Mayor Yirishow’s death a wake up call to fight al-Shabaab cancer

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Two cancers plague the Horn of Africa region. One is the deadly monster that last month took away Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore, Kibra MP Ken Okoth and Bomet Governor Joyce Laboso and is claiming 32,987 Kenyan lives annually. The other is terrorism that killed 42,708 people worldwide in 2017-2018. Conceptually, a recent article by Bryan C. Price, the Director of the Combating Terrorism Center of the US Military Academy, titled: “Terrorism as Cancer: How to Combat an Incurable Disease” signifies the general trend in the academic and policy communities to treat terrorism as cancer.

The Mayor of Mogadishu, Abdirahman Omar Osman, is the latest high-profile victim of this cancer. Fondly known to Somalis as “Engineer Yarisow” (the “Small Engineer”, a reference to his height, his qualifications, and his practical nature), Osman survived from a deadly Al-Shabaab attack inside his office, which killed six people on July 24, 2019. But he died in Doha, Qatar where he was receiving treatment on August 1, 2019.

Osman was iconic of a new class of Somali émigré who fled during the civil war in the 1990s and prospered abroad, but have opted to return to help rebuild their motherland. A British citizen, a Labour Councillor and a pillar of the Somali community abroad, Osman returned home in 2008 to help rebuild Somalia in defiance of al-Shabaab militants. As a cabinet minister and mayor, he built a reputation as a sober voice of reason, a powerful agent of unity and reconciliation and a fiery critic of the Al-Shabaab.

Laudably, President Mohamed Abdullahi (Farmajo) has declared three days of mourning and ordered the national flag to fly at half-mast to honour the slain mayor.

I was deeply moved by the message of Yarishow’s son, Mohammed Omar: “Today the people of Mogadishu have lost their mayor; but I lost my Father”. Young Mohammed lost his father, and Somalia lost a brilliant son, but I lost a dear friend.

I first met Engineer Yarisow in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2016. I was an expert with IGAD’s task-force charged with crafting a regional strategy on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism, and he was a co-focal point for Somalia in the team. We would travel together to eight regional countries gathering evidence and validating the draft strategy, which culminated in the unveiling of a regional Center of Excellence for Countering Violent Extremism based in Djibouti.

I came to know Yarishow as a man of strong pan-African conviction, vision and unparalleled moral sinew. And he became a close friend to me and to many Kenyans. As a delegate to the Blue Economy Conference in Nairobi in November last year, Osman met Nairobi Governor, Mike Sonko, where he argued for stronger ties between our two sisterly cities.

Profoundly, Osman’s death raises serious questions about the commitment of the Somali elite and their regional and international partners to annihilate the Al-Shabaab. The million-dollar question is how the female bomber affiliated to the Al-Shabaab entered and blew herself up inside the mayor’s office where visitors are required to pass through at least four metal detectors! This gap is giving legs to the speculation that this must have been an inside job.

Be that as it may, the mayor’s death must not be in vain. It must unite the Somali people, the region and the world against the cancer of terrorism.

Like cancer, Al-Shabaab is an equal opportunity killer, its deadly cancerous cells killing more Muslims and Somalis than their neighbours. In July alone, it has claimed nearly 50 lives and maimed over a hundred inside Somalia. An Al-Shaabab attacked a hotel in Kismayu, killing 26 people and wounding more than 50 others on July 13. Another attack by the al-Qaeda affiliate outside a hotel near the international Airport in Mogadishu killed at least 17 people and injured dozens others on July 22.

But key players are dithering as Rome burns, with attacks becoming a weekly occurrence. Seemingly, the Somali power elite is playing with the Al-Shabaab fire as Mogadishu burns. In an article titled “Somalia’s president is no ally against terrorism”, Washington Examiner’s columnist, Michael Rubin, scathingly claimed that Farmajo “has not only turned his back on reform but apologises for, if not endorses, terrorism.”

Shockingly, on July 24, the President was caught on tape admonishing Somalia’s extremists for not exporting terror and exploding themselves in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and other neighbouring countries.

America is dithering, too. Its State Department and trusted ambassador to Mogadishu, Donald Yamamoto, might be right to invest their all in a strategy that seeks to rebuild Somalia from the center. But by giving a cold shoulder to the appeals by allies and Somalia’s neighbours like Kenya to list Al-Shabaab as a terrorist group and humming and hawing over the status of Africa’s deadliest terrorist group, America is presiding over a slow motion train wreck in Somalia.

Even more disheartening, America’s pundits are unabashedly nudging Washington to negotiate with Shabaab! In the aftermath of the Kismayu attack, Bronwyn Bruton, the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, an influential voice on Somali affairs in Washington’s corridors of power, proclaimed that “the best thing the US could do to help Somalia is to actually negotiate with Al-Shabaab”.

America is running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. According to AFRICOM, it has conducted 110 air-strikes against the Al-Shabaab in Somalia since June 2017.

But America pressed Kenya to release Zakariya Ahmed Ismail Hersi—a leading figure in Al-Shabaab’s intelligence wing (Amnyat) who once had a $3m bounty on his head from the US government—when he was captured by KDF in the Gedo region. Zakariya is now an axial figure in Villa Somalia.

Seemingly, the road to the Jubaland election this month and to the national elections next year risks being mined with weaponised terrorism.

Professor Peter Kagwanja is Former Government Adviser and currently Chief Executive of Africa Policy institute (Kenya).

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