Is Al Shabaab poised to take power in Somalia?

Saturday December 27 2008

Be careful what you wish for — because you may just get it.”

This conventional wisdom has come up trumps in Somalia, where for years the country wished and prayed Siad Barre would go away. The dictator finally did make his exit in 1991, but so did the Somali state.

Eighteen years later and after multiple attempts to reconstitute a functional government, it has yet to reappear.

The last such initiative under the aegis of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (Igad) produced a constitution and a parliament elected in Nairobi. Abdullahi Yusuf, a long-time protégé of Ethiopia, became the surprise choice of president of the Transitional Federal Government.

Like the Transitional National Government before it, the TFG failed to take root in Somalia’s clan-fractured environment.

In the case of President Abdi Salad’s TNG, opposition by clan-based warlords was ostensibly the problem.


They were subsequently included in the Igad process — Abdullahi Yusuf, who had dislodged an elected government in semi-autonomous Puntland by force, was a warlord himself.

The TFG was belatedly installed in Mogadishu after the Ethiopian army terminated the Islamic Courts Union’s six-month reign in the capital.

The main concern of its head of state, however, appeared to be alienating members of his ruling coalition — as evidenced by his unilateral dismissal of popular TFG prime minister Nur Adde at this late stage of the game.

President Abdullahi has used his power mainly to shut down media outlets and to jail journalists and now the TFG’s mandate is about to expire. (As we went to press, there were reports that President Abdullahi was drafting his resignation and that of his government.)

The Ethiopian gendarmes are scheduled to withdraw at the end of the year, the small AU contingent is sure to follow, and the UN has once again failed to authorise the peacekeeping mission concerned observers have repeatedly called for.

In the meantime, President Abdullahi has repulsed offers of assistance from traditional sheikhs and clan leaders alarmed by the expanding power of militant Islamists.

Pirates rule the roost in his clan homeland and another large-scale famine looms on the horizon. Abdullahi Yusuf has used his tenure to insure Somalia’s transition to an even worse state of affairs, and his Islamist opponents appear to be cut from the same cloth.

Despite Somalia’s apparently chaotic internal conditions, most of the country has settled into a state of relative peace. While the peace is periodically interrupted by the political clashes that have replaced the communal conflicts of the 1990s, these events tend to be localised and of short duration.

Somali institutions of internal governance — elders’ councils and customary law — although sometimes subject to manipulation by local warlords, have proven to be resilient in the post-state milieu.

Customary justice is based on group power relations: In the south, the complicated configuration of clans and the need to sort out the claims of individuals in the commercial domain gave rise to the use of sharia as a court of appeals — the business class funding the armed officers required to enforce the courts’ decisions.

The efficacy of this customary/Islamic hybrid saw it spread even to the more cosmopolitan social conditions in Mogadishu, where together with the Wahabi-dominated private sector and civil society, it provided the underpinning for the rise of the ICU.

The balkanised state of Mogadishu’s clan-dominated neighbourhoods acted as a counterbalance to the influence of the city’s 17 Islamic courts — before the Bush White House’s ill-fated decision to fund the warlords’ Coalition Against Terrorism.

The warlords' economic and political clout was fading and the source of the funds powering their gambit was an open secret.

Their doomed attempt to dislodge the ICU bolstered the Islamists’ legitimacy, and was a major factor behind Al Shabaab’s growth from a small but multiclan militia (it had fewer than 100 armed combatants at one point) into the military wing of the ICU movement. If the Ethiopian intervention halted the ICU’s political momentum, it also catalysed the transformation of Al Shabaab into a networked insurgency.

Six months later, a US air strike raised the profile of the enigmatic Ayro (Aden Hashi) from Al Shabaab commander-in-chief to international jihadi martyr. Al Shabaab extended their jihad to Western targets at home and abroad.

The militant faction boycotted the initiative to bring ICU leaders into a coalition government, making the Djibouti Accord of August 18, 2008 and its provisions for a ceasefire and Ethiopia’s exit, a non-starter.

