That Was The Month That Was – JULY 2018

l-to-r: President Farmajo with supportive European politicians at the Somalia Partnership Forum in Bruxelles and then meeting his Eritrean counterpart; the Ministry of Interior in Mogadishu under attack; and the tools of FGM

JULY began with continued rumblings around the release of the ONLF leader, Qalbi Dhagax, and the broader thaw in relations with Somalia’s previous arch-enemy, Ethiopia. President Farmaajo travelled to Turkey to congratulate President Erdogan on his re-election as president and later in the month, in a parallel thaw, travelled to Eritrea to meet with President Afwerki.

The Somalia Partnership Forum took place in Belgium, accompanied by the obligatory Jubbaland State tantrum about protocol. Parliament went into recess with much discussion in the news media of pay rates and attendance.

There were a number of high profile sackings within the FGS: the Minister of Religious Affairs, the Minister of Education and the spokesman of the Ministry of Internal Security. Two of the National Intelligence & Security Agency’s Deputy Director Generals were also dismissed. The Mogadishu Stabilisation Force was replaced by the Civil Defence Force, prompting much speculation about a spat between the President and the Prime Minister over control of the security forces. This reminded many of the previous disruption caused during the period of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, which was scarred by frequent power struggles between the President and his numerous Prime Ministers.

In the Federal Member States (FMSs), South West State seemed to lurch to the oppressive with a prohibition on criticism of the incumbent authorities but this was possibly balanced by increased external interest from both the central government and the international community. Somaliland and Puntland continued to rub against each other (and not in a nice way) over the disputed territories of Sanaag & Sool, although at the end of the month the UN attempted to broker an end to the fighting that seemed to be successful.

aS continued to kill people: elders, members of the security forces, government workers, random people walking down the street. It launched two notable complex attacks in Mogadishu against the Ministry of Interior and Villa Somalia (after a lull during the Holy Month of Ramadan), which prompted much outcry despite both being relatively paltry in yield. aS also tried to re-cast itself as an eco-friendly group by banning plastic bags in the areas it controlled, which convinced few except idle copy-writers in the international news media.

Somalia also found itself on the front-pages of many newspapers because one of its greatest source of collective shame: female genital mutilation. A 10-year old girl died during the vandalism of her genitals in Somaliland and there seemed to be a genuine effort, backed by the Mayor of Mogadishu, to drive the activity out of the country. But it was unclear how effective any campaign to end the hideous practice would be until control of the hinterland of Somalia was complete and tacit tolerance was stamped out once and for all.

That Was The Month That Was – JUNE 2018

l-to-r: Diriye, who might be dead; Qalbi Dhagah on his way into and then out of captivity; & the new Somali shilling

JUNE saw a continuation of aS’s increased pace of attacks during the Holy Month of Ramadan, with the obligatory multiple attacks in the hinterland and numerous assassinations. A US soldier was killed and others injured in fighting in the Jubba River Valley, which sadly eclipsed the results of the US investigation into a recent accusation of civ cas.

To counter the stream of assassinations in Mogadishu, the security forces set up a special undercover squad to try to interdict the assassins. The ISIS/Da’esh Faction issued many videos, aS a few. Checkpoints were enhanced in an attempt to interdict complex attacks: some members of the public expressed peevishness about the hassle of being searched, but the broader consensus was that being delayed was better than being blown up. But ultimately Eid al-Fitr came without any major incident in the city and the read from sensible commentators was that aS’s 2018 Ramadan campaign was a flop.

There was much speculation about the health of the Emir of aS, Diriye, possibly as part of a ‘draw’ to force the elusive leader to expose himself in the media (and, therefore, to targeting), possibly based on fact. Robow, on the other hand, was in fine fettle, and went on pilgrimage to Mecca as part of a tried and tested process of symbolic atonement and reintegration.

The National Security Council met in Baidoa and issued a wide-ranging statement: about enhanced support to Galmudug and Puntland in combatting aS; about the commitment to the 2020 Election and the principal of one-man, one-vote; and about securing rural arteries (because secure towns without secure roads in between them are pointless). The Council for Internal Cooperation met amid continued tensions between Somaliland and Puntland. The PM visited Norway and Rwanda.

