President Mohamud’s Crackdown on al-Shabaab Signals a Potential New Era for Governance in Somalia
Elizabeth Linsenmayer | Oct 16 2022
After a tumultuous and elongated election cycle that stretched from former President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmaajo” Mohamed’s term expiration in February 2021 to May of 2022, former President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud began his second term in office earlier this summer. Somali-based terror group al-Shabaab has not made the former President’s return any easier; following numerous attempts to disrupt the election cycle with direct violence on politicians and voters alike, al-Shabaab continues to ramp up operations across the country and the greater Horn of Africa. In the face of this violence, Mohamud has begun executing new policies and re-establishing old ones in the hopes of ultimately eradicating the group’s presence. His administration’s lofty goals have made notable progress in some regards, but oversights in other areas could prevent overall progress.
Mohamud’s first tenure in office from 2012-2017 set numerous precedents that contributed to a new tone in Somali politics, including the peaceful transfer of power to his successor. However, he fell short in constructively tackling the ongoing threats from terror group al-Shabaab, which led, in part, to the group’s widespread extortion and control of large swathes of land across the southernmost regions. Mohamud’s reelection presents the opportunity to learn from the mistakes made in his first years in office and move forward with policies that unify clan divides in the face of a shared threat.
In contrast to his predecessor, Mohamud is determined to re-establish the ties between the federal government and clan-based militias that he pioneered in his first term, prior to Farmaajo spoiling them with political meddling. Stronger relationships between the central government and the clans hold the potential to strengthen national unity, a piece of the government’s strategy that is currently severely lacking. In addition to the political and social benefits that come from such partnerships, one of Mohamud’s primary goals in seeking closer ties with the clan militias is for the tactical support they offer, particularly in Southern regions in which the government exercises little to no control. Some Somalis have expressed frustration with this policy approach on social media, citing the former President’s failure to effectively combat al-Shabaab using the same tactics in his first term. However, recent clan uprisings against al-Shabaab suggest that re-introducing clan militia involvement may be more successful in a second iteration as many of the groups are already mobilized and motivated to defend their territory and defy al-Shabaab’s impositions.
In spite of these strides, some of Mohamud’s efforts may prove to be more of a hindrance than a benefit. The President’s decision to administer a complete media blackout of all content related to al-Shabaab’s operations poses numerous problems, including the limitations subsequently placed on Somali-based reporters seeking to publish updates on the group’s movements. These restraints could lead to frustration from the broader Somali population who may perceive such a comprehensive ban as hedging on authoritarianism, thus granting al-Shabaab with more proof to push a delegitimizing narrative that the federal government is overly controlling and totalitarian.
As suggested by Horn of Africa analyst Rashid Abdi, the Somali government must exercise caution in its messaging related to al-Shabaab.
Irrespective of military or territorial losses, the organization’s extremist ideology and community support mechanisms will continue to galvanize and recruit Somalis who feel unrepresented by their government. Without acknowledging this portion of the population and handling their complaints in a productive manner, it is impossible to foresee a future in which the federal government exercises adequate control of the entire country. It is thus necessary to prioritize sustainable inter-clan and clan-government relationships that can cooperate in the fight against al-Shabaab, but also expand their cooperation to encompass a variety of other issues the country currently faces.
President Mohamud’s administration faces a promising opportunity to truly “finish off” the “cancer” that is al-Shabaab, though there are numerous roadblocks that could condemn the President to a legacy of shortcomings. Mohamud’s approach to renewed clan relations signals a fresh start, but mixed reactions to his harsh crackdown measures suggest that many historical issues that plagued former federal governments remain. To prevent Somalia from continual cycles of terror-based violence, Mohamud’s cabinet must address the underlying factors that contribute to al-Shabaab’s positioning as a proxy governing body.