Imagine if the U.S. government only controlled a few blocks on either side of the White House, or if French troops securing the Élysée Palace were afraid to march down the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. It’s a good bet your government is in trouble when it doesn’t even control the district where the presidential palace is located. Welcome to Somalia. In the capital city of Mogadishu, the government is literally fighting for its life.
We all know the story: Somalia is the world’s biggest no-go zone. The country’s internationally supported government wouldn’t last through the night were it not for a 7,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force that protects them, and civilian toll of the last two decades of conflict been catastrophic — a quarter of the population has been uprooted by violence. In recent months, the story has gotten even worse thanks to two main Islamist militia groups, al-Shabab and Hizbul al-Islam, which control much of the country. Al Shabab professes allegiance to al Qaeda and should not be taken lightly: The group claimed responsibility for bombing two Ugandan restaurants packed with spectators watching the World Cup this summer.
The two main insurgent groups are intent on taking the capital (and as a second priority, each other). A Ramadan offensive by al-Shabab left 31 members of parliament dead. Then, on Sept. 20, a suicide bomber tried to attack the presidential palace, though he killed only himself. Three days later, street battles in the city’s south (it’s unclear where, exactly) left two dozen dead as insurgents attempted to gain control of strategic roads. No wonder every article about Somalia these days likes to trumpet the supposed fact that government forces control no more than a few blocks of the capital city.
In fact, the government controls a bit more than a few blocks — 37.5 percent of Mogadishu, according to the United Nations. That’s six city districts, or approximately 8 square miles (for comparison, Washington, D.C., is 61.4 square miles). Insurgents control another 31.25 percent, or five districts, and a final 31.25 percent of Mogadishu is considered “disputed” territory.
The Somali government’s own figures of control, as of Sept. 22, offer an even more pessimistic view: they put the disputed districts at just four, one less than the U.N. says. The AMISOM map above, dated Aug. 26, shows seven disputed districts, highlighting just how fast things can go from bad to worse. Abdi Aziz, Shibis, and Daynille, areas indicated on the map as disputed, have now presumably fallen to insurgent control. Either way, there is some nuance here; several of these disputed zones are overrun with al-Shabab and Hizbul al-Islam fighters and merely host isolated enclaves of government-controlled buildings.
The Somali government says that most civilians live on its side of the battle lines (the green areas in the map above), though there is still free movement throughout the city. Regardless, no one is truly safe. The lines that demarcate the area of government “control” are, in fact, drawn between the locations of 11 positions that peacekeeping troops have managed to secure across the city. (These outposts are marked on the map with flags, either Ugandan or Burundian according to the peacekeepers’ nationalities. There are three further positions that have been gained since the map was produced.) “Secure” areas are hardly cordoned off or safe; AMISOM troops are simply present there, usually holed up in an abandoned building, fenced off with barbed wire. In recent months, peacekeepers have been criticized for indiscriminate shelling while trying to secure or defend various positions. Al Jazeera reported, for example, that 70 people were injured in the popular Bakara Market (located in disputed territory) when the area was shelled by AMISOM on Sept. 23.
What’s more important than how much land it controls, however, is what land the government controls. While the port and airport are in government hands, the presidential palace, Villa Somalia, is located in Wardhigley district — an area in dispute. (Villa Somalia is indicated by a black triangle with a green dot inside it, near “K-2,” on the map.) An entire peacekeeper battle group — which includes about 100 men and several tanks — is devoted to protecting the palace, making it unlikely that insurgents would be able to take it in a siege.
But what the government does worry about is the road that connects Villa Somalia to friendly turf. Toward the end of August, insurgents shelled the presidential palace and made a daring attempt to cut off that main artery. “What they wanted was a psychological victory by cutting off AU and Somali government supply routes and drastically curtailing the Somali government’s movements,” according to a Sept. 3 AMISOM briefing document. After a brief setback in fighting the insurgents, however, the AMISOM troops quickly recovered control of the road.
Where are the Somali government troops in all this? Around, here and there presumably, but the truth is that no one seems to know. Some 9,000 troops have been trained and armed to help fortify the government, but desertion rates are astronomical. Perhaps no more than 1,000 soldiers — or fewer — remain. AMISOM peacekeepers, by contrast, number about 7,000.
Despite the ominous recent news, AMISOM says that the story is actually getting better, not worse, for the Somali government. And indeed, the August map above looks less bleak than the July map, which had far less area under government control. Since then, the African Union troops have gained control of a few strategic posts, including a former Coca-Cola factory and the parliament building. “AU forces have broadened their reach in multiple Mogadishu districts by establishing a series of new forward positions, effectively pushing insurgents back,” the Sept. 3 AMISOM briefing notes. “Unlike recent claims of success by insurgents, these gains are real and will continue as we fight to restore order in Mogadishu and eventually across the whole of Somalia.”
That’s the hope, at least — one that will surely depend on far more firepower for the peacekeepers. Another battalion of troops was promised to AMISOM this summer, but when they’ll be deployed is unclear. In the meantime, the current force will have to keep fighting. One block at a time.