The Ethiopian Prime Minister visited and a succession of events followed, possibly related, possibly not: there were rumours of port deals; Ethiopia issued a broad amnesty which included the ONLF leader, Qalbi Dhagah, who had been handed over to the Ethiopians in 2017 by the FGS; and the Ethiopian General Gebre, a hate figure for many Somalis for his alleged actions during the 2006 invasion, was dismissed from IGAD. There was much nationalistic fury.

Stormy weather continued to threaten to turn into a humanitarian crisis and the fishing industry suffered. The Banadir Regional Authority began to demolish structures built illegally on public land. A cunning new plan to persuade pirate gangs to release their remaining captives (many of whom had been simply abandoned by their shipping companies and, in some cases, their home countries) by paying ‘expenses’ rather than ransoms seemed to be successful.

The impending exchange of the existing Somali shilling for new, verified notes ran into difficulties when currency traders rejected the current notes. This was a pity, since a rejuvenated Somali Shilling represented a symbol of progress in financial transparency and maybe even a symbol of national unity for people to gather around.

That Was The Month That Was MAY 2018

l-r: flooding; a German ICRC nurse who was kidnapped in Mogadishu; a gory image from an ISIS/Da’esh Faction assassination video; and the alleged assassins in custody

MAY began with the confirmation of the new Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament. The discussion of the Constitution continued, although Jubbaland boycotted, claiming it had not been formally invited. Vacant cabinet posts were filled amid a broader reshuffle. The President sacked the Chief Justice, prompting the obligatory claims that he couldn’t, but his youthful appointee took office nonetheless.

Two cyclones made landfall on the Somali coast and unseasonable storms resulted in flooding across the country: national examinations were postponed and there were predictions of a cholera epidemic. A German female nurse working for ICRC in Mogadishu was kidnapped, allegedly by an insider.

The one apparent constant in Somalia, the ability to do business in spite of the turmoil, came into question. A Cypriot company sued for breach over a coastguard contract and other international actors began to queue up with similar claims. Having failed to implement taxation in the city of Mogadishu, elements of the Federal Government shifted their focus to elements of the international community operating within the Mogadishu International Airport (MIA) compound, lifting a few South-East Asian accounts clerks to prove a point. A contract with an international provider to provide logistic support to the SNA that had been discarded due to questions about the transparency of the tender process suddenly reappeared in the hands of a local provider.

At the same time, the UAE’s controversial port contract with Somaliland seemed to be progressing in spite of the central government’s objections. Elsewhere in the Federal Member States, the illegal charcoal trade allegedly resumed in Jubbaland (if it had ever actually stopped), and Somaliland and Puntland clashed yet again over the disputed territories between the two states. FMSs continued to slap rather than pat when dealing with internal dissent.

International relations alternated between soft and hard power approaches, depending which side the international actor was supporting (the FGS or the FMSs). The US presence apparently rose, then fell. There were yet more aS-inspired claims of civilian casualties in the South/Central hinterland, where no international commentator can genuinely verify the truth but where agendas roam free.

aS continued to claim every killing everywhere as a politically-motivated assassination by its death squads. Operations were conducted across the border into Kenya and there was a spike in its activities in Puntland. MIA was rocketed, although at its relatively unpopulated southern extremity. A market in Garowe was bombed and a woman stoned to death for alleged adultery. The ISIS/Da’esh Faction mounted a series of assassinations too, but with a considerably quicker pace of media release than the perfectionist aS auteurs: a pair of alleged ISIS/Da’esh assassins were lifted 24 hours after a video release, wearing the same clothes as in the product that was released the day before. Some questioned why it was so easy to interdict the ISIS/Da’esh Faction assassins but not aS.

The Holy Month of Ramadan began with everyone in Mogadishu looking over their shoulder for an assassin: whether the assassin was aS, ISIS/Da’esh or just someone providing a 9 millimetre solution to a dispute seemed the only variable. But there were no major bombings or complex attacks, and the capital held its collective breath.

