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Soft power against al-Shabab in Somalia

Theresa Krinniner / abj
March 9, 2016

While American forces in Somalia are fighting the militant group al-Shabab with air attacks, security experts think a political solution should be the way forward. That includes the upcoming presidential election.

Somalia security situation (Photo credit: Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images

A recent attack in the Somali capital Mogadishu carried out by the Islamist militia al-Shabab killed at least five people. "The general mood here in the capital is generally very, very bad," DW correspondent Mohammed Odowa said. "The people of Mogadishu are seeing a growing number of attacks everyday, which are taking innocent lives."

These attacks could be in response to a new military campaign against the terror group. On Tuesday night, international troops using helicopters pounded an al-Shabab base close to Mogadishu, killing several of its fighters.

Al-Shabab has suffered a number of setbacks recently. On Monday, officers on board an Australian naval vessel made an explosive discovery on a fishing boat. They seized about 2,000 AK-47 machine guns, 100 grenade launchers and other heavy weapons worth $2 million (1.8 million euros). Australia claimed the boat was on its way to Somalia. It is not clear who the recipient of the weapons was but Somali authorities point fingers at al-Shabab.

Somalia Beschlagnahmung Australien Navy (Photo: REUTERS/ABIS Sarah Ebsworth/Australian Defence Force/Handout via Reuters)
An Australian naval vessel claimed to have intercepted a boat carrying arms to SomaliaImage: Reuters/S.Ebsworth/Australian Defence Force

Two days earlier, on Saturday, US forces attacked an al-Shabab training camp 200 kilometers (124 miles) north of Mogadishu. Washington reported that 150 fighters were killed in the offensive, but an al-Shabab commander, Sheikh Ibrahim Abu Ahmed, dismissed the claim and said their death toll was far lower.

Not much happens without AMISOM

It is clear that Somalia has tried without success to tackle the terror group. The presence of US drones and troops from the African Union mission AMISO, have done little to help.

But "without AMISOM, Somalia would not have had a government and would have also failed to stop the civil war and begin a reconstruction process," Ahmed Soliman, from the London-based think tank Chatham House, said. "Such military interventions are necessary, but it is equally important that the government tries to counteract the radicalization of al-Shabab fighters."

Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has been in office since 2012. The next presidential election will take place in August this year. There are hopes that the elections will contribute to the peace process and the reconstruction of the state.

Elections - yes, but how?

Rebuilding Somalia is however not simple. Ever since the collapse of the central government in 1991, a merciless struggle for power has been raging in Somalia between various clans.

"There are still many disagreements about how Somalia’s political system should look," Cedric Barnes, a project director at the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Nairobi, said.

A political solution has also been difficult to achieve because of Somalia’s provisional constitution which was enacted in 2012. The constitution stipulates the central government should consult regional administrations in all of its actions.

AMISOM soldiers in Somalia (AP Photo/AMISOM, Tobin Jones)
AMISON forces provide security to Somalia's internationally backed governmentImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/Jones

These regional administrations are, however, not united on the boundaries of their territories or the formation of further member states. Somalia hopes to hold a constitutional referendum before the elections.

Barnes does not think that the controversy over the constitution will prevent the elections. "The political will for the elections is there," he said. But Mohammed Odowa believes attacks on Mogadishu will increase.

"Al-Shabab intends to disrupt the elections," he said. "We anticipate more attacks in the capital because they [al-Shabab] think that is why the government is being protected by the African Union forces."

Ahmed Soliman sees step being taken in the right direction. "We saw that the government planned in February to allow every citizen a voice in future elections," he said.

That is a good reason for Somalis to look forward to parliamentary elections in the future. Until then, a lot still needs to be done."For now, members of parliament in the lower and upper houses need to be re-elected," Soliman said.

There is also the question of which states could be included in the federation. To date, Puntland is the only serious candidate, while Somaliland, which declared independence in 1991, refused to join a future federation. Two other contenders are Jubaland and Southwest.

Elections promote political turmoil

Dominik Balthasar from the Statehood & Conflict program at the Swiss Peace Foundation is pessimistic. In his analysis for the German Federal Agency for Civic Education in 2015, Balthasar wrote that the shortcomings of the provisional constitution and the slow process of including other federal regions could make it highly unlikely that elections would be free and fair.

He said if an election does take place, there are possibilities it would lead to turbulence. Even without al-Shabab, there are already political tensions and a big gap within the social fabric of the population, Balthasar wrote.

So far, the government controls only half of Somalia’s territories. Despite the AU mission, al-Shabab remains dominant in the rural areas of Shabelle, Juba, Bay and Bakool.

The militia group has also infiltrated border regions of Puntland and Somaliland. Between 2012 and 2014, the radical Islamists had to accept some military setbacks and had to give up some territories under their control. Nevertheless, they have been carrying out regular attacks since February 2012 within and outside Somalia. Al-Shabab still remains a major threat.

Karte Politische Aufteilung Somalia DEU
Somalia's semi autonomous states are contemplating on joining a new federation

Negotiate with al-Shabab?

Recently, Fadumo Dayib, a Somali refugee living in Finland, announced her intention to run for the presidency. Although her chances as an external candidate and a woman are slim, she has big plans for the country. In an interview with DW, she said, as president, she would bring al-Shabab to the negotiating table. She said fighting the Islamists has so far proved to be unsuccessful.

"This is an interesting idea," Cedric Barnes said. "There are some moderate leaders in al-Shabab, who could be integrated into politics." Attempts have already been made to integrate some leaders of al-Shabab into the current government, but those attempts always fell through.