The Jubaland deal: another reason to fear al-Shabab?

  A late August negotiations in Addis Ababa between the Somali government and representatives of the Jubaland administration have given birth to the creation of an ‘Interim Juba Administration’ in Southern Somalia to be led by Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed Islam, a.k.a Sheikh Madobe, who was once a senior member of the Union of Islamic Courts and who spent time in Ethiopian prison. A recent report by the UN called him a “spoiler”, and some within the Somali federal government allege a possible resurgent of a relationship between al-Shabab and  Sheikh Madobe, our editor-in-chief  Tsedale Lemma says that poses a greater security threat to Ethiopia

The daybreak on Saturday September 21st this year didn’t bring in an ordinary episode of a normal day for millions of Kenyans and many people around the world. News channels streamed what was first a perplexing footage taken from the Westgate, an upscale shopping mall in Westland, an affluent residential neighborhood in the city of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.  Later on the images started to clear out and news emerged that the mall was taken siege by armed men. The stories coming out of the mall thereafter brought in dread and a further confusion into the lives of thousands of Kenyans and many people around the world whose loved ones were inside the mall when it was taken under the control of unknown numbers of militants. Later on the hostage takers identified themselves as members of the al-Shabab fighters seeking a “just retribution” against Kenya for its military involvement in Somalia, the birthplace of the militant group and its stronghold.

Their reason reverberated louder amongst the people of neighboring Ethiopia than perhaps the people of any other country, and for a good reason. In mid-2006 the government in Ethiopia, led by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, began a military operation inside Somalia to confront members of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), a group of sharia courts which united in the same year with al-Shabab, its military wing, under one banner and declared Jihad against Ethiopia. Ethiopia and Somalia had had a history of hostility since the later invaded the former in 1977, which made Ethiopia’s military intervention two and a half decades later one of the most complicated military interventions by a neighboring country.

It also made it easy for al-Shabab to garner a massive support from the young and unemployed Somalis and consolidated its efforts to emerge as its own insurgency movement, and, by 2008, had gained control of much of the southern Somalia. In 2010, the group made significant inroads into the central Somalia, and had jurisdiction over much of Mogadishu.

Although the Ethiopian army officially withdrew from most of Somalia in 2009, al-Shabab had continued maximizing its popularity rallying against the “invading army”, making Ethiopia the easy target of blame for the uncontrolled expansion of its young and intolerant militants.

However, Kenya, another neighboring country was equally troubled by the latest development and in Oct. 2011 had unilaterally decided to send its troops into Jubaland in Southern Somalia, where the Ethiopian army had retreated to. Jubaland is also an area where, alongside Ethiopia, Kenya was vying for the establishment of a “buffer Zone” of its own liking since the collapse in 1991 of the last stable government in Somalia. Kenya’s troops have later on become part of the over 17, 000 odd African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

The establishment of Jubaland as some sort of stable region, autonomous or federal, serves both Kenya and Ethiopia a greater purpose: Kenya wants to manage its border effectively and make use of the Kismayo seaport for economic benefits while Ethiopia wants to put an end to the half a century old fighting by members of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), whose hideouts are the same areas as that of the al-Shabab’s.

The Jubaland problem

Historically Jubaland was comprised of the Lower and Middle Juba states in southern Somalia. However, President Siad Barre, whose 1991 ouster dawned Somalia’s quick spiral into lawlessness and chaos, fractured the vast region in 1975, adding Bay, Gedo, and Bakool states, the latter where the Ethiopian army continued maintaining its presence.   The whole region has always been marred by clan conflicts, used to harbor terrorist organizations, and is a constant headache for the current Federal Government of Somalia led by its newly elected President Hasan Sheikh Mohamud, who is stuck in the protracted process of declaring Somalia a federal state. But most importantly, Jubaland remained the last stronghold of al-Shabab.

While a persistent battle was waged by both the Somali Defense Force and the remaining Ethiopian army over the last two years, Jubaland largely remained outside the reach of AMISOM, and under the control of clan leaders who consistently battled with members of al-Shabab. This has frustrated Ethiopia, which continued pleading with AMISOM forces to take over the area, to threaten to withdraw its forces at any given moment. On March 17th Ethiopian and Somali government-aligned forces withdrew from Xudur, the capital of  Bakool region, leading to a quick take over by al-Shabab of the area that led to the immediate displacement of some 2, 500 Somalis.

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But in reality sharing an extended, hard-to-control 1800km border with Southern Somalia means Ethiopia’s military strategic interest is closely attached to the Jubaland, than, perhaps, the mainland which, to a certain extent, explains why Ethiopia stayed away from the AMISOM although it pushed hard for its establishment. It is easier to handle unilaterally the countless clan representatives who are working hard to secure an autonomous Jubaland than to be tangled in the bureaucratic chains of the first African peacekeeping mission.

 A new deal a new problem?

Caption report released on July 12 this year by a UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea declared Sheik Madobe as one of the “two core groups of spoilers in southern Somalia.” Photo:  Abdurrahman Warsameh /IPS
Caption report released on July 12 this year by a UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea declared Sheik Madobe as one of the “two core groups of spoilers in southern Somalia.”
Photo: Abdurrahman Warsameh /IPS

On Wednesday August 28 this year, what could be termed as a game changing deal brokered by representatives from Ethiopia, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the African Union Commission (AUC), the European Union (EU) and the UN Secretary General for Somalia (UNSOM) was signed here in Addis Ababa between the Federal Government of Somalia led by Farah Sheikh Abdulkadir, State Minister of the Presidency of the Somali Federal Government, and representatives of the Jubaland administration led by Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed Islam, a.k.a Sheikh Madobe.