During the post-ICU period, a larger pattern began to emerge out of Somalia’s episodic and localised clashes.

Although ostensibly the driving force behind this pattern, Al Shabaab remains a nebulous and fuzzy-edged organisation. The militia’s cells in Mogadishu are divided and many claiming to be Al Shabaab in the countryside are criminal gangs and opportunists.

Veteran analyst of Somali affairs Ken Menkhaus reports that most of the other armed groups, including TFG police and army units, are commanded by local warlords and operate autonomously. The Djibouti initiative resulted in armed groups on both sides becoming increasingly fragmented, and beyond the control of a single leader.

Somalia may continue to drift on the same currents that have roiled the regional and international powers’ attempts to impose order.

The status quo may even survive the withdrawal of the Ethiopian military.

But as Menkaus warns, “Seismic political, social, and security changes are occurring in the country, and none bode well for the people of Somalia or the international community.”

The time to act for regional and international actors concerned over the prospects of a Taliban-style government is now, but the latest UN refusal to send a peacekeeping mission deems this remote.

As things stand now, the withdrawal favours Al Shabaab consolidating its power in key regions and especially the economically critical urban nodes of Kismayu and Mogadishu.

This provides the foundation for a sustained campaign culminating in their control of southern and central Somalia.

Islamist radicals like Aweys and Hassan Turki re-emerge as key figures in the new proto-government, which proceeds to recruit TFG hardliners, Wahabi tycoons and urban professionals backing the modernist Islamic Brotherhood model of reform.

The progressives would be essential for reviving and developing the capacity of a Somali state, perhaps acting as a moderating influence once it is established.

Although such a government would begin on a broader and stronger foundation than previous post-collapse entities, there is a matrix of variables it will have to contend with in the course of managing the difficult transition from liberation movement to functioning government.

These include the usual factors of clan competition and internal factionalisation.

The traditional non-Wahabi ulama, antagonised by the desecration of saints’ tombs and assassination of their leaders, are already organising resistance under the banner of Ahlu Sunnah al Jamaha. An Ethiopian withdrawal may prompt some hardline groups to switch sides.

Controlling dissident elements would require either brutal suppression or skilful political negotiation or a combination of both.

Past behaviour indicates the former — including a purge of Somalia’s active media houses and other civil-society actors — to be the more likely option.

This would in turn give rise to an anti-Islamist insurgency before long — the unsettled state of Ethiopia’s ethnically Somali Ogaden region and Eritrea’s support for the jihadis prolonging their proxy battle on Somali soil.

The matrix also includes the prospects of a mega-humanitarian disaster exacerbated by difficulties of providing relief created by Islamist radicals and extended by a dysfunctional economy.

Remittances from the Diaspora will continue to be crucial. While the Islamists can expect support from sympathetic ideologues in the Middle East, the state of the global economy does not augur well for external resource flows regardless of the source.

Somalia's northern regions may prove to be the more important factor.

The Islamists have declared their intention to invade Somaliland and depose its yet-to-be recognised government.

To do this, they must pass through Puntland first.

Puntland claims two provinces of Somaliland and the adoption of Islamic Courts in many areas of the semi-autonomous region after the ICU took over in Mogadishu belies the pro-jihadis’ strength. The rise of the pirate economy, however, complicates an Al Shabaab surge in the north.

Al Shabaab is committed to eliminating the pirate problem. The pirates are loosely organised, but possess men under arms, the resources to recruit more, and an extensive support network. They are unlikely to submit without a fight.

Their role as potential frontline opponents of the Islamist regime does not alter the urgent need to contain Puntland’s mischievous Jalle Rogers on the high seas.

But the West’s contribution to Somalia’s instability predates the fall of Barre; when viewed through the prism of Somalia’s evolving power map, the proposal issued at the recent international conference in Nairobi to invade and sweep the pirates’ coastal bases appears in an entirely new light.

Paul Goldsmith is a researcher based in Meru