Al-Shabaab: Should the Somali president open talks with the terror group?

Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo (right) with outgoing President Hassan Sheik Mohamud. EPA/Said Yusuf Warsame


A political settlement between the Federal Government of Somalia and terror group Al-Shabaab has eluded both parties for years.

Now newly elected Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed Farmajo has indicated that he would be open to talks with the militants.

But he also made it clear that if Al-Shabaab refused to engage he would take the war to their doorstep.

Although Al-Shabaab has lost control of most towns and cities, it still dominates in many rural areas including locales in Juba, Bay, Shabelle and Bakol.

It’s also reported that Al-Shabaab has become increasingly present in Somalia’s northern regions, especially along the Golis mountains and in the urban areas of Puntland.

Farmajo’s election has been widely celebrated. For many his rise to the presidency signals the beginning of an era of unity in Somalia.

He has a reputation for being an effective and no-nonsense administrator. This was particularly true during his term as Prime Minister of Somalia between 2010 and 2011.

He has made it clear that he’s committed to reforms, good governance and uniting the Somali community in the semi-autonomous regions of Somalia and the diaspora.

Can he bring peace?

But the credibility of his government will depend on its ability to deliver security.

Proposing dialogue with Al-Shabaab could facilitate a political settlement, which will be crucial for the security, political and economic prosperity of Somalia during his term.

A host of commentators – including scholars, analysts, policy makers, journalists, politicians and ordinary citizens – agree that dialogue or talks could be a viable strategy to end the menace of Al-Shabaab in Somalia.

The question is whether Al-Shabaab would be willing to enter into dialogue given that its modus operandi is to engage in guerrilla warfare. Previous attempts to engage it in talks have failed.

The terror group is one of the biggest threats to security in Somalia because it attacks all sectors – from the military to the political class, the people and the economy.

It also attacks neighbouring countries that it considers enemies.

Negotiating with the enemy

The argument against negotiating with terror groups such as Al-Shabaab stems from the idea that negotiating with your enemy is a sign of weakness, rewards terrorist behaviour and can lead to the legitimisation of terror groups.

In the case of Al-Shabaab, Farmajo would have to temper their hunger for power, which has given them the impetus to continually employ terrorist tactics to obtain their objective.

It wouldn’‘t be the first time an attempt was made to use dialogue as an alternative to conflict. Different democratic governments around the world have gone down this road as well.

For example, the Colombian government led by President Juan Manuel Santos recently negotiated a peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia People’s Army (FARC-EP).

Those talks ended 52 years of war. Given successes such as these, there’s a possibility that dialogue could work in Somalia.

Al-Shabaab and the Somali people share a general religious ideology, which is Islam. They also share nationality. So the problem with Al-Shabaab is less its belief system, and more the use of terror to achieve its goals.

In my opinion, Farmajo’s government would therefore need to explore new ways to compromise with the terror group by focusing on shared doctrines and beliefs.

It would need to capitalise on the fact that Somalia’s provisional constitution stipulates that Islam is the religion of the state, and use it as an ideological bridge to create common ground.

What the president has going for him

Farmajo is seen as a Somali nationalist. This might be appealing to nationalist elements in Al-Shabaab, who could be convinced that he would consent to one of their main demands, which is the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Somalia.

The withdrawal of foreign troops became a central Al-Shabaab demand after Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia in 2006. Another key demand is the installation of Sharia law .

In addition, the clan dynamics in Somali politics and clannist tendencies within Al-Shabaab, could result in the terror group viewing Farmajo (from the Marehan sub-clan), and his Prime Minister Hassan Ali (from the Murusade sub-clan), as kinsmen.

Many among the top leadership of the Al-Shabaab hail are Murusade, which is a sub-clan of the Hawiye. Therefore, the terror group could easily reach out to the president and prime minister on the basis of clan loyalty.

Another factor that could contribute to successful dialogue is the fact that the African Union’s Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is facing difficulties.

The government could be left vulnerable if AMISOM troops are withdrawn due to disputes over payments for soldiers, the withdrawal of Ethiopian soldiers and the probability of a reduced presence in Somalia.

This would resonate with Al-Shabaab’s main demand – the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Somalia.

An alternate strategy would be for the Somali authorities to draw into negotiations those who are in Al-Shabaab ‘by convenience’.

Those members of Al-Shabaab who are not hardliners, and who subscribe to the government’s agenda for peace, security and development.

Alternatively, Farmajo could attempt to negotiate with Al-Shabaab on humanitarian grounds given the severe drought ravaging the country. Al-Shabaab controls parts of the country that are being hit the hardest.

Obstacles to dialogue

However, there are many obstacles that could stand in the way of dialogue. The biggest is the possibility that Al-Shabaab will not recognise the legitimacy of the new government.

There might also be internal and external pressures on the government not to negotiate with terrorists.

The internal pressure could come from within government, and the external pressure from neighbouring countries that have troops inside Somalia, for example Kenya and Ethiopia.

If Al-Shabaab maintains its hard stance, dialogue will be impossible and the government and its allies will be forced to intensify the war on terror through other means.

One thing that remains clear is Al-Shabaab’s ability to adapt, innovate, surprise and shock. This still poses a major challenge to peace and development in Somalia.


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