The political crisis in Somalia and the resurgence of Al Shabaab

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Al Shabaab attacks

Al Shabaab is a terrorist, jihadist fundamentalist group based in East Africa and Yemen. It has recently carried out numerous attacks in Somalia, including in Mogadishu and Shabelle. The recent spike in Al Shabaab’s terrorist activity markedly coincides with the deepening political crisis in Somalia caused by electoral impasse.

Somalia’s 2021 electoral impasse

In April, Somalia’s parliament voted to extend President Mohamed Farmajo’s mandate for two years, as an attempt to end the political crisis that emerged earlier in the year when both the parliamentary and presidential elections were postponed due to disagreements between the federal government and its constituent states.

The decision to extend Farmajo’s term deepened the political crisis in Somalia that saw parliament backpeddle 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 decision to extend the president’s mandate may have reduced the chaos, the political crisis in Somalia is yet to be resolved.

The ongoing crisis has caused political uncertainty and worsened the security situation, which has once again revealed how Al Shabaab remains a potent threat in the country. The recent happenings raise the questions as to why Al Shabaab tends to increase its attacks during political crises, and what it means 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 prevalently 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 1991. It is described as a ‘failed state’ characterised by ‘anarchy and disarray’. Al Shabaab’s presence in the country has led the US to categorise the Horn of Africa (HoA) 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 the African actors involved – especially under the UN-backed African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) which has been in operation since 2007 – seem 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 some sort of  ‘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 terror 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’ have undoubtedly been 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 outset and has been at the centre of antagonism ever since.

The first President under the TFG was Abdullahi Yusuf. His 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 and stymied attempts to (re)establish centralised authority.

The Islamic Courts Union (ICU)

Somalia’s factionalism saw, among other developments, 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, alarming the US and provoking 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 some of the 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, most notably 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-Shabaab leading to its break away.

By early 2009, there were significant achievements such as the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops, and 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 involving 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 engaging in kidnappings in the Kenyan coast that posed a threat to Kenya’s multi-million tourism industry. In October 2011, Kenya started a military confrontation with Al Shabaab inside Somalia by deploying troops in a military operation dubbed ‘operation linda nchi’ (protect the nation). This move was a huge security gamble for Kenya, 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 itself and proliferate.

Al 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 2019.

Al Shabaab also 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, and poses an existential threat to the TGF. The trend of Al Shabaab attacks indicates how the terrorist group is exploiting 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 take advantage and try to overrun the TFG.

Given the risk, it is imperative that the people of Somalia and their leaders step up concerted efforts for a speedy resolution to its current political crisis, and work to put in place mechanisms for speedy and predictable ways of managing the country’s political processes.

Ibrahim Magara is a Policy Leader Fellow at the EUI’s School of Transnational Governance. He is a founding director of Amani Africa Consultancy based in Nairobi, Kenya, where he is actively engaged in peace research and peace policy advice in Africa.

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