That Was The Month That Was APRIL 2018

l-r: Speaker Jawari resigns; the Mogadishu Mini-Marathon; the Ocean Stars in the CECAFA U-17s Cup Final

APRIL picked up where March left off, with continuing friction around the apparent spat between the PM and the Speaker of the Lower House. Security forces and the media were encouraged to remain impartial in an increasingly tense environment. Eventually the AMISOM Ugandan Contingent Commander intervened, apparently unilaterally, and restored some degree of calm. Speaker Jawari eventually decided to resign: barring some accusations that he had been bought off (which he vigorously refuted), his exit was remarkably equable given the bitterness that had gone before. Mohamed Mursal was elected in his place.

The FGS worked hard to increase revenues and, at the same time, secure some degree of debt relief. The constitution document apparently went missing but then re-appeared. An SNA logistics contract with the international provider, SKA, was ruled null and void after probing by investigative journalists. Flooding following heavy rains wrecked havoc in the hinterland, especially Hiraan. International organisations predicted an associated cholera epidemic and a major relief effort was launched.

In the FMSs, AMISOM continued to integrate Darwish militias into the security forces, this time in Jubbaland. Somaliland’s lurch to the oppressive continued: an elder jailed for attending an event in Puntland; a female poet detained for making pro-Somali unity proclamations; and a journalist arrested for being a journalist.

The orientation of Somaliland with UAE, presumably driven by the UAE’s investment in Somaliland ports and infrastructure but with a security angle as well, further aggravated the central government. The war of words escalated into the seizing of nearly $10 million from a UAE-flagged plane: the UAE claimed it was wages for the troops it was training in Somalia, the FGS claimed it was bung money. The UAE promptly withdrew its support for its SNA training facility in Mogadishu and its hospitals suspended operations. The military facility was looted, flooding Mogadishu with weapons and other military paraphernalia. As the month ended Somaliland, Puntland and Jubbaland were all firmly aligned with the UAE against the FGS (and Qatar/Turkey).

aS in turn launched a series of coordinated attacks on AMISOM and SNA positions in the hinterland, but they were successfully repelled. Unfortunately, a lack of availability of anyone in authority to speak to the media meant that aS’s narrative, of it swarming across south-central Somalia, was allowed to take hold.

Having finally learnt how to counter the effectiveness of drone strikes through disinformation, aS issued a series of articles claiming that strikes were consistently killing Elders, pregnant women and camels (showing what aS thinks matters to the average Somali in the hinterland). aS targeted checkpoints in the city of Mogadishu with car-bombs, warning citizens to stay away or risk the consequences. This didn’t stop the Mogadishu Mini-Marathon being run, a testament to the stoicism and resilience of the Somali people.

Sport provided another target for aS, this time a football stadium in Barawe in Lower Shabelle: aS claimed all those injured were members of the security forces, but the reality was that they were all just average Abdi’s playing the beautiful game. On the flip-side, the Somali Under-17s team reached the final of the CECAFA Cup, only faltering at the end to a stronger Tanzanian side. For every negative, there was a positive. And vice versa.

That Was The Month That Was… JANUARY 2018

JANUARY began with continuing tensions in and around Mogadishu, ostensibly over security forces assaults on the residences of Hawiye/Habar Gadir politicians. However, at a deeper level, the forcible eviction of thousands of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from camps on the fringes of the city highlighted the more primal concerns at the heart of the resurgent clan friction: access to and control of resource, notably land. Thabit, the Governor of Banadir and Mayor of Mogadishu (and one of the few government figures to come out well from the aftermath of the October 14th bombing) sought to resolve the situation by relocating the IDPs but was then summarily sacked: he was replaced by the Minister of Information, Engineer Yarisow, a Hawiye/Abgal (with the sub-clan for sub-clan exchange seeming to work).

