Somalia | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2011

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Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) clung to office in 2010 in the face of a sustained assault by Islamist insurgents. Internal rivalries between President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, resulting in Sharmarke’s resignation, further undermined the TFG’s credibility. The main insurgent group, the Shabaab, tightened its grip over much of southern and central Somalia, enforcing a brutal form of Islamic law in areas under its control. The Shabaab launched terrorist attacks domestically and abroad, killing six members of parliament and hundreds of civilians in Mogadishu, as well as 74 people in a series of bombings in Uganda.

Somalia gained independence in 1960 as an amalgam of former British and Italian colonies populated largely by ethnic Somalis. A 1969 coup by General Siad Barre led to two decades of instability, civil strife, and the manipulation of clan loyalties for political purposes. After Barre’s regime was finally toppled in 1991, the country descended into warfare between clan-based militias, and an effective national government was never restored.

Famine and fighting killed approximately 300,000 people in 1991 and 1992, prompting a UN humanitarian mission led by U.S. forces. The intervention soon deteriorated into urban guerrilla warfare with Somali militias. Over 100 UN peacekeepers, including 18 U.S. soldiers, were killed. International forces left by March 1995 and civil strife continued over the subsequent decade.

Attempts to revitalize the political process began in 2000 with a peace conference in Djibouti, where many of Somalia’s factional leaders agreed to participate in a three-year transitional government. While this initiative quickly unraveled, a fresh effort in 2004 resulted in the establishment of a 275-seat Transitional Federal Assembly (TFA), in which the leading clans took an equal number of seats, and a new Transitional Federal Government (TFG). That year, TFA members elected the Ethiopian-backed warlord Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed to serve a five-year term as president. By early 2005, however, sharp divisions emerged within the TFG between his supporters and an alliance of Islamists and clan leaders. The Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a broad coalition of Islamists, eventually emerged as the dominant force within Mogadishu, and the group gained control of most of southern Somalia during 2006. The TFG retreated to the town of Baidoa, north of Mogadishu. Meanwhile, hard-liners within the ICU, backed by Eritrea, grew increasingly hostile toward neighboring Ethiopia. With tacit U.S. support, Ethiopia invaded Somalia to oust the ICU in December 2006, forcing the Islamists to the extreme south of the country.

The departure of the ICU prompted an insurgency against the Ethiopian-backed TFG by groups including the Shabaab (Arabic for “the youth”), a radical ICU faction. All sides in the conflict committed severe human rights abuses, and as many as 400,000 people were displaced from Mogadishu during 2007. Hopes for a political breakthrough were raised at the end of the year when a group of moderate exiled ICU leaders joined forces with non-Islamist opposition members to form the Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia (ARS).

UN-sponsored negotiations between the TFG and a faction of the ARS began in Djibouti in June 2008, and by year’s end a power-sharing arrangement was established that doubled the size of the TFA. The Shabaab did not participate in negotiations and vowed to fight on.

Ethiopian forces withdrew from Somalia in early 2009, and the expanded TFA was sworn in. It elected the chairman of the ARS, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, as Somalia’s new president, and he appointed Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke as prime minister, along with a 36-member cabinet. In response, radical Islamist forces, bolstered by foreign extremists, launched an offensive and seized much of southern and central Somalia.

Islamist insurgents kept up their bloody offensive in 2010, emboldened by a cadre of foreign jihadists. The fighting in Mogadishu was particularly intense, killing at least 2,000 civilians during the course of the year. The Shabaab struck at the heart of the government center, attacking a hotel located only a half-mile from the presidential palace in August. The attack, which began as a gun battle and ended with a suicide bombing, left 32 people dead, including five government officials and six members of parliament. The Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that there were approximately 1.5 million internally displaced Somalis, and another half million were believed to have left the country.

Despite ongoing assaults, the Shabaab was unable to oust the TFG from Mogadishu. With the support of almost 8,000 African Union (AU) troops and the financial backing of the international community, the TFG clung to strategic pockets of the capital, making some small advances by the end of the year. Meanwhile, accusations of corruption drained the TFG of much of its credibility, and its popularity was further diminished when infighting between President Sharif and Prime Minister Sharmarke paralyzed government business for months. Sharmarke resigned in September, and his replacement, Somali-American Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, was sworn in on November 1.

