As US-Taliban peace talks continue amid much curiosity and criticism, Somalia has also been dealing with a political quagmire that has similar implications in a continuing saga which began with Mukhtar Robow’s arrest late last year.
Robow is a former Al Shabab spokesman and deputy commander, who defected to the government in 2017. In 2018, he decided to run for the presidency of Somalia’s South West state, before Ethiopian forces arrested him and took him to Mogadishu.
At a recent meeting of clan elders in Baidoa, the Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Mursal Abdirahman renewed his commitment to securing the release of Robow.
The presidential hopeful’s arrest sparked a wave of protests and riots, which led to the deaths of two local government officials, hundreds of arrests, and triggered a political crisis that saw the Somali government expel the UN Envoy to Somalia Nicholas Haysom, and the resignation of Abdifitaah Ibrahim Geeseey, Minister for Public for Public Works.
“Somalia is emerging from failed state scenario,” said Hassan Sheikh Ali, former senior national security advisor to the president’s office. “For a few days, Mukhtar Robow’s hometown was burning and his arrest increased political tension across the country.”
The Somali federal government said Robow violated the terms it agreed with him by allegedly smuggling weapons into Baidoa to mobilised militias. Others have argued that it was a political arrest as Robow emerged as a serious challenger to the federal government's preferred candidate in the South West state polls, which has raised questions about the rule of law in Somalia.
The arrest has also led to conversations among Somalis about how to deal with former militants who renounce violence but maintain their political ambitions or seek roles in government. “The mainstream of Somali society are divided on this issue,” said Abdimalik Anwar, a policy analyst at the Hiigsi Institute, a non-partisan think tank with a focus on Somalia.
“The majority of people supported the arrest of Robow and more specifically the victims of AS [Al Shabab]. Some of the people were against his arrest because they saw the arrest as a political move or they viewed it as a lost opportunity, which might discourage other potential defectors.”
Several Western donor nations are among those who objected to the arrest, along with Haysom, who was declared persona non grata in Somalia after he questioned the legal basis of the Robow arrest. The Western nations have advocated for a more pragmatic view, that sidelines justice in the interest of peace. They believe that a strategy combining amnesty with rehabilitation programs and some concessions might help bring Al Shabab’s insurgency to an end.
The latter strategy, which attempts to re-integrate former terrorists back into society isn’t unprecedented, nor are attempts to allow them to enter formal politics. Analysts familiar with Somalia such as Rashid Abdi, Abdihakim Ainte, Afyare Abdi Elmi, Mohamed Haji Ingiriis and Hussein Sheikh Ali, have supported the idea of dialogue with Al Shabab to negotiate an end to the war.
Developments elsewhere seem to be heading in that direction, too. The Ogaden National Liberation Front, a Somali secessionist movement in east Ethiopia, agreed a truce with the Ethiopian government last year and are now defending Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s reform agenda. In the Philippines, an agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has brought the prospect of peace to the Mindanao region, where a referendum will be held on greater autonomy.
Robow’s case has both merits and drawbacks, but the opportunities presented by his defection are complicated by his notorious biography, the politics of his defection and important questions about peace and justice in Somalia.
Mukhtar Robow - The emergence of a democrat?
Described by Voice of America journalists Dan Joseph and Harun Maruf as a “good organiser and fierce fighter” in their newly published book Inside Al-Shabaab, Robow, is a veteran of Somalia’s militant Islamic movement. Following setbacks in the 90s with al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (AIAI), Robow moved to Afghanistan where he spent just under a year training at Al Qaeda’s Al Farouq camp, near Kandahar.
When he returned to Somalia he joined the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), a multi-factional organisation with a moderate bent. After a split emerged in the UIC, with then leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed entering negotiations with the Ethiopia-backed Transitional Federal Government, Robow worked with hardliners in the defunct UIC to become one of the founding members of Al Shabab. In February 2008, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice designated Al Shabab a terrorist organisation.
By November 2008, under Executive Order 13224, the US put Robow on the Specially Designated Global Terrorist list and by 2012, the State Department was offering $5 million for information on his whereabouts. “Al Shabab feels honoured to be included on the list,” Robow said. “We are good Muslims and the Americans are infidels. We are on the right path.”
