25 June 2013

Africa: Kismayo and the Rise and Fall of a Somali President

Photo: UN
Some of the AMISOM troops atop a tank in Mogadishu.

analysis

Something very bizarre is happening in Somalia. While Al-Shabaab is still active and wreaking havoc on the country, Somalis are again dividing themselves along clan lines, this time over the southern region of Jubaland.

The Somali Federal Government and its leader, Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud, have become mired in a Kismayo impasse, which has already given way to an armed confrontation that claimed several lives. In this electric atmosphere, the Federal Government seems inactive at best and a divisive agent at worst.

President Mahmoud, unable to resolve the situation, has only been able to muster desperate statements of little substance. In the face of a deep-seated mistrust among Somali clans, coupled with accusations that the Federal Government is fuelling the conflict, rhetoric is not a panacea.

While the conflict is unlikely to topple the Mogadishu-based Federal Government, it will certainly throw an element of doubt into its political leverage. If the Kismayo case is poorly managed (and facts on the ground already point in this direction), the ripple effects of the crisis could morph into across-the-board disasters that could aggravate clan-loaded sentiments all over the country. This could in turn rejuvenate Al-Shabaab's otherwise dwindling power. It would also kill in its infancy the long-awaited negotiation process aiming at narrowing the more than two-decades-old gap between the country's Somali-British and Somali-Italian regions.

Few Somalis would have predicted that President Mahmoud -- a man whose pre-Presidential record tantalized the population -- would falter in his first national task. Hence, many Somalis find themselves extremely disappointed.

To date, Mahmoud had exuded an image of a genuine statesman, previously unheard of in Somali political history. He demonstrated a talent for diplomacy in his showdown with the almighty international community, accustomed to micromanaging Somali politics (more often in pursuit of unscrupulous interests of their own); he condemned corruption and Somalia under his leadership has gained a more positive international reception, including the sought after recognition from the United States of America. Add to this Mahmoud's latest move -- the initiation of a negotiation process with breakaway Somaliland -- and a pretty decent record was emerging.

But then came Jubaland crisis. This, according to Raskamboni faction in Kismayo, has been engineered by the Somali Federal Government in revenge against the Jubaland people for forming their own local administration. To the Somali Federal Government, however, the crisis started as a result of grievances concerning unfair political dispensation felt by huge swathes of Jubaland residents.

The issue is, however, more complicated than these two accounts. Kenya, with 4,000 of its own soldiers deployed in the region, remains worried about the fate of Kismayo; and given the proximity of Kismayo to Kenyan territories including nearby tourist sites, is understandably vying for the establishment of friendly regional administration. Kenyan politicians of Somali origin -- who happen to be blood relations to the current Kismayo administration -- also have a stake in the bargain; chronic clan rivalry and contestation over power and meager resources lie in the heart of the impasse.

What is more, the country is experiencing a fierce power struggle. Mahmoud's ascension to the top job was earned through a parliamentary election delivered via a 4.5 formula, theoretically meant to fend off an executive power grab and usher in a system that enables Somalis to govern themselves horizontally by writing their own social contracts. Nevertheless, Mahmoud has become the czar of the land -- the man who dominates the agenda and future course of the country. There is unease, in some circles, with his authoritarian behavior and his unquenchable desire to carry out all governmental roles, including attending international meetings, signing contracts and disseminating talking points to the press. Nothing is too big or too small for the President's span of attention.

Having surrounded himself with yes-men (most of them are men), the President finds himself all-knowing and all-alone; thus Mahmoud has become a victim of a textbook example of group-think. Perhaps one should marvel at his ability to attend to so many varying issues, and in the end achieve results; or maybe all this cramming is the cause of the problems?

Mahmoud is now running the country as if is was his own household. Jubaland may not be the death-knell of his administration, but it has certainly ended the aura of perfect stewardship associated with him. Alas, Mahmoud is the victim of his own mistakes. A balanced policy that is mindful to clan sensitivity would not only have demonstrated that he is a statesman but also a magnanimous one at that. But he will now be challenged more often, not only by the Raskamboni group, but by many other entities across the country.

For those concerned with Somalia's wellbeing, Mahmoud's mishandling of Kismayo is a bad omen. Of course, not all issues in contemporary Somalia revolve around tribalism, but a good chunk of them do. Whether real or perceived, clan tendencies almost always shape the conceptualization and the formation of all political, social and economic worldviews of the Somali nation. Sometimes issues that start free of clan predilections, such as disputes over resources, may turn into a clan-charged subject and are fought over in the name of tribalism.

Nobody, except perhaps the enemies of Somalia, wants to see the country mired in civil war again. The hope is to steer the nation away from clan rhetoric and hawkish attitudes, to diplomacy and compromise. Is that attainable? I do not know. But given the costs of escalating the issue, I think it is worth a try. Against this background, I hope Mahmoud will initiate a genuine and nuanced reconciliation plan. Otherwise, the Jubaland crisis has the potential to revert the country back to "the war of all against all" era experienced by the Somali people in 1990s. I wish I knew whether President Mahmoud felt the same way.

Abdiaziz Abdi is a freelance writer based in Rochester MN.

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InFocus

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Some of the AMISOM troops atop a tank in Mogadishu.

The Somali government has accused peacekeepers of violating their mandate calling for the replacement of those in Kismayo with "a more neutral African Union force". Read more »