Trading bullets for ballots, former al Shabaab No. 2 tests Somalia’s democratic process

Mohamed Abdiwahab, AFP| Former al-Shabab deputy leader Mukhtar Robow speaks to journalists on August 15, 2017 in Mogadishu, Somalia.

When al Shabaab’s deputy leader Mukhtar Robow defected from the jihadist group, it was hailed as a major step for peace hopes in Somalia. But now that he’s running for a December 5 regional election, some think it’s a step too far.


At a crowded meeting hall in the southern Somali city of Baidoa last month, Mukhtar Robow faced a gathering of local politicians and reporters squeezed into the room as a crowd of supporters and curious onlookers gathered outside the premises.

Robow, also known as Abu Mansour, is no stranger to the media spotlight. As one of the founding members of al Shabaab -- the al Qaeda-linked Somali terrorist group -- Robow once served as the jihadist group’s deputy leader and spokesman.

For many years, he was the public face of the organisation, appearing in al Shabaab propaganda videos, granting interviews to local journalists and addressing press conferences in the Somali wilds. As an al Shabaab military commander with battlefield experience and training in Afghanistan, Robow was considered a dangerous man. The US slapped a $5 million bounty on his head and the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on him as a “specially designated global terrorist”.

That was before he fell out with al Shabaab’s leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, in a power struggle. In 2013, he quit the jihadist group, publicly denounced al Shabaab, and retreated to his village in southwestern Somalia, where he was protected by his militiamen and the community.

Four years later, Robow was back in the news when he surrendered to Somali forces in August 2017 in what was widely hailed as a historic defection.

A year later, Robow was pushing the envelope again.

At the October gathering in a Baidoa hotel, the charismatic former Shabaab leader officially declared he was running for regional elections originally set for November 17 and later postponed to December 5.

Robow’s candidacy has implications not just for his war-torn Horn of Africa nation, but also for international military and reconstruction missions in conflict and post-conflict zones across the world.

As militants from Afghanistan to Yemen are being nudged to negotiating tables following a realisation that military operations alone do not bring peace, Robow’s political future has turned into a crucible for reconciliation and reconstruction efforts in fragile states.

His rocky transition from jihadist to politician is also an indicator of the challenges confronting the international community as multilateral institutions sometimes find themselves supporting governments mired in corruption and with no ability to deliver governance outside heavily fortified capital cities.

Electrifying the campaign trail

When Robow declared he was standing for the presidency of Somalia’s South West state, it sparked an electrifying campaign that came as no surprise to analysts on the ground.

Robow’s rallies were packed with supporters in T-shirts bearing a photograph of the smiling candidate and his slogan, “Security and Justice”. Posters and photographs of the personable candidate began to circulate on WhatsApp groups, and Twitter posts featured the candidate working the crowds at campaign rallies.

“He has been very popular among his clansmen,” explained Hussein Sheikh-Ali, founder of the Mogadishu-based Hiraal Institute, in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from the Somali capital.

While al Shabaab recruits most of their foot soldiers from impoverished members of Robow’s Rahaweyn clan, the jihadist group is not popular among Somalis.

Although some Somalis believe Robow should be held accountable for the crimes committed while he was al Shabaab’s deputy leader, his clansmen widely believe he was not associated with the worst excesses committed by the group. “Even when he was with al Shabaab, his clansmen saw him as a guy who cared for them and gave priority to his clan’s needs rather than to al Shabaab priorities,” said Sheikh-Ali.

Opposed by federal government and al Shabaab

The enthusiasm, however, was not shared by the internationally-backed Somali federal government in Mogadishu.

In a sharp rebuke to the Shabaab defector, Somalia’s internal security ministry released a statement that Robow was not eligible to run for the regional elections, which will see voters elect representatives to the 149-member state assembly as well as the president of the South West state.

While the US has lifted the $5 million bounty on Robow, he remains on the Treasury Department’s sanctions list, which would require the Somali federal government to negotiate with international bodies to clear him.

The problem, though, is that Somalia does not have a formal constitution and, legally, the powers of the federal and state government have not been adequately detailed. It’s also unclear whether the federal authorities have the ability to enforce a ban on a regional presidential candidate.

