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Somalia: To Move Beyond the Failed State
Somalia: To Move Beyond the Failed State
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Defuse tensions in key Somali region
Defuse tensions in key Somali region
Report 147 / Africa

Somalia: To Move Beyond the Failed State

Since 1991 Somalia has been the archetypal failed state. Several attempts to create a transitional set-up have failed, and the current one is on the brink of collapse, overtaken yet again by an Islamist insurgency, despite the support of an Ethiopian military intervention since December 2006. Over the last two years the situation has deteriorated into one of the world’s worst humanitarian and security crises.

Executive Summary

Since 1991 Somalia has been the archetypal failed state. Several attempts to create a transitional set-up have failed, and the current one is on the brink of collapse, overtaken yet again by an Islamist insurgency, despite the support of an Ethiopian military intervention since December 2006. Over the last two years the situation has deteriorated into one of the world’s worst humanitarian and security crises. The international community is preoccupied with a symptom – the piracy phenomenon – instead of concentrating on the core of the crisis, the need for a political settlement. The announced Ethiopian withdrawal, if it occurs, will open up a new period of uncertainty and risk. It could also provide a window of opportunity to relaunch a credible political process, however, if additional parties can be persuaded to join the Djibouti reconciliation talks, and local and international actors – including the U.S. and Ethiopia – accept that room must be found for much of the Islamist insurgency in that process and ultimately in a new government dispensation.

The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has failed in four years to create a broad-based government and now is non-functional, existing almost only in name. President Abdillahi Yusuf has marginalised large parts of the population and exacerbated divisions. The latest confrontation with parliament and the prime minister has underlined that Yusuf hampers any progress on peace, has become a liability for the country’s survival and should be encouraged to resign.

Ethiopia’s attitude has hardened over the last few months, and the mood in certain circles in Addis Ababa has become almost hostile to the TFG leaders, in particular Yusuf. The intention to withdraw reflects this frustration, as well as unwillingness to continue to accept considerable losses in a war against the insurgency that is going badly. Opposition to the Ethiopian occupation has been the single issue on which the many ele-
ments of the fractious Islamist insurgency could agree. When that glue is removed, it is likely that infighting will increase, making it difficult for the insurgency to obtain complete military victory, or at least sustain it, and creating opportunities for political progress.

For now, however, the Islamist fighters are gaining ever more ground. All major towns in south-central Somalia have been captured by one faction or another except for Mogadishu, where TFG control is ever more contested, and Baidoa. The Islamists already dominate nearly as much territory as they did before the Ethiopian invasion, and a takeover of the entire south seems almost inevitable.

While the Djibouti peace process did initiate new dialogue, it has accomplished little in its eight months, not least because the parts of the Islamist insurgency that have the most guns and territory are not participants. The key aim of its architects was to create a powerful political alliance, capable of stabilising the country, marginalising the radicals and stemming the tide of Islamist militancy. This was quickly made unachievable by splits within the insurgent Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS) as well as the TFG, and the rapid advance by the parts of the opposition, in particular radical militias like Al-Shabaab, that reject the process. The ARS faction located in Asmara (ARS-A) and its controversial leader, Hassan Dahir Aweys, also have stayed away from Djibouti. Those around the table – the ARS faction based in Djibouti (ARS-D) and the TFG – control very little territory. In addition, Yusuf has continuously undermined the process, as he believes Djibouti is ultimately a strategy to oust him.

Despite the reluctance of the international community to engage with the Islamist opposition, there is no other practical course than to reach out to its leaders in an effort to stabilise the security situation with a ceasefire and then move on with a process that addresses the root causes of the conflict. Support for the process from countries with moral authority or influence on the militias, such as Eritrea, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, will need to be sought.

Timing is vital. The African Union peacekeeping mission (AMISOM) originally sent to Mogadishu to relieve the Ethiopians is far too small and weak and will be at increasing risk from insurgent attacks following the Ethiopian withdrawal. But it would be a bad idea to try to send a UN peacekeeping mission in now, as the U.S. is urging the Security Council to do, when there is no viable peace process and sufficient troops cannot be found. The priority must be the political settlement, after which UN peacekeepers will have a vital, traditional monitoring role to play.

There is no guarantee that a political settlement is achievable. The militias that have carried the fight to the TFG and the Ethiopians and now control most of the territory will be reluctant to negotiate just when they have reason to believe that they have defeated their enemies and can take what they want with guns. But there is no good alternative to making the attempt. One way or the other, Somalia is likely to be dominated by Islamist forces. It makes sense for the international community to use the incentive of international recognition and extensive support for such a regime to ensure that it draws in a wide spectrum of militia elements, including not only ARS-A but also Al-Shabaab elements; respects the territorial integrity of its neighbours, including Ethiopia, and the internationally guaranteed rights of its people; and renounces any relationship with terrorists.

Consultations should be pursued with Muslim countries from outside the region (Morocco, Jordan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh) about troop pledges so that the UN could swiftly introduce a peacekeeping operation to support implementation of a serious cease-
fire agreement, the first step toward a genuine political settlement. If hard-core elements reject negotiation and either press on to establish a more extreme regime or fall into conflict with each other, however, Somalia will become an even more chaotic and dangerous place. No conceivable peacekeeping force could reasonably be expected to bring order. Parallel to the urgent efforts needed to reform and re-energise the political process, therefore, contingency planning should be started so that AMISOM can be swiftly evac-
uated if the security situation deteriorates further, and it is repeatedly attacked. Planning will also be needed on how such a Somalia might be cordoned off in a way that minimises its ability to export instability and per-haps terror to the region and even beyond.

Nairobi/Brussels, 23 December 2008

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.