A year which began with a tiny sliver of hope for Somalia has ended in yet another tragedy. A suicide bomber blew himself up at a graduation ceremony for medical students, killing three government ministers, two journalists and several would-be doctors.
The disaster served to underline how fragile President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s grip on power is, and that he may not get to see out 2010. At the moment, his government can claim to control just three areas of the capital, Mogadishu: the airport, the port and Villa Somalia, Sharif’s presidential villa. Even travelling between the three requires massive military back-up.
That support is provided by 5,000 African Union troops, a force that is suffering from drastic underfunding. Earlier this year, several of the soldiers died and dozens had to be airlifted to hospital in Nairobi after a mystery illness broke out. It later emerged they were suffering from malnutrition.
The under-fed troops are supposed to be protecting Sharif’s government from Al-Shabaab, the Al-Qaeda-linked group which is believed to have been responsible for the graduation ceremony bombing. Al-Shabaab now controls most of south and central Somalia. But like the Afghan Taliban, to which they have been compared, there are shades of grey to the Shabaab’s style of rule. In some areas, most notably the port town of Kismayo, a strict interpretation of sharia law has been introduced. Women have been stoned for adultery and young men accused of theft have had hands chopped off.
In other parts of the country their rule has been less extreme and some international aid groups have been welcomed in by local Shabaab administrators.
The Shabaab is more of a collection of like-minded commanders that want to see a Greater Somalia than a top-down organisation. Although the West fears a Shabaab takeover of Somalia if Sharif’s government is ousted, it is possible that life in the country would continue in much the same way. A Shabaab leader in Villa Somalia would be likely to have just as little say over what happens in Jowhar, a town 55 miles to the north of Mogadishu, as Sharif.
Caught in the middle, as ever, are Somalia’s civilians – those that have stayed in the country anyway. As many as 8,000 Somalis a week now cross the border into Kenya, while tens of thousands a year attempt to make the perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. Inside the country, an estimated 3.6 million people are in need of emergency aid.
Getting that aid to them is no easy task and requires large amounts of funding. While western nations have been willing to spend the estimated £60,000 a day it costs to send a warship to patrol the Indian Ocean searching for pirates, they are less prepared to spend money on aid. The UN received $516m of the $849m it requested in 2009 – and half of that was carried over from the year before.
Little is likely to change in the coming year. Piracy and terrorism will remain the West’s priorities. If Somalia’s civilians happen to benefit, it will be by accident, not design.