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Federalism amid political and military chaos in Somalia

What can be done to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again?” asked Said S Samatar in an Africa Report paper in 1993 after the fragmentation of the state of Somalia into regional, clan-based entities.[1]

Even as 2014 comes to an end, the question of how to rebuild the broken state haunts Somalia’s political class, its neighbouring states and, of course, the US-EU-UN-led international community that has been trying to put together the deeply fragmented, divided and, in many cases, warring Somali factions. The latest formula prescribed for Somalia is the 2012 constitution—which is still a work in progress—and which lays down federalism as the future form of governance for a fractured society that has not been governed by a central state since 1991.

Unlike other Horn of Africa countries, state-building in Somalia is happening along a diagonally divergent trajectory. For instance, whilst Kenya and Ethiopia have had entrenched, established—and highly centralised—state structures and institutions for decades before embarking on reform through devolution and decentralisation, Somalia has been shredded into pieces since 1991.

The emergence of a Somali Federal Government (SFG) in Mogadishu under the new constitution in September 2012 led to a New Deal Compact agreed in Brussels in September 2013 under the auspices of the European Union and other members of the international community. The deal sets several benchmarks—key among them is establishment of regional federating states or regional administrations before the planned 2016 election.

The idea of regionalisation

After over a decade of disengagement from Somalia, the United States resumed a robust diplomatic and military engagement as part of the war on terrorism. Especially since the emergence of al-Shabab as the main protagonist in the Somali conflict, the goal of countering and containing the threat of extremism and terrorism has shaped American—and, to a large extent, European—policies towards Somalia. The so-called ‘dual-track’ approach to put Somalia back together as a state was “first enunciated in 2010 as a policy for supporting the central government in Mogadishu in addition to Somaliland, Puntland, and other emerging entities in Somalia.” [2] Since then the US recognition of the Somali federal government and support for the Djibouti process has given further impetus to the idea of installing regional states in south-central Somalia as constituent units of a federal setup.

Both steps in the process—bringing together different clans and factions under one regional authority and making the relationship between Mogadishu and regional authorities work—have thus far proved to be a source of political tension and, in numerous cases, armed conflict. Leaving aside the northern regions of Somaliland and Puntland—both claiming independence and autonomy from Mogadishu—the process to form regional administrations in south-central Somalia, the main theatre of conflict, has exacerbated the existing conflicts among clans controlling, or laying claim to, certain regions.

This perennial clan dilemma has been further complicated by the peculiar religio-political and military context in which the federal project is being laid out in Somalia. In political terms, as the following discussion argues, religion and control of internal and external resources prevents the possibility of a wide-ranging and durable political settlement among the various political and armed factions. From a military perspective, the role of al-Shabab, most of its Somali armed rivals (that also have feuds among themselves) as well as the multi-nation African Union force (AMISOM) are the key actors whose actions directly impinge upon the processes of building a Somali federation.

Political and religious snags

Two Somali prime ministers have been sacked since the emergence of the SFG in late 2012 under a new constitution. In the latest episode, in December 2014, in response to Prime Minister Abdiweli’s cabinet reshuffle in which some of the president’s close allies were removed, President Hassan Sheikh Mahamud nullified the decision, leading to a vote of no-confidence in parliament. This enables the president to regain control and appoint a head of government. Regardless of who he picks to be his prime minister, the dual nature of the executive office in the constitution suggests that another showdown between the two will not be far down the line.

Analysts point to a “structural problem” in Somalia’s political system under the new constitution that seems to accommodate two executive offices. “This hybrid system where you have an executive president and executive prime minister, both powerful offices, does not work,” says Rashid Abdi, a former senior analyst with Crisis Group. “The earlier Somalia makes a constitutional amendment to create a simpler system, where only the president or prime minister has executive powers, the better.”[3]

Another Somalia observer notes that while the provisional constitution vests executive authority with the prime minister, with the president intended to play a balancing role between the cabinet and parliament. Indeed, “President Hassan Sheikh has taken a robust interpretation of his mandate, which donors have tended to countenance – seeing in his civil society background a potential partner with whom they could work, and who would mark a significant departure from the domination of politics by former warlords under the SFG.” [4]

Unlike the Ethiopia and Kenya, the Somali constitution lays down a state religion, espousing Sharia as the supreme law. Jason Mosley of Chatham House notes that the sacking of the latest prime minister also underscores the competition between different conservative visions of how the goal of enforcing Sharia should be pursued.

