Tuesday,23 October, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1331, (9 - 15 February 2017)
Tuesday,23 October, 2018
Issue 1331, (9 - 15 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Elections in Somalia

Presidential elections commenced yesterday in Somalia despite the ongoing threats of Islamist terrorists

Elections in Somalia
Elections in Somalia

The East African country of Somalia, which has not had a central government since the overthrow of its last president in 1991, is preparing for presidential elections on 8 February in a contest in which there are 12 candidates.

The next presidential vote would be conducted via a complicated system decided by clan elders.Last year, 135 clan elders selected 14,025 delegates to comprise the 275 electoral colleges, each of whom began voting in October for an MP for the lower house of parliament. Together, with the 54 members of the newly created upper house chosen by Somalia’s new federal states, they will elect a speaker and a president.

The vote for president has already been delayed on several occasions and the venue was switched from the police academy to the airport in the capital Mogadishu last week over corruption and security concerns.

Security is the buzzword in Somali politics. At the end of last month the militant Islamist Somali group Al-Shebab Al-Mujahideen declared that it had taken control of a remote Kenyan military base inside Somalia, killing dozens of soldiers and raising the spectre of the elections taking place against a backdrop of continued terrorist attacks.

The Kenyan base is part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) that deployed in the country in 2007 when Al-Shebab fighters were uprooted from their main strongholds in Kismayo and Baidoa. However, the group is still present in the countryside.

Abdel-Aziz, aka Abu Musaab, a spokesman for the terrorist group, said that during the attack on the Kenyan base in the south of the country Al-Shebab fighters had killed 57 soldiers. This was denied by Paul Njuguna, a spokesman for the Kenyan army.

Although Al-Shebab did not take control of the base, as Abu Musaab claimed, there has been no independent confirmation of the number of victims. According to the AFP news agency, there are 22,000 soldiers from Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Djibouti and other African countries in Somalia as part of AMISOM to support the government against the terrorist group.

One day before the attack on 26 January Al-Shebab claimed responsibility for another attack on the Dayah Hotel in downtown Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, which is used by politicians and others. Some 28 people were killed and 51 were injured.

According to Somali journalist Abdi-Latif Zaher, this was not the first hotel to be targeted by Al-Shebab. Its significance was not only because of the large number of victims, he said, but also because the hotel was used by several MPs as it is close to the country’s parliament.

Zaher said that since 2011 when Al-Shebab had left the capital, many hotels, residential and office buildings, hospitals and paved roads had been constructed.

Al-Shebab fighters attacked six major hotels in 2015-2016 in Somalia, killing and injuring hundreds. Zaher believes the most recent attack was a shift in the goals of the terrorist group, which has for years targeted government officials and buildings. “Now, it was targeting ordinary citizens at social events”, he said.

Somalia was without a central government for more than two decades, and it has not been united since the ousting of former president Siad Barre in 1991. Warlords and Islamist groups fought for control of the country, and the provinces of Puntland and Somaliland declared their independence, though this has not received international recognition.

Meanwhile, pirates have been operating off the Somali coast, threatening navigation in the Gulf of Aden. Before the African Union sent in troops, Ethiopia and then Kenya had sent their armies into Somalia to fight Al-Shebab.

Many hope the forthcoming presidential elections will result in stability in Somalia. Among those contesting the elections are former president Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud, former prime minister Abdel-Rashid Sharmarke and former president Sherif Sheikh Ahmed.

Zaher said that the civil war in Somalia has been rumbling on beneath the surface for years, even if Al-Shebab is not as powerful as it was. He said the group was under siege and was being fought by neighbouring African countries.

Al-Qaeda is unable to assist Shebab because its strongest branch in Yemen is involved in a conflict with the Houthi rebels and their ally former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, on the one hand, and US bombardments on the other.

Many believe the bombing of the hotels in Mogadishu is evidence of the power of Al-Shebab, despite the onslaught by African forces. Others believe the country will never be stable unless negotiations are held with it, in the same way that the government in Afghanistan is now negotiating with the Taliban.

However, Zaher said the situation in Somalia was different, as “the Taliban is backed by Pakistan and some Gulf countries, and it has supporters inside Afghanistan. The Shebab, on the other hand, are feuding with all of Somalia’s neighbours except Sudan and Eritrea.”

Ethiopia has benefited from isolating its rival Eritrea for supporting Al-Shebab, and Sudan is in a tough position after the Muslim Brotherhood was forced to retreat in Egypt and Libya. “Sudan cannot support Al-Shebab,” according to Fayez Al-Slik, a Sudanese journalist, “because it does not want to ride the approaching wave, whether from Egypt or the Gulf.”

“The poor economic conditions in Sudan and the escalating civil war in Darfur and the provinces on the border with South Sudan prevent Khartoum from becoming involved in any regional role in support of the Islamists.”

Khartoum earlier hosted inconclusive talks between Al-Shebab and the Somali government. “Meanwhile, Eritrea no longer needs the support of Al-Shebab because it is an undeclared ally in the Arab Coalition against the Houthis in Yemen, and this will be enough to end its isolation,” said Ahmed Abdel-Hamid, a researcher at the Afro-Asian Studies Centre in Khartoum.

Zaher said that “it is too early to talk about the end of Al-Shebab Al-Mujahideen in Somalia, but we are seeing the beginning of the end.”

According to reports by the International Crisis Group (ICG), an international NGO, Al-Shebab has splintered because of rivalry between IS and Al-Qaeda. One splinter group supports IS and carried out an attack that gave it control of Kandala, a coastal town on the Gulf of Aden in the self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland, the ICG said.

The attack could see an expansion of terrorist strikes across Somalia, even in areas that were previously relatively calm, it added.

However, this “could become a burden for Al-Shebab and the splinter groups,” according to Zaher, because it might ignite rivalries between them similar to the ones seen between Islamist groups in Syria.

“We know that weapons alone will not stamp out terrorism,” he said. “We need development, education, and a new religious discourse. We also cannot dispense with African forces.”

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