ANALYSIS René Brosius 12 November 2021
The latest news from Somalia could not be contradictory. On the one hand, the first democratic “one person, one vote” elections since 1969 took place in Puntland, the semi-autonomous state in north-eastern Somalia, on 25 October 2021; on the other hand, there was bloody fighting in central Somalia. Admittedly, the elections in Puntland were only held at the municipal level and not state-wide either, but only in the districts of Qardho, Eyl and Afeyn. However, with this step, the government of President Said Abdullahi Mohamed (Deni) succeeded in sending a clear signal to the Somali federal government in the midst of the tough election process at the national level. A total of 37,578 registered voters participated in the local elections, with 54 polling stations offering them the opportunity to cast their votes. After many attempts at such direct elections, Puntland can now rightly claim to have achieved the first democratic elections in 52 years in the country. While the other Somali states praised Puntland for this step and at the same time pledged to continue working on democratic elections in their countries, it was Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (Farmajoo), of all people, the president of Somalia, whose term already expired on 8 February 2021, who could not bring himself to congratulate Puntland on this success. It was only after journalists asked for it that a sober statement was circulated, generally welcoming the move. Even if this incident is only a small observation in a very complex situation, it nevertheless shows how hardened the fronts in the Somali elections currently are.
The fact that this charged atmosphere can turn into an armed conflict at any time could be observed at the same time and only about 600 kilometres to the southwest. The focus was on the Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a (ASWJ) group.
ASWJ has existed since 1991 and is mainly active in the Hiraan region (Hir Shabelle) and around the city of Guriceel (Galmudug). The group was founded primarily to protect the Sufi Muslims, who predominate throughout Somalia, from attacks by more radical Muslim groups. The Sufis practise an Islam that is in line with tradition in certain areas. Radical groups such as Al Ittihad Al Islamiya (AIAI) and later Al Shabab, on the other hand, are a thorn in the side of saint worshipping and other traditional Sufi practices, and there have been repeated destructions of sacred Sufi tombs.
For a long time, ASWJ was characteristically more of a classical Sufi order, taking on important religious, legal and administrative tasks, especially at the communal level, in an environment without a state. This only changed after 2007/2008 Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia to fight the Union of Islamic Courts. In response to the invasion, Al Shabab was formed, whose goal was on the one hand to fight the Christian troops and anyone cooperating with them. At the same time, however, they also took action against more moderate Muslims. More and more, ASWJ became part of the armed struggle against Al Shabab and thus not only an ally of the then transitional government (TFG), but later cooperated with the newly founded state of Galmudug. ASWJ became an important anchor of stability in the region and was recognised in this role beyond the region, in part internationally. However, relations between governments at national or regional level and ASWJ were never free of conflict. ASWJ representatives increasingly demanded political participation and tried to emphasise this through their military presence. However, their regional centre remained Hiraan and Guriceel.
This did not change initially when the current government came to power in 2017. Galmudug was in the process of being established and some representatives of ASWJ even took on the functions of security advisors in the new Somali federal government to support it in the fight against Al Shabab.
This only changed with the state elections and presidential elections in Galmudug in 2020. The Somali federal government had long since changed its strategy and worked primarily to weaken the federal states and install politically loyal presidents. This strategy also included weakening ASWJ’s political and military strength. It was only after a long period of negotiations, from about February 2020 to August 2020, that an agreement was reached by the then Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire (himself from Galmudug), whereby ASWJ was assured of extensive integration into the security and administrative structure of Galmudug. In return, ASWJ was to hand over its weapons. However, this agreement was fraught with conflict from the beginning. There were repeated accusations that the Somali Federal Government had only aimed at weakening ASWJ militarily, but not at the promised integration into the state structures. This accusation referred both to integration into the security structures, i.e. into the civil service, and to political participation. At the same time, Al Shabab’s activities increased again throughout Galmudug, partly as a result of offensives by the Somali National Army. Neither the security forces of Galmudug State nor the US-trained anti-terrorist units (DANAB forces) were able to put a stop to this. While Galmudug was considered free of Al Shabab for a long time, the security situation increasingly deteriorated by August 2021.
ASWJ subsequently began to regroup and marched via Hiraan to their traditional base of operations in Guriceel (a commercial and university state with a population of 10,000 to 30,000). They met little resistance. Sometimes there were pictures, of friendly receptions by the civilian population, sometimes reports of regional police forces joining ASWJ.
Both the Somali Federal Government-backed President Ahmed Abdi Karie (Qorqor) and the Somali Federal Government responded with brutal force. The half-hearted negotiations for a peaceful solution were unilaterally declared over and regular army forces from all over Somalia advanced on Guriceel. After three days of fierce fighting, using rocket launchers and mortars, the remaining ASWJ fighters withdrew from the town. Officially, at least 120 soldiers were killed on both sides and many more injured. Why was there such an aggressive reaction, partly using troops whose sole purpose is to fight Al Shabab and not Al Shabab’s enemies?
The assumption is that the Somali federal government, which is under heavy pressure, wanted to make a political example in the midst of the election process. With the temporary suppression of ASWJ, the government was able to show military strength. A signal that should certainly be received in Mogadishu and by its political opponents. The winner of this bloody confrontation is above all Al Shabab. State forces massively weakened their opponent. Forces that were trained by the West for the fight against Al Shabab in particular! For a long time, the Somali federal government has been suspected of secretly collaborating with Al Shabab. The events in Guricell will further fuel this accusation, especially since no comparable operation was undertaken against Al Shabab before. Nevertheless, the main casualties were the many young fighters on both sides who were killed or wounded in the fighting. There were many pictures and videos of Somali soldiers on social media, some of them extremely young. Young men who wanted to defend their country against external enemies and Al Shabab. They have now literally fallen victim to a political game of intrigue.