Why East Africa, world are watching closely as Somalia votes

Saturday August 18 2012
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In theory, all the regional partners want a free and fair election — which has not prevented them trying to influence the outcome by quiet lobbying.

Governments in the East African region and beyond will be closely following the Somali presidential elections to be held on August 20, hoping to see a strong government emerge to protect their interests.

What is at stake as Somalia votes? A number of countries from the region have strategic interests in Somalia that are at variance with each other, even though they have come together under the umbrella of the African Union Mission in Somalia, Amisom, to defeat Al Shabaab and stabilise the country.

In theory, regional partners want a strong central government that would permanently end the Al Shabaab threat, chase foreign terrorists from Somali soil, and end the insecurity that plagued the region since the collapse of the Somali state in 1991.

In theory also, the partners would like to see the will of the people of Somalia reflected in a free and fair election. However, the different countries are still trying to influence the outcome by quietly lobbying for candidates they believe will serve their strategic interests best.

For the member states of the East African Community, the continued conflict in Somalia has brought piracy and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons.

Piracy in the Indian Ocean has caused a sharp increase in the cost of transportation of goods. The declaration of the East African coast as a “war risk zone” has attracted huge insurance premiums, and resulted in longer voyage times and job losses.


World Bank loans to countries in the region to finance naval patrols are estimated to have reached $55 billion.

Outside the region, the United States, Yemen, Qatar, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia have been watching closely as the term of the transitional government comes to an end.

Once neglected by the international community, the increase in piracy and the entry of Al Qaeda made Somalia an international problem.
Meanwhile, Amisom is preparing to capture Kismayu — the last bastion of Al Shabaab — an operation that, if successful, will set new parameters in the intervention.

According to Dr Muhammed Ali, an expert on the politics of the Horn, the intervention in Somalia is a diplomatic tool for the countries of the region to prove that they can succeed where a UN mission failed in the early 1990s.

The states directly interested in and affected by the Somalia election are Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, and to some degree, Tanzania.

Other countries with troops in Somalia are Sierra Leone - which is working with Kenya in Sector 2 in south Somalia - as well as Nigeria and Ghana.

The US has been supportive of Ethiopia and the Amisom forces, and would like to see Somalia stabilise after the elections to ensure that the country does not continue to be a haven for terrorists.

Dr Ali says major players in Somalia have been evaluating leading candidates in the presidential elections, with a view to backing those they believe will take care of their national interests.

However, the lobbying has been quiet in order to avoid a repeat of the complaints that emerged after the 2004 Somali elections, that were held in Nairobi, where Ethiopia was perceived to have influenced the election of Abdullahi Yusuf.

Kenya has long borne the burden of Somali refugees, who are said to currently number 500,000. In addition, Kenya is host to about 1.5 million legal and illegal Somali immigrants.

Recent terrorist attacks by Al Shabaab in Kenya have brought the Somali crisis uncomfortably close, while an illicit parallel trade network worth millions of US dollars thrives between Nairobi’s Eastleigh estate and Mogadishu.

A legitimate government can be expected to formalise this parallel economic system.

Dr Amukowa Anangwe, a lecturer in conflict management and international relations at the University of Dodoma, says that even though countries in the region have varied interests and will be backing different candidates, the decisive influences in the elections will be the candidate’s clan and money.

Sources that have been following the behind-the-scenes lobbying say Kenya favours Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, a former lecturer in the United States, whom Nairobi sees as capable of introducing professionalism into Somalia’s global relations.

Nairobi has recently been uncomfortable with President Ahmed Shariff, who initially opposed the intervention of the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) last October.

Apart from the perception that he is yet to fully sever links with some ultra-religious groups in Somalia, President Shariff does not support Kenya’s push for a semi-autonomous region of Jubaland in the south.

Prior to the intervention, Kenya had been training Somali soldiers with the intention of deploying them in the proposed Jubaland, an area which was meant to act as a buffer zone between Kenya and the rest of Somalia.

However, Kenya’s Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs Richard Onyonka said the country is not backing any candidate because Nairobi wants the Somali people to choose whomever they want as president, and the Kenya government is ready to work with the person who is elected.

“Kenya has no objection to President Shariff. There is a consensus in the region that nobody is going to work a miracle after elections; the priority this time is stability, which can be achieved by continuity,” Mr Onyonka said.

The Uganda leadership is seen as being close to President Shariff, who visits the country frequently for consultations with President Yoweri Museveni.

Uganda has the biggest troop contingent in Somalia and wants to see continuity in leadership, given that a change could disrupt the military gains made by Amisom.

Last week, President Museveni, while meeting the UN special representative on Somalia Augustine Mahiga, said Uganda was ready to support Somalia as the country nears an end to the transitional period.

“The road has been bumpy, with many tasks to be accomplished. However it is good for the region to know that Somalia is heading for a new government,” President Museveni said in a statement.

Apart from Uganda, President Shariff secured the support of South Africa during the recent AU summit in Addis Ababa, where Somalia voted for the new chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Djibouti, whose population is almost purely Somali, has cultural and kinship relations with Somalia.

The first peace meetings after the collapse were called by Djibouti, leading to the formation of the first transitional government in 2000.

Regional experts say Djibouti has always wanted a functioning government in Somalia, because the factors that destabilised Somalia could also destabilise Djibouti. Many Somalis who fled the war have taken up Djibouti citizenship.

According to the new Amisom plan, Djibouti troops were set to take over Sector 4, which includes Hiraan and other areas currently controlled by Ethiopian forces. Burundi, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have also thrown their weight behind President Shariff.

Burundi, which together with Uganda has battled Al Shabaab in Mogadishu since 2007, has suffered the highest number of casualties among Amisom forces.

Ethiopia has been in perennial conflict with Somalia since the 15th century, so the stability of Somalia is seen to aid national security. Indeed, Ethiopia has made fighting Islamism in the Horn part of its foreign policy.

Ethiopia, historically, has been wary of pan-Somali nationalists because of the sizeable population of ethnic Somalis in Ogaden, where secessionist groups have been operating for decades.
Then there is Eritrea, which despite not having forces in Somalia, is also interested in the presidential outcome. Countries in the region have accused Eritrea of supplying arms to Al Shabaab, a charge the Red Sea country has denied.

According to Dr Ali, regional states have discovered that it is better to engage Eritrea because once Amisom dismantles Al Shabaab, they would not want Eritrea to give refuge to the militia’s leadership to regroup. Uganda has been engaging Eritrea for the same reasons.

The US’s main interest is to ensure Somalia is no longer a launching pad for terrorists, which poses a direct threat to its business interests and lives of US citizens, especially in Kenya, where the US has its largest investment in the region.

A recent executive order from US President Barack Obama states, “Somalia constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”

Despite having been in conflict for more than two decades, the recent discovery of oil and other minerals has sparked interest in the region in participating in the exploitation of Somalia’s mineral wealth.

Apart from oil, Somalia has uranium, and largely unexploited deposits of iron ore, tin, gypsum, bauxite, copper, salt and natural gas.

Additional reporting by Nyambega Gisesa.