Somalia: African Union secures strategic port

Kenyan troops say they have taken control of Kismayo, which has been al-Shabaab’s de facto capital for more than a year. (AFP)

Kenyan troops say they have taken control of Kismayo, which has been al-Shabaab’s de facto capital for more than a year. (AFP)

The Somali flag is flying high in Kismayo and the African Union has distributed photographs of smiling men in camouflage patrolling the streets who declare "Operation Sledge Hammer" to have been a success.

The Islamist militant group al-Shabaab has ostensibly withdrawn from the strategic port. AU forces say they have taken control of the city and Kenya's military claims to have secured the city's central police station and new airport. Regarded as the last major urban stronghold of the militant group that publicly merged with al-Qaeda in February, Kismayo is Somalia's second city and possibly its most lucrative port – a source of millions of dollars in revenue for al-Shebab through taxes and the illegal export of charcoal.

Kenya announced its intention to wrest Kismayo from al-Shabaab last November.
Since then, its Western-trained troops have joined the allied ranks of the AU's mission in Somalia, swelling it to 17 000 with helicopter gunships and drones.

The assault began weeks ago with a night-time naval bombardment that killed at least three civilians and forced thousands to flee. Despite initially defiant responses to premature announcements from Kenya's military that al-Shabaab had "retreated without resistance", a day later the Islamists melted into the darkness, mimicking their withdrawal strategy from the capital a year ago.

But the battle is not won. They have left a city full of hidden explosives – al-Shebab claims it detonated four bombs in strategic locations around the port and administrative buildings this week – and threaten that Kismayo "shall be transformed from a peaceful city governed by Islamic sharia into a battle zone between Muslims and the kuffar invaders".

The group has also left a legacy of ideological support from its four-year reign. One Kismayo-born local, whose family has remained in the city, told the Mail & Guardian that al-Shabaab was part of the community.

"Some people still support them and it is not easy for the new government to diminish their authority."

As the group loses ground, defection rates may increase, but ­the hardliners will remain.

The United Nations estimates that about 12000 people fled the city in fear of prolonged fighting as air strikes and bombardments intensified. Many are still too frightened to return home.

The militants still control swathes of the country and, despite the loss of port taxes, analysts say they have revenue streams through the collection of zakah religious taxes from businesspeople across southern Somalia.

Those fighting for al-Shebab are a coalition of different clans and interests brought together under the banner of the "Ansar". As it bleeds fighters, insiders say the alliance is fracturing and there are rumours of coalition elders approaching the new government for forgiveness and plum jobs.

The most crucial challenge for Somalia's fledgling government is the choice of who fills the power ­vacuum in al-Shebab's wake.

The AU did not win Kismayo on its own. Warlords and militia of various persuasions packed up their troops, headed for the coast and joined the fray. Several key groups will want their share of the spoils.

The Ras Kamboni militia who fought alongside AU troops will want the control it once had over Kismayo. Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, leader of the group, hails from the Ogadeni, the same sub-clan as Kenya's defence minister, Mohamed Yusuf Haji.

Already, fears are rife among Kismayo's residents that Madobe's close relationship with its apparent "liberators" will mean retaliation against those from a different sub-clan who did not oppose Ras Kamboni's ouster from the city in 2009.

The Kenyan-led AU troops will need to try to build their own legitimacy. One of Kenya's aims has been to set up a buffer state, including Kismayo and the lands south of the port, as protection for the country from terrorists and Islamic militants. Any attempt to do so, particularly in coalition with Ras Kamboni's leaders, could lead to a clan backlash.

Somalia's first seemingly stable government in more than two ­decades and its newly inaugurated president will have to tread carefully.

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