Foreign Policy Blogs

Somalia and the Slippery Slope of ‘Jubbaland’



If the latest development in Somalia gives you the feeling of being trapped in the Twilight Zone — somewhere between relative security and renewed bloodshed — you are not alone. Due to the array of competing internal and external interest groups and the federal government’s lack of clear grand strategy or capacity to assert its authority, the formation of “Jubbaland State” is proving as highly volatile as some have predicted.

Jubbaland is a microcosm of the Somali political conundrum. Not that it is only second to Mogadishu in terms clan-based violence, it has all the highly flammable political elements necessary to detrimentally undermine the current government, and, God-forbid, reignite the 1991 civil war all over again.

Contested Authority

For decades, since the founding of the Somali Youth Club (later League,) May 15 has been a special day in the Somali history. In its heyday, SYL was broadly recognized as the most authentic country-wide patriotic movement. This year was even more special as it marked the 70th anniversary of its founding. However, the anniversary passed without any fanfare because of two particular political and legislative trials.

Two contending men with heavily armed militias have each declared himself the “President of Jubbaland” (and a third one has declared himself as the President of Wamoland.) With this latest development, the city of Kismaayo, in due course, could suffer the Galka’yo syndrome where non-compromising clan contention has forced the town of Galka’yo into a demarcation of several political fiefdoms ruled by several different Presidents.

Meanwhile, a coalition of MPs has submitted a motion forcing Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon to appear before the parliament to seek vote of confidence. Though their declared motive was that the Council of Ministers has neglected its duty and that some ministries are hardly functioning — a concern that many would agree to — the timing and the most vocal representatives of the coalition suggest otherwise. More like a payback to a government that insisted on appointing a Governor to the Lower Jubba region (as it did for Hiiraan, Bay and Gedo) before commencing the process of building a Federal State which constitutionally requires the voluntary consent of two or more functional regions. This latter point has been a bone of contention between the Federal Government and the proponents of the Jubbaland initiative.

Cause and Effect

Like all things political, the current dilemma did not materialize out of a vacuum. The strategic, commercial, agricultural, and oil prospect of the region has lured various groups of warlords, clan-based militias, militant religious extremists and foreign predators into an ever-morphing struggle for control. Moreover, almost all of these actors find their encouragement from the Dual-Track policy which lends all, except al-Shabaab, either tacit or direct support. Also, from IGAD (read Kenya and Ethiopia) which now has a legal mandate to micromanage the Somali internal affairs as Article 10 of the 21st Extraordinary Summit which was held a few days before the London Conference held on May 7 deals with the current government as though it’s still in transition.

Last July, as the transitional government’s term was coming to an end, I authored an article entitled Post-Transitional Political Fault Lines. In it I listed “The Lower Jubba Enigma” as one of the fault lines to seriously threaten the soon to be formed government. I must have underestimated the potential volatility since Jubbaland now has a combination of several active fault lines out of that list.

Danger lurks as the average person in Kismaayo — the epicenter of rapidly gathering political tsunami — belongs to one of these three categories: either being intoxicated with euphoria, dejected by frustration or incapacitated by fear. Meanwhile, those contending for power are positioning themselves for the worst case scenario.

An Alternative to an Unsettling Option

All options that are currently on the table are considered zero-sum by one group or another. So, something must change, and soon, before things fall apart and issues reach beyond repair.

That said; a sure way to failure is to try to attempt solving all problems at the same time; hence the importance of prioritization. While the foreign predatory element might be strategically the most potent threat, the clan-activated fault line, due to its emotionally reactive nature and tendency to engage haphazardly, might require the most immediate attention.

This means that the Federal Government would have to come up with a strategy beyond the assertion of “We do not recognize any of the illegally formed Jubbaland administrations.”

Of course, this would not be an easy task, especially since the government has a credibility issue due to the following reasons: A combination of presidential public misspeak and an out of context statement that seems to grant certain regions the right to form their own federal state while denying others. This, needless to say, seem to single out one particular clan that, ironically, supported President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s candidacy only a few months ago.

The said issue has motivated a deliberate campaign that projected the current government as arbitrarily curtailing the rights of that particular clan. Since no reconciliation has yet taken place to heal old wounds and trust still remains very fragile, it is no surprise that that negative perception has spread so widely within that one clan to the point that it became the battle cry of otherwise its intellectuals and most reasonable members. The government, on its part, has failed to recognize the importance of timely reaction and perception management and decided to focus on international relations.

Second, it has been, at best, very tentative or ambivalent in declaring its frustration with the role of its neighbors, Kenya and Ethiopia, in adding fuel to the fire in Jubbaland.

Changing Course

Extraordinary situations demand extraordinary responses. Therefore, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud must directly appeal to and mend fences with the elders and opinion-makers of the aforementioned aggrieved clan also help de-escalate the intra-clan tension through face-to-face, radio, television and internet.

The president should immediately appoint a highly credible envoy to spearhead a diplomatic campaign and be stationed in Nairobi Embassy. It is there where the political infrastructure and the apparatus propelling the Jubbaland project are fueled.

Provide a face-saving opportunity for key contending actors by appointing them or any of their chosen representatives, along with other government representatives, as part of a Stabilization Council to defuse the tension. This Council can play the role of the Governor and govern the region by consensus for 90 or so days before an all-inclusive election would take place.

In the event that they dismiss the offer, the government should request the Kenyan troops to arrest those jeopardizing the security of the region. Precedent was set when two of the most feared warlords were arrested in Mogadishu on two different occasions. In the event that Kenya dismisses the request, the government should exercise its authority to issue a Cease and Desist and demand the immediate withdrawal of the Kenyan (and Ethiopian) troops.

Such an action would put the onus on Kenya to indicate its stance: Is it part of the AMISOM which operates under AU/UN mandate and is in partnership with the Federal Government, or is it a stealth occupying force?



Abukar Arman

Abukar Arman is a former diplomat, serving as Somalia's Special Envoy to the US. As a widely published analyst, he focuses on foreign policy, Islam, the Horn of Africa, extremism, and other topics.
Twitter: @Abukar_Arman
or reach him via e-mail: [email protected]