Anwar said: “[Robow] was an outspoken and vicious leader in AS, who later turned against them and left with a considerable army, a move he claimed was brought about by his disagreeing with AS’s indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians.”
After falling out with Ahmed Godane, who led Al Shabab at the time, Robow left the organisation in 2013, which later declared him an apostate. In 2017, to great fanfare, he handed himself over to federal authorities in Hudur, Bakool, as the most senior defector in the organisation’s history.
“Mukhtar Robow was the government's VIP guest after he surrendered,” said Hassan Sheikh Ali. “He was enjoying government's care, provided a luxury car with a security guard and was staying inside the National Intelligence and Security Agency's (NISA) HQ.”
Robow, who once described democracy as “kufr” (unbelief), would complete his U-turn by announcing his candidacy to applause in Baidoa. “You asked me to stand for this responsibility,” he said. “And I accepted it. God willing we will win.”
He was popular on the campaign trail, running with the slogan “security and justice” and convening large meetings displaying the extent of his local support.
“We shall reopen roads on which women are raped and people are harassed,” he said during a speech in Baidoa. “Notwithstanding my previous views, I owe you a lot for this huge welcome.”
Robow presented himself as a reformed man of God, who saw the error of his ways and decided to embark on a new more constructive path. “I left Al Shabab because… I disagreed with their creed which does not serve the Islamic religion, people and the country,” he said.
However, after he announced his candidacy for the South West state, where he had a strong likelihood of winning, the federal government viewed it as a step too far. Robow found himself in the middle of an ongoing dispute between the federal government and its member states.
While the Electoral Commission of the South West state upheld his candidacy, the federal government in Mogadishu blocked it, raising important questions not only about the powers of the federal government (which aren’t clearly defined), but also whether a candidate with Robow’s history should be allowed to run for office.
“Mukhtar Robow committed a crime against Somali people and he has to pay the price. He has to face the justice,” Ali said. “However, the government's move to arrest him with Ethiopia's assistance was absolutely a wrong move.”
He added: “Surprisingly, overnight, the government's position changed and issued a false accusation against him.
“This environment requires careful engagement in every aspect of Somalia’s political process, transparency and dialogue, to facilitate healing and then reconciliation.”
This decision, Ali believes, undermines that and his perspective is given credence by the fact that Zakariya Hersi, a leading figure in Al Shabab’s intelligence wing, Amniyat, who defected in 2014, is currently the head of Somalia’s internal intelligence service, along with other former Al Shabab members. For some, this demonstrates the fact that sincere reform is possible and former militants can play a constructive role in the battle against the insurgent group.
Ahmed Mohamed Islam (known more commonly as Ahmed Madobe), another former militant, was also elected as president of Jubaland, Somalia’s southernmost state, in May 2013. Christopher Anzalone, a researcher at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, believes Robow could have played a similar role.
“His key position in AS for many years may have proved instrumental in the war against AS since he is familiar with many of its top players having worked with them closely for over a decade” Anzalone said. “While this does not excuse his past actions, alienating him and his local/regional supporters is not a smart counterinsurgency move.”
“Robow has a lot to answer for but he is not alone in that,” Anzalone argued. “There are many in positions of power now in the federal government and the regional states of which this is also true.”
Ali Isaq, a local elder, shared this view when he voiced his support for Robow, saying he’s “just like other politicians with a dreadful past such as warlords who are now politicians”. He added: “Nothing can deny him any leadership role.”
Anzalone also believes that major defections like those of Robow and Hersi, might present an opportunity for the Somali government to begin talks with certain constituencies in Al Shabab, who might look upon defection more favourably. According to a recent report by the Hiraal Institute on the terrorist group, the opportunity is ripe as “negative opinions of AS policy are widely-held by AS officials, [but] many are afraid to discuss them publicly for fear of persecution”.
“While a jihadi insurgent organisation like AS will likely be much more difficult to persuade to abandon their political and ideological commitments to establishing an Islamic state, it is not necessarily impossible,” Anzalone told TRT World. “Many AS leaders and members operate at least in part based on their own self-interest and currently held ideological positions can change.”
