By OMAR MAHMOOD
Mandera Governor Ali Roba sees off Gedo Governor Mohamed M. Mohamed at Mandera border control point in 2018. Only a border post and a few hundred metres of dirt road stand between Mandera in northernmost Kenya and the town of Beled Hawo, in Somalia’s Gedo region, where clashes erupted on March 2, 2020. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP
Only a border post and a few hundred metres of dirt road stand between Mandera in northernmost Kenya and the town of Beled Hawo, in Somalia’s Gedo region, where clashes erupted on March 2 between forces loyal to the Somali federal government and those answering to the Jubaland administration. It claimed six civilian lives and displaced 56,000 people.
This latest violence in Gedo, which was preceded by other skirmishes in February, is yet another manifestation of the centre-periphery tensions that have plagued Somali politics for more than a decade.
It was the worst incident yet in an ongoing dispute between Mogadishu and Jubaland triggered by an August 2019 regional vote that saw Ahmed Mohamed Islam “Madobe” win a second term as Jubaland president. The federal government argues the election was flawed.
Kenya and Ethiopia, both lying a stone’s throw from Beled Hawo, are not passive observers: Nairobi supports Madobe while Addis Ababa backs the federal government of Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo”. Ethiopian and Kenyan troops, who are in Jubaland as part of the African Union mission (Amisom) fighting Al-Shabaab’s Islamist insurgency, have thus far not been drawn in.
LAYER OF COMPLEXITY
Still, the two regional powerhouses’ involvement adds another layer of complexity to the Gedo tensions and could set off a wider regional crisis.
The Gedo violence and rift between Nairobi and Addis Ababa harm both Kenya’s and Ethiopia’s interests.
The infighting undermines the main goal of their presence in Somalia: tackling Al-Shabaab’s long-running insurgency that threatens regional security.
Kenya, in particular, has an interest in fostering stability in Gedo given how instability in Jubaland spills over into northern Kenya. As Crisis Group details in a recent briefing, Nairobi and Addis Ababa should act quickly to resolve the dispute.
Kenya has long seen Jubaland as a buffer protecting it from increased incursions from Al-Shabaab.
In reality, that buffer has proven porous; for years militants have mounted attacks and put down roots in northern Kenya. Still, Madobe remains Nairobi’s partner of choice, especially as relations with Mogadishu nosedived following renewed disagreement in 2019 over the maritime border.
For Ethiopia, however, Farmajo is an ally. Since Abiy Ahmed assumed Ethiopia’s premiership in April 2018, Addis Ababa has moved from supporting Jubaland to tightening relations with the Somali government, believing that a stronger central administration can better help stabilise the country.
Both Nairobi and Addis Ababa are keen to avoid direct fighting between their forces.
Still, their discord came uncomfortably close to blows on 22 August 2019, the day of the Jubaland election, when a plane carrying Ethiopian forces attempted to land at the airport in Kismayo, the Jubaland capital, but was prevented from doing so by Jubaland and Kenyan troops.
The unambiguous beneficiary is Al-Shabaab. With forces from both sides pinned down facing each other and unlikely to commit to counter-insurgency efforts for fear of weakening their positions, the militants are finding more space to operate. Gedo residents already report an increased Al Shabaab presence and an uptick in attacks.
PRO-JUBALAND FORCES IN MANDERA
The standoff is especially detrimental to Nairobi’s “buffer” strategy, which suffers from the fact that attention is distracted from fighting Al-Shabaab. The conflict spills over in other ways too; Mandera governor Ali Roba openly complains that the presence of pro-Jubaland forces in his county is destabilising.
As for Amisom, its effectiveness is further eroded by the tensions between Ethiopia and Kenya, two of its largest troop contributors.
Ending the tensions in the Gedo region entails solving rifts at several levels. For now, the priority is for Kenya and Ethiopia to reconcile, thus opening space to address local dynamics.
After Beled Hawo, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia rightly scheduled a tripartite summit on 16 March. The meeting between Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Abiy Ahmed and Farmajo was, however, postponed indefinitely because of the Covid-19 pandemic. They should resurrect it.
Nairobi and Addis Ababa should urge Madobe and Farmajo to embrace dialogue and make difficult compromises. Mogadishu might, for example, recognise Madobe’s full term in office in return for Madobe pledging to cooperate with Farmajo.
Otherwise, the political infighting will continue playing into Al-Shabaab’s hands, helping it to entrench itself on Kenya’s doorstep.
Mr Mahmood is International Crisis Group (ICG) senior analyst for Somalia. [email protected] @omarsmahmood