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Stabilising Somalia for Elections and What Comes After
Stabilising Somalia for Elections and What Comes After
Briefing 74 / Africa

Somalia’s Divided Islamists

Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) must engage dissidents among the country’s insurgent groups in order to strengthen its authority and combat al-Qaeda inspired extremists.

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Overview

The growing internal schisms and factionalism within Somalia’s Islamist movement risk plunging the country even deeper into violence and bloodshed, with dangerous implications for the wider region and beyond. These divisions are also aggravating the political crisis by polarising groups further along ideological, theological and clan lines. However, a limited opportunity may now exist for Somalia’s political actors and the international community to capitalise on these divisions and re-alignments to reach out to the increasing numbers of domestic militants disenchanted with the growing influence of foreign jihadis and extremist elements bent on pursuing a global agenda.

The divisions have always existed, but remained hidden, largely because of the unifying factor of Ethiopia’s in-country military presence since December 2006. The Ethiopian pullout in early 2009; the formation of a coalition government led by a prominent Islamist, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed; and the adoption of Sharia (Islamic law) caught hard-line insurgents and groups, especially Harakat Al-Shabaab al-Mujahedeen (Al-Shabaab, Mujahidin Youth Movement), off guard. Thereafter, they had to justify their existence and continued armed opposition to the Sharif government. Personality and policy frictions escalated within the movement, and the gulf widened between those amenable to some form of a political settlement and those wedded to al-Qaeda inspired notions of a permanent global jihad.

The failure of the major offensive by a combined Al-Shabaab and Hizb al-Islam (Islamic Party) force against the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in May 2009, attributable, in large measure, to the decision by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to mount a robust defence of the government, catalysed internal dissent and fragmentation. The insurgents’ mistakes were their failure to anticipate AMISOM’s reaction and, more crucially, their misjudgement of the international community’s resolve to come to the TFG’s defence. The rise and military gains of a TFG ally, Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama’a (ASWJ, the Followers of the Prophetic Way and Consensus), composed of groups opposed to Al-Shabaab’s fundamentalism, have put significant pressure on the hard-line insurgency.

Although Al-Shabaab has regained Kismaayo and key towns and villages in the south by routing its rival (and erstwhile ally) Hizb al-Islam, it is now on the defensive and feels beleaguered. The movement is forced to fight on many fronts and to disperse its assets and combatants through broad swathes of hostile territory, far from its Jubba and Shabeelle strongholds in the south. But unless TFG forces perform significantly better, the balance of power will not be much altered.

Al-Shabaab’s military troubles have been compounded by the steady erosion of its popularity and credibility. The attempt to forcefully homogenise Islam and zealously enforce a harsh interpretation of Sharia, as well as the general climate of fear and claustrophobia fostered by an authoritarian administrative style, has deeply alienated large segments of society, even in areas once regarded as solid insurgent territory. Adding to the public disquiet has been the movement’s increasing radicalisation and the internal coup that has consolidated the influence of extremists allied to foreign jihadis. The suicide bomb attack in Mogadishu in December 2009, in which over two dozen civilians and officials were killed, caused an unprecedented public backlash. The widely-held perception that it was ordered by foreign jihadis prompted high-level defections and seriously undermined Al-Shabaab’s standing. Many feel it has irreparably harmed the movement’s political prospects.

However, Al-Shabaab and Hizb al-Islam are far from spent forces. They continue to radicalise Somalis at home, in the region and in the diaspora and remain a threat to the TFG and neighbouring states. Concern especially for their links to al-Qaeda extends to the U.S. and other leading Western states. Consequently, the TFG and its international partners should:

- pay more attention to, and try to counter-act, the increasingly extremist ideological evolution of the Islamist movement;

- step up the battle for the hearts and minds of the Somali people, including by articulating an argument that the radicalisation is largely driven by a unique set of beliefs that are alien to Somalis and an extremist and literal interpretation of holy texts; and by presenting a strategy to de-radicalise Somalia’s youth; and

- place much greater emphasis on reconciliation. The TFG should exploit divisions within Al-Shabaab and Hizb al-Islam by reaching out to less extreme elements in both organizations. Bans of those organisations or their designation as terrorist should not preclude efforts to talk with and reach understandings with individuals and factions amenable to political settlement; the international community should insist the TFG do more in this endeavour.

Nairobi/Brussels, 18 May 2010

Commentary / Africa

Stabilising Somalia for Elections and What Comes After

As tensions between the federal government and semi-autonomous federal member states escalate, Somalia's February elections are expected to be intensely contested. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2021, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to press for fair, transparent and inclusive elections, and to encourage whatever administration takes power after the vote to improve cooperation with federal member states.

