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Somalia and its Neighbours: Balancing Influence and Independence

Tuesday 7 May 2013 by Ahmed Soliman, Research Assistant, Horn of Africa, Africa Programme
   

The priorities of the nascent Somali government include security, judicial reform and public financial management. Chief among those concerns is political stability and the long-term task of reconstructing the state. If progress is to be made on state-building, Somalia's government will need to revisit its relationships with influential regional and international partners. They in turn will need to provide the requisite support and space for the government to establish its authority outside of Mogadishu.

The big questions

The inauguration of the federal government of Somalia in August 2012 marked the start of the first permanent central government in the country since the collapse of Mohamed Siad Barre's regime in 1991. However, the long political transition and the hastily revised and ratified constitution have not resolved the big questions of Somalia's political future, such as the nature of the federal system and the central state’s relationship with existing and aspiring regions. Competition for power at local and regional levels, including from autonomous Puntland and secessionist Somaliland, is likely to characterize the next phase of politics in south-central Somalia. 

Since taking office President Mohamud has repeatedly referenced the autonomy of Somalia's government and emphasized that it has moved beyond the transition. This is a positive message for Somalis to hear, and a caution to regional partners, who have a history of intervention in the country. Yet, despite its aspirations, the Somali government will continue to provide only relatively weak central authority: it is still dependent on external military support. Furthermore, the presence of soldiers from Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda in Somalia is an immediate reminder of the region's interest in Somalia's security. 

Security in the Horn of Africa

The interconnected nature of security in the Horn of Africa and the self-interested motivations of regional countries  to engage with Somalia need to be recognized. The armed forces of Ethiopia and Kenya have a significant influence in south-central Somalia, supporting a stretched African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and weak Somali national forces. Advances by AMISOM, Ethiopian forces and Somali national forces have led to the ousting of al Shabaab from fixed positions around Mogadishu, Afgooye, Kismaayo and in south-west Somalia.  These movements are too often reported as decisive defeats over al Shabaab, but this is an oversimplification.

Under the AMISOM banner Kenya controls Kismaayo, the largest city and main port in the south. Kenya has been accused of trying to install a proxy regime in southern Jubbaland in order to preserve a buffer between Somali Islamists and the Kenyan border. Kenya supports Ahmed Islaan 'Madoobe', the Ogadeni leader of the Ras Kamboni militia, in the ongoing Kismaayo conference on the formation of a Jubbaland regional administration. This process was endorsed by the preceding government under the auspices of the Horn of Africa's regional body, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). However, it is against the wishes of President Mohamud and his government who have called this conference unconstitutional. Kenyan business and al Shabaab are benefiting from the sale of supplies of charcoal from Kismaayo port by the Ras Kamboni militia, even though exports of charcoal are banned by the Somali government and the United Nations. 

Ethiopia has a history of intervention in Somalia, including the 2006 US-sponsored invasion that ousted the Islamic Courts Union and sparked the insurgency that led to the formation of al Shabaab. Ethiopia’s current unilateral intervention seeks to secure the Ogaden, its own Somali-speaking area. Ethiopian troops hold the Somali towns of Luuq, Baidoa and Beledweyne which are situated along strategic trade routes and until recently were under al Shabaab’s control. When Ethiopia pulled its troops out of the town of Hudur in March 2013, al Shabaab quickly reclaimed the town. 

Ethiopia claims to be starting a phased withdrawal of its approximately 8,000 troops from Somalia. This could be a tactical maneuver expressing annoyance at what Ethiopia feels is a lack of burden sharing, as well as Kenya’s dominance over the Jubbaland process. AMISOM would be unable to cover an Ethiopian withdrawal from Somalia, and it would also obstruct the Somali government’s ability to establish authority in reclaimed areas.

Competing visions

Somalis are concerned that their neighbours are not intervening in good faith. Although regional military support is vital, it limits the new Somali government on the home front. The Somali government is suspicious that Ethiopia and Kenya are pushing federalism in order to see the establishment of regional administrations that are friendly to them. This would enable Ethiopia and Kenya to limit the power and legitimacy of the central government while exerting continued influence over Somali regions once their troops return home. President Mohamud's government is publicly signed up to a federal governance structure but favours a centralized authority, with power devolved to the regions. Ceding power too readily to regional administrations that it has little influence over would not serve the interests of an aspiring national government.

There are high hopes for the new government among Somalis, but it will quickly lose legitimacy and respect if it cannot begin to deliver on political stability and state-building. Given the government's limited reach and capacity, regional and international players will determine whether the new government will succeed or fail in these endeavors. But in order for there to be sustained progress these actors would have to forgo self-interested engagements in support of the new Somali government's efforts to rebuild a nation with normalized regional relations. 

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Somalia and its Neighbours: Balancing Influence and Independence
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Tuesday 7 May 2013
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