In the battle against Islamist fighters in Somalia, the liberation of Kismayo in October 2012 was symbolic of the progress made in ridding the country of Al-Shabaab’s influence. The port city and its environs is a melting pot of several clans, a business hub linking neighbouring countries and the Middle East, and, until its liberation, the base and financial nerve centre of Al-Shabaab. Months after its liberation, however, the struggle over the control of Kismayo and its surrounding areas continues. Various stakeholders have an interest in the formation of Jubaland state - made up of the Gedo, Middle Juba and Lower Juba regions - and this has become a bone of contention capable of derailing the progress achieved thus far.
Tensions have been simmering since the idea of creating a Jubaland state was first mooted by Kenya as a buffer zone between its territory and south-central Somalia. On 1 March 2013 the Somali Prime Minister, Abdi Farah Shirdon, declared publicly that the convention of delegates to craft the state was unconstitutional. This pronouncement came after the breakdown of talks between his team and the leadership of the Kismayo local administration, in which the creation of a local government for the area, security and other related matters had been discussed. With this open declaration, the issue has become the next crucial test for progress in Somalia.
The sources of the tension over the Jubaland process are many. First is the procedural issue originating from disagreements over who is driving the process. According to a press release on 1 March 2013 by the Somalia Federal Government (SFG), the Mogadishu leadership prefers to facilitate the formation of SFG-mandated local administrations to enable the eventual formation of federal states, as is the case with the Baydhabo and Beled Weyne regions. Given that the on-going process to create Jubaland is not driven by Mogadishu, the SFG considers the process to be unilateral and thus unconstitutional.
Related to this are underlying regional and local interests.Prior to Kenya’s military incursion into Somalia in 2011, security on the Kenyan side of the border had worsened due to attacks blamed on Al-Shabaab elements and fears that Kenyan recruits in Al-Shabaab would return to threaten Kenya’s stability. The creation of Jubaland has, therefore, long been on Kenya’s agenda as a buffer zone to prevent Al-Shabaab incursions.
Ethiopia is also interested in a similar arrangement to secure its borders, which is why its forces crossed into the Gedo region to attack Al-Ittihad Al-Islami’s (AIAI) bases in 1996. Given the historical tensions surrounding the Ogaden issue, Ethiopia would like to see a local administration that will not be sympathetic to the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), whose members share a Darood clan identity. The Darood and Hawiye clans and their sub-clans have spread across the Somali borders into Ethiopia and Kenya and have an interest in events on the Somali side. This introduces clan dynamics into the Jubaland process and partly explains Puntland’s motivation for keeping a close eye on its formation.
The common interests between Kenya and Ethiopia formed the basis for the 2012 IGAD Grand Stabilisation Plan for South Central Somalia, which seeks to establish the rule of law, local administration, and promote reconciliation.
Independent business elements are also interested in events in Jubaland because the area is a conduit linking Kismayo, Kenya and other parts of the region. The interests of locals such as Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, whose pro-government Ras Kambuni militia is credited with liberating Kismayo with the support of Kenyan troops, are also clear. Becoming governor of the region is a sure route to re-establishing his relevance in the political and economic affairs of Kismayo, which he lost when the Islamic Courts Union was ousted in 2006.
Given these multiple local and regional interests, the formation of Jubaland is perceived in certain Somali contexts to be locally-fronted but regionally driven. This creates discomfort for the leadership in Mogadishu, who see the regional dimensions as an affront to the sovereignty of Somalia.
Another source of tension arises from the SFG’s concerns about the representivity of the process and associated fears over the possibility of Ogaden sub-clan dominance. Many clans inhabit the Gedo, Middle Juba and Lower Juba areas of Somalia. These include the Darood, Hawiye and Dir. Historically, even within the Darood, the three main sub-clans, namely the Ogaden, Marehan and Harti, do not have a history of peaceful coexistence.
This implies that representivity, shared governance and coexistence among the many clans are vital for the sustainability of the local administration and its contribution towards federalism in Somalia. The SFG fears that unless representivity in the Kismayo process is dealt with, clan-based grievances could undermine reconciliation in the country. Actors driving the process, on the other hand, feel that every effort has been made to achieve representation and that if certain groups dominate, traditional leaders and authorities from marginalised areas will deal with the issue through consultation meetings that have been held since the process started several years ago.
While these interests and tensions are playing out, there is need for circumspection on the part of both the interim local leadership of Kismayo led by Sheikh Madobe and the SFG. Currently, there is every indication that Al-Shabaab has not been eliminated. After Ethiopian troops’ recent unexpected withdrawal from Huddur, the capital of the Bakool region, Al-Shabaab fighters quickly took over the town. This demonstrates that the Islamist group is closely monitoring events in liberated areas and is capable of acting swiftly when it spots weaknesses.
The inability of the SFG to exercise its authority over the Kismayo process is undermining its influence in the remaining regions of Somalia and the emerging arrangements towards federalism. The risk, however, is that in trying to assert its authority, the SFG is on a collision course with the regional interests of Kenya, Ethiopia and IGAD. It is therefore important that instead of opening another front to oppose each other, the various stakeholders find ways to work towards the common goal of peace and stability in the country, so as not to end up strengthening Al-Shabaab.
Andrews Atta-Asamoah, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Pretoria