In a cabinet reshuffle the Ministers for Foreign Affairs, the Interior and Trade were all replaced, with the substitution of one of the few female Ministers by a man being the subject of much ire. The elections for seats left vacant in 2017 proceeded, albeit slowly. There was a spate of attacks on the staff and infrastructure of Hormuud, the powerful cellphone provider, although it was unclear whether this was coincidence or deliberate action.

The President attended the AU Summit in Addis Ababa while the Prime Minister attended the World Economic Forum in Davos: while there the President declared his intention to end corruption in 2018. More significantly, the President also toured the regions of Somalia, receiving a rapturous welcome as he went. However, one of the regions he did not visit, secessionist Somaliland, clashed with its neighbour, Puntland, over disputed territory, and in Jubbaland political dissent was repressed and seemed likely to result in yet more internecine communal violence. At the same time, Kenya and Somalia clashed over the disputed border area around El-Wak, a city that lies in both countries, just one more element of the continuing territorial dispute between the two countries.

aS, on the other hand, had no such problems with lines on the map and continued to operate with relative freedom in northern Kenya (although the Kenyan media continued to tell a very different and clearly coordinated story about the declining fortunes of the terror group). Al-Shabaab did genuinely struggle with the nagging presence of the high level dissident, Robow, right on the edge of its territory and in control of an increasingly powerful military force. Attrition to defections and strikes also continued apace and the publication of research by Human Rights Watch into aS’s use of child soldiers was similarly detrimental to the group’s reputation. One strike even resulted in the rescue of a group of child soldiers, an intertwining of aS’s woes. But the oft-promised collapse of aS still seemed far off, with the group even managing to threaten copyright litigation against the FGS for unauthorised use of its imagery while maintaining its campaign of low level assassinations and bombings.

That Was The Month That Was… DECEMBER 2017

l-r: the President and the UN SRSG at the Mogadishu Security Conference; policewomen parade at the Police Academy, a number of whom died in an aS suicide attack on the base; Robow meets Ahmed Madobe; and Abdishakur is released from custody after a storm of protests

DECEMBER began with the announcement that a second investigation was to be launched into events in Barire, which were being portrayed on one hand as US Special Forces on the rampage and as a cynical, compensation-driven misrepresentation of a bit of inter-clan scrapping on the other. But the US nonetheless continued its high tempo of strikes, disrupting aS’s pattern of life.

The US also suspended military aid to the SNA, citing endemic corruption: the FGS stated that it agreed with the move. The reality of the state of the Somali security forces – weak and sometimes dishonest leadership, lacking in numbers, equipment and capability, nowhere near ready to assume responsibility for security and all while AMISOM begins its drawdown – became painfully apparent.

A major security conference for international partners was hosted by the FGS in Mogadishu and the 2018 budget was approved, although with the obligatory procedural protests from the Upper House. Political parties were introduced in anticipation of the 2020 elections and Somalia regained control of its airspace.

The President travelled to Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt and Turkey: in Istanbul he attended a meeting of the OIC and added Somalia’s voice to the protests against President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. A US diplomat to Somalia resigned, her furious resignation letter splashed across the news media.

Other international partners – Turkey & Qatar on one side, Saudi Arabia, the UAE & Egypt on the other – seemed to be vying for influence through soft power (development aid and direct donations) while at the same time conducting intrigue in support of their national or bloc objectives. Kenya refused to accept the ICJ’s decision on the maritime border with Somalia and also appeared to seize a section of the land border.

Robow returned to Southwest State and began to fight aS: aS fought back, killing one of Robow’s numerous sons, and conducted a series of executions of ‘spies’ in the areas near where Robow was operating. A suicide bomber dressed as a police officer struck the rehearsal for the 74th Anniversary of the Somali Police Force: many of the victims were female SPF officers. aS’s campaign of low level assassinations continued.

While the international community cats were away for Christmas, the Somali mice decided to play. The game was an old one: clan power disputes over control of resources and positions of influence. Clan militias in security forces uniforms clashed over land rights. The home of a former Presidential candidate, Abdishakur, was stormed on the pretext of charges of treason and six of his staff killed: he was released following a storm of protests everywhere from social media to the rural hinterland (where security forces from his clan allegedly abandoned their posts). Astonishingly, another Hawiye/Habar Gadir politician, Qeybdiid, was also raided: this time the FGS claimed to have no idea of who ordered the operation and blame was steered towards UAE (who had trained the unit involved).

