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When the Somali president tried to settle old scores with another clan, opportunity presented itself for Al Shabaab

I must come out of my procrastinating den in Doha and key in few words about the circumstances surrounding the terrorist attacks in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall.

Exactly twelve days ago, I was in Nairobi. I lived in the city’s Hurlingham area for almost a year, not far from the Westgate Mall where Saturday’s terrorist attacks and police operations are currently an on-going event. In fact a day before my departure from Nairobi, I was at Yaya Centre, another upscale mall frequented by the growing Kenyan middle class community, Western expats and an increasing number of Asians from the tiger economies of South-East Asia. It was a ritual that friends and I honoured almost every other week since late last year. Our conversations centred on security and developmental issues for the region and beyond.

Every time I entered the mall, I wondered if the metal detector stick that was rubbed over my chest and trouser pockets worked properly. Bleep, bleep, and I would be waved through, every time. Despite having several materials made of metal particles on myself, including my home keys, aluminium coated cigarette pack, silver coins and a mobile phone, none of the security personnel at the entrance had ever enquired about my possessions. And although occasionally you see couple of armed officers inside the mall, those supposed to search shoppers at the gate seemed to be untrained individuals and certainly they did not carry firearms. “Thank you, please (sic)”, they would say as you try to make eye contact to indicate that you may be carrying suspect items!

Ethiopia has far more troops on the ground inside Somalia than Kenya. And unlike Ethiopia where the army and the security forces maintain high level of vigilance and discipline, in fact Kenya has so often relied on pure luck and her god. Word of mouth from the public seems to direct the Kenya security force’s policing policy; intelligence gathering is none existent. (also see War on Terror - Kenya Style). Over forty million Muslims live in Ethiopia and terrorist attacks are almost unheard of. This is in contrast to Kenya where the Muslim population stands at 4.6 million. If we are very lucky to get our hands on one of the terrorists alive at Westgate, Nairobi, I would not be surprised if he spoke of an inside job involving Kenya security forces. Kenya is also home to large numbers of Western spy agents and internationally organised crime syndicates. It’s also a major hub for drug trafficking in Africa.

A drunken European expat calling himself Chris once threatened me with a weapon on a second floor cafe shop at Yaya Mall. He bragged about working for an unspecified US spy agency. When I reported the incident to the Kilimani police station (I still have my report number), I was immediately escorted back to the mall by armed officers who interviewed couple of security personnel there. I was assured the police would be apprehending him very soon. But to my surprise I was later told that Chris had been seen at the Mall the next day. I was also told that he lives openly in a house few hundred yards from the Yaya centre. The detective who seemed to me a no-nonsense senior professional police officer had in fact other things in mind: how much (in money terms) my case would cost to the offender. When no calls came my way from the police station, I telephoned my contacts in the UK who in turn wrote to the Foreign Office. At that stage, however, I concluded that whatever criminal activities Chris might have involved in Africa, at least on this occasion he might have succeeded by bribing the detective. The Foreign Office emailed me through a member of UK parliament, effectively treating the incident as a civil dispute and not a terrorist act. I gave up.

There is nothing that money can’t do for you in Kenya. At the immigration office, a middleman can get the visa extension stamp on your passport while you sip your latte at a nearby cafe shop. Even after making a dangerous turn at a traffic junction, the police help themselves to open the passenger door, pop into your car and demands cash on the spot. If you don’t have the cash at the ready, he/she would ask you to drive to the nearest cash point, in full view of bystanders. And after tossing few thousand Shillings his/her way (thousand Ksh+$12), he/she would politely ask you to drop him/her at the same spot, perhaps for the next ride back to the cash point with another motorist! Please note: women civil servants and police officers are as corrupt – if not more corrupt- than male officers in Kenya.

Moreover, the single notable factor for the resurgence of Al Shabaab - and their capabilities to launch such a high profile attacks outside of their borders - is the Somali government’s inability or unwillingness to implement the federal constitution which allows the local communities to set up self governance mechanisms, just as Somaliland and Puntland did. While I have no doubt that a lot of training and preparations went into the Westgate plot to pull off one of the worst terror attacks in Africa, the Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Shabaab, had definitely received some sort of official and unofficial assistance in Somalia, Kenya and elsewhere, though how high is everyone’s guess.