“There are signs that the motivation for the present infighting is linked to the question of building the judiciary. Competition is fierce between different conservative Islamist visions over how Sharia will form the base of Somalia’s constitutional order, and how the country’s nascent judicial apparatus will evolve to interpret and implement such an order.”

Ascendency of religious movements: [5] A June 2014 report by the Life & Peace Institute (LPI) had concluded that, while none of the original Somali protagonists in the civil war had an ideological religious orientation, the political landscape in south-central Somalia is now dominated by Islamist organisations and movements of various hues. For example, three of the seven political groups covered in the study—al-Shabab, Al-Islah and Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jam’a—are avowedly Islamists and make religion the main plank of their ideology and an Islamic state and society their ultimate goal. The federal constitution also pledges to establish an Islamic state. The Jubaland administration, whose President Ahmed Mohamed Islam Madobe is the leader of Ras Kamboni Brigade, is also Islamist in its orientation and was part of the Islamic Courts Union which ruled south-central Somalia from June 2006 to December 2010. Even the organisations not covered by this project—such as Hizbul Islam, Ala Sheikh and al-Ictisaam—are religious movements.

Diversity within ‘political Islam’: The above scenario challenges the notion of a monolithic Somali movement of ‘political Islam’. Whilst LPI’s research clearly draws out a number of similarities between these movements in terms of organisational structure, modus operandi and strategies for socio-political transformation in Somalia, the fault-lines that divide these Somali Islamist groups are so deep, to the extent of being a source of violent conflict. In addition to divergent religious orientation and sectarian differences, these groups also have different political agendas and sometimes rival foreign sponsors.

Unlike 2006 when 17 Islamist groups of all strands, including al-Shabab, had come together to form the Islamic Courts Union and ruled south-central Somalia for a rare six months of stability and peace, the LPI research shows that the gaps and differences between them have widened to an extent that a reunion seems unlikely in the near future. While the international community and regional powers back so-called ‘moderate Islamists’, both at the centre in Mogadishu and in the regions such Jubaland, the extremist fringe has been further radicalised and broadened its recruitment base as well as sphere of activities.

Based on the responses received during LPI’s research project, Somali Islamists can be divided into three broad religious and political categories:

  • Traditionalists (Sufi-oriented), such as ASWJ. They consider ‘foreign’ Islamist influences as anathema to traditional Somali Muslim culture and practices, and have taken up arms to counter them. For example, shrines and the Prophet’s birthday celebrations are of great importance in the traditional Somali Muslim culture but Wahhabi movements like al-Shabab and most of the modernists see such practices as deviations from true Islamic tenets.
  • Modernists, such as Al-Islah and the government of President Hassan Sheikh Mahamud, are the Somali equivalent of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and share the Brotherhood’s ideology and methodology of Islamising modern education, engaging in social services and reforming the state and society along Islamic lines. They profess nonviolence.
  • Salafis or Wahabis, such as al-Shabab, reject all modern education and ‘western’ influences, impose by force a strict interpretation of Sharia, consider every other Islamic movement and sect to be outside the pail of Islam and, most of them, have a global agenda of establishing a caliphate. Hence, al-Shabab’s links to al-Qaida.

Regional and clan markers: Despite their ostensible approach to transcend clan and regional boundaries, and promotion of an Islamist-Somali nationalism, political groups in Somalia tend to get associated with a specific regional span or dominated by a clan family. That is true of almost all the groups interviewed for this project except al-Shabab which retains a cross-clan—and even a non-Somali, international—base. All established and emerging regional administrations are associated with particular clans.

The dichotomy between these groups’ nationalistic and, at times, universal outlook and, on the other hand, the imperative of clan dynamics emerges as one of the key features of the struggle for political power in the new federal setup.

An overcrowded military landscape

Another major factor to be taken into account with the federalism enterprise is the presence of dozens—if not hundreds—of clan militia scattered across south-central Somalia, thousands of soldiers from other African countries and several other militaries from round the world maintaining a direct or indirect operational capability for strikes inside Somalia. Amid this chaotic and busy military activity, the process to form a Somali National Army—critical to statebuilding—has yet to make much progress. Furthermore, direct foreign military interventions are all grist for al-Shabab’s propaganda mill.

AMISOM’s role: At present, military contingents from six African countries are clubbed together under the military component of AMISOM—the African Union Mission in Somalia. (Howsoever small, the mission has political and humanitarian components as well.)

