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Why did Somalia blacklist its country’s top UN diplomat?

Why did Somalia blacklist its country's top UN diplomat?

In the first week of the New Year, Somalia was one of the few countries that
dominated the headlines. Not because one of her finest daughters, Ilhan Omar,
who came to the US two decades ago and was elected as an American
, but because Somalia declared the UN’s chief diplomat—who had only
been working there for three months—‘persona non grata’.

The accusation was that the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General,
Nicholas Haysom, interfered in a sovereign state’s internal affairs – a bold
claim that many, including myself, considered impulsive, ill-timed and a cover
up that could only prove counterproductive for Somalia.

Let us try to unpack this.

Al Shabab’s Democrat

In August 2017, the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) announced that
Mukhtar Robow (aka Abu Mansour), the former spokesman and a deputy leader of Al
Qaeda-linked militant group AL Shabab has defected. Shortly after that
announcement, the government flew him to Mogadishu where he held a press

Robow thanked the government for the dignified manner in which they received
him. He also stated that he broke up with Al Shabab several years earlier due
to disagreements on legal interpretations. Unfortunately, Robow did not explain
what that meant or what his eureka moment was. He did not express any remorse
for his terrorism nor asked for forgiveness – and no questions were asked.

Shortly after, Robow embarked on a government funded rebranding campaign.
During that period he met with a number of traditional clan elders,
international diplomats including the British Ambassador, and various government
officials and Members of the Parliament.

The international community swiftly removed Robow from the sanctioned terror
watch-lists, indicating the FGS and IC were clearly on the same page to
showcase the Robow model of de-radicalisation by letting him participate in the
South West federal state election. 

He flew in and out of Mogadishu to rally his clan base, and was allowed to
travel to Saudi Arabia on a Somali diplomatic passport.

Race to the Top

Within his clan, which is the largest in the region, Robow was
popular enough
to unseat the incumbent—Sharif Hassan Aden—who enjoyed
mythical reverence of being the Machiavellian par excellence of Somali

Nevertheless, in a move that seemed as an attempt to reinforce the
probability of winning against Aden, FGS doubled its handpicked candidates and
deployed the highly trained federal counter-terrorism force to South West.

Once FGS’ determination to win by any means became clear, Aden dropped out
of the race, packed, and moved out of town – literally.

All of a sudden, the FGS took a 180 degree turn and the posterman turned to
pariah – a dangerous terrorist who could not be trusted. Robow was pressed hard
not to run, but he remained adamant. And there is where the showdown
intensified and the controversy began.

In the week before Robow was taken into custody, a leaked memo by a Western
intelligence elements circulated among international NGOs and to those
in-the-know. In a nutshell, the memo alleged that government forces included a
team of assassins who were under order to terminate Robow. The target date was
“either December 12 or 13th.”

On the 13th, all candidates were invited to the Baidoa airport compound
where the electoral commission as well as the state government and other
foreign elements were based. There, Robow walked into a sting operation. Though
the details of what exactly ensued inside the compound is not clear, one thing
is: Robow was taken into custody by Ethiopian forces claiming they were part of
African Union peacekeeping forces – a claim that AMISOM has denied.

Demonstrations and Violence in Baidoa

As word spread protests erupted in Baidoa and political outrage festered in
Mogadishu, mainly by MPs from the South West state. FGS forces along with
Ethiopian forces with tanks and armored vehicles confronted peaceful protestors
demanding Robow’s release. Within a few days, they were violently disbanded,
and on December 19th, the candidate that had FGS’ backing was declared the new
president of South West. 

Amnesty International has issued a statement urging Somali
and Ethiopian forces in Baidoa to “refrain from using lethal force against

Then, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) sent a letter
to the FGS in which it expressed grave concern over the 15 people killed in
Baidoa—that included a child and an MP—and inquired about the General who
commands the region’s police.

