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Al-Shabaab and Party Balloon Effect


From the outset, let me make one thing clear: Al-Shabaab, and its extremist world view is neither constructive nor sustainable. This extremist neo-Islamist group represents one of a two nihilistic worldviews that dominated the twenty first century political discourse—global (dysfunctional) jihadism and global war on terrorism.

Both, due to their applied mantra—with hammer, all problems are solvable—are destined to self-destruct. Though the article is not exclusively about this broader topic, what is (and has been) happening in Somalia is not entirely devoid of that mindset that justified senseless violence across the globe in recent years.

In recent weeks, Ethiopian-led AMISOM, together with the Somali government forces have captured several strategic towns previously ruled by al-Shabaab. There was not much resistance there; and that is hardly surprising since, in the past few years, that has been al-Shabaab’s favorite tactic- melt or move, depending on geographic and clan dynamic.

The Chase Is On

Though it is too early to forecast how might the current military odyssey turnout, I would venture to say: Contrary to the declared objective of eradicating al-Shabaab, it would cause more political, security and humanitarian problems, simply because the necessary environment for such success has not been cultivated.  

Granted, al-Shabaab could not have been more vulnerable as a host of mainly internal issues have divided the group. But defeating them would require a grand strategy made of thoroughly coordinated political, humanitarian, military and economic plans in order to effectively prevent any vacuum or post liberation zero-sum politicking that seldom benefits Somalia. This, while creating space for dialogue.  

In theory there is such coordination; in reality, there is no such thing for these factors:

On the internal side, mainly due to a fundamental misjudgment of priorities that puts genuine reconciliation in the back burner, the federal government, and by extension AMISOM, are viewed by some key political entities and actors as an intrusive partnership.

On the external side, the interests of the de facto twin engine that propel AMISOM—Ethiopia and Kenya—and the other twin engine that propel the international community which pays the bills—U.S. and U.K.—are at odds. While there is a façade of civility between these four key actors, there exists among them a political passive aggression that underscores the collision to come.

On the peripheral side, there are shadowy elements who apparently view “manageable insecurity” as a good business. Not even the Somali government knows who most are accountable to. Government and parliament are too diffident to demand transparency and accountability, let alone board up the cracked windows that allow back entry. 

Hearts and Minds

As ever, competition for the hearts and minds of the masses is in full swing. In a recent statement aired by the Voice of America-Somali language program, al-Shabaab’s leader, Ahmed Godane, describes the current military campaign as “a proxy war in which US, after it was defeated in Afghanistan and Iraq, uses Ethiopia for the second time (to advance its interests).” The first objective, according to him, is to “Divide what’s left of Somalia between Ethiopia and Kenya in ways masqueraded as regional administrations.” 

He urged Somalis to wage jihad against Ethiopia, AMISOM, the Somali government and U.S.

On their part, AMISOM spokesperson has been on many key media outlets trying to shake off their recently earned image of parasitical laziness intended to prolong their lucrative engagement. Concurrently, AMISOM has launched a relentless campaign on social media. Anyone who deviates from the official line gets PAS-ed (called pro al-Shabaab). Still, none could be more effective than Ethiopia’s perception management.

Though nothing has changed as far as its policy toward Somalia in concerned, it apparently has rebranded its image. So effective has its rebranding been that it dramatically increased the number of its Somali political clientele. Much of the credit goes to the diplomatic finesse of its Foreign Minister, Tedros Adhanom, whose style I call Injera Diplomacy. Injera is a spongy Ethiopian flatbread served with a variety of meat and vegetable stews. With it one can easily scoop much of the stew one bite after another without dirtying one’s hand.      

Make no mistake—Ethiopia is the hegemon of the Horn. As such, it is in constant quest to expand its sphere of influence, and, in the case of Somalia, its subdivision of subjugation.     