Authorised by the UN Security Council Resolution, 2124 and first deployed in March 2007, AMISOM now comprises 22,126 soldiers in addition to 540 police officers, with troops drawn from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Sierra Leone, Kenya and Ethiopia who are deployed in six sectors carving up south and central Somalia.[6] (Kenya and Ethiopia were not originally part of the AMISOM contingent and their troops had had an independent operational presence, mainly in regions along the Somalia border, before formally putting on the AMISOM hat.)[7]

According to AMISOM authorities, the “military component has been instrumental in helping Somali National Security Forces push the Al Qaeda-affiliated terror group, al-Shabaab, out of much of southern Somalia including most major towns and cities. It has created a relatively secure environment which has allowed the Somali peace process to take root, allowed local population the opportunity to…establish accountable local governance institutions that can begin to deliver services as well as rebuild the local economy and create linkages to the national economy and government.”[8]

Impact on the local context: The sectoral approach taken by AMISOM reflects the linkage between the Somali conflict and geopolitics of the Horn of Africa as well as the international community’s response to the phenomenon of militant Islamist movements.

First, the Kenyan and Ethiopian forces are mainly concentrated in areas along the Somalia border with the overt purpose of securing their Somali-dominated border regions, and creating ‘buffer zones’ that will contain the threat of al-Shabab and gain domestic political mileage. This also means that the civil war in south-central Somalia, already devastated by decades of conflict and recurring famine, has morphed into a regional and international conflict whose resolution no longer depends upon the actions and policies of local Somali armed actors alone.

Second, sectorisation reinforces and encourages the trend of fragmentation and disintegration of Somalia, which undermines the federal process. Alliances with foreign powers have become as important for the competing leadership of the newly emerging regional authorities as local intra-Somali clan alliances. Many of them, including the SFG, may not survive long without AMISOM’s military cover. And how so many competing regional administrations and a federal government with limited writ would be able to forge an amicable, viable federation, especially if and when there is no AMISOM cover, is a quandary without a foreseeable solution.

Third, the presence of non-Somali forces to complement the political and humanitarian intervention by the international community provides ample propaganda fodder to groups like al-Shabab that do not recognise the legitimacy of the SFG or the regional authorities—or indeed the federal process itself. Is it possible for foreign non-Somali forces to not only completely defeat a resilient enemy that employs unconventional means of warfare, religious nationalistic rhetoric and belongs to an international militant network, but also help resolve the ever so complicated clan feuds over land, resources and political power that have been going since the collapse of the state in 1991?

Need for a broad-based political settlement

The future of political movements, especially Islamic movements, in Somalia is very much tied to policies pursued by the major powers internationally and in the region. Each of these Islamist organisations acts as a proxy of one or more regional or international powers owing to the single-minded focus on eliminating al-Shabab. Unless there is a considered and deliberate policy by the international community of bringing all Somali factions in south-central Somalia—whether Islamists or otherwise—to the negotiation table to hammer out a peace plan, the dominant conservative Islamist groups will remain embroiled in Somalia’s internal power struggle, more often than not through violent means.

Najum Mushtaq is regional policy coordinator at the Life & Peace Institute Somalia/Horn of Africa programme. He can be reached at najum.mushtaq(at)


[1] Samatar S Said, The politics of poetry, Africa Report, Sep/Oct 1993, Vol. 38 Issue 5, p16, 2p

[2] David Shinn’s 16 October 2013 blog at

[3] Source:

[4] Jason Mosley, The Pitfalls of Power-sharing in Somalia”, Chatham House, 19 November 2014.

[5] This section is condensed from the Life & Peace Institute’s report “Alternatives to conflict transformation in Somalia,” June 2014 available at

[6] All the information and data on AMISOM in this article is taken from

[7] Ugandan troops are deployed in Sector 1, which comprises the regions of Banadir, including Mogadishu, and Lower Shabelle. Kenyan forces are responsible for Sector 2 that covers Lower and Middle Jubba, mainly in support of the regional administration of Jubaland. Sector 3 comprising Bay and Bakool as well as Gedo (Sub Sector 3) are under Ethiopian command. Djiboutian forces are in charge of Sector 4 which covers Hiiraan and Galgaduud while Burundian forces are in Sector 5 which covers the Middle Shabelle region. In addition, Sierra Leone forces are in charge of Sector Kismayo covering the port city and its surrounding areas

[8] Source:

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