If insecurity was the thorniest problem that plagued Somalia’s previous governments, the new one will be dogged by multiple political challenges. Chief among those is the status of Kismaayo, Somalia’s third largest city.
At the center of the Kismaayo conundrum is a rancorous clash of two narratives. A Kenyan-backed armed group that recently captured the port city from al-Shabaab fighters wants to unilaterally decide the fate of the city and, ultimately, form a regional administration called ‘Jubbaland’ – this would theoretically come under the control of the Federal Government.
But the new Mogadishu-based government wants to shape the administration of Kismaayo as well as the future regional state. The current administration views itself as the legitimate authority in the country, but with 4,000 soldiers from neighboring Kenya still deployed in the region, the Somali government is understandably nervous about the possibility of a proxy regional state based in Kismaayo.
I was in Mogadishu last week and witnessed an impasse over these two narratives – each ‘side’ sticking to its guns at the expense of national unity and regional cooperation. Yet both must understand that their narratives are not mutually exclusive. Each has a legitimate point and an understandable fear.
The ‘Raskamboni’ militia has been fighting for years to dislodge al-Shabaab fighters from Kismaayo. They’ve paid a considerable human and financial toll in pursuit of ‘liberating’ the city. And they do, to an extent, represent the clan composition of Kismaayo and, more broadly, the ‘Jubbaland’ regions.
The Federal Government, on the other hand, has every right to play a role in the formation of an administration in the city and in the wider region. Kismaayo – and Jubbaland, for that matter – cannot live in isolation from the Federal Government.
The Middle Ground
Notwithstanding the acrimonious tone being adopted over the issue, there is some common ground: a power-sharing mechanism. The Raskamboni leadership should be allowed, with the consultation of the federal government, to form a temporary administration for the city, lasting no more than two years. A broadly representative local parliament should be selected and operationalised during this timeframe. This legislative body should ultimately elect a president and a vice president for the future Jubbaland state.
For its part, Raskamboni should merge its militia with the Somali National Army, to be commanded by a General appointed by federal officials. This would allow the federal government to control the security of the area, while ‘Raskamboni’ directs the political administration.
This is, however, only a temporary solution. Ultimately, direct elections must be held for both the executive and legislative branches of ‘Jubbaland’, and all armed groups must be disbanded and folded into a national military or police force.
Failure to seek common ground over the administration of Kismaayo would spell disaster for the hundreds of thousands of people who haven’t known peace for nearly 20 years. The Federal Government and ‘Raskamboni’ must recognize that Kismaayo is the graveyard of many Somali powers, starting with the former dictator Mohamed Siyad Barre, going through Gen. Mohamed Said Morgan, the Jubba Valley Alliance under Barre Hiiraale and ending with al-Shabaab.
Both Kenya and Ethiopia are understandably worried about the future of Kismaayo, but for entirely different reasons. Kenya wants a buffer zone to protect its nearby tourist sites and a friendly regional administration. Some of its key politicians – who are ethnic Somalis – have a vested interest in who dominates the region.
But Ethiopia fears that its own Somali ethnic rebel group – the Ogaden National Liberation Front – would be emboldened if their kinsmen become the dominant group in Jubbaland. The two countries, which claim that they are allies, are in effect rivals on the issue of Kismaayo.
This toxic mix of proxy war, clan rivalry and a chronic contestation over political control renders the city a policymakers’ nightmare. The sooner neighboring countries realize that it is in their best interest to work with the Somali government and local actors to find common ground, the closer we get to a stable and prosperous Somalia.
Neighboring countries should know that they’re not only notoriously unpopular in Somalia, but that warring Somali factions have taken them for a ride. The US, Ethiopia and Eritrea have all fallen into that familiar trap before. Kenya appears in danger of sinking into that particular abyss. It can, however, still recover.
In many ways, Kismaayo is a good indicator for the future trajectory of the rest of the country. Unlike the other ‘ghettoized’ urban centers, it is one of the most diverse cities in the country in terms of clan composition. If its elites focus less on domination and more on finding common ground, it could be a catalyst for a period of cooperation and renewal in the rest of Somalia.
Unfortunately, the window of opportunity to set Kismaayo on the right path is rapidly closing.
Abdi Aynte is a journalist and researcher.