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Defuse tensions in key Somali region
Defuse tensions in key Somali region
Report 100 / Africa

Somalia’s Islamists

Somalia’s long civil conflict and lack of central governing institutions present an international security challenge. Terrorists have taken advantage of the state’s collapse to attack neighbouring countries and transit agents and materiel.

Executive Summary

Somalia’s long civil conflict and lack of central governing institutions present an international security challenge. Terrorists have taken advantage of the state’s collapse to attack neighbouring countries and transit agents and materiel. The country is a refuge for the al-Qaeda team that bombed a Kenyan resort in 2002 and tried to down an Israeli aircraft. Since 2003, Islamist extremists have been linked to murders of Somalis and foreigners. If governments are to counter the limited but real threat of terrorism in or from Somalia, they need to align closer with Somali priorities – the restoration of peace, legitimate and broad-based government, and essential services – and make clear that their counter-terrorism efforts are aimed at a small number of criminals, many of them foreigners, not the Somali population at large.

Somalis in general show little interest in jihadi Islamism; most are deeply opposed. Somali militant movements have failed to gain broad popular support, encountering instead widespread hostility. The most remarkable feature is that Islamist militancy has not become more firmly rooted in what should, by most conventional assessments, be fertile ground.

Nevertheless, since the collapse of the government in 1991, a variety of Islamist reformist movements have sprung up inside the country – some inspired or sponsored by foreign interests. The vast majority are non-violent and opposed to ideological extremism. The largest groups, notably Jama’at al-Tabligh and the Salafiyya Jadiida, practise missionary activism aimed at steering lax Muslims back towards the true path of their faith. A much smaller proportion, including Harakaat al-Islah and Majma’ ‘Ulimadda Islaamka ee Soomaaliya, are politically active but not extremist, struggling rather to influence the future of the Somali state and its political system. By far the smallest reformist groups are those composed of jihadis, such as the now-defunct al-Itihaad al-Islaami and the new, nameless one fronted by Aden Hashi ‘Ayro.

Other, ostensibly Islamist entities have more complex origins and agendas. The Shari’a (Islamic law) courts that have sprung up across southern Somalia over the past decade began as essentially clan-based institutions intended to restore security and order in a stateless society. Attempts to unify and coordinate the court system, however, have been in large part politically motivated, and some courts have been hijacked by jihadi leaders. This kind of cooperation, combined with independent sources of funding, has allowed some courts to exercise greater independence from their clans, and since early 2005, the Shari’a court system in Mogadishu has been pursuing an aggressive political and social agenda.

The growth of courts, charities and businesses with an apparently Islamist character has sparked fears in some circles of a conspiracy to transform Somalia into an Islamic state. In reality, the Islamist activists are a diverse community, characterised more by competition and contradiction than cooperation, making a broad-based conspiracy implausible.

Islamist extremism has failed to take a broader hold in Somalia because of Somali resistance – not foreign counter-terrorism efforts. The vast majority of Somalis desire a government – democratic, broadly-based and responsive – that reflects the Islamic faith as they have practised it for centuries: with tolerance, moderation and respect for variation in religious observance. Ultimately, there is no better way to confront jihadism than to assist Somalis in realising such a government.

That is, of course, more easily said than done. Repeated attempts over the past fifteen years to rebuild the Somali state have ended in failure, and the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) formed in October 2004 seems determined to repeat past mistakes. Somalia’s international partners must resist the temptation to back one faction of the divided TFG and struggle instead to breathe life into the transitional federal charter, revive the defunct parliament and establish a broadly inclusive government of national unity. Unless they are prepared to take up this complex challenge, they may continue to score victories in their battles against terrorism in the Horn while losing the wider war.

Nairobi/Brussels, 12 December 2005

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.