As 2017 ended it was hard to remember the numerous positives of the year – a successful electoral process and the genuine feeling of hope at the election of President Farmaajo, aS on the back foot, an increasingly secure capital – while the country teetered on the brink of a descent back into clan-driven conflict.

That Was The Month That Was… OCTOBER 2017


l-r: the aftermath of the October 14th bombing; the demonstration of anti-aS feeling; and the Mayor of Mogadishu with BBC journalists

OCTOBER began with a continuation of the divisive alignment of a block of Federal Member States (FMSs) – Puntland, Galmudug & Southwest State – with Saudi Arabia, the UAE & others versus Qatar (and Turkey): this went against the Federal Government of Somali’s (FGS’s) neutral posture in the Gulf Crisis (which was read by many as being pro-Qatari, pro-Turkish). Unaligned but nonetheless opportunistic Puntland intervened and offered to convene an FMS conference, but without the FGS: the result was the formation of a council of FMSs to no obvious purpose.

Turkey opened its military academy in Mogadishu and made a number of commitments to support Somalia bilaterally, including direct delivery of security in the capital. The President travelled to Sudan: amongst other things, Sudan offered to print the new Somali banknote. Discussion of the constitution continued to ‘circle the airport’, partly due to the now obligatory objections by the FMSs to anything that came out of the FGS. The civil service and the security forces revealed that they had not been paid since the new administration had taken power in FEB17 and the Chief of Police in Puntland tried to shoot a political rival but ended up hitting his own deputy. The Minister of Defence and the head of the Somali National Army resigned for reasons that were unclear.

Then, on the afternoon of Saturday October 14th, the largest terrorist bomb ever detonated on the continent, causing the greatest slaughter of civilians in a terrorist incident in Africa went off.

In the blurry aftermath of the incident, the international response was slow: but the usual capping of casualty figures was subverted by accurate reporting from a civil society ambulance agency, Aamin Ambulance, and it quickly became clear that the usual, magical figure of 20 dead had been surpassed (and, in fact, multiplied by a factor of at least 15 and possibly 20).  The local media (news and social) made it clear this was not another ‘bomb goes off in Mogadishu’. The story grabbed headlines around the world, although the sanctimonious chose to ignore this and bemoaned the differentiation between first and third worlds in terms of the value of human life.

Aamin Ambulance, Turkey, The Guardian newspaper & BBC News, the British-Somali novelist, Nadifa Mohamed, and the Mayor of Mogadishu were overt in their support and received plaudits. Others were more demure but the effort was nonetheless significant. Robowe, the controversial founder member of aS turned not-aS-member-but-not-FGS-supporter-either, condemned the attack with vigour.

The story began to twist and turn. aS declined to claim responsibility for the attack and the gullible speculated about who had planned the attack (ISIS/Da’esh faction or maybe Qatar – whose embassy was damaged in the attack- or perhaps AMISOM and so on), despite the device coming from an aS-controlled area and another element of the attack team being captured and confessing all. But massive anti-aS fervour gripped Mogadishu and the rest of the country, the red head band becoming a symbol of the rejection of aS and its un-Somali values.

The President declared war on aS (again) and then left for a tour of East African capitals (minus election-plagued Kenya), with the aim of engendering fighting spirit amongst the AMISOM contributing countries: the Prime Minister left for Turkey and visited the injured who were being treated in Turkish hospitals. But at the same time, former PM Sharmarke and a former President conducted a spoiler visit to UAE, a hint of a return to ‘business as usual’.

