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Jubaland in Jeopardy: The Uneasy Path to State-Building in Somalia
Jubaland in Jeopardy: The Uneasy Path to State-Building in Somalia
Somalia: Averting a Descent into Political Violence
Somalia: Averting a Descent into Political Violence
Commentary / Africa

Jubaland in Jeopardy: The Uneasy Path to State-Building in Somalia

On 15 May 2013, Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, leader of the Ras Kamboni militia and a close ally of Kenya, was elected Jubaland president by regional clan representatives. Hours later, Barre Hirale, a warlord from a rival clan allied with the Somali Federal Government (SFG), declared himself president. The effort to create a Jubaland state within Somalia will test the limits of federalism in that country, and threatens to touch off clan warfare not only within Somalia but also in its neighbours.

We spoke to Zakaria Yusuf, Somalia Analyst, and Claire Elder, Horn of Africa Research Assistant, to learn more about Jubaland and find out if there is a risk of conflict.

Where and what is Jubaland?

Jubaland is shorthand for Somalia’s diverse, southern-most section, linked by the course of the Juba River. The original Juba provinces covered a much larger area, but in 1975 President Siad Barre carved the then Lower and Upper Juba into Middle and Lower Juba, Gedo, Bay and Bakool regions. Gedo was created as a predominately Marehan-clan area – a clan bailiwick for the president, who was a Marehan. The nascent Jubaland State consists of Gedo, Middle Juba and Lower Juba – all areas adjacent to the Kenya-Somalia border – and does not include Bay and Bakool regions.

Who are the Jubalanders?

Though Jubaland includes Gedo and Middle Juba, control of Lower Juba and Kismayo port is the biggest prize. Kismayo city is cosmopolitan, but the dominant clans are Darod/Harti (long-term “immigrants” from present-day Puntland and Somaliland), Darod/Marehan (more recent immigrants from central Somalia and Gedo) and miscellaneous Hawiye communities. Areas outside Kismayo are predominantly inhabited by Darod/Ogaden clans – also present in neighbouring northeast Kenya and southeast Ethiopia – as well as Jareer (also know as Bantu), some Mirifle (collectively known as Rahanweyn), Awramleh (a small Irir clan) and Galja’al and Sheekhal (often included as Hawiye). The Bajuni (a Swahili speaking group) inhabit the coastal districts near the Kenya border. The city of Jamame – still under the control of the jihadist Al-Shabaab group – is seen as the home of Bimal (Dir), Jareer and mixed Hawiye groups.

Who has ruled Jubaland?

In September 2012, an alliance of pro-SFG militias, Ras Kamboni militiamen and Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF), all under command of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), ousted Al-Shabaab from Kismayo. Jamame district and most rural areas are still controlled by the radical group. The current militias are only the latest in a long line of would-be masters of Jubaland since the collapse of the central Somali state in 1991, as can be seen in the chart below:

When did the Jubaland initiative start?

The idea started to gain currency in 2009 as part of a desire among local clan, business and political elites – with support from parts of the Kenyan state, including politicians of Somali descent – to oust Al-Shabaab. It was a good fit with the U.S. government’s “dual track” policy – conceived to support local security and stabilisation in the absence of a strong central state. However, the U.S. and other Western powers were cautious about this particular project. The Transitional Federal Government (replaced by the Somalia Federal Government in August 2012) was lukewarm at best, and Ethiopia was circumspect.

Nevertheless, clan elders from the region met in Kenya from March to April 2011 – the regions in question were still controlled by Al-Shabaab to create what was initially called Azania – swearing in ex-TFG minister Mohamed Abdi “Gandhi” as interim president. Ethiopia and Marehan politicians from Gedo opposed what they perceived as an Ogaden-clan-dominated, Kenya-initiated project.

Following the Kenyan military intervention in October 2011[fn]See our report The Kenyan Military Intervention in Somalia, Feb 2012.Hide Footnote , further Nairobi-based talks began in May 2012 to broker agreement between the Ogaden, Marehan and Harti as well as many smaller clans. A 32-member technical committee was charged with establishing a Jubaland administration. But the perception of clan dominance was hard to shift since the main signatories at the Jubaland conference – with the exception of one Galja’al – were all from Darod clans. 

How does Jubaland fit with the current Somalia Federal Government?

After Kismayo’s September 2012 capture by Kenyan Defense Forces troops (by that time under AMISOM command) and allied Somali groups – especially Ahmed Madobe’s Ras Kamboni militia – the SFG and the local interim administration disagreed over who should lead the formation of a new regional federal state. Talks reconvened in Kismayo in late February 2013 paid for by Jubaland supporters.

The SFG opposed the talks and Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon declared them unconstitutional. He said they should follow the precedent of SFG-appointed interim administrations elsewhere in the south. However, the local leadership – with support from disgruntled SFG parliamentarians, Puntland (the Harti-Darod homeland) and the regional body, IGAD (Inter-Governmental Authority on Development) – argued that they should establish a regional state as per the provisional federal constitution.  There is enough ambiguity within the federal constitution for both the SFG and Jubaland to have a case, but each accuses the other of inflexibility.

