been effective and has managed to bridge the gap between the public and the Islamists, making them appear friendly and approachable – this is depsite Al-Shabab claiming responsibility for many explosions and attacks on the weak government, including the recent Muna hotel attack that killed over 40 government MPs, military officials and intelligence personnel. Al-Shabab present themselves as vanguards of Somali interests and have developed an understanding on some levels and a friendly rapport with majority of the locals. One of the journalists I spoke to at the event today was surprised to see the Al-Shabab governor of Banadir mingling and shaking hands with the public without slinging a gun around his shoulder or a swarm of armed body guards at his either side:
These guys [Al-Shabab] have a way with people. I just don’t understand why Sheikh Sharif can’t be this open and develop such a relationship with his people. If they continue like this for some time, I can almost guarantee you that they will have full support of the population behind them, making any international effort to oust them extremely difficult.
The Somali government, on the other hand, is often criticised for neglecting the population and one of the main reasons why many Somalis have lost faith in the government lies in its inability to provide services to the public. Confined only to a few blocks and beset by internal strife between the parliamentarians and continuous defections of her soldiers, the Somali government has been unable to delve into this fertile ground of winning the people’s hearts and minds. If anything, most of the actions of the government have proven to be in fact detrimental to their cause. Take for example the Somali government soldiers’ constant inter-battles that often result in the death of civilians or the arbitrary arrest of Madrassa teachers and religious men on the pretence that they are somehow associated with Al-Shabab, though no sound evidence is ever produced or the dozens of checkpoints within their limited territory where the underpaid soldiers often rob people of their belongings.
Though the Somali government receives millions of dollars in donations, it is plagued by corruption and has yet to plant even a tree. The most damaging issue, however, and one which has caused a widespread condemnation is the government’s endorsement of Amisom’s indiscriminate shelling of immensely populated residential areas. And it is this contentious issue that Al-Shabab has managed to capitalise on quite effectively; and it seems to have paid off profitably.
Hundreds of ecstatic onlookers brought the busy market to a standstill for a brief moment in order to welcome the Islamists’ brilliant project. The Bakara market, the commercial hub of Mogadishu, is one of the busiest places in the war-torn city. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most shelled areas in Mogadishu. Here the merchants and shopper are constantly attuned to the whistle of rockets or sound of mortars as dozens of them rain down on the market everyday killing dozens of unsuspecting shoppers and injuring many others.
Now with the Islamist’s new ambulance service, complete with full medical kits and trained crews, providing a much-needed assistance to the tormented public, it looks like some of the suffering will be alleviated. But still, there is a very long way to go in order to heal these self-inflicted wounds and cure the hearts that have been restlessly throbbing for peace for nearly three decades now.