The on-going Gulf crisis is also destabilising Somalia. It has created friction and political tensions between the federal government based in Mogadishu, and the five regional states. It has equally negatively impacted on the security situation in the country, slowing down the fight against insurgent al-Shabaab, halted the reform agenda and threatens the country’s nascent institutions.
Since the onset of the crisis in the Gulf in June 2017, the five semi-autonomous federal member states have been at odds with Mogadishu’s “neutral” position over the stalemate in the Middle East, pitting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on one hand, and Qatar on the other. The regional states, while notionally under Mogadishu’s authority, but practically possessing wide-ranging autonomy, have thrown their support behind the Saudi-Emirati led alliance, demanding the federal government change its “neutral” position, arguing that this is in line with Somalia’s strategic economic and commercial interests.
The federal member states opposition towards Mogadishu’s position is majorly informed by their close economic and security relationships with the two middle-east powers, particularly the Emirati. Both Saudi Arabia and UAE are the country’s biggest trading partners, importing 80 per cent of livestock (Somalia’s leading foreign exchange earner), compared to the Qataris which import approximately 3.5 per cent. Equally important, the states’ concerted rejection is also based on the wide perception among regional leaders and political elites that President Farmaajo’s “neutral” decision is not entirely informed by national interest, but rather it is a way of payback to Qatar in the role it played in his campaigns and his eventual clinching of the presidency.
As part of its expanding presence in the Horn over the years, alongside the support it gives to the federal government, UAE has been providing direct military training and equipment, as well as paying salaries for regional security and intelligence units, while also pursuing its own commercial interests. For instance, the Dubai-based DP World recently secured a twenty five and thirty year concession for Somaliland and Puntland’s main sea ports respectively, alongside a controversial military base in the port city of Berbera – mainly to provide air support for the war in Yemen.
UAEs direct relationship with the regional governments tend to bypass Mogadishu, and have arguably affected its working relationship with the federal government, with the latter seeing the former’s actions as contributing to the undermining of its authority within Somalia. Farmaajo at one point raised his frustrations with leaders in both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh earlier this year, but seemingly to little avail.
Qatar on the other hand has been very involved in Somalia’s past two presidential elections mainly to buy political support. In a country where presidential elections are largely tied to the size of the candidate’s pocket, or those of their financiers, Doha lavishly funded favourite candidates with millions of dollars. And money from Qatar was a major determining factor for the elections of both current president Farmaajo, and his predecessor Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.
Farmaajo’s government is clearly in a tough spot. The “neutral” stance is already seen as an attempt to minimize damage to the UAE-Saudi relationship, while also attempting to retain a positive impression with the Qataris, and keeping happy the president’s close circle of advisors with historical close links to Doha.
The Gulf impasse has destabilised the already fragile relations between the federal government and its member states. The ‘neutrality’ stance has angered the regional government’s leaders and they have publicly come out to oppose Mogadishu. Mogadishu has argued when it comes to making foreign policy decisions the responsibility lies with the central government, while regional leaders have argued the government cannot make any major decision affecting them without consultation . Both assumptions have a basis in the federal constitution that has greatly empowered the regional leaders and promoting a culture of them co-managing and co-leading the country with federal leaders in order to create a political stability and togetherness in a nation already somewhat polarized by several decades of anarchy and chaos.
The tensions have created suspicion and mistrust with some regional leaders accusing the federal government of covertly undermining their authority and interfering with their internal politics. They have accused the federal government, for instance, of having an explicit goal of ousting regional leaders and replacing them with others who will implement its preferred policies and priorities. For example, the successful ousting in August, of Ali Abdullahi Osoble, the regional president of the HirShabelle state, a leader who was unpopular with his local state leaders and also at odds with the federal leadership, is a case in point. He was barely a year into his first four year term in the office. He was, however, replaced by Mohamed Abdi Ware who was a close contender in the state’s first election in October 2016.
In Galmudug state, the federal government is accused of having initiated a concerted campaign aimed at replacing the regional president Ahmed Geelle Haaf, who is just barely six months in office. On 26 September in a meeting in a hotel in the regional capital Adado, members of Galmudug’s regional parliament claimed to have ‘impeached’ Haaf. Instead of sending conciliatory messages and intervening appropriately, the federal government instead issued a statement in support for the impeachment within hours. Four other regional state leaders rallied against the impeachment indicating the government’s support on the move is evident for its campaign to remove the state president over the federal and member states disagreement on Gulf crisis.
However, other members of the state’s regional parliament also ‘impeached’ the regional Vice President and their state speaker on September 30 in support of the regional president, further exacerbating the worsening political tensions. With the federal government aligning itself with one side in the crisis, coupled with an absence of other institutions who could have played a mediation and conciliation role, anything including a divided Galmudug state with two presidents and two parliaments is a possibility in the weeks to come. In South West state, the federal government in Mogadishu is also blamed for mobilizing political opponents and members of the state’s parliament in a bid to replace the regional president Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden.
