But analysts are wary. A large number of rank-and-file fighters may have deserted Al Shabab, but hard-line commanders remain. Many of them, trained in Pakistan with Al Qaeda, are regrouping in Somalia's north.
"The Somali government is going to need very quickly to show that it brings dividends, health, education, road repairs, to the population, or they may well turn back to supporting Shabab," one Western diplomat focused on Somalia says in an e-mail. "There is a very narrow window to prove the government is the better option. Probably less than nine months. The early part of 2013 will be crucial."
Meanwhile, across the continent in Mali, events moved in the opposite direction in 2012. An ethnic Taureg rebellion spiraled into a takeover of the north by Islamist militants, while the army ousted Mali’s democratically elected president. Malians hope that in 2013 their country can reunite and that democracy will be restored. If not, Western and African leaders fear Mali could become a failed state.
Some Malians say only force can dislodge the Islamists, while others place hope in dialogue. Meanwhile, worry is growing that ethnic grudges might transform a possible intervention into a tragedy of unintended consequences.
“Families affected by crisis may seek vengeance,” says Mohamed Ag Ossad, the director of Tumast, a Tuareg cultural center in Bamako. “The state should take things in hand before there’s an ethnic war.”
This month soldiers loyal to coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo removed Mali’s interim prime minister – a brazen show of force that the US said endangered national dialogue and delayed a government recapture of the north, according to a statement on Dec. 11. Members of the security forces are also accused of beating, detaining, and killing critics of the army, as well as Tuareg and Arab men, said a December 20 report by Human Rights Watch.