EDITORIAL | Somalia’s burden of unprecedented coronavirus disease may already be exacerbated. On Friday morning this week, the federal Department of Health reported 328 cases after 42 more patients tested positive.
In a country where 16 people have so far died from COVID-19, Somalia is still below the global average of 5% deaths from COVID-19. Yet the growing number of patients could further strain the health infrastructure of a country already overwhelmed by other forces.
One of these forces is al-Qaeda-linked militant al-Shabaab (although some splinter groups are linked to ISIS). The group has killed at least 500 people every year since President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo took power in February 2017. That does not mean previous administrations were better.
But the president gave in his introductory speeches an indication that they are targeting the group using any tool available to ensure they are decimated. He promised to bombard them and limit their financial resources as well as an opportunity to engage them in conversations, no matter how controversial it looked then.
His term now has less than a year left, according to the planned political calendar for elections in February 2021. So far, it is estimated that al-Shabaab remains a potent enemy. A recent situation analysis by the US African Command, for example, says that the threat from al-Shabaab and ISIS-Somalia in East Africa remains “high”, especially as the group has changed tactics to avoid conventional warfare. The African Union Mission in Somalia admits that every inch of the liberated region of Somalia must be accompanied by a robust national security structure to ensure that al-Shabaab does not occupy them again.
If the president still had time to reverse the tide of uncertainty, the advent of COVID-19 adds to the burden. Al-Shabaab had already used the COVID-19 pandemic to spread propaganda and gain mileage in Somalia. Its spokesmen described the viral disease as being cited by “the crusading forces that have invaded the country and the unbelieving countries that support them.”
There is no evidence that COVID-19 is a biological warfare or a weapon aimed at Somalis. When the Federal Ministry announced the first case on March 16, it was from a Somali national who had come from China, which is not a country directly involved in Somalia’s stability affairs.
But al-Shabaab controls much of southern Somalia and has remained strong despite airstrikes by Somalia’s ally, the United States. The message about external forces was released just after UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a global ceasefire from all warlords in the wake of the pandemic. Even Somalia’s partners issued a statement urging all groups “to end violence and terrorism and to enable aid to reach communities in need.”
Somalia’s problem, no the federal government of Somalia, is to ensure that an employment relationship returns with federal member states. Since 2018, some federal member states had suspended cooperation with Mogadishu citing interference from the FGS.
We are concerned that if such concerns are not addressed now, there will be broken links between the various levels of government in Somalia.
Somalia already has its problems. Approx. 2.6 million people have been displaced from their homes by insecurity, floods or drought. According to UN figures, a large number of 6.3 million are at risk of starvation.
During this pandemic season, terrorists tend to take advantage of distraction to establish their intimidating regime. In late March, for example, ISIS called on affiliated groups to strike more, as authorities, their main opponents, would be distracted by COVID-19.
There is little reason to believe that al-Shabaab will be humane and stop attacking this time. They would think that its enemies have been weakened or redirected their key resources to fight coronavirus.
We believe that while Somalia, allies and neighboring countries must do everything in their power to curb the plague of COVID-19, it will be just as dangerous to drop the ball against al-Shabaab.
Al-Shabaab does not hold prisoners (except, of course, in the case of gids as ransom). But it has strange ambitions to spread the gospel of death. FGS, federal states, neighboring countries and partners must continue to crack down on terrorists.
This is because the militant group is unlikely to follow hygiene instructions and, where they are stronger, could try to disobey government directives on social distance or avoid public gatherings.
President Farmajo’s government must use clergy to counter the propaganda. It must use the military tool to weaken their force in attack. And it needs to work with federal states and neighboring countries to ensure that groups do not re-strategize or move easily.