Al-Shabab and the party balloon effect

As a result of decades of exploitation, the Somali people are sick and tired of always being the expendable pawn.

Ethiopian-led AMISOM, together with the Somali government forces, have captured several strategic towns previously ruled by al-Shabab, writes Arman [AFP]

From the outset, let me make one thing clear: Al-Shabab and its extremist world view is neither constructive nor sustainable. This extremist neo-Islamist group represents one of two nihilistic worldviews that dominated the 21st 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. What 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-Shabab. There was not much resistance there and that is hardly surprising since, in the past few years, that has been al-Shabab’s favourite tactic – melt or move, depending on geographic and clan dynamic.

The chase is on

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

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Granted, al-Shabab could not have been more vulnerable as a host of mainly internal issues have divided the group.

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 on 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 – US and UK – are at odds. While there is a facade of civility between these four key actors, there exists among them a political passive aggression that underscores the impending collision.

On the peripheral side, there are shadowy elements who apparently view “manageable insecurity” as a good business. Not even the Somali government knows to whom most are accountable. 

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-Shabab’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 US.

On their part, the AMISOM spokesperson has beenon 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.

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.

Anyone who deviates from the official line gets PAS-ed (called Pro al-Shabab). Still none could be more effective than Ethiopia’s perception management.

Though nothing has changed as far as its policy toward Somalia is 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 on a 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 Balkanise 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 it 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. 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. From its inception, the Jubbaland initiative has been nothing more than “a shotgun wedding” that would not solve any problem.

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-Shabab has made a number of strategic errors that caused death and destruction. 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 (US and UK), while they all are on the same page in defeating al-Shabab, they do not have the same geopolitical and geo-economic interest or strategy.

Ironically, the African couple see it’s in their strategic best interest to permanently bury the Somali state and nurture the mushrooming clan-based paper tiger para-states that pose dangers only to themselves.

On the other hand, though they have made their respective contributions to further complicate issues, by and large, the Western couple have been trying to resuscitate the Somali state for their own strategic purposes.

While counter-terrorism, piracy, and geopolitics make 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 on 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 colourful and indeed highly contested contracts, agreements, and treaties that further complicate the issue.  


Inside Story – Al-Shabab: A war of vengeance?

‘What then?’

Though the majority of 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 those mistakes.

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

So, what is the strategy when the “party balloon effect” changes the reality on the ground? Common sense dictates by squeezing an inflated party balloon from one side, you would force the inside air to swiftly migrate to the other side. So sooner or later, al-Shabab would be forced to migrate and take their show elsewhere (Puntland, Somaliland, etc.), then what?

Meanwhile, under the current political calculus and on-going military campaign, the Somali government is shackled into submission, and thus has zero leverage to impact any change that could be considered good for Somalia.

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.

Ambassador Abukar Arman is the former Somalia special envoy to the United States and a foreign policy analyst.