The Shabaab further alienated itself from the majority of Somalis by formally pledging its allegiance to Al-Qaeda in January and expanding its terrorist operations outside Somalia. Seventy-four people were killed in a series of bombings in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. The Shabaab said the attacks were a “message” to Uganda to end its contribution to the AU mission in Somalia.

The security situation in the semiautonomous region of Puntland in northeastern Somalia remained fragile during the year. Pirates based along the coast continued to profit from the breakdown in law and order by capturing foreign ships and holding their crew members and cargo for ransom. A total of 49 vessels were hijacked off the coast of Somalia in 2010, with more than 1,000 crew members taken hostage. More than 600 of them were still being held at year’s end. On land, the chaos in southern Somalia threatened to spill into Puntland. In July, government forces clashed with a Shabaab-linked warlord and his followers in the mountains outside Puntland’s commercial capital, Bossaso, on the northeastern coast.

Somalia’s ongoing conflict in combination with a persistent drought has created what Refugees International described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with more than 3.6 million people in need of assistance in 2010. The UN World Food Programme (WFP), however, halted aid to approximately one million people in southern Somalia in January 2010, citing threats and unreasonable demands from the Shabaab. The United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia expressed concerns about the WFP, accusing it of operating through a cartel of corrupt suppliers that channeled profits to the insurgents

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Somalia is not an electoral democracy. The state has ceased to exist in many respects, and there is no governing authority with the ability to protect political rights and civil liberties. The TFG is recognized internationally but is deeply unpopular domestically, and its actual territorial control is minimal. The TFA was expanded from 275 to 550 seats in 2009 following a 2008 agreement between the TFG and a wing of the opposition ARS. Of the new seats, 200 are allocated to the ARS and the remaining 75 to civil society groups. The TFA elects the president, choosing the moderate Islamist Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed in 2009. The TFG was given a five-year mandate when it was established in 2004. A new constitution and national elections were to follow, but the TFA voted in 2009 to extend the TFG’s mandate until 2011. No effective political parties exist, and the political process is driven largely by clan loyalty. A draft constitution was completed in July 2010 but had not been passed by the end of the year.

Since 1991, the northwestern region of Somaliland has functioned with relative stability as a self-declared independent state, though it has not received international recognition. The region of Puntland has not sought full independence, declaring only a temporary secession until Somalia is stabilized. Elections for Puntland’s 66-member legislature were held in 2008. The new parliament elected former finance minister Abdirahman Muhammad Mahmud “Farole” for a four-year term as president in January 2009. The result was seen as a fair reflection of the will of the legislature, and power was transferred peacefully from the defeated incumbent. Relations between Puntland and the TFG sharply deteriorated in 2010, with frustration at the under-representation of Puntland interests in Mogadishu reflected by growing calls for full independence.

Corruption in Somalia is rampant and grew worse following the overthrow of the ICU in 2006. The UN Monitoring Group On Somalia reported “entrenched corruption” at all levels of the TFG, citing examples such as food aid being diverted, port revenues siphoned off, visas sold, and bribes taken in exchange for political favors. The monitoring group also found that the Shabaab were using foreign military equipment. President Sharif dismissed his military chief in September following allegations that he had sold tons of weapons from government facilities. Corruption is also pervasive in Puntland, where the authorities have been complicit in piracy. Somalia was ranked as the worst performer among the 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Somalia’s Transitional Federal Charter (TFC), which was written and approved in 2004, calls for freedoms of speech and the press, but these rights do not exist in practice. A TFG press law passed in 2008 allowed for significant government control over the media, and journalists have struggled to operate in areas controlled by Islamist insurgents. The Shabaab and Hizbul Islam, another militant group, seized control of two Mogadishu-based radio stations in September 2010. Gunmen entered the offices of Horn Afrik and GBC, beating staff members and removing equipment. In May, Shabaab gunmen killed a journalist with the state broadcaster, Radio Mogadishu. In August, an employee of Radio Hurma was killed, apparently by a stray bullet. Also in August, a radio journalist was stabbed to death by unknown assailants in the town of Galkaiyo. Journalists faced a difficult and dangerous media environment in Puntland. A reporter with the radio station Horseed FM was jailed for six years in August for interviewing a warlord accused of supplying arms to the Shabaab.

