icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
What Happens in the Gulf Doesn’t Stay in the Gulf
What Happens in the Gulf Doesn’t Stay in the Gulf
Why Somalia’s Electoral Crisis Has Tipped into Violence
Why Somalia’s Electoral Crisis Has Tipped into Violence
Op-Ed / Africa

What Happens in the Gulf Doesn’t Stay in the Gulf

Originally published in The Atlantic

A year after the Qatar crisis began, it’s having potentially dangerous reverberations in the Horn of Africa.

The Gulf crisis that began last year appears to be living by reverse Las Vegas rules: What happens in the Gulf doesn’t stay in (or even have much impact on) the Gulf. Last June, a Saudi-led coalition cut off relations with and imposed a blockade on Qatar, invoking various and shifting rationales—Qatar was, allegedly, supporting terrorist groups, interfering in Saudi internal affairs, and displaying excessive closeness to Iran. Little progress been made in resolving the dispute, and all parties seem ready to withstand it for the foreseeable future. Qatar of course would much prefer to see its foes lift their blockade. Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the United Arab Emirates, are eager to have their neighbor curb its independent foreign-policy streak. On the whole, though, both sides have learned to live with a dispute that has become part of their habitual scenery.

But reverse Vegas rules means also this: What happens in the Gulf is increasingly having destabilizing and dangerous effects elsewhere. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Somalia.

I witnessed this last month when I landed in its capital, Mogadishu. After decades of civil war, I expected to find a bombed-out, militarized shell of a once great coastal city. Mogadishu is still plagued by violence; last October 2017, 600 people were killed by one of the deadliest truck bombs in history. Still, signs of progress abound: Streetlights function, food stalls overflow with produce, shops burst with merchandise, tuk-tuks weave in and out of traffic, people gather on the capital’s beaches, new buildings are under construction, and old buildings are being restored.

Yet this fragile progress is now under threat from an unlikely source. Rivalries among Gulf powers have spilled into the Horn of Africa.

Since Somalia’s central government collapsed in the early 1990s, civil war has gripped the country for nearly three decades in one of the world’s longest-running conflicts. In 2006, al-Shabaab, a jihadist insurgent movement that later became affiliated with al-Qaeda, emerged and occupied swaths of the country, including much of the capital. A famine in 2010 that killed more than a quarter of a million Somalis was made worse by al-Shabaab’s grip on the south-central region of the country. It took until 2011, after the deployment of African Union forces, for al-Shabaab’s gains to be reversed, as African Union and Somali operations pushed the movement out of Mogadishu and began the slow process of stabilizing the country.

True, enormous challenges remained. Reconciling and allocating power and resources among Somalia’s fractious clans, and between Mogadishu and Somalia’s regions, or federal states, has proved an uphill and uneven struggle. So too has building security forces, which are often little more than an assortment of militias whose primary loyalty is to clans as opposed to any formal chain of command. Al-Shabaab proved resilient, often being a better service provider and revenue generator than the graft-ridden government. Overall, though, the general direction of the country appeared positive. The 2017 election of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as Farmajo, who enjoyed support from across Somalia’s clans, was further cause for hope.

The Gulf crisis that began last June, however, has brought another layer of complexity and strife. I hardly expected the Middle East to dominate discussions with officials in the Horn of Africa. But in all my meetings, whether with the Somali prime minister, the national planning minister, the president’s national-security adviser, civil-society leaders—or indeed African officials and Western diplomats in the Ethiopian and Kenyan capitals—the overriding theme was how the rivalry between Qatar and other Gulf countries, specifically the United Arab Emirates, would affect Somalia and the Horn of Africa more broadly.

In the wake of the crisis, and reportedly under pressure from Gulf powers to pick sides, President Farmajo declared that he wanted to keep Somalia out of the fray.

In the wake of the crisis, and reportedly under pressure from Gulf powers to pick sides, President Farmajo declared that he wanted to keep Somalia out of the fray. The U.A.E. didn’t buy it. It considered several of Farmajo’s appointments too close to Qatar and thus at odds with his professions of neutrality. In response, the U.A.E. appears to have doubled down on its support not only for competing Somali factions but also for Somalia’s federal states. In turn, Farmajo’s government, angered at what it views as attempts to undermine its authority, has cracked down on rivals, often using their alleged ties to the U.A.E. as pretext.

The Somali government’s confiscation in April of more than $9 million from an Emirati plane at Mogadishu’s airport brought the crisis to a boil. The government cites the cash as evidence of Emirati meddling. The U.A.E. denies the charge and argues the money was destined for Somali forces whose salaries it has long been paying. Regardless, the dispute has had destructive ripple effects. The U.A.E. cut off aid programs and withdrew personnel from the capital. The rift has exacerbated intra-Somali disputes, particularly between the Farmajo government and federal states. It is deepening the Somali state’s dysfunction—arguably the main reason al-Shabaab remains a threat—and risks allowing the group to muster further strength, despite thousands of lives and billions of dollars spent combatting it.