What are the local and regional interests at play?

Jubaland is a potentially rich region, with good seasonal rainfall, year-round rivers, forests, and lush farm- and range-lands, as well as potential off-shore oil and gas deposits.  The harvesting and export of charcoal has become a particularly lucrative industry, a trade currently banned by UNSC resolution 2036 (2012) which nonetheless is flourishing with the cooperation of AMISOM-allied militias. The domestic stakes of the Jubaland process are high, as clan factions fight over the division of resources.

Ethiopia and Kenya have used the regional organisation IGAD as a forum to support a Jubaland regional state through a “Grand Stabilisation Plan”.  An IGAD “confidence-building mission” is currently visiting Jubaland. Kenya’s interest is strategic and economic: a semi-autonomous Jubaland as a buffer-zone from Al-Shabaab attacks on both its tourism industry and a massive Lamu port development project; secure access to the Kismayo market; and influence over oil and gas deposits in a contested maritime zone. Stability could also facilitate plans to repatriate 500,000 Somali refugees now living in Kenya. Ethiopia’s interest is primarily that an Ogadeni-dominated Jubaland could complicate its struggle against the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) in Ethiopia’s Somali-inhabited south-east. But Ethiopia also has economic interests, including the possibility of alternative access to the sea.

Is there a risk of conflict?

Clan and inter-regional tensions between Darod clans (particularly Marehan and Ogaden) were already evident during the process of electing Ahmed Madobe (a former Islamist militant) as Jubaland’s president. To counter Ogaden-clan dominance, Marehan will back Barre Hirale’s rival presidency. Smaller clans have also staked their claims to a Jubaland presidency, including Omar Burale Ahmed (a Bimaal/Dir candidate) and Abdi Baaleey Huseen (a Galja’al). Nationally, Jubaland is perceived as a struggle between Hawiye (who influence the SFG) and Darod clan elites (who feel excluded). Al-Shabaab still maintains a significant presence in southern Somalia and is exploiting divisions; for example, tensions between rival militias allowed Al-Shabaab militants to attack a Ras Kamboni military base at Kismayo airport in late April.

Contributors

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Analyst, Somalia
Former Consulting Analyst, Horn of Africa
Women take part in a demonstration against the Somali President Mohamed Abdulahi Farmajo in Mogadishu on December 15, 2020 accused of interferences in the electoral process. STRINGER / AFP
Statement / Africa

Somalia: Averting a Descent into Political Violence

Tensions are running high following the Somali parliament’s decision to extend the incumbent president’s mandate by two years. External partners should urgently convene – and mediate – talks among the country’s bitterly divided elites, to prevent its worst political crisis in years from escalating.

Somalia’s long-running political crisis has entered a new, dangerous phase. In a hastily convened session on 12 April, members of parliament overwhelmingly endorsed a bill that would delay elections by two years, in effect extending the term in office of President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo”. The move is an alarming escalation of a dispute that could well spiral into widespread violence unless Somalia’s political elites return to the negotiating table. The opposition is said to be considering forming a parallel government; cracks have deepened in a security apparatus long divided along clan lines; and the president’s opponents have vowed to resist extension of his rule. But even though the hour is late, it is not too late for the parties to reverse course. Somalia’s external partners, led by the African Union (AU) and backed by the U.S., the UN Security Council and the European Union, should step in to organise – and lead – fresh talks among all stakeholders to craft a roadmap to timely elections. All external actors should unambiguously signal readiness to impose sanctions on parties who obstruct a new initiative to find a consensual path forward.

The distrust that has prevented Somalia’s politicians from preparing elections has been on full display over the last few months. President Farmajo and leaders of Somalia’s subnational units, known as federal member states, agreed on a framework for indirect elections on 17 September 2020. But despite several rounds of subsequent talks, they have repeatedly failed to work out the voting system. Following the expiry of Farmajo’s four-year term on 8 February, the opposition demanded that he hand power to an interim government headed by the prime minister. An attempt by Farmajo’s rivals to hold demonstrations to press home this point was met with lethal force, with clashes between police and demonstrators leaving at least eight people dead. Somalia’s external partners then urged talks to resolve the deadlock. But the parties argued bitterly over the venue, the agenda and the security arrangements. When they finally convened on 3 April at Mogadishu’s international airport, which is guarded by AU troops, negotiations collapsed after four days.

In response, Farmajo and his supporters decided to raise the stakes by summoning parliament to initiate the term extension his opponents had consistently accused him of planning. During a special session convened by lower house Speaker Mohamed Abdirahman Mursal, MPs argued that the failure to reach a compromise made the 17 September agreement impossible to fulfil. They subsequently mandated the National Independent Electoral Commission to hold elections by universal suffrage in two years. The president signed the bill into law two days later.