Despite the fragmented state of the Somali media environment, photocopied dailies and low-grade radio stations have proliferated since 1991. Radio is the primary news medium. There are at least eight independent FM stations operating in Somalia and another six in Puntland. Somalis living abroad maintain a rich internet presence, and internet and mobile-telephone services are widely available in large cities. Nevertheless, poverty, illiteracy, and the displacement of Somalis from urban areas limit access to these resources.

Nearly all Somalis are Sunni Muslims, but there is a very small Christian community. Both Somalia’s TFC and Puntland’s charter recognize Islam as the official religion. The TFC provides for religious freedom, though these rights are not respected in practice. The Shabaab and other radical Islamist groups have imposed crude versions of Islamic law in areas under their control, banning music, films, certain clothing, and any other items they deemed immoral or un-Islamic. Anyone accused of apostasy risks execution. Shabaab gunmen killed a Christian man near Mogadishu in May 2010 after accusing him of spreading religious discord. A man from the town of Afgoye was shot and killed and his children abducted in July after he was accused of converting to Christianity. In August, a man was publicly executed at a stadium in Mogadishu for allegedly insulting the Prophet. At least three similar killings were reported by the Christian nongovernmental organization (NGO), Compass Direct. The Shabaab also denied religious freedom to moderate Muslims and caused deep offense among many Somalis by destroying the graves of Sufi saints.

The education system is severely degraded due to the breakdown of the state, and no system of higher education exists outside Mogadishu and Puntland. The Shabaab interferes with schools in areas under its control, demanding that all classes be taught in Arabic and ordering the removal from schools of UN-distributed textbooks it considered to be “un-Islamic.” Even the ringing of school bells has been banned in Shabaab-controlled areas on the grounds that they resemble those heard in churches. The bombing of a university graduation ceremony in December 2009, which killed a number of medical students and four cabinet ministers, was widely seen as a direct attack on the education system itself.

Freedom of assembly is not respected amid the ongoing violence. The conflict has forced many NGOs and UN agencies operating in Somalia to either reduce or suspend their activities. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 48 aid workers have been killed since 2008. In January 2010, the body of an employee of a Mogadishu-based NGO was found a day after he was kidnapped by Shabaab gunmen. In December, an aid worker with Horn Relief was shot dead and a colleague wounded by armed men in the Sanaag region of Puntland. Two men working for the international NGO Save the Children were abducted by gunmen in the Galgudud region in October and held for several days before being released. Existing labor laws are not adequately enforced. With the exception of a journalists’ association, unions in the country did not engage in activities during 2010.

There is no judicial system functioning effectively at the national level. The TFA passed a law to implement Sharia (Islamic law) in May 2009 but the government was unable to carry out the legislation in practice. In reality, authorities administer a mix of Sharia and traditional Somali forms of justice and reconciliation. The harshest codes are enforced in areas under the control of the Shabaab, where people convicted of theft or other minor crimes are flogged or have their limbs amputated, usually in public. Two teenage girls were killed by a firing squad of Shabaab gunmen in the town of Beledweyne in October 2010 after being accused of spying. A month later, four men accused of associating with a TFG-linked militia group were beheaded in Waradhumale in the Galgaduud region.

The TFG made some efforts to promote human rights, including appointing a human rights official to the Ministry of Justice. These initiatives had little effect on the ground, where the rights of Somali citizens are routinely abused by the various warring factions. The TFG, its allied forces from the AU, and militia groups have fired shells indiscriminately into neighborhoods in Mogadishu. Both sides have coerced people into joining their ranks and unlawfully recruited child soldiers.

Most Somalis share the same ethnicity and religion, but clan divisions have long fueled violence in the country. The larger, more powerful clans continue to dominate political life and are able to use their strength to harass weaker clans.

Women in Somalia face considerable discrimination. Although outlawed, female genital mutilation is still practiced in some form on nearly all Somali girls. Sexual violence is rampant due to lawlessness and impunity for perpetrators, and rape victims are often stigmatized. While the TFC stipulates that women should make up at least 12 percent of parliamentarians, the current TFA fails to meet this quota; there are just 37 women among the 550 members of parliament.

Explanatory Note: 

The numerical ratings and status listed above do not reflect conditions in Somaliland, which is examined in a separate report.