Not all of Somalia’s challenges can be laid at the Gulf’s doorstep. For years, the Gulf monarchies’ aid and investment has been a lifeline for many Somalis. Nor are Somali elites, long adept at navigating foreign clientelism, helpless victims. They often have been as skillful at manipulating foreigners as foreigners have been at manipulating them.

But rivalries among Gulf powers—which are increasingly on display in the fraught jockeying for influence around the Red Sea and in the Horn of Africa—have brought a dangerous new twist to Somalia’s instability.  It’s not too late for all to take a step back: for Mogadishu to adhere to a position of strict neutrality between Qatar and the U.A.E. and to repair its troubled relations with the federal states; for Gulf countries to cease meddling in Somalia’s domestic politics; and for Somalia’s various actors to stop exploiting for their own ends Gulf states’ economic or strategic interest in their country.

None of that would put an end to Somalia’s long-running and tragic conflict. Even without Gulf meddling, efforts to stabilize the country, curtail the threat from al-Shabaab, reconcile clans, and overcome center–periphery tensions still face a hard and long slog. But if richer, more powerful states treat the country as an expendable battleground, and if they and Somali factions pursue a form of zero-sum competition ill-suited to the country’s fractious and multipolar politics, the bloodshed and discord that have long blighted Somalia risk taking an even darker turn.

A Somali military officer supporting Hawiye opposition leaders is seen on the street of Yaqshid district of Mogadishu, Somalia. 25 April 2021. REUTERS/Feisal Omar
Q&A / Africa

Why Somalia’s Electoral Crisis Has Tipped into Violence

After months of deadlocked talks over elections, the streets of Mogadishu on 25 April witnessed heavy fighting between rival army units. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Omar Mahmood examines the factors that triggered the latest violence – and explores ways to calm the waters.

What has happened?

Clashes broke out on 25 April between forces loyal to Somalia President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” and those aligned with the political opposition as Somalia’s deepening electoral crisis descended even further into violence. Rival forces exchanged gunfire in neighbourhoods of Mogadishu, including those in which opposition political leaders reside. Local sources indicate that the clashes resulted in approximately two dozen casualties and displaced hundreds of civilians. The fighting subsided by Sunday evening and Mogadishu was quiet the next morning, with most residents staying at home. The situation remains tense, however, as heavily armed rival security units are still deployed in parts of the city, an ominous reminder to all who come across them that fighting could resume at any moment.

The violence comes on the back of the Somali elite’s repeated failure to agree on how to hold an election, with the temperature continuing to rise after President Farmajo ran over his term limit and stayed in office after 8 February. Tensions escalated further this month when parliament on 12 April extended the current government’s term by two years, infuriating the opposition who say that Farmajo’s continued occupation of the presidential palace is unconstitutional.

The immediate trigger for this week’s fighting was the influx into Mogadishu of Somali National Army (SNA) units loyal to opposition politicians. The troops, originally based in Hirshabelle in south-central Somalia, were led in by a commander who shared a clan constituency with former presidents and current opposition leaders Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Sheikh Sharif Ahmed. On arrival, those forces took up positions in areas of north east Mogadishu. Federal government troops tried to retake these positions, resulting in heavy exchanges of gunfire. Amid the chaos, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said federal forces attacked his residence.

Elsewhere in Mogadishu, government-aligned forces advanced into a neighbourhood dominated by the Haber Gedir sub-clan of the Hawiye, resulting in additional clashes with opposition forces, including those loyal to the dismissed chief of Banadir’s police, Sadiq “John” Omar, who has emerged as a vocal opponent of Farmajo’s attempts to stay in power. Government forces retreated by the end of Sunday to positions closer to the government complex, known as Villa Somalia, leaving the opposition units in control of sections of the capital.

What has the reaction been?

The mood is still very tense. While the federal government initially stated on Sunday that it had successfully repelled “militia attacks”, Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble followed this with a short statement, noting that the government is open to dialogue. But he also encouraged the army to maintain public order, seemingly signalling support for the government incursions into opposition areas of the capital. Somalia’s international partners, such as the UK, U.S., European Union (EU), Intergovernmental Authority on Development and UN, condemned the fighting and called for a return to dialogue. The Council of Presidential Candidates (CPC), an alliance of opposition figures, also condemned the violence, saying forces loyal to the incumbent were intent on resolving the crisis through violence. CPC member Hassan Sheikh Mohamud went further, characterising the events as an assassination attempt against him and opposition figure Abdirahman Abdishakur Warsame.

Any further offensive from the government is likely to spark another round of heavy fighting.