Responding to the mounting pressure from the federal government, all regional leaders met in Kismayo, without the blessing of the federal government, on October 11, and in their final communique bitterly condemned Mogadishu calling on it to stop interfering in their internal affairs. They accused the federal leadership of making crucial decisions unilaterally, demanding consultations on all issues affecting the regional states, and suspended all their activities with Mogadishu on constitutional review activities.
Political tensions and friction between the federal states and the federal government have been a perennial feature of recent Somalia political history, but it is only under President Farmaajo that these tensions have become so potentially divisive. Unlike his predecessor Hasan Sheikh who frequently met and engaged regional leaders on some of the important issues affecting the country under the banner of the National Leadership Forum, Farmaajo’s one-year old regime has suspended the caucus and has made important decisions unilaterally without much consultation and consensus.
The constant political confrontations and bickering have distracted political leaders, especially those at the federal level, from the priorities of state-building and going ahead with key reforms, including rebuilding a Somali National Army (SNA) capable of taking on al-Shabaab. The focus has also shifted from the broader tasks of security and the war on al-Shabaab to the fractious political competition and infighting between Mogadishu and the regional states.
The political impasse has also frustrated the implementation of National Security Architecture; a roadmap towards building a functional and unified SNA agreed by both sides in April. No progress has been made towards the unification and integration of federal and regional forces which was supposed to be completed by the end of September 2017. The National Security Council which includes the federal president and prime minister and regional presidents as well as other ministers from Mogadishu have failed to hold their quarterly meeting scheduled to take place early this month mainly due to the current tension between them.
In the past few months, Al-Shabaab has scaled up attacks across the country, attacking a total of six military bases, killing approximately 100 Somali security forces and captured military hardware and equipment. On the 14 October, the group also carried out their single deadliest Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) attack ever, killing close to 400 people, mostly civilians, in the heart of the capital Mogadishu, two days after the resignation of the defence minister and army chief over internal schisms.
As president Farmajo declared a “state of war” against al-Shabaab in a response to the attack, it has become clear that the government is ironically caught between a rock and a hard place facing two major issues simultaneously; the fight against al-Shabaab and the political impasse with regional states – a security problem and a political one. Ending the infighting within the country’s political power blocs, and navigating the dangers of assorted geopolitical conflicts will be crucial for the success of any offensive against al-Shabaab.
The reason is simple. Al-Shabaab attacks in Mogadishu are planned and prepared from Mogadishu’s peripheries – regions and territories outside the capital – administrated by regional states. Both Lower Shabelle and Middle Jubba which are partially under the administration of South West and Jubaland states are key strongholds for al-Shabaab. Averting attacks in Mogadishu and pushing al-Shabaab out of these regions will require close cooperation with the regional states and their security forces. The current tensions, however, are impeding such a working relationship.
Therefore, the federal government ought to first diffuse the prevailing situation of political instability and devise a strategy for building political consensus on major decisions by offering dialogue with regional governments. That approach could create a stable environment leading to a joint and coordinated exhaustive strategy and unity of purpose among the country’s putative political leaders towards al-Shabaab. This way, with political stability both sides can concentrate their energies and resources in pushing the offensive against al-Shabaab forward.
A move seems to have been taken in that direction with the president inviting all the regional leaders to attend a consultative meeting in Mogadishu on the 28 October to sort out their disagreements.
However, the federal government and its constituent states should discuss and address the constitutional questions that lie at the root of much of the political infighting, especially those related to devolved powers and resource sharing. Defining roles and responsibilities including sharing of resources is clearly more critical than ever. This way they could avoid the current conflicting roles created by ambiguity in the provisional constitution.
In conclusion, the establishment of the existing regional administrations is one of the country’s major achievements in the last five years. They have their own governance and capacity challenges. The government is expected to assist them to enable their institutions to mature and become effective, as their existence is a critical input for Somalia’s state-building. The federal government in Mogadishu should avoid taking measures that could lead to their downfall or weakening. Unity of purpose between the federal government and its member states should be a top priority.
In the current conjuncture, the pressing need to revive the national leadership caucus to revive a platform which allows critical issues of national importance including the current political crisis to be deliberated upon. Therefore, the National Security Council architecture needs to move forward. The third meeting that was scheduled did no go ahead as planned because of the current impasse. The creation of a constitutional court which has the legal authority in deciding constitutional matters is equally more important too. When established it could play a role in interpreting the constitution and resolving disputes between the regional states and the federal government in Mogadishu.
Muhyadin Ahmed Roble is Editor of Radio Ergo and a former advisor to Somalia’s Federal Indirect Electoral Implementation Team (FIEIT). He is a journalist and political analyst focusing on the Horn of Africa politics and security as well as humanitarian situation. He tweets @MuhyadinR and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Somalia has officially become a federal state when the provisional federal constitution was approved by the National Constitutional Assembly in Mogadishu in 2012 though it awaits public referendum for its final approval. The country is divided into 6 regional states including Somaliland which has no relations with the Federal government in Mogadishu and is seeking its own recognition as a sovereign state. Other regional states are Puntland, Galmudug, Jubaland, South West and Hirshabelle.
 Mosley, Jason.,”Somalia’s Federal Future: Layered Agendas, Risks, and Opportunities,” Africa Programme Research Paper, Chatham House: 2015.