As the month ended, the Director General of the National Intelligence & Security Agency (DG NISA) blasted the international community for their lack of tangible support to the Somali security forces in an Op-Ed on the front page of the New York Times, keeping Somali at the top of the news agenda. aS attacked the Nas Hablood 2 Hotel in a text-book complex attack that shifted the conversation once again. This time the government and the security forces were the subject of popular ire and DG NISA and the Commissioner of the Somali Police Force joined the former Minister of Defence and the head of the SNA down at the Job Centre.

For a moment in mid-October it seemed like Somalia had reached a semi-mythical ‘turning point’, much like the attack on a group of graduating medical students in the Shamo Hotel in DEC09 (which was instrumental in Robowe’s split with aS). Depressingly, by the end of October, it seemed like Somalia was already back to ‘business as usual’.

That Was The Month That Was… SEPTEMBER 2017


l-r: weapons seized from gun-runners off the coast of Puntland; the unburied bodies of the casualties of the Barire incident; Prime Minister Khayre addresses UN GA; an AMISOM armoured vehicle shunts a civilian car in Mogadishu; and President Farmaajo heads to Saudi Arabia

SEPTEMBER started as it would end, focussed on the town of Barire in Lower Shabelle. A number of locals, armed and moving at night with an unidentifiable but presumably nefarious purpose, stumbled upon a Somali special forces unit who promptly engaged them, killing 8. The government agreed to compensate the dollar-hungry families of the unburied and decomposing casualties.

The business of government went on, with counter-terrorism legislation heading to parliament along with various other bills. The Media Law followed close behind, trailed by the ubiquitous chuntering. The PM headed to New York for the UN General Assembly where Somalia was deprived of its voting rights because of unpaid dues but the PM nonetheless managed to meet a selection of his influential counter-parts.

International relations interfaced dangerously with relations between the government and the Federal Member States. HirShabelle democratically removed its State President early in the month and quickly replaced him. But this was insignificant in comparison to the sudden alignment of Puntland, then Southwest, then Galmudug with Saudi Arabia & UAE against Qatar, in opposition to the government’s neutral stance. The President himself returned to Saudi Arabia for the third time since taking office, but the month ended with the situation apparently unresolved.

At a regional level, relations with Ethiopia caused problems. The extradition of an Ogaden National Liberation Front leader sparked an outburst of nationalistic fervour that mixers happily exploited: the President’s popularity plummeted. The fragility and disenfranchisement that came with a major clan/not-so major sub-clan President and Prime Minister appeared to spill over into violence, albeit concealed in a variety of Somali National Security Forces uniforms, when the Stabilisation Force attempted to disarm another unit (from a different clan block): 9 died.

There were some positives: football matches and civilian flights into Mogadishu Aden Abdulle Airport took place at night for the first time in nearly three decades. The Mogadishu Book Festival was a success, rivalling its elder cousin in Hargeisa.

Kenyan forces serving as part of AMISOM withdrew from Bardhere and Tarako: aS immediately occupied the towns. In Mogadishu, video of a road traffic accident, where an AMISOM armoured vehicle shunted a civilian car along one of the main arteries of the city, went viral on social media: AMISOM quickly apologised and offered compensation.

The security slugging match continued in the hinterland. aS continued to suffer from air, drone and special forces strikes, the Shadow Governor of Banadir being a notable victim. aS tried to use disinformation to counter the strikes, re-imagining them as civilian casualty incidents.

In reply, aS launched assaults on government positions across the country, from Af-Urur in Puntland to Bulo-Gaduud, Beled-Hawo, Kalabyr and El-Wak in south-central. In the city of Mogadishu aS kept up its campaign of assassinations of government officers, members of the security forces and NGO workers (although whether aS actually was responsible for every single killing remains unclear): the Deputy Commander of SNA Logistics was a notable victim. aS’s other urban trademark, the car-bomb, was less prevalent than in previous months, but some attacks succeeded in spite of the best efforts of the Stabilisation Force to secure the city.

The month ended where it began, in Barire. aS stormed the SNA garrison in the town, inflicting heavy casualties and seizing a number of vehicles including armed ‘technicals’. aS’s narrative predominated and steered attention away from its concurrent and grimly symbollic car-bombing of the Mogadishu Peace Garden.

