Can Somalia’s New President Negotiate with al-Shabaab?

Wararka Maanta

Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo is seen as a man of integrity, cracking down on corruption, and fostering good governance. Many see this as the key to defeating the al-Qaeda affiliate, along with military might. But is that enough?

The recent election of President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo, a Somali-American technocrat who previously served as the country’s prime minister, has raised Somali expectations of putting an end to the menace of jihadi group al-Shabaab.

From his 2010 tenure as prime minister, people remember Farmaajo as a man of integrity who cracked down on corrupt politicians and revived public morale, albeit briefly (his tenure was less than a year). During his presidential campaign, the Somali police referred to him as the ‘salary-payer’ candidate, a show of confidence in his leadership. It is steps such as these – honoring police salaries, inspiring radicalised youths to disarm, speaking out against endemic corruption through naming and shaming and, more broadly, fostering good governance practices – that many are pointing to as the key to defeating the al-Qaeda affiliate, which has long ravaged and destabilised the country.

As he assumes office, the president inherits a wide array of challenges that include weak security institutions, an underpaid and undertrained army, and reemergence of the ever-more potent al-Shabaab.  Increased terror attacks flourished under his predecessor’s watch. The country’s own survival is heavily dependent on troops contributed by the African Union Peacekeeping Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

This month, AMISOM celebrates its 10-year anniversary of deployment. Although the mission has made considerable progress in stabilising the country, forcing al-Shabaab out of major cities and disrupting the group’s safe havens and supply chains, it has failed to create an atmosphere in which Somali troops can take the lead and pave the way for an exit strategy. But the continued military operation and its ever-expanding mission have raised questions of its sustainability. Last week, the head of AMISOM, Ambassador Madeira, was quoted as saying, “It’s time we made it known that AMSIOM is not going to stay forever.”

Since 2007, al-Shabaab has reportedly carried out more than 360 attacks, with unprecedented casualties both in terms of human loss and destruction of private and public institutions. Also, and in less than a decade, the al-Qaeda affiliate has evolved from a ragtag militia fighting 2006 Ethiopia’s occupation to a lethal, organised, semi-guerilla army.

Today, al-Shabaab, which affiliated with al-Qaeda in 2012, does not occupy a large swath of territory, and perhaps it is not interested in holding one. It is very useful for the group that, while on the run and in hideouts, it can stage asymmetrical attacks inflicting mass casualties. An adaptive and agile organisation, it has changed its tactical operations and reverted to staging complex attacks on public places, government institutions, coffee shops, and public markets without engaging in a direct confrontation with troops.

Although al-Shabaab is not close to defeat, the group is on the back foot and retreated into society. Its internal cohesion has been decapitated by American drones, which have killed many of its key figureheads, such as Ahmed Godane. Not only has the death of the likes of Godane left al-Shabaab with gaping holes, this has created internal discord among the top echelon and regional commanders as to future of the organisation. Some of the hardcore hardliner factions have formally paid allegiance to ISIS, and that has further deepened the internal rift. The second major al-Shabaab camp, currently led by Godane’s successor, Ahmed Omar, wants to scale up the asymmetric and insurgent warfare, since it defines the group’s existence – and sees the only path for it to remain relevant – in the counter-insurgency context.

Compounded with this is al-Shabaab’s credibility and image problem among ordinary Somalis. Its remorseless and indiscriminate attacks hotels, schools, and restaurants have further alienated the group from the society and made it widely deplored.

Is it Time to Talk?

In his inaugural speech, the president laid out his broad vision for addressing the fundamental causes that feed al-Shabaab’s narrative. A critical component of his vision lies in the strategy of winning the hearts and minds of radicalised Somali youth, who comprise the bulk of al-Shabaab’s foot soldiers. Although he did not go into details, the president offered a general amnesty to disgruntled youth, provided they lay down arms and are willing to enter into a rehabilitation program. Part of this offer includes a one hundred thousand US dollars reward for tipping off police with information leading to a potential attack. It is unlikely that all youth would accept this offer – particularly those who feel marginalised – but it is worth a try. However, this strategy would work best if coupled with addressing the more fundamental and structural root causes: chronic corruption and social injustice, two major enablers of al-Shabaab’s recruiting and radicalising factors.

It is an open secret in Somalia that, in some cases funds and salaries allocated for the police and military never reach frontline soldiers, as they are siphoned off along the way by those higher up in the ranks. Exploiting this weakness, al-Shabaab has infiltrated government institutions, nurturing a network that provides secret information and intelligence for pay. The general tendency in Somalia is that al-Shabaab’s strength lies in the government’s weakness. Cognizant of this, the president has promised to focus on establishing a competent, capable, and well-disciplined national army that can face the enemy.

For years, the strategy that former Somali governments and international partners pursued in defeating al-Shabaab was high on military muscle and low on soft power. It neglected any chance for meaningful dialogue. Though the group as a whole, with its Salafi-jihadi ideology, would reject negotiation, there are some reconcilable elements within the group who would not. The military approach has been useful, dislodging al-Shabaab from major regions and cities, but the military alone cannot put an end to al-Shabaab’s war.

With conflict in Somalia ever more prolonged, there is another potential opportunity for the new president is to devise a realistic strategy to reconcile elements within al-Shabaab that are interested in a political settlement and compromise. Previous governments, whether wittingly or unwittingly, made virtually no effort to open the negotiation window. For this to happen, the government would need to identify an interlocutor who can facilitate and arrange talks with al-Shabaab, inside Somalia or elsewhere. While it is hard to find an acceptable mediator, the government could use former al-Shabaab seniors who are now in the hands of the government as conduits for establishing communication lines that could eventually lead to talks.

Moreover, we tend to think of al-Shabaab as a monolithic organisation with a single, jihadi ideology. On the contrary, it is diverse, with different layers of fighters with different grievances who joined the insurgency for local and personal reasons.

Indeed, some of the hardcore leadership would reject or derail any negotiation attempts, because it is the antithesis of their modus operandi: never surrender to your enemy. But the vast majority of its non-ideological members – the reconcilable camp – who might be looking alternatives to perpetual guerrilla war, may switch allegiances and lay down arms. Evidently, the increased defection of its senior leadership to government over the last two years could be understood as sign of desperation to pursue to engagement.

Engaging with al-Shabaab would be an extremely complex and controversial process. It would require a great deal of commitment and collaboration with various stakeholders, including federal member states and for international partners to have their buy-in. The negotiation itself can be viewed as part of the broader strategy to winning war on against terrorist.

Unlike his predecessors who were mired in sectarian politics, and often seen by al-Shabaab as Islamist with a political agenda the new president is seen as a non-sectarian politician who has the better leverage to reach out to insurgents and chart a new course of dialogue and national reconciliation that could eventually lead to political settlement. In the end, as the president recently put it, “Somalia’s conflict must end through reconciliation and talk, rather than military means.”

The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics.