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The Regional Risks to Somalia’s Moment of Hope
The Regional Risks to Somalia’s Moment of Hope
Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Down but Far from Out
Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Down but Far from Out
Somalia's newly-elected President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo addresses lawmakers after winning the vote at the airport in Somalia's capital Mogadishu on 8 February 2017. REUTERS/Feisal Omar
Commentary / Africa

The Regional Risks to Somalia’s Moment of Hope

Eruptions of joy across the Somali-speaking Horn of Africa greeted the election of President Mohammed Abdullahi Farmajo, but to deliver a cure for Somalia’s chronic ills he will need to counter distrust in neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya and win support from the African Union.

The election of Somalia’s new President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo offers the country’s international partners a new opportunity to step up efforts in advancing peace and stability in Somalia as well as the wider Horn of Africa. Yet the hopes of a stable future for war-torn Somalia may be short lived if the fraught regional dynamic, in particular the mistrust felt by regional powers Ethiopia and Kenya, are not effectively addressed. 

Farmajo’s near-landslide election victory on 8 February is without parallel. Although the eruptions of joy across the Somali-speaking Horn and the shared jubilation of citizens and soldiers in Mogadishu is rightly giving way to more sober assessments, the view that a seismic shift has occurred will be difficult to ignore.

Ensuring that this election ushers in a new dawn, and that Farmajo’s new-found political capital is well invested, a renewed diplomatic engagement by partners on numerous fronts will be required to support national-level reform and ease regional anxieties. The upcoming London Conference on Somalia, now expected in early May, represents an opportunity to do just that.

A Popular Mandate

Many hope that Farmajo’s credibility and popular support can be channelled productively. The national reconciliation talks, aimed at healing deep wounds from the civil war that broke out in 1991, have stalled and Farmajo’s strong mandate may be what is necessary to resuscitate them.

Although the entire indirect election process was extremely corrupt, Somalis have completed a relatively credible presidential election that has resulted in a peaceful transfer of power. Farmajo’s cross-clan support – the strongest platform for any Somali president – is a rare demonstration of unity in the ethnically homogenous but clan-fractured country. The mandate is indispensable for making critical progress on multiple fronts, particularly on reconciliation, addressing corruption and finalising the constitution. 

Many hope that Farmajo’s credibility and popular support can be channelled productively.

A number of factors worked in Farmajo’s favour and helped seal his remarkable victory. First, Farmajo tapped into a growing antipathy to the dominance of the Abgal, a Hawiye sub-clan that gave the country its last two presidents. Frustration among other clans was also directed at the implicit agreement between the Abgal/Hawiye and Majerteen/Darod clans that allowed them to control and share both the presidential and prime ministerial seats. 
Farmajo’s victory was also helped by former President Hassan Sheikh’s decision to support the re-election of Mohamed Osman Jawari of the Digil/Mirifle clan as parliamentary speaker cost him the Digil/Mirifle vote. This tactical support was intended to scupper Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan’s presidential campaign, since it is an unwritten rule that the president and speaker cannot hail from the same clan. This fuelled Digil/Mirifle resentment, who ended up coming together during the presidential election rounds to vote against Hassan Sheikh. 

Second, Farmajo is also well liked among diaspora and youth. More than 125 of Somalia’s 283 MPs and senators are from the diaspora and 165 MPs and senators are under 35 years of age. In addition, approximately 30 per cent of the newly elected MPs are also affiliated with Islamist-leaning groups, including Salafi movements and the Muslim Brotherhood (excluding Hasan Sheikh’s Damal Jadid). These have been, for some time, against the previous president’s perceived closeness with Ethiopia and its meddling in Somali political affairs.

Third, Farmajo benefitted from a huge wave of nationalistic fervour and a widely-shared perception he could be the right person to build a robust Somali National Army (SNA), speed up the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM)’s exit, stabilise security, curb interventions by neighbouring countries, and protect Somalia’s dignity and sovereignty. 

High Expectations

Farmajo’s immediate task will be to manage the inordinately high expectations. Unless he takes some early steps toward fulfilling his pledges of rebuilding security forces and state institutions, tackling corruption and unifying the country, dissatisfaction could trigger a serious public backlash.

A further immediate impediment to Farmajo’s proposed domestic agenda stems from the entrenched elites. Clan leaderships comprise a form of a very corrupt “deep state” that often operate against the interests of the people. Some believe this network cut short Farmajo’s tenure as prime minister in 2011. Meaningful progress will be unlikely unless these factions are controlled through a mixture of co-option and coercion.

The elections also highlighted the extent to which covert foreign funding of politicians fuelled allegations of clientalism and has impeded Somalia’s democratic transformation. Regional countries, and the Arab states of the Gulf in particular, were widely alleged to be giving cash to the top five presidential candidates. Managing competing foreign interests in future presidential elections and reducing the corrupting influence of illicit foreign funding must be a priority for the Farmajo government. One potential institutional solution would be to formalise the Integrity Commission, set up just days before the presidential elections with the aim of curbing bribery.

Regional Mistrust

On a regional and international level, Farmajo’s stated intent to reshape his country’s foreign policy could prove a daunting challenge, not least because his victory stemmed in part from his campaign image as a staunch nationalist opposed to foreign meddling – especially by Ethiopia and Kenya. As head of state, he will need to move with extra caution to navigate regional politics and ease the anxieties of these powerful neighbours who are suspicious of his brand of politics.

Unless he takes some early steps toward fulfilling his pledges of rebuilding security forces and state institutions, tackling corruption and unifying the country, dissatisfaction could trigger a serious public backlash.

Growing tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia (over Nile waters, the Grand Renaissance Dam and South Sudan) could potentially spill over into Somalia and complicate matters for Farmajo. The speed with which Cairo has moved to embrace the new Somali president is bound to increase Ethiopia’s anxieties at the growing Arab influence in the country.

The resurgent Somali nationalism that Farmajo is said to embody is causing particular concern in Ethiopia, which could become an equal, if not greater, challenge to the new president. Ethiopia and Somalia are historical rivals and Addis Ababa has intervened repeatedly in its eastern neighbour since the central government collapsed in the early 1990s. In 2006, Ethiopia moved swiftly to dislodge the popular Union of Islamic Court (UIC) Islamist government that had managed to restore peace in Somalia during its brief six-month reign. Addis saw the UIC's anti-Ethiopian posturing and Somali nationalist rhetoric in support of a “greater Somalia” that incorporates Somali inhabited areas in neighbouring countries as a threat and acted accordingly.

If Farmajo adopts a similarly antagonistic posture – as his popular “nationalist” constituency demands – then Addis will quickly act to undermine the new regime in Mogadishu, regardless of the progress made in Somalia’s domestic struggles. He will need to move slowly in relation to Ethiopia and Kenya – which shares many of Ethiopia’s concerns about Somali nationalism, given the large Somali population there – and reaching out to emphasise the shared interest between the new president and these countries in stabilising Somalia.

The new president seems to be sensitive to these concerns and has sent emissaries to Nairobi and Addis Ababa with messages of goodwill and reassurances. This is hugely positive and ought to be sustained and supported by the international community.

Still, there are signs that regional tensions may worsen. Pro-Farmajo social media activists posted a picture of an Ethiopian senior official at the election venue captioned “Ethiopia shattered by the poll outcome”. Such taunts were disseminated widely across the Somali-speaking Horn and diaspora. Farmajo’s broad domestic popularity is unlikely to protect him from Somalia’s fragile relationships with its neighbours, and an Ethiopia that senses its interests and influence to be in jeopardy will almost certainly be a spoiler for Farmajo’s agenda of reform.

The African Union’s Role

Somalia’s recent election marks another important milestone in the country: the tenth anniversary of the regional peacekeeping force AMISOM. In this time, the internationally supported mission has helped state forces in their fight against Al-Shabaab militants, provided and delivered humanitarian aid, and trained the Somali security forces.

Yet the mission’s resource and management challenges remain unaddressed, which hamper AMISOM’s peacekeeping capabilities. The African Union (AU) must tackle the dysfunction, national rivalries and frictions among the troop-contributing countries: Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti. Such tensions hinder AMISOM’s military effectiveness in fighting Al-Shabaab and add to the incoherence surrounding the planned exit from Somalia envisioned to begin in 2018. A hasty pullout would be catastrophic for Somalia and the region.

Al-Shabaab has been significantly degraded but remains a lethal force.

Since AMISOM’s deployment, Al-Shabaab has been significantly degraded but remains a lethal force with the capacity to continue destabilising the country for years to come. While Farmajo served as prime minister, Al-Shabaab lost significant territory and was ultimately forced to withdraw from the capital. With a stable government in place and Farmajo at the helm, greater effort can be made to coordinate between regional peacekeepers and national security forces to step up the campaign against Al-Shabaab and other militants, especially since a local group declaring affiliation to Islamic State briefly seized a patch of Somalia’s coastland late last year.

Since the election, there has been cause for cautious optimism as reports were circulated by several Somali news sources this week that a significant dissident faction of Al-Shabaab led by Mukhtar Robow Abu Mansur was considering surrendering to the new Somali government, in recognition of Farmajo’s huge popularity. This would be a great boost for the new administration, and all efforts must be made to help the new government peel away elements of the militants amenable to a peaceful settlement. No less important, the AU and other international partners must encourage the new government to focus on national reconciliation.

Contributors

Analyst, Somalia
Former Research Assistant, Horn of Africa
A Somali soldier takes position at the scene of a suicide attack by al Shabaab militants in capital Mogadishu on 21 June 2015. REUTERS/Feisal Omar
Commentary / Africa

Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Down but Far from Out

Somalia’s militant group, Al-Shabaab, has often defied its adversaries’ claims that it is in decline. In recent months, however, the movement has suffered setbacks, including territorial losses, high-ranking commanders killed and defections. The Somali Federal Government (SFG) and its internal, regional and international allies need to be clear-sighted about the reasons for these, and what they can do to stop another Al-Shabaab recovery.

Al-Shabaab’s set-backs – and fewer attacks by the movement during the Ramadan holy Muslim month of fasting than in previous years – are the result of three distinct and unrelated factors. First, an enhanced and largely externally directed and funded campaign including drone strikes has eliminated high-profile leaders and diminished its military capacity. Second, some of Somalia’s new federal units are demonstrating greater military effectiveness, even if they and the government still rely primarily on clan-based militias. Third, the Islamic State (IS) has challenged Al-Shabaab’s greatest internal vulnerability – its ideological cohesion.

Whether the Somali government and its allies can advance their cause will largely depend on greater agreement on priorities and coordination of action – no easy task, given the wide and diverse range of external and internal actors.

The Impact of U.S. Strikes

The U.S. has already stepped up its longstanding campaign against individual Al-Shabaab commanders and attacking the group’s military capacity. Drone strikes and ground operations have killed at least five Al-Shabaab leaders: Abdirahman Sandhere “Ukash”, from the combat operations wing (jabha), in December 2015; Hassan Ali Dhore, from the security and intelligence wing (amniyat) in March 2016; Daud Ma’alim (also known as Yusuf Haji), also from the amniyat, in May 2016; and Ma’alim Aden Hassan, a military instructor, in June 2016.

The U.S. army also claims that a drone strike in March this year killed 150 militants in a training camp in the Hiiraan region. Other successful assaults were launched by the U.S. contractor-trained Somali “Thunder” (Danab) Brigade – an elite, 570-strong commando force – from its Baladogle military air base in the Lower Shabelle region. Most recently the brigade killed Mohammed Mahmoud Ali “Dulyadeen” or “Kuno”, a leading commander reportedly responsible for the attack on Kenya’s Garissa university college that killed 147 students.

Map of Somalia. CRISIS GROUP 2016

The Clan Resistance and Islamic State Encroachment

Another important strike against Al-Shabaab came from some Somali clans, a reversal of Al-Shabaab’s usually deft management of clan relations. In February 2016, Abgal clan militias forced the group out of several locations in the Middle Shabelle region following resistance against alms (zakat) demands; Gugundhabe “Ma’awis Lei” clan militias did the same in Hiiraan, as did the original clan-based Sufi-inspired anti-Al-Shabaab militia Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a in Gedo (with the help of Ethiopian forces). The now more substantive federal states and interim administrations have also used their clan-based militias. In March 2016, for example, Al-Shabaab units were caught between the Somali National Army, Puntland’s “Darwiish” forces and Galmudug Interim Administration militias as they attempted to enter the Mudug region and its port town of Gara’ad.

The IS factor is the latest playing into a number of internal divisions that are arguably more deadly to Al-Shabaab than the military forces pitted against it.

The March 2016 losses in Mudug were the result of Al-Shabaab’s botched attempts to move fighters toward their Golis mountain stronghold between Puntland and Somaliland as the group tried to eliminate a dissident faction that had declared allegiance to the so-called IS. The IS factor is the latest playing into a number of longstanding internal divisions – including reports of internal criticism of the current Emir Ahmed Diriye “Abu Ubaidah” – that are arguably more deadly to Al-Shabaab than the military forces pitted against it. The prominent Sheikh Abdulqadir Mumim’s October 2015 pledge of loyalty (ba’ya) to IS was the most high-profile of at least four different pro-IS dissident factions across Somalia, which Al-Shabaab’s amniyat security wing ruthlessly began to exterminate in November 2015.

The internal purge against suspected IS sympathisers may explain a wave of Al-Shabaab defections to Somali government forces. These include the April defections of Ahmed Mohamud Afrah, a senior commander responsible for collecting tax (zakawat) contributions and Mohamed Hooley, a district commander in Galgadud region, as well as the defection of amniyat security officer Hassan Isaq Nuur in May. It may also explain a reshuffle of Shabaab’s governors (walis) in Lower Shabelle, Hiiraan and Mudug.

A Still-Lethal Punch

Despite these setbacks, the group can still hit hard against the Somali Federal Government and its allies, including the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Soft targets like government offices and hotels in Mogadishu are regularly subject to Al-Shabaab “complex attacks”, the latest against the Naasa Hablood Hotel on 25 June and the Ambassador Hotel on 1 June, killing civilians and a number of SFG officials, ministers and members of parliament with whom both venues were popular. An AMISOM base manned by an Ethiopian National Defence Forces contingent near the town of Halgaan, in Hiiraan region, was overrun on 9 June with significant casualties. Unlike the devastating attack on the Kenya Defence Force contingent in AMISOM’s base in El-Adde in January 2016, (Ethiopian) air power and reinforcements came quickly to Halgaan and inflicted heavy casualties on Al-Shabaab.

Reduced European Union funding and domestic issues are making some troop contributing countries threaten a draw down, with Uganda announcing its planned exit in late 2017.

Worryingly, however, AMISOM has appeared to have disengaged somewhat on the ground. Despite its critical role and sacrifice in removing Al-Shabaab from strategic locations and opening the space for political progress, it has taken both a physical and political beating over the last eighteen months. Reduced European Union funding and domestic issues are making some troop contributing countries threaten a draw down, with Uganda announcing its planned exit in late 2017.

The Double-edged Sword of Regional Peace-support

AMISOM’s role as both an operation against Al-Shabaab and as a peace-support force increasingly suffers from being dominated by nearby powers. It could almost be called “IGADSOM”: Burundi aside, all troop contributing countries are members of East Africa’s regional peace and security organisation, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Kenya and Ethiopia are Somalia’s direct neighbours; part of a wider trend on the continent of neighbours participating in stabilisation or peace operations. A troop contributor that is a neighbour can more directly support the new federal entities with whom it shares borders and knows intimately. But this also risks sidelining the development of the still weak Somalia National Army, and may indirectly risk friction between the Somali Federal Government and federal entities, as well as between the entities themselves.

The heavy presence of neighbouring states in the newer federal entities of Jubaland, South West State and Galmudug can look like a partisan foreign occupation, especially where they are still internally disputed. Al-Shabaab can easily appeal to disgruntled Somali clans by charging that foreigners are manipulating internal affairs, then portray its role as Muslim resistance to non-Muslim powers, and implicitly, the defender of Somalia’s sovereignty.

Al-Shabaab has been a tough survivor and one of its easiest wins is that it has been able to split the internal and external threats it faces.

Ethiopia’s deployment to Somalia of the auxiliary (Ogaden) clan militias – from its own federal Somali National Regional State – has also led to clashes with non-Ogadeni Somali clans in the shared border regions. In the medium term, with better-armed federal entities and clans taking the fight to Al-Shabaab, AMISOM may be faced with more conventional tasks of inter-communal peacekeeping, tasks for which governments and electorates in the troop contributing countries may have little appetite.

Sustaining Gains Against Al-Shabaab

Any strengthening of Somalia’s federal states represents a threat to Al-Shabaab. This includes the coming elections, where local clan-based electoral colleges in each of the federal states will directly select MPs. This should garner greater local buy-in for the federal government model, if not for centrally directed government. Greater stabilisation support to the more substantive federal entities will also help. But to win back the political space and undermine Al-Shabaab’s ideology, Somali actors must create and act on a coherent narrative.

Al-Shabaab has been a tough survivor and one of its easiest wins is that it has been able to split the internal and external threats it faces. The divisions that IS prompts within Al-Shabaab are worth nothing if the Somali Federal Government does not offer a third way for political dialogue and accommodation, enhancing the current policy of individual amnesty.

Despite effective U.S. training for specialised commando units, overall attempts to rebuild the Somali National Army could be strengthened by better coordination among the large number of other states – at least eleven others – involved in their training. The reality of stronger federal entities and clan-based militias also demands a rethink of how Somalia’s security forces are to be rebuilt from a less centralised starting point. Above all, there is an urgent need for a concerted program of reconciliation at all levels, without which federal states and their clan militias are still as likely to fight one another (and the Somali National Army) as they are to take on Al-Shabaab itself.

With additional research by Horn of Africa Research Assistant Abdul Khalif