Foreign aid workers are increasingly becoming targets of corrupt officials within the Somali government and the Islamist extremist group Al-Shabaab.
“The government is laden with corrupt officials and allied clan militias that are determined to use them [aid workers] for their own interests,” political analyst Hassan Abukar told IPS. “Kidnapping foreign aid workers has become a way to extract cash from NGOs. Al-Shabaab is mistrustful of the NGOs for fear of losing control in the way aid is administered and [mistakenly believes] that these relief agencies are spying on the terror group.”
Abukar’s comments come as international and independent aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders (MSF), announced this week that it was pulling out of Somalia after over two decades of delivering aid and healthcare there. The murder and harassment of their staff has made it increasingly impossible for the organisation to operate, Dr. Unni Karunakara, MSF’s international president, told reporters at a press briefing in Kenya on Aug. 14. “With the government unable to prevent attacks on themselves, attacks on aid organisations and their workers are not unsurprising.” — Ahmed Soliman from Chatham House
MSF, which was one of the very few providers of essential healthcare in the Horn of Africa nation, has persevered to provide aid through a civil war, in-fighting among local clans, and piracy. But it will immediately stop all operations. MSF has been operating in the country since 1991, and treated approximately 50,000 people a month.
“The final straw was the realisation that authorities, armed actors and community leaders were actively supporting or tacitly approving the attacks, the abductions, the killings against our staff,” Karunakara said.
Karunakara explained that in some cases, the actors MSF had negotiated safe passage with had played a role in the abuse of MSF staff, either through direct involvement or tacit approval. “Because of their actions, hundreds of thousands of Somalis will now be effectively cut off from medical humanitarian aid,” said Karunakara.
In total, 16 MSF members have been killed, and MSF says they have experienced dozens of attacks on their staff, ambulances, and medical facilities since 1991.
MSF’s departure from Somalia comes at a time when Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government is trying to change the country’s image after years of civil war and famine. Many analysts believe MSF’s departure will be a huge blow to recent efforts to bring foreign aid and investment to the country.
“The departure of MSF shows the incapacity of the new government to manage local security,” Jabril Ibrahim Abdulle, head of the Centre for Research and Dialogue in Mogadishu, told IPS.
“The MSF withdrawal also comes at a time when the Somali government is trying to change the image of the country from a transitional to permanent government and on the eve of Somalia’s new deal conference to be held in Brussels mid-September where world leaders are expected to pledge millions of dollars to the new government.”
MSF’s departure shows that although the African Union Mission in Somalia and an independent Ethiopian force have driven Al-Shabaab out of the country’s main cities, the extremist group is still able to perpetrate wide-scale violence.
Analysts say there has been a notable change in Al-Shabaab’s tactics as they renew their assault on the capital. Several government institutions and airports have been attacked or bombed and government officials, district commissioners and civil servants have been assassinated.
Recently, the extremist group attacked the Turkish embassy in Mogadishu on Jul. 27, killing three people. And on Jun. 17, the United Nations compound in the city was also attacked. Fifteen were killed in the attack.
“In this context, with the government unable to prevent attacks on themselves, attacks on aid organisations and their workers are not unsurprising,” Ahmed Soliman from Chatham House, an independent policy institute based in London told IPS. “MSF would like civilian authorities to take the conviction of those who perpetrate such acts of violence more seriously. The government can certainly reinforce this message and work towards this goal.”
MSF is not the only organisation to withdraw staff. In recent weeks, owing to the increase in violence, most international organisations have withdrawn their non-essential staff from Somalia. While violence is known to increase during Ramadan and abate afterwards, Abukar believes that it is unlikely to reduce “because of the new dynamics of Al-Shabaab factions that are killing each other for control of territories.”
Evidence of Al-Shabaab’s infighting and the defection of Al-Shabaab’s veteran militant Islamist, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys in July, could be a signal that more violence could be on the way.
Previously revered as a statesman for the group, Aweys was forced to hand himself over to government forces, giving power over to Afghan-trained leader Ahmed Abdi Godane.
Analysts expect that this will fuel more fighting, as this faction is more hardline and determined to achieve an Islamic state. The faction will also want to prove it remains a formidable force in light of the defections.
“The emergence of tribal militias loyal to the federal government, which are vying for power, the widespread of political assassinations that are never prosecuted, and the increasing inability of the government to expand its will and control beyond Mogadishu [means that violence will not abate],” Abukar said.
“As the latest U.N. Monitoring Group report on Somalia has pointed out, the Somali government cannot control a territory without international support.”
While Al-Shabaab fights within its ranks and MSF departs, with fears that more NGO’s may follow, the biggest concerns will be for the Somali people who are now cut off from much-needed medical care.
“Unfortunately the Somali people will pay the highest cost. Much of the Somali population has never known the country without war or famine. Already receiving far less help than is needed, many will no longer find the healthcare they require,” said Karunakara. “In several places, MSF has been effectively the only organisation providing quality medical care.”