Al Shabaab too has denounced the political ambitions of the group’s highest profile defector. The usual warnings denouncing Robow as a sold-out collaborator who will suffer for his misdeeds have increased in recent weeks.

In a particularly Somali twist of fate, the federal authorities and al Shabaab find themselves on the same side of the Robow candidacy controversy.

David v. Goliath

Robow’s political future is at the heart of a wider power play between federal and regional authorities in a country where a jihadist group is waging a bloody asymmetrical war against the state and runs a parallel administration financed by extortion and “taxes” imposed on hapless residents of areas barely administered by the central government.

Earlier this month, members of the South West election committee resigned en masse, protesting “direct interference and manipulation in the electoral process from the federal government”.

“The federal government has heavy-handedly tried to manipulate and enforce some of the restrictions on him to run. But very stiff local resistance has seen almost the entire clan opposed to the interference,” explained Sheikh-Ali.

The elections, which were initially slated for November 17 was postponed to November 28 and then pushed further back to December 5. On Sunday, a new election commission stood by the previous committee’s approval of Robow’s candidacy, handing the former al Shabaab deputy a certificate of eligibility.

Robow is running for the South West presidency against Somalia’s Minister of Energy and Water Abdiaziz Hassan Mohammed, who is widely viewed as the federal government’s favoured candidate.

Local reports of the energy and water minister using public resources to run his campaign have triggered a backlash among South West state residents.

“This has turned into a David versus Goliath fight and the people now want to support David,” explained Sheikh-Ali.

The international community meanwhile views the issue as an internal Somali matter that needs to be resolved by the parties involved. A November 7 statement by the United Nations Mission in Somalia (UNISOM) calls on “all parties and stakeholders to work together” and to avoid “any behaviour which may lead to conflict or undermine the integrity of the electoral process”.

Security and livelihoods

Robow has campaigned on a security platform with a simple message that translates as, “I knew how to found al Shabaab, I know how to finish them.”

It’s a message that has captured the electorate in an area where al Shabaab runs an underground parallel administration, imposing taxes on goods passing through the area, which in turn hike up the prices in far-flung regions. The group’s dreaded intelligence apparatus, the Amniyat, has terrorised the population, infiltrating universities and other institutions, and masterminding brutal attacks across the country.

“The biggest part of his appeal is not so much who Robow is, but what Robow will do. He knows al Shabaab, he can provide security and regain territory -- that’s the bedrock of his support,” explained a foreign diplomat posted in Somalia in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “There’s a massive population of internally displaced persons in the South West area and the belief is that Robow might have more success fighting al Shabaab, enabling their return to their places of origin. For those who are not displaced, it’s a matter of open access to the area, to markets. There are basic concerns of livelihood that motivate his appeal.”

A ‘price we have to pay’

But some international observers warn that hastily integrating former combatants sends a message of impunity.

“There is this tremendous risk that justice and victims’ rights will be sacrificed without there being any payoff in terms of reduction of violence or in terms of more effective, accountable stabilization in Somalia,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown from the Washington-based Brookings Institute, in an interview with NBC News.

Others, however, acknowledge that while Robow’s candidacy poses a dilemma, excluding him from the political process would send a negative signal in a country that has been at war for nearly three decades and where many political players have past links with armed groups.

“In that quest for peace in Somalia, it’s the price we have to pay to allow former combatants, even criminals, to become good citizens if they have changed their minds,” said Sheikh-Ali.

Many experts in Somalia believe there’s no question that how Robow’s case is handled will have a bearing on the defections of high-level al Shabaab figures in terms of how they assess their political future.

A recent report by the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia noted that Robow’s defection had “encouraged” members of his sub-clan to “collectively disengage” from al Shabaab. The report noted that 20 senior al Shabaab figures had defected “at Robow’s instigation”.

With Robow throwing his hat in the political ring, a regional election in a far-flung corner of the world has now gained international attention. Inside Somalia, the December 5 election is also viewed as a critical test for the country’s 2020 presidential election following regional elections in other Somali states.

“It’s a very, very important election for Somalia," said Sheikh-Ali. “In that sense, this election feels like D-Day. It’s like Elections 2020 is happening now.”


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