While negotiations to decide the fate of the Jubaland lingered since nearly a year ago, al-Shabab, which in Feb. last year officially became Al-Qaida’s African franchise, used most of the area as its springboard to launch attacks both in and outside of Somalia.  The area still remained the last safe haven for its militants.

In an interview in Mogadishu, Somalia’s war-ravaged capital, in April this year Bashir Abdallah, a senior member of the Somali Police Force (SPF) told this magazine that some of the people involved in the negotiations representing Jubaland were the same people who by the evening “provide logistics to al-Shabab’s senior people, helping them move around the area freely and launch attacks against the mainland.”  His apprehension is shared by many in Mogadishu who, at one point or another, were subjected to the brutalities of members of the UIC and clan leaders who are now in charge of running the Jubaland.

Sheikh Madobe himself has a murky past as a senior member of the UIC. He served time in Ethiopian jail too, but was released in Jan. 2009 to join the Somali Parliament until he resigned in April the same year and went to southern Somalia to consolidate his quest to establish an autonomous Jubaland. Three years later in May this year he was “elected President” of Jubaland, making himself the only senior figure with whom negotiations to decide the fate of the region can continue.

Sheikh Madobe is the current chairman of the Ras Kamboni movement, a movement which claims is fighting against al-Shabab in the area. In April 2011, the Ras Kamboni movement forces joined hands with the armed forces of the Somali Transitional Federal Government and the Kenyan Forces to capture the border town of Dhobley from al-Shabab militiamen.

However, a 487 pages report released on July 12 this year by a UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea declared Sheik Madobe as one of the “two core groups of spoilers in southern Somalia.” It called him the “key spoiler” in opposition to the Federal Government.  The report further claimed that since late Sep. last year, the Federal Government of Somalia has encountered “considerable resistance” from the Ras Kamboni forces.  The report accuses Sheik Madobe as someone who established “his own political and armed presence in the area with Kenyan military support.”

“The refusal of Ras Kamboni to integrate into official Somali security services has rightly led the Federal Government to regard Ras Kamboni as a spoiler clan militia operating outside the purview of the national Constitution, and therefore constituting a threat to peace and security.”

All the same, the government in Ethiopia, desperate to sort the issue of Jubaland to its own advantage, had accepted Sheikh Madobe as a legitimate negotiator to stabilize Jubaland and help the Somali federal government finish its lingering process of establishing a federated Somalia.

However, what remained perplexingly mysterious for many who know Sheikh Madobe is whether or not he is genuinely committed to peace or just using the opportunity to consolidate his grip over Jubaland eventually declaring it autonomous. There is also a likelihood scenario that Sheikh Madobe is may be using the opportunity to retaliate against some of the senior al-Shabab members with whom he had had a terrible fall out over the control of Kismayo.

the exhausting negotiations in August that lasted for nine consecutive days (and nights) have now given birth to the creation of an ‘Interim Juba Administration’ in Southern Somalia to be led by none other than Sheikh Madobe, who, as a compromise, was forced to drop his claim as the “President” of Jubaland and become just the “leader” of the Interim Juba Administration.

“We are hopeful that this process will be a starting point for Somalia to be a federal state; there will be people who won’t be happy, but the fundamental issue is the interest of the Somali people,” Sheikh Madobe said after signing the agreement. This may be his apparent admittance that he is not a darling of everyone.

Under the agreement an Interim Administration for Juba consisting of Gedo, Lower Juba and Middle Juba Regions will be established to last no more than two years, “during which a permanent Federal Member State will be established,” a statement from the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

“Fighting al- Shabaab as the primary focus of the Somali Federal Government,” was laid down as one of the five principles to be adhered by both parties. However,  “Sheikh Madobe spent a great deal of his time not fighting al-Shabab, but fighting for an autonomous Jubaland…and if he finds it necessary, there will be no reason why he will not shift his allegiance to join al-Shabab to fulfill his lifetime dream,” said Bashir Abdallah, who remained wary of the latest arrangement, in an e-mail from Mogadishu. “Control over resources and power are his only aims, as are the al-Shabab’s.”

As if to make sure that didn’t happen, though, of the four articles included in the deal, the second article deals with the management of federal institutions and infrastructure and “lays down that the federal institutions and infrastructure, including Kismayo Airport and Kismayo Seaport shall be recognized as the assets of the people of Somalia.”

The Westgate nightmare was followed by another threat for similar attacks against Kenya by the al-Shabab, which slowly transformed itself to become a group of metropolitan guerrilla fighters. But the government in Ethiopia appeared not to show any concern over possible attacks against the country. “We are not concerned that this will be the case in our country,” Ambassador Dina Mufti, spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told this magazine.

That may depend on whether or not Sheikh Madobe is willing to give peace the Ethiopian and the Kenyan style in Jubaland another chance. So far, his unpredictability suggests that he might as well reintegrate with al-Shabab, re-enforcing the militant group, to declare an autonomous Jubaland. That will bring the threat from al-Shabab against Ethiopia and the region at large one step ahead.

Photo: Getty/AP




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