Though often caricatured as a violent failed state, over the last year Somalia has reached a state of relative calm. Despite this week’s heinous bombing of a UN compound in Mogadishu, the al Qaeda-linked Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab, which once controlled vast areas of the country, is now in retreat. Piracy has also dwindled dramatically and now, according to a new report, is less significant than the growing problem in the Gulf of Guinea.
The international community is also showing increasing confidence in the country: the UK has just re-opened its embassy in Mogadishu and US government has provided the stamp of diplomatic recognition for the newly formed Federal Government. But despite this modicum of progress, there remain many unresolved issues threatening the country’s future. One of the most troubling is the growing debate over the status of Kismayo, Somalia’s third city.
Kismayo is at the center of a debate over who has the legitimacy to establish a federal state. The Somali federal government wants to be in charge of this process, which it called “lead from Mogadishu,” but the self-declared Jubbaland state wants to chart its own path from Mogadishu as a semi-autonomous region (similar to Puntand and Somaliland). Moreover, Jubbaland claims the legal basis for its existence is rooted in the federalism of the Somali the constitution. Mogadishu, however, cites various clauses in the same constitution that say the Federal Government must guide the creation of the new regional government.
Aside from the constitutional crisis, those currently in political control of Jubbaland state feel that they have done so much to rid the region of Al-Shabaab, incurring huge financial and human life cost, that self-administration is a fair reward. While the government has legitimate concerns, the Jubbaland state has, equally, legitimate grievances motivating a desire to shape their own future.
And therein lies the conundrum.
For months, the government has sent delegates to Kismayo, blaming the city’s authorities for undermining the constitution and the unity of Somalia. Jubbaland has responded angrily, and clan bellicosity has risen to an unprecedented level.
For their part, Jubbalanders, too, have not played a constructive role. Their respective leaders declined to intervene in recent clashes between clans, letting the situation deteriorate at the expense of innocent people. Instead of trying to calm tensions, they’ve blamed the government for sending ammunition to one faction in a proxy-war against the other.
Worse yet, Mogadishu’s stance on the Jubbaland crisis has been obscure. The current dynamic of delegates, a constant barrage of communiqués and lobbying via neighboring countries, has proved to be a recipe for failure, producing a patchwork of paranoia that has reached levels never before seen.
Mogadishu has not implemented a coherent strategy to resolve the crisis. It has expended too much political capital in mobilizing regional support for Jubbaland’s full integration into the government, while pursuing failed policies against domestic challenges. The “hard on domestic, soft on external” approach has fuelled the social polarization of southern Somalia and entrenched Kismayo’s suspicion of the Mogadishu government.
This dual-track approach to Kismayo is simply unsustainable.
The president was right to say that government should not decide the fate of Kismayon people, but he should make clear — in practical terms — his interest and intentions. More importantly, he should not hide behind IGAD/Kenya and the international community’s initiatives.
Crisis Emboldens Al-Shabaab
The failure to resolve the crisis in Kismayo will eventually provide an opportunity for Al-Shabaab to regroup. The Jubba region is also home to a conglomeration of ethnic groups who are profoundly divided along clan lines. The militants can exploit that division to regain lost territory without a functioning local administration to establish control.
For years, Kismayo was under the thumb of Al-Shabaab and was its bastion for a lucrative campaign of high-seas piracy and smuggling. Al-Shabaab not only caused havoc inside Somlia, but their depredations spilled over into Northern and Coastal Kenya. Al-Shabaab militants relentlessly attacked civilians; including grenade attacks in villages and kidnapping tourists and aid workers. In response, Kenya launched a military campaign which eventually succeeded in ejecting Al-Shabaab from Kismayo.
Kenya is thought to want to create a buffer zone in southern Somalia to keep any future militancy out of its territory. Yet, paradoxically, their meddling in local Somali politics might make things worse.
As former Somali envoy to US Abukar Arman put it: “Al-Shabaab’s aim is clear: seize the vacuum created by prevalent false sense of security and total preoccupation of political bickering.” This week’s brutal attack on the UN compound in Mogadishu is a direct consequence of that bickering.
Al-Shabaab is, ultimately, a product of the political vacuum in southern and central Somalia coupled to the frustration created by statelessness. While Mr. Arman’s suggestion of accelerating the reinforcement of Somali National Forces should be taken seriously, we cannot neglect the desperate need for Mogadishu to improve its relationship with local communities. Both AMISOM and Somali forces have often overlooked this soft approach. In reality, a military operation is meaningless unless it acts in support of community engagement in the joint effort of rooting out Al-Shabaab.
Kismayo’s Future Is In Somali Hands
While President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s call for a national reconciliation conference on Kismayo’s future is an admirable initiative, it must include more than just Kismayons. It should be a broad-based Somali national reconciliation conference. Given the raised tensions, it is unrealistic to think that Kismayo’s fate can be somehow decided from Mogadishu. And therein lies the anxiety of its leadership and people.
For this reconciliation conference to succeed, the government must engage in an all-inclusive dialogue as it cultivates a national solution. Since the Kismayo crisis is just one of many Somali political challenges, it should be part of a broad, holistic strategy.
Additionally, Kenya’s infamous ambition to create a “bufferzone” in Jubbaland must come to an end. Plenty of recommendations and suggestion have been written about how Somalia’s Southern neighbour could protect its security concerns, while respecting the country’s sovereignty. But this parochial approach has been proved wrong so far.
The Somali government is justifiably edgy about prospects of renewed proxy regional administration that is remotely controlled from Nairobi. Kenya’s stance threatens the new Somalia government in addition to not calming clan tensions in the region. It is a dangerous policy that could spill over into a renewal of open conflict.
As the standoff deepens, it’s time for the government to craft a national strategy – a Somali one, which can accommodate all parties into a credible political settlement. The failure to undermine the legitimate grievances in Kismayo carries a staggering cost: Somalia at war with itself again, at war with its neighbors, and at war, once again, with Al-Shabaab.
Photo credit: AFP