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Connecting the Dots in the Triangle of Threat

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Just as the temperature of ‘security threat’ slowly declines in Somalia, it rises in other parts of East Africa. Elements of mainly political, religious, and clan/ethnic nature continue to shift and create new volatile conditions. Though not entirely interdependent these conditions could create a ripple effect across different borders.

Depending on one’s view, it is high anxiety period in the region—especially the area that I would refer to as the triangle of threat- Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. These three countries are bound by complex web of history, geopolitics, and kinship which became the foundation of transnational fault lines snaking through them. Though the same could be argued in relation to Djibouti, the absence of certain clan dynamics and any flammable residual mistrust (active or dormant) makes it an anomaly.

Positive Momentum after vicious Anarchy

For the past sixteen months, there has been a momentum of positive developments in Somalia following two decades of senseless violence, political turmoil and famine. Several months ago the seemingly unfathomable task of reducing the parliament to 275 from 550 during the transitional period and the Council of Ministers to 10 from 18 during that same period came to pass. This, of course, would never have happened without improved security emanating from the ousting of al-Shabaab from Mogadishu and other major cities.

Al-Shabaab has been suffering successive defeats, though some may say the last chapter of that saga is not yet written.

In the meantime, as they leopard-crawl on the quicksand of history, we are reminded that the natural fate of violent extremists is nothing but short lifespan and a bloody end. Throughout history, various religious and secular extremist groups have emerged and established one brutal system propelled by draconian laws or another only to watch them self-destruct by falling on their own swords. Their myopic vision takes for granted the innate human tendency to rise against and resist despotism, tyranny, and all other form of oppression.

And although Somalia seems to have crossed the Rubicon, and all proverbial bridges leading back to anarchy are burned down, it still faces two major menaces that could, at the very least, discredit and undermine the new administration as previous governments.

Peace and stability would remain fragile so long as Ethiopia and Kenya remain knee-deep in Somalia’s internal political affairs and exert proxy influence through their respective client militia groups and special interest projects. Likewise, peace and stability would remain fragile so long the international community continues its AMISOM-focused approach and treats the government as a spectator on the sideline; or worse, as a stranger in its own homeland.

Even as the new government continues to improve its institutions with competent technocrats and systems of checks and balances, the international community continues to apply its benevolent deprivation (for lack of a better description) that kept the new government running on empty since its inception. As the new government realizes that it cannot any services to its people with the current revenues, frustration is a thinly veiled secret. The government would have no choice but to reach out beyond its current circle of friends and explore other alternatives such as the BRICS economic block.

Going back to the “AMISOM-focused” approach: Indeed this African peace-keeping force has done a commendable job in helping stabilize Somalia. However, prudence dictates to set up specific date for ending the peace-keeping mission and turn focus on rebuilding the Somali national security apparatus. This would require an effort far beyond the current cosmetics; an effort that makes lifting of the UN Arms Embargo a priority. These steps are crucial before the tide of public opinion turns against AMISOM and ruins its well-earned golden page in history. This is an opportune time as the UN Security Council is set to discuss renewing AMISOM’s mandate on March.

Rising Tension in the Old Empire

Over the past couple of years, like in much of the world, Ethiopia’s 91 million multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual population has been on a fast-track in terms of political consciousness. Various groups have been actively asserting their communal identities and expressing various political grievances; some, of course, more emphatically than others. The writing is on the wall; the masses are no longer politically passive and are no longer willing to remain submissive in maintaining status quo.

A case in point: the manifest discontent of the Ethiopian Muslim community that led to a yearlong protestation against “government interference in religious affairs”. Among other things these protesters demanded that the alleged government hand-picked Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (Majlis) be replaced by elected representatives through a community-based transparent process. On its part the Ethiopian government claims that protesters are extremists who are connected to al-Shabaab and al-Qaida, hence any use of force and ‘targeted imprisonments’ are necessary and justified. This comes at a time when Ethiopia, according to Amnesty International Annual Report 2012, has been scoring low marks when it comes to dealing with political opposition groups and human rights in general.

