SOMALIA – A Triple Threat to Instability?

Published: January 21, 2021

Internal and external forces have ominously converged in recent weeks, threatening the tentative state of stability in Somalia. Domestically, President Mohammed Farmaajo’s efforts to manoeuvre his path to re-election in 2021 are sparking considerable internal strife, while internationally, a hurricane of potentially harmful geopolitical winds is circling around Somalia.

In particular, events in Kenya and Ethiopia are undermining the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia: AMISOM. The two countries are central to the military presence – out of the 20,000 troops deployed by AMISOM, around 8,000 of them are Kenyan or Ethiopian

To make matters worse, Donald Trump’s spree of demilitarisation has called for the complete withdrawal of US troops from Somali territory – namely the 700 soldiers who are training Somali commando units. 

Al-Shabaab, the radical Islamist movement which has terrorised Somalia and other nations in recent years, has been somewhat successfully restrained since the height of its power in 2011. This confluence of dynamics, however, could sow the seeds for a renewal of their violence, which would pose a significant threat to Somali stability, during what is a crucial moment for their fragile democracy.

The next few months, therefore, will likely see a marked uptick in violence in Somalia, which will likely come to a head around the time of Presidential Elections. 

Kenya – Deteriorating Diplomacy

The fraying of relations between President Mohammed Farmaajo and Kenya has reached a critical point in recent weeks – with diplomatic relations severed and troops deployed along their common border. Farmaajo’s government has accused the Kenyan military of ‘arming and equipping’ rebel militias to attack Somali army bases. 

Relations have been somewhat fraught between the two countries in recent years, particularly over the maritime border dispute. Tensions have deepened over the last month, with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs criticising the Kenyan government for ‘meddling’ in internal affairs, particularly with respect to the upcoming election. Hosting Muse Bihi Abd, President of the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, which declared independence from Somalia in 1991, proved the final straw, prompting President Farmaajo to cut diplomatic ties. 

Some analysts have argued that this escalation is little more than a political move by the incumbent President to ‘stir up altercations’, and unite Somalis against the specter of meddling foreigners. Diplomacy with Somaliland is far from an assault on Somalia. Ethiopia, which remains on relatively friendly terms with Farmaajo, has deep ties with Hargeisa (the capital), and also has a consulate there. 

Though Farmaajo has railed against the presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia, it is unlikely that he will succeed in pushing them out, or even that he really wants to do so. However, the unpredictability of an embattled president, particularly in the run up to what could be a difficult election, should never be underestimated. 

Ethiopia and the Tigray Crisis

On the Ethiopian front, the Tigray conflict has already had a significant impact on Somalia. A number of Tigrayan-origin soldiers, who make up an non-representatively large portion of the Ethiopian army, have been disarmed or sent home. Reputable sources have estimated that up to 3,000 troops have left Somalia, as a response to the ongoing conflict in Tigray. 

Whether these troops are part of the AMISOM deployment, or part of the additional forces that Ethiopia has used to support anti-Shabaab offensives is unknown. But as Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institute argues, ‘wherever Ethiopian troops have withdrawn’ in the past, al-Shabaab has ‘eventually taken over’. 

To make matters worse, Gedo, which is an area of Ethiopian AMISOM responsibility, is a ‘volatile crucible’ of violence and militarism, according to The Somali Wire. A troop pullout could light a fire under clan tensions and the local disdain for central government, resulting in considerable violence. 

While it is difficult to be sure of the exact nature of Ethiopian military movements in Somalia, their compromised presence is perhaps the most significant geopolitical development. Gedo, Bay and Bakool, which Ethiopia is responsible for, will likely be the most fertile areas for increased al-Shabaab violence. 

US Withdrawals

As if local threats weren’t sufficient, unrelated events in the U.S. threaten to further erode stability. Donald Trump’s last-gasp, ‘lame duck’ decision to withdraw from ‘forever wars’ across the world means that the U.S. looks set to withdraw its force of 700 troops from Somalia early next year. The withdrawal, which involves the relocation of the majority of the troops to a military base in Kenya, will apparently take place five days before the inauguration of Joe Biden. 

The impact of this decision should not be overstated – it does not signal the abandonment of the war against al-Shabaab by the U.S. Army. These troops are stationed in Somalia in order to train the Danab special forces unit, which could still take place in Kenya or with a slimmed-down number. 

The decision could have a profound symbolic impact, however. Many Somalians despise the Americans, and they are the natural enemies of an al-Shabaab ideology that is aligned with the worldview of al-Qaeda. American withdrawal could be used to claim victory over foreign infidels, and inspire an uptick in militancy and terrorism. 

A Violent and Precarious Election Season

While AMISOM is unlikely to collapse, given the importance of Somalia as a national security issue to Ethiopia and Kenya, and US involvement will continue, these overlapping currents risk undermining a precarious situation. 

With internal tensions coming to a boil over the upcoming elections, this is the worst possible moment for international actors to compromise Somalia’s stability. The undermining of stability by these actors, alongside growing domestic friction, will likely result in a resurgence of instability and violence, particularly in Mogadishu and South-Central Somalia. 

Recent violent anti-government protests have already resulted in civilian deaths, and the run-up to the 2021 elections will likely see more protest and violence. Political controversies, such as the government’s recent decision to go ahead with unilateral elections, will undeniably galvanise further political and civilian resistance.

Even so, a resurgence in al-Shabaab violence does seem to be likely. According to Rashid Abdi, the group’s command structure has been recently reshuffled, and he foresees new leaders going out of their way to ‘prove themselves’. A devastating attack on a football stadium in Galka’yo on 19th December, which killed at least 30 people, may be a sign of things to come. 

In this context, the elections provide a perfect opportunity for targeted al-Shabaab attacks. In themselves, voters and voting stations are natural targets – al-Shabaab spokesmen have referred to elections as an ‘apostate’ activity.  Perhaps more saliently, ramping up intimidation tactics would undermine the legitimacy of the election. If the elections are seen as compromised or illegitimate, this would set internal tensions alight, creating severe instability and a security vacuum – an ideal landscape for an al-Shabaab invigoration.

As Crisis Group warns, ‘federal and state authorities will struggle to stem militant attacks’ around election time. The AMISOM mission must put recent animosities to one side, and revamp its efforts towards securitising Somali democratic processes. It seems that a descent into violence and instability is almost inevitable in the coming months. The extent to which AMISOM is able to coordinate an effective response will determine how dire the situation will become.

 By Anthony Morris

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