A video of the General surfaced where he is seen threatening
to shoot anyone who comes out to protest
, and the letter asks a for
clarification on the legal basis that justified the arbitrary arrest of Robow
and denied him the right to participate in the election. In response, FGS
declared the SRSG, Nicholas Haysom, “a persona non grata” for interfering in Somalia’s internal

This reaction has earned FGS some praises and sparked trivial polemics on
diplomacy and national sovereignty on social media. It raised concerns within
various opposition groups and autonomous political entities or federal states
such as Puntland, Jubbaland and Gulmudug that saw this as the latest of FGS’
pattern of intimidation to silence any and all forms of criticism.

It was also mocked by some who thought the reaction was in fact a tactical
overreaction since concerns raised were in line with UNSOM mandate and the
standard operation endorsed by the previous Somali government.

The UN reaction came a few days later. According to the 1961 Vienna
Convention, persona non grata is a diplomatic doctrine that does not apply to
United Nations personnel. Moreover, “Secretary-General
Antonio Guterres
has full confidence in Haysom (and he) deeply regrets
Somalia’s decision,” said Guterres’ spokesperson. Yet, the Secretary General
plans to appoint a new representative to Somalia.

But the negative consequence of this haphazard decision was swift. The EU
and the UK immediately stopped funding FGS’ police force. A few days later, UK
Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, landed in Hargeisa – making him the first British Cabinet Minister to ever visit Somaliland.

The Secretary met with President of Somaliland, Muse Bihi, to discuss
“shared priorities of security and economic development as well as counter
terrorism and the role UK military plays in mentoring the Somaliland
coastguard.” The UK is the biggest stakeholder in UNSOM and the SRSG without
which Soma Oil and Gas—economic exploitation of the century—could not be

Propelling Factors

It is an open secret that the FGS is adamantly imposing ‘regime change’ on
all federal states. So far, they have succeeded in two out of the five. Why?

First, FGS does not want any of the current leaders to challenge its
authority on consigning four sea ports controlled by the federal states
to Ethiopia.

Second, next month the FGS is set to deliver a more controversial project
than the ports – auctioning out 206 oil blocks that it does not control
without any checks and balances and at a time when territorial demarcation is
not agreed upon and is already causing bloodshed between Somaliland and

Three, mindful of its corroding relationship with the federal states, the
FGS is determined to have loyal cronies who would pave the way for their return
in 2020.

Four, in April last year, the unthinkable came to pass. Abiy Ahmed became
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister. He, as the pilot of ‘Horn of Africa transformation’
and a man who, due to his background in intelligence, Ahmed is determined to
sideline or banish all those who had close association with the previous
Tigray-dominated regime whose members are determined to torpedo his government.

That calculus implicated all leaders of the federal states—save Hirshabelle
whose leader is new on the scene—as well as Somaliland and Robow. Ahmed knows
all those political charlatans who came to Addis Ababa to take their orders and
knows who bankrolled Robow’s adventures in and around Bakool. Likewise who
pressured the FGS to embrace Robow without any precondition or any demand to
disarm and disband his militia.

Whether Robow was a pawn or a player is for historians to debate. But, in
his current status as a political prisoner, the FGS is not only turning a mass
murderer into a martyr, it is alienating Robow’s clan-based supporters. Not to
mention how authoritarian this arbitrary decision makes FGS look, and how
permanently this may damage the defection alternative. Already one minister has
resigned in protest.  

If the FGS is serious about reclaiming Somalia’s sovereignty, it must come
up with a comprehensive strategy for genuine Somali-owned reconciliation, cut
the umbilical cord of dependency on foreign aid, overhaul the foreign-based
security system and establish a Somali military force with federal command and
control that can guard its borders.  

This requires vision and commitment to make the appropriate sacrifices and
endure the process. Without genuine reconciliation, the FGS cannot get legitimacy. And without legitimacy FGS’
quest for sovereignty would only prove a quixotic ambition, if not a
counterproductive one.



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]