Meanwhile, Ethiopian forces operate in various regions in Somalia outside the AMISOM mandate or any other legal framework to keep these forces in check.

The Gathering Storm

Despite all the goodwill that Kenya has been accruing in the past two decades for being a gracious host to hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees and the venue of a number of “Somali reconciliation conferences”, in recent years it has extravagantly squandered a great deal of its credibility and goodwill capital.

This downward spiral started with a leaked dubious deal involving her, Norway, a former UN Special Representative to Somalia, and some credulous/corrupt members of the defunct Transitional Federal Government. The dominoes started to fall one after another when the under the table Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) intended to bypass the Transitional Parliament and guarantee Kenya the right to annex a portion of Somalia’s oil-rich maritime continental shelf was leaked. Despite the international embarrassment and the subsequent unanimous rejection of the deal by the Somali Parliament, there is enough evidence indicating that Kenya is not only pursuing that matter, it has been actively establishing facts on the ground to secure her that objective.

Kenya’s expressed desire to establish a “buffer zone” in Lower Jubba region of Somalia is broadly recognized by the average Somali as Kenya’s relentless pursuit to exploit the ‘loot Somalia’ culture of the past 2 decades. This suspicion reached great heights when Kenyan Defense Forces—never before used for war—all of a sudden (independent of AMISOM) carried its largest ground invasion on Lower Jubba.

The original official line that ‘the invasion was prompted by al-Shabaab’s kidnapping of a foreign tourist in Kenya’ has proven comical, especially in social networks. Immediately the impetus behind the invasion was modified as Kenya’s neighborly duty to stabilize Somalia. This, needless to say, lead to Kenya becoming part of AMISOM, though the KDF—unlike other contingents—still operates autonomously.

Since KDF’s invasion that ultimately lead to the squeezing of al-Shabaab out of the strategic port of Kismayo and the takeover of Lower Jubba, sporadic violence has been erupting in various parts of Kenya. Considering how these terrorist operations were going after soft-targets such worshipers inside churches and mosques and crowded markets, worst could be yet to come. Last month a hand grenade blast outside a mosque has killed at least three and injured a few more including a Kenyan Member of Parliament, Yusuf Hassan, who is ethnically Somali.

In addition to a several hundred thousand refugees and Somali immigrants, there are approximately 4 million ethnically Somali Kenyans. This particular peaceful population has suffered greatly as a result of the Kenyan security and military’s effort to crackdown these new threats. There are a number of documented cases of KDF forces carrying out brutal public beatings of Kenyans of Somali descent that are suspected of being al-Shabaab sympathizers. Furthermore, there are a number of cases of rape, setting local businesses of fire, and random killings of members of this community.

Recklessly aggravating this population and questioning their loyalty cannot lead to improved security; not for Kenya or for Somalia. This population already has the grievance of being economically neglected and being treated like second class citizens in their own country. Adding collective punishment to this might prove a dangerously imprudent endeavor.

Against this backdrop yet another controversial MOU lead by Kenya (in collaboration with Ethiopia) has emerged stirring animated debates in various circles within the government and the in the public sphere. The clear consensus was that the Federal Republic of Somalia cannot and should not compromise its sovereign and give up, among other things, its authority of oversight regarding regional and newly forming Federal States.

Absence of Strategic Scrutiny

In the absence of frank and mutually beneficial discussions coupled with broad-based political pressure from the international community these old and new trends would continue.

Kenya’s vibrant civil societies that initially protested the militarization of their country are now mainly co-opted as a result of the euphoria generated by KDF’s military success in its first international military operation. Likewise, the current Ethiopian government, though it is seemingly less octopus-like in its attempt to micromanage Somalia’s political affairs, it remains resolved to upholding the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s legacy and hegemonic ambitions.

Meanwhile, these karmic security challenges continue to threaten the stability of the entire region and dampen the potentially lucrative economic future of this resource-rich region.


Abukar Arman is Somalia’s Special Envoy to the United States and a widely published political analyst.


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