That Was The Month That Was… AUGUST 2017

l-r: top, an AMISOM vehicle was destroyed after being caught up in bajaaj-driver protests; bottom, Robow; centre, the alleged victims of the Barire radi; and right, Eid al-Adha, aS-style

AUGUST began with the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) dealing with the aftermath of events in July: the Minister of Constitutional Affairs was summoned to parliament to explain his negative commentary regarding the overturning of the Supreme Court’s ruling on disputed parliamentary seats; and there was much outcry about the death sentence applied to the killer of the Minister of Public Works (the perpetrator being one of the Attorney General’s protection team).

Later in the month an AMISOM convoy in Mogadishu became caught up in a mass protest by disgruntled bajaaj­-drivers: one vehicle was destroyed. There was a flurry of attacks on checkpoints in Mogadishu (possibly indicative of the success of the Stabilisation Force) and a handful of car-bombs made it through to their targets, although with minimal effect. A group of family members were killed in a drive-by shooting on the outskirts of Mogadishu and a taxi driver working the lucrative Airport Road route was killed by a bomb placed under the driver’s seat of his cab: it seemed that, as terrorism in the city declined, business dispute resolution, Mogadishu-style, was returning.

Female representation in parliament also came to the fore when no female representatives were selected for the Constitutional Review Committee, prompting comment from UN SOM. The Telecoms Bill passed through both houses, meaning the FGS might finally see a share of the massive revenues from that industry (which currently go into private coffers and, allegedly, also in some small part to aS). There was turmoil in HirShabelle State, always the most fragile of the Federal States, when the President was voted out but refused to leave, despite the support of the central government for the process to remove him from office. Convicted pirates were repatriated by India. Another group of prisoners were returned to Mogadishu by South Sudan and were immediately released: unfortunately they turned out to be human traffickers.

aS maintained its campaign to influence the Kenyan election via the media, culminating in the release of a video showing the execution of a Kenyan prisoner. AMISOM and the FGS withdrew from Leego: aS re-occupied the town. A female suicide bomber detonated in the Central Prison in Mogadishu in an attempt to kill her relative, the Commander of the Custodial Corps: she failed. aS continued to suffer losses to strikes: air strikes, drone strikes, Special Forces strikes. The Shadow Governor of Banadir, Ali Jabal, was a significant loss, prompting a eulogy from aQ itself.

Defections continued, including a 19-year medical commander in Hiraan. The defection of Robow, probably prompted by aS’s attempts to finally eliminate him after years of his dithering in the wilderness, was the subject of much conjecture: was he significant? did he actually reject violence or the ideology of the Global Jihad? was there a chance he might destabilise Southwest State, to whom he defected?

The month ended with two more crises. A group of villagers were killed in a joint Somali-US special forces operation, prompting outrage (much of it faux, since it became apparent the group were armed and probably about to engage in a spot of inter-clan violence when they stumbled upon the soldiers). The alleged handover of an Ogaden National Liberation Front leader to the Ethiopian authorities saw indignation reach new levels. Eid al-Adha came and the celebrations were peaceful but the various controversies rumbled on in the background and would likely ripple on into September.

The C Word: Why Robow Matters

Robow speaks to the media at the City Palace Hotel in Mogadishu on Tuesday, swapping the black flag of al-Shabaab for the Somali national flag

ABU MANSOUR MOKHTAR ROBOW, former Deputy Emir of al-Shabaab, entered into discussions with the Federal Government of Somalia this week. In an information vacuum (where, bizarrely, the potential defector seemed to be taking the lead in explaining what was happening), there was much speculation about the significance and even the desirability of negotiating with someone like Robow.

Despite his ideological and military credentials, Robow had become a source of great aggravation to al-Shabaab after he split with the group’s leadership ‘over ideological differences’. For 6 years he inhabited a grey space between al-Shabaab and the Federal Government, a state of limbo where his clan-based personal militia afforded him enough protection to deter al-Shabaab from simply killing him but where, at the same time, his stern refusal to renounce either violence or a broader Nationalist Islamist agenda that transcends a mere organisation like al-Shabaab (an ideology that still receives much tacit support in Somali society) precludes amnesty. This makes his defection to the government challenging to say the least.