But the recent bickering over Jubbaland can’t be discounted. For instance, a lot of unnecessary resources were put by the Somali president in prolonging the dispute with the Kenya army over the formation of Jubbaland state, hence brining the campaign against Al Shabaab to near standstill. And instead of sustaining the onslaught on Al Shabaab both on the Banadir and Jubba fronts, the Somalia president elected to settle old scores with some clans in the Jubba area; and to some extent with the Kenya government as well, brining the whole Somalia stabilisation process into disrepute. Al Shabaab had a window of opportunity in which to prepare and execute their latest master plan in Nairobi.

In a further disturbing development, the Speaker of the Somali parliament was in Baidoba, Bay region this week with full approval from President Hassan. It appears that Speaker Jawaari - in collaboration with President Hassan - is on a mission to dismantle what little security gains were made in the port city of Kismayo, despite internationally mediated agreement at Addis Ababa last month. On a Somali TV reports yesterday, Speaker Jawaari showed up for a press conference together with his clan elders who vowed to set up six-region state in South-Western Somalia which, according to their public statements, includes the two Jubbas and Gedo, the already established regional administration of Jubbaland. This is highly destabilising move.

President Hassan who came to the fore in a botched selection process last year (UNMG obtained evidence that Hassan’s agents transported cash from the Gulf days before MPs were due to select the president) is increasingly becoming a divisive president, not only in Somalia and East Africa but also in the diaspora.

As observer of current events in Africa and particularly the Horn of Africa, I can see no other reason for the president’s visit to Columbus, Ohio other than to stir hatred among Somali-Americans in his upcoming visit there. The visit will inevitably damage community relations in the city at best and would communicate ill feelings, perhaps armed confrontations, back home at worst. Columbus, I was told, is home to the largest Marehan (of Darood) clan in the United States, a sizeable proportion of which support President Hassan’s version in the Jubba issue. Residents say that street clashes can’t be ruled out when Hassan visits the city later this week.

Another contributing factor to the security draw back in Somalia and the East Africa region is the international community mishandling of social and political situations in Somalia. While the West had silently rejoiced the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for example, it seems that the US and its European allies are in bed with the Dam Al Jadid in Mogadishu, the Somalia version of the Muslim Brotherhood. In recent months, the notion that Mogadishu is the absolute capital of Somalia is being erased from the hearts and minds of most Somalis, and the sooner that the international community recognises this, the better.

Hillary Clinton’s “the transition must end” statement at the London conference on Somalia in February 2012 was misleading and should be reversed without delay. Nothing has ended in Somalia. The reason this president misunderstood the international community’s resolve on Somalia conflict was – at least partly - the contents of that speech. President Hassan believes that he knows about Somalia’s problems better than anyone else including members of his own cabinet. I think he also believes that the whole world is in agreement with his erratic leadership. This is delusional; it’s what psychologists call “borderline personality disorder”.

Five regions should organically and locally form part of the future federal Somalia. Somaliland and Puntland are already in place. Jubbaland followed them earlier this year, and Bay and Bakol need assistance to set up own local government.

President Hassan is in no position to lecture Puntland, Somaliland and Jubbaland. Instead, he must focus attention on his own turf, the terror heartland in the Benadir-Hiiraan corridor. Most Somalis and the observers of Somalia know that, apart from the cash bribes, the main reason the selected Somali MPs gave their vote to Hassan Sheikh was that they believed they would be personally safer with a president who hails from Mogadishu.

Somaliland and Puntland, and to some extent Jubbaland, secured their territory long before Hassan was selected as president of federal Somalia. What needs to happen ever urgently (after the Shabaab felt comfortable enough to pull off their greatest terror act outside of Somalia) is to speed up the regional administrations and straighten their institutions quickly. Pouring world’s resources into Mogadishu at the expense of the relatively peaceful regions is far too costly policy mistake.