Since February, al-Shabaab and AMISOM have continued their competition for the hearts and minds of Somali communities.
Al-Shabaab appears to be using a lull in AMISOM offensive operations to pursue its own charm offensive, especially in Lower Shabelle and Middle Jubba.
In the beginning of February, al-Shabaab’s al-Ixsaan aid agency held a medical clinic for Lower Shabelle residents and their livestock 30 KM east of Qunyo Barrow.
On 20 February, al-Shabaab published photos of how Janaale was “thriving” after the withdrawal of AMISOM forces last year.
Later that month, the group displayed its efforts to ensure that farmland in Jilib was irrigated so that farmers could receive healthy yields.
Lastly, in early March, al-Shabaab claimed it brought its al-Ixsaan aid agency to El Adde and other places in Gedo to help communities that — according to the group — had been harmed in by the Kenyan forces’ operations in the region. These operations included retaliatory air strikes that allegedly killed civilians and livestock following al-Shabaab’s January mass raid and the Kenyan forces’ withdrawal.
Children also continue to bear the brunt of al-Shabaab’s indiscriminate attacks. Bombings at the SYL hotel in Mogadishu and at a football viewing party in Baidoa left over forty dead and dozens of other casualties, including young children who were injured or lost their parents.
While al-Shabaab has concentrated on grassroots development in some areas and mass killings in others, AMISOM generally has focused its outreach on elite engagement while at times showing similar efforts to reach out to locals in the last three months.
This includes the Kenyan contingent, which donated sports equipment in Kismayo in December. Notably, Kenyan forces have been accused of not fostering positive relations with all Somali communities in Lower Jubba, which left it more vulnerable to al-Shabaab’s January mass raid attack in Gedo.
Somali officials are also eager to show they can reach out to locals. After AMISOM and Somali forces took control of El Baraf in Middle Shabelle late last month, the regional governor Ali Guudlawe toured the town and promised to establish better education, health, and security.
But at the end of the day, local communities are expecting more than volleyball nets and promises. They want security and services goods to be delivered. No side — including al-Shabaab — still seems willing or capable to provide both without prejudice.