The new government in Somalia that won elections held in May has got off to a rocky political start in its relations with the relatively powerful and influential neighbour, Ethiopia.
Ethiopia enjoyed warm relations with the previous government in Somalia. But recent incidents have soured relations. First was that Somalia’s new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, bypassed his Ethiopian counterpart Abiy Ahmed during visits to regional capitals in May, June and July.
Then, during a visit to Cairo, Hassan Sheikh waded into the controversy between Ethiopia and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Egyptian ruler Abdel Fattah el-Sisi hinted at a press conference that Somalia and Egypt saw eye-to-eye on the contentious dam.
The final stroke appears to be Hassan Sheikh’s unexpected decision to appoint a former Al-Shabaab commander, Mukhtar Roobow Mansuur, to Somalia’s new cabinet. Mansuur was the former deputy of the militant group Al-Shabaab. This appointment was met with a mixture of shock and disbelief at home and in the region and beyond.
The fiercest reaction came from Ethiopia, which dreads Al-Shabaab and its radicalised elements. Successive Ethiopian governments have always expected a menace from Somalia. Addis Ababa was nevertheless taken by surprise when Al-Shabaab launched a cross-border attack on Ethiopian forces in late July. It showed that the militant group could easily dent Ethiopia’s capability to control the border with southern Somalia.
Ethiopian authorities responded to Mansuur’s appointment by engaging directly with leaders of Somalia’s semi-autonomous regions instead of with the central government. They embarked on approaching Southwest, which now has a political tension with the new government in Mogadishu over the recent dispensation of power in the cabinet. Like the Ethiopian authorities, Southwest authorities were unacceptable to Mansuur’s ministerial appointment.
Abdiaziz Lafta-Gareen, the president of Southwest, was flown to Addis Ababa by the Ethiopian army. He was reported to have held secret talks with the Ethiopian military intelligence at an army base outside Addis Ababa.
Lafta-Gareen is a staunch ally of former Somali president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmaajo” and his former chief spy Fahad Yasin Haji Daher.
Lafta-Gareen then flew to Jigjiga, the regional capital of Ethiopia’s Somali region, where he met the region’s president Mustafe Muhumed Omer, who distrusts the past links between Hassan Sheikh and the deposed Tigray leaders in northern Ethiopia.
Lafta-Gareen, together with other regional presidents, including Said Abdullahi Deni of Puntland in northeast Somalia, will form an Ethiopian-supported strong opposition to the new government. This will make it harder for the government to consolidate its power and build a peaceful state.
Political tensions in the Horn of Africa rose after Hassan Sheikh bypassed Ethiopia during a flurry of state visits even before he formed his government. He visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Turkey, Kenya, Djibouti and Eritrea. Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed and his government advisers interpreted this as hostile.
Hassan Sheikh’s visit to Egypt came at a critical time when Cairo was galvanising Arab solidarity against Addis Ababa in their dispute over the exploitation of the Nile River. Appearing side by side with El-Sisi, the Somali president publicly sided with Egypt against Ethiopia.
An additional factor behind the tensions is that Abiy enjoyed close ties with Farmaajo, whom Hassan Sheikh ousted. And Hassan Sheikh was close to the ousted leadership of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front when he served as president between 2012 and 2017. It came as no surprise that the Front, which was recently at war with the Ethiopian government, quickly welcomed Hassan Sheikh’s re-election.
This explains the Ethiopian government’s renewed policy of engaging directly with regional governments. This is likely to further weaken the prospects to restore a functioning Somali state. It will also hinder the state authorities’ attempts to reach out to the periphery.
Ethiopia pursued this approach against the Somali state before – between 2000 and 2010. Initially, even the US was content with this policy, which it dubbed a “dual-track policy”, meaning to treat the centre and the periphery in the same category. But the outcome was that the regions developed more leverage than the centre.
The Somali government has remained silent on these visits and the implications for the future of Somali politics.
Within Somalia, it remains to be seen how the appointment of a former Al-Shabaab leader as minister for religious affairs plays out in the search for peace. Mukhtar Roobow Mansuur came to prominence in Al-Shabaab in 2013 during a radical shake-up of its hierarchy.
In 2017, however, he crossed over to the Somali government side and moved to Mogadishu. At first, he was allowed to move and make contact freely, but under the close surveillance of the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA). I met him at this time during Friday midday prayers at the mosque in the presidential palace. He was reticent, reserved and careful to speak out of his guards’ earshot.
Mansuur fell foul of the Somali government in December 2018 shortly after declaring his candidacy for presidency of the Southwest state. He was placed under house arrest inside the intelligence headquarters in Mogadishu and remained there until his appointment as religious affairs minister on 2 August.
This is not the first time that a Somali government has appointed former Al-Shabaab leaders to positions of power. But it is the first time it has done so officially. Previous governments deployed Al-Shabaab defectors to work with intelligence and other security agencies. The list includes Sakariye Ismail Hersi, the former head of intelligence for Al-Shabaab.
In each case, the ultimate goal has been to tackle security and to free the country from Al-Shabaab’s iron grip. Many ordinary Somalis see Mansuur’s appointment in this light. They wish to see reconciliation between government authorities and Al-Shabaab authorities to end years of insecurity.
Others disagree because it suggests that being involved in bloodshed doesn’t preclude people from holding office.
Whatever the perspectives, Mansuur’s appointment will not automatically usher in a new era for Somalia. It will be one step forward, two steps backward. All in all, a “business as usual” in Somali politics.