The year 2021 will be pivotal for Somalia. Parliamentary and presidential elections due by February promise to be intensely contested. Already, tensions between the federal government and semi-autonomous federal member states have poisoned the air for cooperation on a number of fronts, including work on a provisional constitution and establishment of a national army and police force. The polls risk piling further pressure on the political system and triggering confrontations among various powerful actors. Meanwhile, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) looks set to begin drawing down at year’s end even as Al-Shabaab’s insurgency rages on. 

To support Somalia at this critical juncture, the European Union and its member states can take the following steps:

  • Use their diplomatic clout to push for fair, transparent and inclusive elections. Brussels and European capitals should lean on Mogadishu to avoid unilaterally proceeding with the vote, and on federal member states and the political opposition to avoid conducting the parallel polls that some contemplate. Rather, all sides should resume dialogue on election management, particularly on how to address the opposition’s complaints over what it says is the incumbent’s undue interference. Once parties reach an electoral management agreement, the EU should urge them not to take any challenges to the streets but instead to stick with the dispute resolution mechanism hammered out in September. 
     
  • To boost inclusivity, the EU and member states should call for a clearer plan for how Somali leaders will fulfil their own commitment to ensuring that women assume at least 30 per cent of elected offices.
     
  • Press whatever administration takes power in Mogadishu after the vote to improve cooperation with federal member states. Brussels should push the parties to use a formal institution such as an inter-state commission proposed in the provisional constitution as a regular mechanism for keeping centre-periphery dialogue going. This step will help rebuild trust between Mogadishu and regional capitals, allowing all sides to focus on achieving key aims related to the constitution and a national security plan endorsed at a London conference in 2017.
     
  • Signal support for a continued, albeit reformed AMISOM mission. Commit to fund the mission through the end of 2021, while clearly outlining the conditions under which European powers would extend financial support for an external security presence in Somalia in 2022 and beyond.

A Heated Electoral Contest

Somalia’s forthcoming elections will be fraught. President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (Farmajo) is seeking to do what no Somali leader has done in recent years: secure a second term in office. He faces stiff resistance from an array of politicians who are united largely by the desire to prevent his re-election. His opponents include heavyweights such as Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, former presidents who both can mobilise major clan constituencies. Meanwhile, the leaders of federal member states such as Puntland and Jubaland are also working to unseat Farmajo, risking a showdown that could pit federal against regional or clan forces if tensions between them do not dissipate.

The run-up to the vote has been marred by poor preparation and missed deadlines amid elite squabbling over management of electoral procedures.

The run-up to the vote has been marred by poor preparation and missed deadlines amid elite squabbling over management of electoral procedures. Farmajo’s opponents have declined to recognise newly formed federal and state electoral committees out of concern that the president has stacked them with loyalists. They are so worried about tampering that they are mulling conducting a parallel poll. The standoff, unless resolved, risks undermining the election’s credibility and could trigger violence if the opposition and their supporters either do not participate or reject the vote’s outcome. 

Far from seeking to build consensus, Mogadishu seems intent on barrelling ahead in defiance of the opposition’s protests. On 9 January, Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble announced that voting in the indirect elections, in which clans nominate delegates who in turn select parliamentarians, would proceed in mid-January. The opposition has rejected this unilateral approach, warning that it may lead to conflict. They have urged Somalia’s international partners to lean on Mogadishu to change course. The potential showdown carries multiple dangers. It could set off fighting in the capital, where elements of the powerful Hawiye clan strongly oppose Farmajo, and in other areas such as Gedo, where federal forces are locked in a standoff with local counterparts allied to the Jubaland administration. It could also fracture some of Somalia’s security units along clan lines. 

Post-Election Reconciliation 

If Somalia can navigate the elections without major violence, whoever assumes the presidency will still face big challenges, including a deeply divided political landscape. Reconciliation, particularly between the federal government and member states, should be a priority. This fault line has only widened as Farmajo’s administration has tried but failed to dominate member states and centralise power. The lesson from the past few years is that such attempts cannot succeed in Somalia’s federal system. Instead, they sow discord and impede important national undertakings like finalising the provisional constitution and forming a national army and police force. All such reforms have sputtered in part due to non-cooperation between Mogadishu and member states. Quick progress on these fronts is important as by 2023 a new cycle of state elections will kick off, carrying on toward the next federal election in 2024 and preoccupying many politicians.

Reconciliation, particularly between the federal government and member states, should be a priority.