The Jubbaland Initiative Hook

The highlight of Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom’s Injera Diplomacy was the brokering of what’s known as the Addis or Jubbaland Peace Agreement or between the federal government and the advocates of establishing yet another region that could further Balkanize the nation in its inevitable demand for autonomy.

The so-called peace agreement delivered on an IGAD silver plate was full of holes that would not only make it unsustainable, but, one may argue, was engineered to lure the central government into a deep political ditch. Though neither the government nor the Jubbaland leadership have sought a two-year interim agreement; in hindsight that conspicuously short span was convenient for the architects (Ethiopia and Kenya) as the agreement expires during the busiest and indeed most politically charged period—one year before the end of the current government’s term. By the same token, it would embolden other clan-based entities to mimic the Jubbaland blueprint for breakaway. (It is already happening.) This, needless to say, would compel the government to beg for yet another reconciliation fix as it has before the New Deal conference.

The whole thing was a PR sham and an entrapment.

I have opposed the Jubbaland initiative from its inception. I described it as “a shotgun wedding” that would not solve any problem, but it would only redefine it.

Hardly a few days have passed before the Jubbaland breakaway model was being implemented. In the city of Baidao alone, two parallel conferences have produced two different Presidents with overlapping authorities, constituencies, and territorial claims. Both inter and intra-clan bloodshed is looming. Guess who is going to come to the rescue? Ethiopia, of course!

Strategy of Self-Annihilation

Over the years, al-Shabaab has made a number of strategic errors that caused many deaths and destructions. They are on course to repeat history once again.

Godane is fundamentally wrong in his assessment. Going back to the aforementioned two couples—Ethiopia and Kenya, and the U.S. and U.K.—while they all are on the same page in defeating al-Shabaab, they do not have the same geopolitical and geo-economic interests or strategies.

Ironically, the African couple sees it in its strategic best interest to permanently bury the Somali state and nurture the mushrooming clan-based paper tiger para-states that dangerous only to themselves.

On the other hand, though they have made their respective contributions to further complicate issues, by and large, the Western couple has been trying to resuscitate the Somali State for their own strategic best interest. While counter-terrorism, piracy and geopolitics make the headlines, it was the relentless lobbying effort of a few major oil companies, eager to reclaim their old contracts (now in highly contested areas), and international institutions, such as International Monetary Fund and World Bank, eager to reclaim their old loans and fat interests, that made it happen. It is important to note that this particular coalition, which has considerable influence in the international community, is growing very impatient.

Meanwhile, the federal government and all regional or autonomous para-states have been on a dizzying signature frenzy that produced nothing more than colorful and indeed highly contested contracts, agreements, and treaties that further complicate the issue.  

“What Then?”  

Though majority of the Somali adults still lament their collective failure to mitigate the raw (clan-stirred) emotions that ultimately destroyed the state, and along with it law and order, we are bound to repeat. 

Failing to ask “What then?” has opened the gates of chaos and famine; and the rest is seemingly endless dark history.   

So, what is the strategy when the immanent “Party Balloon Effect” changes reality on the ground?

Common sense dictates that by squeezing an inflated party balloon from one side, you would force the air inside to swiftly migrate to the other side. So, sooner or later, al-Shabaab would be forced to migrate and take their show elsewhere—Puntland, Somaliland, etc. =Then what?

We should never forget that, in some cases, disasters are nothing but haphazardly applied solutions. 

Meanwhile, under the current political calculus and on-going military campaign, the Somali government is shackled into submission, thus has zero leverage to impact any change that could be considered good for Somalia. Sorry, there is no other way of saying this. And, if that sounds somewhat cynical, perhaps it is. After all, there is some truth in that old adage: “A cynic is an experienced optimist.”

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Prime Minister Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed must embrace the reality that the only viable leverage they have is to cultivate trust within the Somali people, who, as a result of decades of exploitation, are sick and tired of always being the expendable pawn. Time is a ticking bomb.

Article originally appeared in Al-Jazeera English



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]