The parliamentary decision has sent political tensions soaring to levels not seen in Somalia for years – and which could snowball into violence due to two key factors. First, the de facto term extension has shattered already low levels of trust among Somalia’s rival political actors. Farmajo’s opponents have rallied under the banner of the Council of Presidential Candidates, an alliance that includes two former presidents and a former prime minister. They represent important clan constituencies, including in Mogadishu, and have vehemently denounced the extension of Farmajo’s mandate, pledging unspecified action. These opposition candidates are allied with the presidents of the Puntland and Jubaland federal member states. Farmajo, for his part, enjoys the support of leaders from the federal regions of Galmudug, Hirshabelle and South West. With lines of communication cut between duelling parties and with the opposition said to be considering formation of a parallel government, the risk is high that parties will use force to secure political concessions. 

The crisis has sorely tested the cohesion of Somalia’s fragile army and police.

Secondly, the crisis has sorely tested the cohesion of Somalia’s fragile army and police. Hours before parliament convened to vote on the term extension, Mogadishu police chief Sadiq “John” Omar condemned what he described as a power grab and ordered his men to block the entrance to the building, arguing that parliament’s term had expired. Police Commissioner General Hassan Hijar Abdi immediately dismissed Omar and sent forces to secure the venue. Well-placed security sources told Crisis Group that a number of soldiers from Somalia’s elite Turkish-trained Gorgor army units have since abandoned base and retreated to their clan strongholds. Elders from these clans also told Crisis Group that any attempt by authorities to disarm their troops will trigger full-scale fighting. The longer the crisis lasts, the greater the danger that these rifts will grow, raising the spectre of a return to civil war.

Resolving the crisis will not be easy. Farmajo has dug in, warning outside actors to stay out of Somalia’s internal affairs. The timing of the parliamentary decision – two days before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began – was likely designed to limit the opposition’s capacity to hold demonstrations at a time when most Somalis are observing the fast. Publicly, the opposition has reacted with restraint. Privately, however, it is working to ensure that Farmajo does not get his way. If opposition politicians go ahead to form a parallel government, they will add fuel to the fire and send tensions soaring higher.

As Crisis Group has consistently advocated, there is no alternative to concerted third-party mediation to break the electoral impasse, given the distrust among Somalia’s actors. In the past, the reluctance of external partners to engage directly was understandable, not least due to Mogadishu’s insistence that it could broker a compromise through Somali-led talks. That claim no longer holds. Instead, the spiralling crisis threatens to undo all the progress made in establishing a degree of political stability in Somalia over the last two decades. Moreover, the political stalemate and the wrangling among security forces have offered an opening to Al-Shabaab militants. Emboldened by the partial withdrawals of Ethiopian and U.S. troops at the end of 2020, militants have already stepped up attacks and resumed the large-scale assaults on Somali and foreign military targets that outside forces had prevented them from staging for several years. The crisis has also offered a propaganda coup for the militants, who have boasted that it vindicates their depiction of elites as power-obsessed incompetents.

Somalia’s key external partners need to do more. They have shown admirable unity in rejecting the term extension, with the U.S., UN, AU, EU, UK and regional bloc IGAD all issuing strong statements to express opposition. Now they should urge all Somali actors to resume talks. Ideally the AU, through the office of Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security Bankole Adeoye, who has already shown interest in resolving the standoff, would mobilise external partners to step up their diplomacy. First, the AU, with the backing of key external partners, should appoint an envoy who, working in concert with the UN envoy, should meet the main parties separately and urge a return to talks. In particular, these emissaries should emphasise to Farmajo that he will need to accept external mediation, given that the opposition will not agree to talks under his supervision. To improve the chances of Farmajo shifting his position, the U.S. could engage directly with his key backers in Qatar and Turkey and urge them to prevail on the president to show greater flexibility, given the risk the crisis poses to Somalia’s stability.

External actors should make clear that they are prepared to impose targeted sanctions.

Next, external actors will need to coordinate with Somalia’s political elite in calling for an inclusive summit to discuss a pathway to elections. Convened by the AU, with the U.S., EU and UN acting as guarantors, such a meeting should focus on delivering a timeframe for elections within weeks, rather than months. Talks could build on the 17 September agreement, but would not necessarily be bound by it, as only a narrow section of the political elite – Farmajo and the presidents of federal member states – crafted the document. Realistically, however, any election would need to broadly follow the contours of the 17 September agreement, given that an indirect election is the only feasible way to hold a vote in today’s security environment, in which Al-Shabaab controls swathes of territory in the south-central Somali countryside. Ideally, new talks would involve more participants, particularly representatives of the Council of Presidential Candidates and civil society.

To ensure that parties stick to their commitments, external actors should make clear that they are prepared to impose targeted sanctions. The U.S. has signalled a willingness to take action and urged key actors to change course in response to the latest developments. The EU has also promised to take “concrete measures” if authorities do not reverse the term extension. These are positive early steps. Somalia’s elites crave the legitimacy that comes with international recognition. Many use foreign passports to travel, hold assets outside Somalia, and keep their families in the U.S. or EU countries. Credible threats to impose visa bans and asset freezes might well concentrate minds.

Despite its many domestic challenges, Somalia has managed to establish a degree of political stability in the past decade and a half. Most strikingly, political elites have fashioned consensus on election management in past electoral cycles and found a way to both hold regular votes and oversee peaceful transitions of power. The current impasse – which could easily tip into major violence – threatens to unravel those gains. Somalia’s elites must return to dialogue.