Dialogue will be critical. Any incoming administration in Mogadishu – whether Farmajo is re-elected or a challenger prevails – will need to institute a regular mechanism for sustained dialogue with member states, whereby the respective leaderships convene every month or quarter to discuss issues of mutual concern, including cooperation in fighting Al-Shabaab’s insurgency. Article 111(f) of Somalia’s provisional constitution calls for such an inter-state commission to facilitate federal-member state cooperation. Discussions of thornier questions, such as the nature of power and resource sharing in Somalia’s federal model, should also take place as part of a push to finalise the provisional constitution. In addition, federal and state officials should prioritise standing up a national army and police force, with representation from all member states, as prescribed in the 2017 national security plan. 

Tensions in the southern region of Gedo, where federal troops dislodged a local administration following a disputed Jubaland election in August 2019, will require special attention. Drawing down the federal forces in Gedo would be a good first gesture toward repairing the damage done by Mogadishu’s overreach and a prelude to deeper discussions among the federal government, the Jubaland administration in Kismayo, Mogadishu and Gedo residents on the region’s future governance. The Farmajo government committed to this drawdown in discussions with Jubaland regional president Ahmed Madobe in September 2020. The situation in Hiraan, a part of Hirshabelle state where the November 2020 election of a presidential candidate aligned to Mogadishu upset a local clan power-sharing arrangement, will also require dialogue between federal and local officials. 

If frictions can be soothed in Gedo and Hiraan, it will be easier to pull Somali elites into discussions about the provisional constitution and national security architecture.

AMISOM

Security nationwide will also be high on the new president’s agenda, given AMISOM’s proposed drawdown in 2021. The African Union (AU) mission is scheduled to hand over primary security responsibility to Somali forces by the end of the year, while the UN Security Council may further adjust AMISOM’s duties when its mandate comes up for renewal in February. The planned drawdown is driven by financial considerations, with the EU insisting that its commitment to cover AMISOM troop stipends is unsustainable. Yet international security assistance in Somalia will be needed after 2021, given Al-Shabaab’s continued potency. The insurgency is firmly in control of large swathes of rural south-central Somalia and has infiltrated several cities that the government controls.

Reform of AMISOM thus seems more likely than total withdrawal. Even if the force undergoes budget cuts, one option might be to remodel it to reinvigorate its focus on offensive operations against Al-Shabaab, by increasing the mission’s mobile capabilities, for example, while shifting responsibility for its current main task of holding major population centres to Somali forces. Yet discussions of AMISOM’s future are taking place amid frictions between external actors, including the AU and UN. Some AU officials believe the UN did not engage the AU sufficiently during a Somalia security assessment that the world body organised itself, rather than jointly as Addis Ababa had expected. The AU in turn viewed the assessment as narrowly focused on AMISOM rather than wider international security assistance to Somalia. The AU plans to conduct its own assessment instead. This disconnect symbolises the lack of coherence among international partners with regard to AMISOM’s future. 

What the EU Can Do

The EU and member states have contributed significantly toward stabilising Somalia, but much remains to be done. 

First is the election. The EU and European governments, working with the AU and the U.S., should press the federal leadership to convene urgent talks with the opposition to agree upon a consensual way forward before the expiration of Farmajo’s mandate on 8 February. All sides should abide as closely as possible by the terms of the September 2020 agreement. They will need in particular to come to agreement over the electoral committees’ composition. In addition, and to ensure inclusivity, the EU should prioritise achieving the 30 per cent quota for women’s representation in elected office, calling upon Somali stakeholders to present a plan for reaching that goal.

Following an agreement on election management, the next step is to enhance the dispute resolution mechanism called for in the September electoral agreement, limited as it may be within the confines of another indirect electoral process. The EU should press all Somali stakeholders to pursue any challenges to the election results through this mechanism and to commit publicly in advance to abide by its findings. It should urge Somali elites to allow the committee to work independently, as perceptions of manipulation by any party will undermine its credibility.

After the election, the EU should press Mogadishu to reach out to aggrieved member states.

After the election, the EU should press Mogadishu to reach out to aggrieved member states. It should push to initiate a regular dialogue mechanism for state and national leadership to discuss key issues, citing Article 111(f) of the provisional constitution. The EU can link future budgetary support to Somalia to the establishment of this mechanism, as a means of incentivising regular dialogue. 

The EU and European governments should pay special attention to the standoff in Gedo and the brewing discontent in Hiraan. It should call on Mogadishu to fulfil its commitment to draw down forces in the former region and nudge federal and local authorities into dialogue in the latter. 

On AMISOM, the EU could commit to new funding through the end of 2021. Then, following deeper collaborative discussions with Somali, AU and UN actors on the future of international security assistance, it could signal its support for the mission’s continuation under a reformed mandate. Stating now the possible scope of its financial contributions and the conditions under which it would continue to fund Somali security, including AMISOM, after 2021 will also allow all parties to better understand the limits of support they can expect and to find consistent alternative funding sources for 2022 and beyond.