Arrest of ex-Shabaab-leader-turned-politician sparks deadly clashes in Somalia

Feisal Omar, Reuters | Former al-Shabab deputy leader Mukhtar Robow attends a news conference in Baidoa, Somalia, on November 4, 2018.

The arrest of a former al Shabaab leader who is running for a regional election has sparked deadly clashes on Friday in the southern Somali city of Baidoa, imperiling the country’s fragile democratic process.


At least 11 people were killed over two days of clashes between Somali police and supporters of Mukhtar Robow. The violence followed Robow’s arrest on Thursday, just days before a much-postponed regional election for the president of Somalia’s South West state.

According to Hussein Aden, a military officer quoted by Reuters, and several witnesses, Robow was arrested by Somali police backed by Ethiopian peacekeeping forces then transferred to the capital, Mogadishu. Over the past few weeks, the internationally-backed Somali federal government has tried to prevent Robow from standing for the regional election, which was originally set for November 17, then postponed to December 5 and has now been pushed back to December 19.

The government’s attempts to stop Robow from standing for the regional election has sparked widespread discontent, triggering mass resignations last month among members of the South West election committee who complained of “direct interference and manipulation in the electoral process from the federal government”.

The brewing storm between Somalia’s internationally-backed federal and regional authorities reached a head this week when federal security forces arrested Robow in Baidoa on Thursday and flew him to Mogadishu.

Demonstrators took to the streets in Baidoa – the capital of South West state – burning tyres and blocking roads.

On Thursday, 10 people died in the clashes, Baidoa elder Saleh Isak told Reuters. A day later, Somali police killed a Somali lawmaker, Abdishakur Bule, according to Isak.

A Somali military officer however told Reuters the lawmaker died in cross fire between armed protesters and the police.

Huge implications for Somalia’s peace hopes’

A charismatic former al Shabaab leader, Robow is a popular figure in his native state, drawing massive crowds for his campaign rallies over the past few weeks.

One of the founding members of al Shabaab, Robow quit the jihadist group in 2013 and surrendered to Somali authorities five years later in what was widely hailed as a major step for peace and reconciliation in the war-torn country.

His campaign slogan, “I knew how to found al Shabaab, I know how to finish them,” captured the electorate in an area where the jihadist group runs an underground parallel administration aided by the group’s dreaded intelligence apparatus, the Amniyat.

>> Read more on Mukhtar Robow: 'Trading bullets for ballots'

Robow’s arrest however has highlighted the clan-based power rivalries in Somalia, threatening to undermine the country’s fledging democratic process.

“His arrest has huge implications. It will completely derail and stop any chance of Shabaab fighters seriously considering defecting to the government, which in turn has huge implications for Somalia’s peace hopes,” said Hussein Sheikh-Ali, founder of the Mogadishu-based Hiraal Institute, in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from the Somali capital.

“There’s also a question of the rule of law, where the government is blatantly violating all norms and agreements within the Somali political sphere,” Sheikh Ali added.

‘A threat to the government’s candidate’

Robow’s main opponent in the South West presidency race is 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.

“Robow was a threat to the government’s candidate,” explained Sheikh-Ali. “When he declared his intention to come and join the government, he met all the relevant actors and they gave him the green light to stand for elections.”

Somali authorities say Robow has been bringing Islamist militants and weapons back to Baidoa, accusations the former Shabaab leader and his supporters deny.

The government has provided no details if any charges have been filed against Robow. The South West election commission on Friday said the regional election will still be held on December 19.

Regional and international stakes

Robow’s attempted transition from jihadist to politician 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.

The current political crisis in Somalia has also put a spotlight on 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.

While the government of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed – also known as “Farmajo” – is backed by the international community, the UN Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) views the issue as an internal Somali matter that needs to be resolved by the parties involved.

In an extraordinary statement released Saturday morning, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) stated that, “AMISOM had no part in the arrest of Mr. Robow and his subsequent transfer to Mogadishu.” The AU statement suggests that Ethiopian troops in Baidoa were acting outside the AMISOM framework.

The day before, the UN and African missions in Somalia -- along with the US and the EU -- expressed concern over the recent events in South West state and called on all Somali parties to respect the integrity of the electoral process. "We encourage constructive dialogue to resolve political differences and address other challenges in order to advance the political and economic progress of the country”, read the joint statement.

While the joint statement was signed by Kenya and Uganda – African nations with troops in Somalia – it was not signed by Ethiopia, Somalia’s powerful neighbour with a long history of involvement in the Horn of Africa nation.

The Somali government’s use of Ethiopian troops threatens to revive old suspicions of external influence in the country.

Somalia has been mending ties with its powerful neighbour following the election of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in April. Barely three months later, Ahmed signed a historic peace deal with Eritrea, ending decades of conflict between the two nations.

Last month, the presidents of Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea met in the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar for a summit aimed at promoting regional economic development.

The deadly clashes in Baidoa occurred as Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki was on his first-ever visit to Somalia.

While Ethiopia launched a military operation in Somalia in 2006 to crush a coalition of Islamic groups, Sheikh-Ali does not believe Addis Ababa is invested in the latest domestic political crisis. “Ethiopia doesn’t have a position on Robow,” he explained. “It is jointly investing in major Somali ports, using its navy in Somali waters and I think that between Ethiopia and [Somali President] Farmajo, it’s now just a question of 'you do my bidding, I’ll do yours'.”

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