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The Political Crisis in Somalia and the Resurgence of Al Shabaab

Shabaab attacks

Al Shabaab has recently carried out numerous attacks, including in Mogadishu and Shabelle. The recent spike in attacks coincides with a deepening political crisis in Somalia triggered by election impasse. Arguably in a bid to end the said political impasse, Somalia’s parliament recently voted to extend President Mohamed Farmajo’s mandate for two years. The decision to extend Farmajo’s term deepened the political crisis in Somalia that saw Parliament backpaddle and rescind its earlier decision. This action by Somalia’s Parliament was meant to ease mounting pressure from within and outside Somalia but also in response to ensuing chaos and heightened violence in the country’s capital. While vacating the idea of presidential extension may have reduced the chaos, the political crisis in Somalia is yet to be conclusively resolved. This crisis has caused political uncertainty and worsened the security situation once again revealing that Al Shabaab remains a potent threat. The recent happenings raise the question as to why Al Shabaab tends to increase its attacks during political crises and what does this mean for the country’s fledgling Transitional Federal Government (TFG)? To make sense of the obtaining situation, it is important to revisit Al Shabaab’s formation and historical development within Somalia’s troubled political space.

Note on Somalia

With a significantly ‘homogenous’ population, Somalia is arguably Africa’s only actual nation. But the country has been in turmoil since the collapse of President Siad Barre’s regime in 1991Contestation of the notion of ‘failed state’ notwithstanding, Somalia is described as a ‘failed state’ characterised by ‘anarchy and disarray’ with Al Shabaab’s presence there leading the US to categorise the Horn of Africa as a ‘front line of the war on terror’Somalia remains a case of concern both for African and global actors. There are multiple external interventions of varying forms, arguably aimed at combating Al-Shabaab and re-establishing the authority of the state. However, there are contestations as to how best to address Somalia’s political problem. Most of African intervenors – especially under the UN-backed African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) which has been in operation in since 2007seem to view statehood in Somalia through the lens of their own historical trajectories of state formation and regime maintenance in which case Somalia is depicted as ‘a putative African problem’ that requires an ‘African solution’Their Western counterparts, led by the US, view Somalia as a dangerous space that is home to terrorism cells which must be dismantled alongside state-building efforts as part of the US-led war on terror and global peace and security agenda.

Political crisis

At the heart of Somalia’s globalised security concerns is a persistently deep political crisis. The fall of Barre and ‘state failure’ are undoubtedly important political moments in Somalia. Yet, the current complex political situation is particularly a culmination of developments since 2004 when the national reconciliation talks produced the agreement on a TFG which was contested from the onset and has been at the centre of antagonism ever since. The first President under the TFG, was Abdullahi Yusuf whose government was viewed as ‘a narrow coalition dominated by the clans of the President and his Prime Minister, Mohamed Ghedi’. Others viewed Yusuf as ‘a puppet of neighbouring Ethiopia’ which has been a key player in the affairs of Somalia. By 2005, there were major political rifts in Somalia’s TFG, a situation that continued to polarise Somalia’s political elite rendering attempts to (re)establish centralised authority quite elusive.

The Islamic Courts Union (ICU)

Somalia’s factionalisms saw, among others, the rise of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an umbrella group of Islamists, ‘which in 2006 came to control and govern all of Mogadishu and most of south-central Somalia’. Soon after, some elements within the ICU started to take radical positions which alarmed the US and provoked Ethiopia. The US was concerned by the rising radicalisation of the ICU but was equally mindful of its horrifying experiences in 1993, when Somali militias shot down two US Black Hawk helicopters killing 18 American soldiers and dragging their bodies on the streets of Mogadishu. The US was to back Ethiopia’s military intervention in Somalia, an offensive that led to the collapse of the ICU and reinstatement of the TFG. Ethiopia recorded quick and significant military successes and engaged in efforts to support the TFG. However, the continued presence of Ethiopian troops in Somalia and their military campaigns alongside the TFG troops, contributed to the radicalisation of thousands of Somalis feeding into the increasingly-violent armed groups in Somalia, remarkably Al Shabaab.

Al Shabaab’s emergence and growth  

There are numerous sources that provide details on the emergence and growth of Al Shabaab. Of interest here is the political background and nature of Al Shabaab, for example, as presented by Menkhaus who illustrates how by 2007 Somalia continued to experience political splintering and marginalisation of radicals within TFG and opposition groups. Part of this process saw exiled ICU leaders establish the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS), that included non-Islamist Somalis, an act that angered Al-Shabab leading to its break away. By early 2009, there were significant achievements such as the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops, the Djibouti agreement that led to the establishment of a broad-based government featuring the moderate Islamist leadership of ICU’s Sheikh Sharif. Al Shabaab had to confront a monumental political test as it faced external pressure and growing internal political consensus under the presidency of Sharif. Al Shabaab further faced growing resistance from clan militias that were allied with the new TFG with no interest in seeing a radical jihadist group take over power. Despite the growing pressure, Al Shabaab continued to regroup, organise and grow. The battle of 2009 featuring the TFG, Al-Shabab and another Islamist group called the Hisbul Islamiyya, all of which identified as Islamists, was particularly significant in Al Shabaab’s formative years. This contributed to the regrouping and strengthening of Al Shabaab but also exposed the fact that Islamism is not necessarily the unifying force in Somali politics.

Al Shabaab’s resilience

By 2011, Al Shabaab had spread its tentacles to the region, including kidnappings in the Kenyan coast that paused a threat to Kenya’s multi-million tourism industry. In October 2011, Kenya was to start a military confrontation with Al Shabaab inside Somalia by deploying troops in a military operation dubbed ‘operation linda nchi’ (protect the nation) which was described as Kenya’s biggest security gamble given that this was not a conventional war. Kenya’s troops later joined AMISOM which had been mounted to, among others, combat Al-Shabaab. AMISOM is a complex peacekeeping mission with mixed and contested security outcomes. Despite AMISOM’s presence Al Shabaab continues to reinvent itselfAl Shabaab has remained resilient in the face of concerted regional and international military efforts, including by US’ drone attacks. It has since demonstrated its capability to stage sophisticated attacks both in and outside Somalia, including the West-Gate Mall attack in 2013, the Garissa University attack in 2015 and the DusitD2 attack in 2019Al Shabaab still controls some territories in Somalia where it offers services, including running Covid-19 response programmes, and is said to ‘efficiently’ move millions of dollars through formal banking systems.  

 A wake-up call

The recent wave of well-coordinated attacks indicate that Al Shabaab remains a formidable force that is dangerously active in Somali politics posing an existential threat to the TGF. The trend of Al Shabaab attacks is an indication of how the terrorist group exploits obtaining political crises to undermine the Mogadishu administration. If this trend goes unchecked and should the leadership of Somalia fail to come up with progressive ways of resolving political crises, Al Shabaab may use those opportunities to attempt to overrun the TFG. Thus, the need to step up concerted efforts for a speedy resolution of the current political problems – a and indeed putting in place mechanisms for speedy and predictable ways of managing political processes – in Somalia cannot be overemphasised.

The Political Crisis in Somalia and the Resurgence of Al Shabaab The Political Crisis in Somalia and the Resurgence of Al Shabaab Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on May 31, 2021 Rating: 5

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