Somalia learnt little from its worst attack

It has been two years since Somalia’s most devastating terrorist attack on October 14, 2017 in the capital Mogadishu that killed more than 600 people and left many others injured or missing. As we mark this sad anniversary and send heartfelt condolences, we owe it to the victims to ask questions on the city’s preparedness to effectively respond to disasters of a similar or worse scale in future.

I was the mayor of Mogadishu and governor of the Benadir region when the horrific attacks occurred, and I vividly recall the crisis that Mogadishu was plunged into. I was among the first to reach the scene, having passed the spot only 10 minutes earlier heading to the office. We realised quickly that our limited disaster response capacity was simply no match for the disaster, and we resorted to mass mobilisation of the people to support the disaster response and give the support they did.

Two years down the line, I regret to note that the fundamental measures that are critically needed and were strongly recommended to strengthen the security and disaster posture and response of Mogadishu and the rest of Somalia to such disasters are yet to be implemented. I had begun implementing the measures while I was in office, but they were abandoned after I left.

This inaction by federal and local authorities has left millions of people in a very vulnerable and precarious position considering that the threat of catastrophic terrorist attacks still hangs over our heads. Disasters may be unavoidable, but with planning and preparation, we can attempt to minimise their negative impact.

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For a start, functioning and adequate blood banks are yet to be operationalised despite the intolerable tragedy that their absence caused after the attack. Many of the initial casualties rushed to various hospitals did not access emergency medical treatment partly due to the absence of adequate blood. Hospitals were also unable to cope with blood donations since they lacked blood storage capacity. The situation hasn’t changed much since then.

Equally neglected is the recommendation and need to establish emergency disaster centres in Mogadishu and around the country, complete with trained staff and equipment to speed up disaster response and save lives. When I was the mayor, I had started the process of setting up one emergency centre for every four districts in Mogadishu (there are 17 districts in the capital), but this initiative was not pursued further by my successors.

Third, after the attacks, we had noted a compelling need to decentralise some elements of the security function from the federal to the city authorities as part of a wider security sector reform to better prevent and tackle the terror threat. This strategy was built on a community policing approach that integrates the people on the ground into the security structure and decision-making to enhance local ownership and improve the working relationship between security institutions and citizens.

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If this approach were fully implemented, we would see a greater readiness by the people to share valuable and timely information and intelligence about terrorist activities and plans. Unfortunately, the federal government still maintains a tight hold of the security apparatus in Mogadishu despite the glaring failures of this top-down approach.

Following the horrific loss of lives and property caused by the October 14 attack, there was a huge outpouring of grief and anger as Somali nationals in the country and beyond committed to stand with the government in taking on the terrorist threat within our midst. The terrorist group lost the last vestiges of credibility and support they may still have had. This was a golden opportunity for the government to deepen its working relationship with the citizens to tackle terrorism through community policing. Unfortunately, this opportunity was not seized.

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Terrorism in Somalia cannot be won by guns alone — it’s only when the people trust the government enough that they would be willing to go to any lengths to work with state apparatus against the trouble makers of all shapes and stripes.

Lastly, the government needs to take responsibility of the security failures that led to the attack and provide more fitting compensation for the victims, including orphans, widows, disabled and businesspeople who were affected significantly and are still suffering silently. It should also provide long-term healthcare support to those still carrying the painful and costly physical and psychological wounds of the attack.

Despite the missed opportunities, it’s not too late for urgent and concrete steps to be taken to strengthen the disaster and security architecture in the country for the benefit of the people. We cannot afford to fail the many victims of the October 14 attack and the rest of our people.

Mr Thabit is the former mayor of Mogadishu and governor of the Benadir region. He’s also the leader of the People’s Power Party (Xisbiga Awooda Shacabka).

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