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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
Defuse tensions in key Somali region
Defuse tensions in key Somali region
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

Analyst, Somalia
Former Consulting Analyst, Horn of Africa
Op-Ed / Africa

Defuse tensions in key Somali region

Originally published in Daily Nation

Only a border post and a few hundred metres of dirt road stand between Mandera in northernmost Kenya and the town of Beled Hawo, in Somalia’s Gedo region, where clashes erupted on March 2 between forces loyal to the Somali federal government and those answering to the Jubaland administration. It claimed six civilian lives and displaced 56,000 people.

This latest violence in Gedo, which was preceded by other skirmishes in February, is yet another manifestation of the centre-periphery tensions that have plagued Somali politics for more than a decade.

It was the worst incident yet in an ongoing dispute between Mogadishu and Jubaland triggered by an August 2019 regional vote that saw Ahmed Mohamed Islam “Madobe” win a second term as Jubaland president. The federal government argues the election was flawed.

Kenya and Ethiopia, both lying a stone’s throw from Beled Hawo, are not passive observers: Nairobi supports Madobe while Addis Ababa backs the federal government of Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo”. Ethiopian and Kenyan troops, who are in Jubaland as part of the African Union mission (Amisom) fighting Al-Shabaab’s Islamist insurgency, have thus far not been drawn in.

Layer of Complexity

Still, the two regional powerhouses’ involvement adds another layer of complexity to the Gedo tensions and could set off a wider regional crisis.

The Gedo violence and rift between Nairobi and Addis Ababa harm both Kenya’s and Ethiopia’s interests.

The infighting undermines the main goal of their presence in Somalia: tackling Al-Shabaab’s long-running insurgency that threatens regional security.

Kenya, in particular, has an interest in fostering stability in Gedo given how instability in Jubaland spills over into northern Kenya. As Crisis Group details in a recent briefing, Nairobi and Addis Ababa should act quickly to resolve the dispute.

Kenya has long seen Jubaland as a buffer protecting it from increased incursions from Al-Shabaab.

The Gedo violence and rift between Nairobi and Addis Ababa harm both Kenya’s and Ethiopia’s interests.

Porous Buffer

In reality, that buffer has proven porous; for years militants have mounted attacks and put down roots in northern Kenya. Still, Madobe remains Nairobi’s partner of choice, especially as relations with Mogadishu nosedived following renewed disagreement in 2019 over the maritime border.

For Ethiopia, however, Farmajo is an ally. Since Abiy Ahmed assumed Ethiopia’s premiership in April 2018, Addis Ababa has moved from supporting Jubaland to tightening relations with the Somali government, believing that a stronger central administration can better help stabilise the country.

Both Nairobi and Addis Ababa are keen to avoid direct fighting between their forces.

Still, their discord came uncomfortably close to blows on 22 August 2019, the day of the Jubaland election, when a plane carrying Ethiopian forces attempted to land at the airport in Kismayo, the Jubaland capital, but was prevented from doing so by Jubaland and Kenyan troops.

The unambiguous beneficiary is Al-Shabaab. With forces from both sides pinned down facing each other and unlikely to commit to counter-insurgency efforts for fear of weakening their positions, the militants are finding more space to operate. Gedo residents already report an increased Al Shabaab presence and an uptick in attacks.

Pro-Jubaland Forces in Mandera

The standoff is especially detrimental to Nairobi’s “buffer” strategy, which suffers from the fact that attention is distracted from fighting Al-Shabaab. The conflict spills over in other ways too; Mandera governor Ali Roba openly complains that the presence of pro-Jubaland forces in his county is destabilising.

As for Amisom, its effectiveness is further eroded by the tensions between Ethiopia and Kenya, two of its largest troop contributors.

Ending the tensions in the Gedo region entails solving rifts at several levels. For now, the priority is for Kenya and Ethiopia to reconcile, thus opening space to address local dynamics.

After Beled Hawo, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia rightly scheduled a tripartite summit on 16 March. The meeting between Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Abiy Ahmed and Farmajo was, however, postponed indefinitely because of the Covid-19 pandemic. They should resurrect it.

Nairobi and Addis Ababa should urge Madobe and Farmajo to embrace dialogue and make difficult compromises. Mogadishu might, for example, recognise Madobe’s full term in office in return for Madobe pledging to cooperate with Farmajo.

Otherwise, the political infighting will continue playing into Al-Shabaab’s hands, helping it to entrench itself on Kenya’s doorstep.