Rough tactics of Somalia’s regime backfiring, critics say

Times Staff Writer

His makeshift art gallery survived warlords, gangsters and Islamic zealots during Somalia’s 16-year civil war. But when the transitional government took charge of Mogadishu, the artist known as Happy got two hours’ notice that his tiny shop was to be torn down.

As friends raced to salvage his collection of paintings depicting Somalia’s years of anarchy, government troops swept away scores of commercial squatters who had been operating in tin-roofed shacks along the capital’s oldest shopping avenue.

“They demolished my shop,” said the artist, whose real name is Abdulkhadir Aweys Abdi and whose work was featured this year in a Los Angeles Times article.

Six months ago, the fledgling government said it had liberated Mogadishu from Islamic extremists. It now finds itself under fire for heavy-handed tactics that critics warn have sapped public support and fueled a budding insurgency.


In one raid, about 100 children and teachers at a Koranic school were rounded up at gunpoint and held for three days before most were let go. Last month, government security officers arrested a clan elder who had been an outspoken critic, but quickly released him after an international outcry.

In all, more than 1,500 people have been detained in the last few months. About 1,000 remain behind bars, many without charges, according to civil society groups. Many of those released complain of torture, beatings or extortion by the police.

“We don’t even know the exact number of people still in prison because the government won’t acknowledge it,” said Abdullahi Mohammed Shirwa, an activist with Somali Peace Line, a local watchdog group. After his organization complained about arrests, he said, top government officials warned its members to stop getting involved in “politics” or other activities that might be viewed as aiding terrorists.

“You are either with them or against them,” Shirwa said. “They just dictate. But I think they are creating terrorists by harassing the people.”

Last week, on the eve of a visit to Washington by Somalian Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi, the State Department protested the government’s arrest and harassment of prominent citizens, civic activists, opposition leaders and journalists. It called for the immediate release of those unjustly detained.

The presence of about 1,500 Ethiopian troops in Mogadishu is also fueling resentment. Ethiopian soldiers invaded Somalia in December to help the transitional government seize control of the capital, but most Somalis view them as occupiers.

The man given the task of restoring security to Mogadishu is former warlord Mohammed Omar Habeb, known for his ties to the U.S. and Ethiopia. For years he ruled the city of Jawhar, 60 miles north of the capital, with an iron-fisted authority that made his region the safest in southern Somalia.

Since taking office as Mogadishu’s new mayor, Habeb, also known as Mohammed Dheere, has pursued a citywide disarmament program, including house-to-house searches, and established a police force of more than 1,200 officers. He has collected and destroyed hundreds of land mines, missiles and grenades.

“Security is the biggest challenge,” he said in an interview in his office. Asked if Somalia needed tough leaders, he said: “I wouldn’t say that I’m tough or that I’m weak.” Then he added with a smile, “But sometimes Africans don’t like to obey law and order.”

Even supporters call his style blunt and unpolished. When battling Islamic militants this year, he reportedly gunned down 130 fighters as they ran away, later quipping that he was helping the Islamic soldiers “get to paradise.” When a frustrated businessman confronted Habeb recently about the repeated closure of his shop, the mayor’s bodyguards beat the man nearly to death and dragged him through the street in front of horrified spectators, witnesses and the man’s family members say.

Government leaders make no apologies. “This is not the time for soft, reflective consensus builders,” said Gedi, the prime minister. “We need strong leaders who can implement their programs. Mohammed Dheere is the right man at the right time.”

Habeb’s brashness at times has put him at odds with the authorities of the day. In 2005, he kicked government officials out of Jawhar and looted their buildings. Later he joined the “anti-terrorism coalition” of warlords who said they had been given CIA funding to kidnap Islamic extremists and suspected terrorists. That offensive backfired and spawned an Islamist uprising, which chased him into Ethiopia.

On the streets of the capital, some praise the mayor. “He’s cleaning the city,” said Mohammed Abdi Yussef, 51, who fled Mogadishu four months ago when mortar fire killed 20 people in his neighborhood.

Schools have reopened, judges have been appointed, and government tax collectors are moving to regulate businesses.

But although the fighting that killed nearly 2,000 people this spring is largely over, residents say crime and corruption are as bad as when the warlords ruled.

Even when government curfews are not in place, Mogadishu streets empty by 5 p.m. Few dare to use mobile phones or wear jewelry in public for fear of robbery. Pirates again roam the Indian Ocean waters; a Danish vessel was recently hijacked.

Conditions are so bad that many residents openly pine for the Islamic Courts Union, an alliance of religious leaders that controlled Mogadishu for six months. The courts used public executions and lashings to control the population. Now they are remembered fondly for restoring stability.

“No question, security was better during the Islamic Courts Union,” said shopkeeper Ali Ahmed Abdi, 42. “They controlled the city and the waters. The new government has done nothing about that.”

Somalian security officials estimate that there are still 1,000 militants hiding in Mogadishu and other parts of the country. Most are believed to be remnants of the Islamic courts, but they have been joined by clans that feel marginalized by the government and by a handful of foreign fighters.

Former Islamist leaders have emerged in exile in Eritrea and Yemen, some calling for armed revolt against the government and Ethiopian troops. One militant group, known as Shabab, is said by the United States to be the Somalian wing of Al Qaeda.

In recent weeks, near-daily attacks have roiled the capital. Prime Minister Gedi has survived at least four assassination attempts since 2004, including a suicide car bombing outside his home this month that killed seven people. In an interview, he bristled at suggestions that the government was cracking down too hard or not doing enough to reach out to antigovernment clans.

“What is happening in Somalia today is not opposition,” he said. “These are people with connections to international terrorism. They only want to prevent any government from taking power.”

Gedi said his government continued to make progress in defeating the insurgents. “We have beaten them,” he said. “There is not a huge force.”

He said the government was trying to find a political solution, but that military force might be the only option.

“Remember,” he said, “we did not come to Mogadishu through political solution.”