It is unclear what turned the uneasy stalemate between Robow and al-Shabaab into open hostilities, with al-Shabaab massing forces in Bakool and launching a series of unsuccessful assaults on Robow’s rural stronghold. Perhaps al-Shabaab received word of Robow’s negotiations with Southwest State and senior members of his clan (Rahanweyn) in the national parliament in Mogadishu. Or perhaps the time had come for someone to rid al-Shabaab of ‘this turbulent priest’. It is unlikely we will ever know since key players in Somalia’s insurgency seldom get to write their memoirs. What we do know is that the attack forced Robowe into the arms of the government, although 19 of Robow’s men didn’t get to join him.

Robow allowed himself to be moved to Mogadishu, his security guaranteed by no less than the Somali Minister of Defence himself (although Robow was, it is rumoured, initially resistant to the move to the capital). Once there he entered a process that some described as a negotiation, others as a debriefing. He spoke to the media at the City Palace Hotel (across the road from the Somali National Intelligence & Security Agency’s headquarters), reading a prepared statement and answering no questions – and, notably, not condemning violence, not rejecting the broader Nationalist Islamist ideology (just the manifestation of it that is al-Shabaab), nor confessing his crimes and seeking forgiveness.

One line of response focussed on the lack of a rejection of violence, the failure to address all those crimes. This wasn’t new: when Atom defected in 2014, there was a similar furore from those who had suffered when his localised dispute with the local government in Puntland merged with al-Shabaab’s parallel antipathy for the Puntland Authorities. But Atom, while deeply religious, was never an ideologue. If anything he was a criminal, a bandit, a gun-runner. It was a relief when he finally said the right things to the media and was re-located to a Gulf State for the rest of his days. When Aweys, who actually was an ideologue, defected, he was not perceived to have blood on his hands. But Robow is both: violent and ideological and, apparently, not yet reconciled.

Atom, 2014 sketch by Our Man on the Horn

For that reason many local commentators and even the worthies at Human Rights Watch, taking advantage of the unique view you get into Somalia from the raised balcony of a coffee shop in an affluent part of northern Nairobi, feel that there must be justice. But justice in Somalia involves a wooden post and some from-the-hip automatic fire. (Reconcile that.) As a Briton and a former British Army officer at that, I can’t help but note that we would still be fighting in Northern Ireland if we had stuck to that line of uncompromising, inflexible ‘justice’. But we aren’t because we found it in ourselves to forgive and to reconcile (however tentatively).

Other commentators conjectured that, while Robow was once a significant figure within al-Shabaab, he was now little more than a propaganda symbol since he had been isolated from the hard core of the group for so long.

And, as is so often the case when international commentators look at Somalia, a deep lack of understanding of how Somalia works is exhibited, coupled with an absence of imagination, a lack of vision as to how Somalia might eventually ‘work’ in the future. And that means ‘The C Word’.


Robow is a Rahanweyn from the sub-clan Leysaan and the sub-sub-clan Orsi. al-Shabaab were well aware of the significance of this: that is why they sent the Shadow Governor of Galgaduud, Sheikh Hassan Yaqcub, to lead the assault on Robowe’s hideout in the hinterland, because he too was a Rahanweyn-Leysaan-Orsi. They were probably also very aware of the predominance of Rahanweyn in the organisation itself, with perhaps more than half of the organisation coming from the clan, at the foot-soldier level at least (although understanding of the demographics of al-Shabaab remains hazy even 11 years after the Ethiopian invasion).

And that is where the real significance of Robowe might lie. If Robow can find it in himself to put aside not just his violent, xenophobic, Nationalist-Islamist agenda, if he can commit to working with the government to rebuild Somali, but, most importantly, if he still has influence over his Rahanweyn clansmen, even a proportion of them, and if he can bring them out with him, then Robow might be the most important defector from al-Shabaab to date.