While the COVID-19 was morphing from an epidemic into a catastrophic global pandemic, captivating the global news, a diplomatic confrontation is unfolding in the horn of Africa between Somalia and Kenya.
On 2 March, fighting between the Somali National Army (SNA) and the regional Jubaland paramilitary forces erupted in the border town of Beled Hawo killing 21 combatants on both sides and civilians.
The fighting in Beled Hawo spilled across into Kenya’s territory as the SNA pursued the retreading Jubaland paramilitaries into the Kenyan border town of Mandera.
On 4 March, Kenya accused Somalia of ‘‘unwarranted attack’’ on its territory as the two East African nations traded accusations of internal political interference.
To understand the crisis in the Mandera triangle – a converging point of Somalia’s, Kenya’s and Ethiopia’s borders and the towns of Beled Hawo, Mandera and Suuf on each side of the borders, respectively – one has to grasp the intricacies of the horn’s new geopolitical reconfigurations, Villa Somalia’s long-term political agenda and Kenya’s geopolitical anxieties and concerns of Ethiopia’s increasing influence in Somalia.
Somalia’s governance model confusion
After nearly 30 years-long intra-tribal and warlords-based civil war, now, Somalia seems to be descending into a looming intra-federal states and central government military confrontations. The recent fighting in Beled Hawa between the SNA and a regional paramilitaries signal the commencement of a new civil war in the country – unless quickly resolved.
At the root of this violence lie confusions on which governance model suites Somalia best and its interests. Federal member states (FMS) like Jubaland and Puntland, coupled with their political and ideological difference with the Federal government of Somalia (FGS), envision a loosely connected federal system where federal member states have more powers as the central federal state a la a Swiss confederacy model. Contrary to this, the current administration of President Mohamed Abdullahi ‘‘Farmajo’’, with its nationalist and centralist tendencies conceives a ‘strong’ Somali state with a relatively autonomous and subordinate regional states.
The current governance model crisis in Somalia is also compounded by the slow constitutional review process which would have stipulated clearly the division of powers between the FGS and its constituent FMS.
Furthermore, the Somali governance model crisis also took a geopolitical dimension: neighbouring countries and Gulf States have been courting federal member states hence by-passing the central government. The Current administration’s siding with Qatar and a strong diplomatic relation with Turkey has worried Gulf powers. This has created a situation where FMS with the implicit support of Gulf powers and neighbouring countries challenge the central government.
Villa Somalia’s political end-game
Since the election of President Mohamed Abdullahi ‘‘Farmajo’’ in 2017, a more assertive and centralist policies laden with Somali nationalism rhetoric has been observed in Mogadishu. In a speech while on a visit to Kenya delivered in the Somali embassy in Nairobi, the president lamented that Somalis are tired of political chaos, disintegration and accused some leaders of the federal member states of being unpatriotic and treasonous.
In its effort for recentralisation the central federal government had influenced the regional elections in Konfur Galbeed state and Galmugud state and got elected in both states leaders who were allied to the central federal government.
Furthermore, the ascent to power by Abiy Ahmed in 2018 in Ethiopia seems to have favoured the current administration in Mogadishu. In Abiy Ahmed, President Farmajo had found an ally who made sure that Ethiopia only engages with the FGS in Mogadishu.
This has created the perception in the Somali public that Ethiopia has ceased interfering in Somali politics.
The new-found close relations between Somalia and Ethiopia had worried Kenya which sees the bordering Jubaland state of Somalia as a buffer zone against the terror group Al-Shabab and as its sphere of influence. Prof. Peter Kagwanja observed that with Abiy Ahmed in power in Ethiopia and President Farmajo’s centralist and Somali nationalist tendencies, a new Somali-Oromo ‘‘cushitic allience’’ is emerging in the horn that will put in risk Kenya’s geopolitical interest.
More crucially, with elections in the corner in Somalia in 2020/21, Mogadishu is flexing its powers over what it considers rogue federal member states. After two days of fighting in Dhusamareeb, the capital of Galmudug state, the leaders of the armed sufi group Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jamaa (ASWJ) surrendered and were detained by the Somali army on 29 February.
Then, the central federal government turned its gaze on Jubaland state and its leader Ahmed Mohamed Islam ‘‘Madobe’’, a close ally of Kenya. Madobe got himself re-elected as the president of Jubaland state last year in an election the FGS refused to recognize.
In a show of support his inauguration was attended by some Kenyan members of parliament spear-headed by Majority leader Adan Duale Barre. Amid an exchange of internal political interference accusations between Kenya and Somalia, the first shots were fired in Beled Hawo, Somalia and spread into Mandera, Kenya.
Furthermore, Abdirashid Janan, a fugitive Jubaland warlord with an arrest warrant from the Federal government resided and mobilised his Jubaland paramilitaries from Mandera, Kenya with the displeasure of Mogadishu.
Time for de-escalation, dialogue and cooperation
Diplomatic relations between Kenya and Somalia have reached their lowest point this year. Amid an increase in terror attacks by Al-Shabab in both Somalia and Kenya’s North-Eastern region, both nations have to de-escalate diplomatic tensions and cooperate closely in security matters.
On 9 March, President Uhuru Kenyatta sent his interior minister Fred Matiangi to Mogadishu in an effort to de-escalate tensions with Somalia. This is a step in the right direction. The interior minister also travelled to Addis Ababa in a bid to iron out conflicting geopolitical interests with Ethiopia.
Finally, Somalia needs to have a constitutional review process before the elections on how to peacefully and efficiently institute and implement its federal system.
While the Somali state in the Weberian sense, has a right to violence and coercion within its territory, nevertheless, regional states like Puntland and Jubaland are armed to the teeth and a violent confrontation would be a recipe for a new civil war. With Al-Shabab still terrorizing Somalis, Villa Somalia has to mobilize its meagre military resources against the terror group and employ internal diplomacy channels to engage and reconcile with regional states. Dialogue is paramount for Somali politics at this moment.