Roble then met with civil society groups on Monday and called for an immediate ceasefire, but thus far the parties have not agreed on a concrete cessation of hostilities and both sides are weighing their next move. Any further offensive from the government is likely to spark another round of heavy fighting. Opposition forces may also look to take control of key economic sectors like the airport or Mogadishu port in any resumed fighting, so as to gain an upper hand. Rival forces might also decide they need to battle for control of major thoroughfares including the Maka al-Mukarama road that leads to Villa Somalia.

Why has this occurred now?

This is the second major outbreak of violence in Somalia’s capital since the onset of a political crisis over its stalled elections and the constitutional expiration of President Farmajo’s mandate. The first incident on 19 February involved government forces firing on opposition demonstrators demanding a swift election. The violence ratcheted up tensions and put the country on edge. Then, after further discussions around the elections broke down, came the 12 April decision by the lower house of parliament extending the current government’s tenure by two years. That deepened distrust between the opposing sides and raised the political temperature to boiling point. While the opposition called for more talks, the lack of progress and diminishing prospects for a resolution of the crisis have since prompted political and security actors to gear up for armed confrontation.

The biggest risk is that continued clashes further fracture the Somali security sector along clan lines.

The biggest risk is that continued clashes further fracture the Somali security sector along clan lines. The 25 April fighting demonstrated how that sector’s cohesion has mostly broken down in the heated political environment. The areas where the latest fighting took place are neighbourhoods where pro-opposition Abgaal, Haber Gedir and Murosade sub-clans of the Hawiye are dominant. A major meeting of Hawiye representatives last week also formally rejected the parliament extension, signalling a degree of unity within the clan that dominates the capital.

At the same time, the Farmajo administration is facing difficulties paying Somali security forces. Finance Minister Abdirahman Duale Beileh revealed on 25 April that international assistance to the government has dried up, meaning it will struggle to continue funding security personnel. One Somali military officer complained to Crisis Group that presidential guard units were paid last week, but soldiers on the front lines in the battle against Al-Shabaab were not, creating further disarray in the ranks of the security services.

How can a spiralling crisis be averted?

The clashes have narrowed the window to get Somalia’s electoral cycle back on track. They also widen the gaping trust deficit between the opposition and government, if not shattering it completely, further reinforcing the need for external intervention to calm the waters as Crisis Group has advocated over the last few months.

Any mediation effort should first focus on getting the rival actors to agree to avoid further fighting. Persuading the opposition to agree to talks in the first place will be tough. The lack of trust between the parties means that neither will readily disarm or remove their forces from Mogadishu in the immediate term. The opposition will also not accept the idea that Farmajo should be treated as a legitimate incumbent, and will argue that he should be considered as just another party to the conflict. The African Union (AU), which has signalled that it will name a Somalia envoy to mediate efforts over the stalled election cycle, should move forward on this with speed, and get efforts to bridge the chasm between Farmajo and the opposition started as quickly as possible.

The AU mediator, strongly supported by the UN, U.S., EU, UK and other partners, should focus on initiating a ceasefire. Under such an arrangement, duelling forces would agree to avoid further offensives while pulling back from contested areas in which they are in close proximity, to reduce the potential for accidental confrontations sparking a wider conflagration. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) could help fill any security gaps and provide a buffer between the various factions, though the opposition has already questioned its neutrality, claiming it has lent support to Farmajo. AMISOM, through the AU special representative to Somalia, should make clear that it will play a supporting role to any AU-led mediation effort and will not take sides, to help assuage the opposition’s concerns.

Only when the waters are calmed can any concrete discussions about the electoral standoff proceed. However, resolving the electoral crisis and implementing the 17 September electoral framework agreement, which prescribed the terms of an indirect vote, will require healing and political reconciliation among Somali elites. Ideally, the process of organising the election would also now be opened beyond the original signatories of the electoral agreement, to include the wider political opposition and civil society groups. Allowing representatives from these groups to participate in future discussions on elections could assist in creating a more inclusive environment, and move the process beyond the views of just a narrow section of the Somali political elite.

International actors must signal a willingness to punish spoilers, including through targeted sanctions.

In the meantime, international actors must signal a willingness to punish spoilers, including through targeted sanctions. This might break a cycle where some of the political actors have calculated that outside powers will not go beyond public statements calling for an end to the crisis. Unity amongst Somalia’s external partners is paramount at this critical juncture, and external actors who pursue narrow bilateral interests by backing certain factions within Somalia further risk tipping the balance toward implosion. The U.S., possibly through its newly appointed special envoy to the Horn, should lean on all outside powers to press for de-escalation.  

Somalia is teetering on the brink of a major breakdown once again. The latest fighting highlighted how the worst political crisis in years could easily spiral further downward. If left unresolved, it has the potential to return the country to civil conflict, undoing fragile gains made over the past decade and a half.