He believes the arrest of Robow won’t give much hope however to those remaining in the organisation who are on the fence. Low-level members of AS are concerned about their prospects should they quit as AS circulates rumours about mistreatment by the federal government. High-level members like the head of defence, Moalim Osman, are reported to walk around with suicide vests, in case of capture.
Enduring security threat
Despite the fact that Al Shabab has lost a lot of territory and the control of major urban areas, it has proved itself to be an enduring, dynamic and adaptable risk to security in Somalia and the region, as its recent attack in Nairobi demonstrates.
According to a report by UN monitors Al Shabab is also “likely generating a significant budgetary surplus”. Money they concluded is “not a limiting factor in its ability to wage its insurgency”.
It also retains the support of some clans, and despite the fact that it has been pushed out of many towns it still exercises influence through extortion and the collection of taxes, which Anzalone told TRT World might even be “more capable than that of the federal government”.
The adaptability of Al Shabab contrasts sharply with its opponents. The Somali National Army remains divided, poorly equipped (because of a UN embargo) and underfunded. AMISOM, a multinational force of troops from across East Africa is itself under-funded and will lose the Burundi contingent, in addition to a recent announcement that it will begin scaling back its 12-year mission in the country.
Ismail Osman, former deputy head of NISA, regrets the manner in which Robow was treated but remains suspicious of any suggestion that former Al Shabab members should allowed near higher levels of government. “Once a Shabab, always a Shabab,” Osman said.
“With respect to Mukhtar Robow, he defected for his own safety, AS were likely to kill him given his fall out with the organisation in 2013,” he told TRT World. “AS more generally however should not be treated as a normal opposition party, because their goals aren’t acceptable. They don’t want to be a part of the government, they want to overthrow it.
“Their agenda isn’t a national agenda, it is a global agenda, with serious implications not just for Somalia but also Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia.”
Robow’s defection he believes, has been overstated despite his seniority. His influence over AS fighters has waned, as his more local concerns are out of step with a group more aggressively committed to the idea of a global jihad.
“If high-level defections were enough to defeat AS, we would have seen the end of the organisation as they have been losing senior leaders through deaths, and defections for over a decade,” Osman said.
Al Shabab, he believes, and its members cannot be expected to defect any more, nor does evidence suggest that they want to in large enough numbers. Amnesty offers by successive governments have only seen a light trickle of fighters leave the group. And the Disengaged Combatants Program (DCP) which rehabilitates lower level fighters (who often join for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons), isn’t appropriate for high-level members of the group.
As a result, Osman believes the Somali government hasn’t lost much as far as its campaign against Al Shabab goes by arresting Robow, because the risks of this type of counter-terror strategy far outweigh what’s likely to be gained in Somalia. Nor has this approach had great enough dividends to justify its use.
An outright military defeat of Al Shabab, however, is possible according to Osman. “AS can be defeated, but the military means needs to be taken more seriously than it is currently is because at the moment AS is outnumbered significantly when we include Somalia’s intelligence apparatus, the Somali police, the military, AMISOM and the international community,” he said.
In a recent interview with The East African, the Somali ambassador to Kenya, Ahmed Nur, lamented the lack of serious support the Somali government and military receives from the international community in its campaign against Al Shabab. “How do you expect the Somali government, which is under a UN arms embargo, to effectively fight Al Shabab?” he asked. “It is like they have tied our hands and they are telling us to fight.”
The Somali military, Nur continued, won’t be ready for the withdrawal of AMISOM forces, which is scheduled for 2021, as Somalia won’t have the 30,000 trained troops to whom security would have been handed over.
The failure of these institutions to provide the public goods they are expected to, is what he says creates the conditions for Al Shabab to maintain its sway over key constituencies. A recent report by the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia found that the failure of governance in Somalia contrasted unpromisingly with how much AS benefits from the status quo which ultimately provides a pool of recruits.
“If the Somali government and its international partners really want to drive AS out of Somalia, there needs to be a greater focus on the delivery of services and security, stronger backing for Somalia’s military, as well as a more determined campaign to take the fight to AS both in the cities and outside them,” Osman said.