Fears of Al-Shabab Attacks Rise Ahead of Somalia’s Delayed Elections
NAIROBI, Kenya—Federal elections that were supposed to be held in Somalia starting this month are behind schedule due to a dispute between the president and his political rivals. According to the electoral plan, legislative elections were to be held throughout December, followed by a vote in the Federal Parliament in February to elect the country’s next president. But opposition candidates are protesting the membership of two committees charged with overseeing the balloting, claiming they are packed with President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s allies, allegedly giving him an unfair advantage as he seeks reelection.
The president, widely known in Somalia by his nickname, Farmajo, had initially hoped to hold direct elections based on the principle of “one person, one vote.” But that plan was challenged by his political rivals and leaders of regional state governments, who insisted Somalia was not ready for universal suffrage. To break the impasse, Farmajo agreed in September to follow a similar procedure from previous elections, involving the use of a complex clan-based formula in which each of the 275 members of the lower house of Parliament is chosen by electoral colleges comprising 101 clan delegates, who in turn are nominated by traditional clan elders. Members of the Senate are to be elected by state assemblies.
Amid the bickering and political infighting ahead of the now-delayed polls, al-Shabab, the al-Qaida-affiliated Somali extremist group, is likely to take advantage of this volatile political situation. It could try to disrupt the voting process by carrying out lethal attacks, or even influence the political process by trying to secure electoral victories for its sympathizers. The group’s ultimate goal is to depose the current federal government and install an extreme Islamist regime based on strict interpretations of sharia law.
At the height of its power, in around 2010, al-Shabab controlled nearly all of southern and central Somalia. A major offensive by troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM, from 2011 until 2015, liberated many of the towns and cities occupied by the militants, but al-Shabab still controls large swaths of territory, including major roads and supply routes. It continues to destabilize the federal government by carrying out attacks, bombings and assassination campaigns against security forces, government officials and civilians. Its attacks have become more lethal in recent years, as the group has acquired the capacity to manufacture its own homemade explosives, according to U.N. investigators.
There are troubling signs that al-Shabab could further intensify its attacks in the coming days and weeks, as it did in the lead-up to the 2016 elections. Already, the group has carried out at least three attacks in the capital, Mogadishu, this fall, including a suicide bombing at Gelato Devino, a popular ice cream parlor near the international airport, on Nov. 27. The blast killed at least seven people and wounded 10 others.
Elsewhere, in the central Somali town of Ba’adweyne, in the Mudug region, al-Shabab fighters attacked a military base on Nov. 30, killing at least four soldiers and 11 local residents who had joined the battle. Somalia’s Ministry of Information said 51 militants were killed and six were captured in the attack.
All this comes as President Donald Trump ordered American troops out of Somalia before he leaves office in January, even as a recent report from three U.S. inspectors general concluded that, “despite many years of sustained Somali, U.S. and international counterterrorism pressure, the terrorist threat in East Africa is not degraded.” Trump’s order is likely to set back the fight against al-Shabab at a critical time, as most of the 700 American troops in the country are there to assist Somali security forces in their campaign against the militants.
Al-Shabab appears determined not only to disrupt the balloting process through violent means, but also to steer the course of the elections to its favor.
The just-concluded regional elections in Hirshabelle, one of Somalia’s five federal member states, are a troubling indicator of what could come next. The state’s residents were confronted with constant, almost daily al-Shabab attacks and numerous confrontations with security forces as the group tried to stop the polls from taking place. In addition to AMISOM troops, regional lawmakers and state officials were targeted in assassination campaigns. When Hirshabelle’s clan elders and other dignitaries gathered in Jowhar, the state capital, to select regional parliamentarians, al-Shabab threatened violent reprisals against hotel owners in the town if they hosted any out-of-state guests. Fearing for their lives, some hoteliers complied.
Ahead of the delayed federal polls, al-Shabab appears determined not only to disrupt the process through violent means, but also to steer the course of the elections to its favor. According to some local media reports, the group is fielding candidates who are aligned with its extremist ideology. This should not be hard to achieve in Somalia’s highly corrupt electoral system, which is fueled by rampant bribing and vote-buying. According to a recent report from the U.N. Panel of Experts on Somalia, al-Shabab remains in a strong financial position thanks to a variety of revenue streams, primarily taxes on vehicles and goods that transit through the territory it controls, as well as levies on agricultural and other businesses. One Somali lawmaker even told a local media outlet that al-Shabab could take 80 percent of the seats in Parliament.
The group also relies on violent intimidation to suppress participation in the elections. In July 2019, it summoned all clan elders and delegates in its territory who participated in the 2016 election and ordered them to repent publicly to Allah, and to register and confirm their repentance with al-Shabab governorates by Sept. 1 of that year. Dozens of people who did not comply were executed.
A major immediate concern is that al-Shabab could try to carry out high-impact attacks on civilian targets, like the one against a popular oceanfront hotel this summer in Mogadishu. On Aug. 16, al-Shabab gunmen used a suicide car bombto force their way into the Elite Hotel, in the capital’s Lido Beach neighborhood. Ten civilians and one Somali soldier were killed in the ensuing hours-long siege.
Securing the upcoming elections should be a top priority for Somalia. Various stakeholders, including AMISOM, Somali security forces and the federal and regional governments, must work together to contain the threat of al-Shabab’s interference. In a positive sign, AMISOM officials have already met several times with their counterparts from Somalia’s security sector to discuss strategies to provide adequate security for the balloting. A National Election Security Task Force was set up last year, and Somalia’s police chief, Abdi Hassan Mohamed Hijar, has been designated as the coordinator of election security. Hijar has already traveled to parts of the country where voting will occur to assess the security situation, and AMISOM has trained Somali security forces on electoral security threat management.
The Somali government, in consultation with the opposition, also needs to come up with ways to curb al-Shabab’s potential efforts to infiltrate the elections and install sympathizers in Parliament. This could involve security agencies doing rigorous background checks on all political aspirants who plan to contest the upcoming elections.
Learning from the mistakes of 2016, when they failed to protect participants in that year’s elections, Somali authorities must make the safety and security of the delegates and clan elders a top priority. The country’s stability, not to mention the very viability of its democracy, hangs in the balance.
Abdullahi Abdille Shahow (@a_abdille) is an independent researcher and analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya. His areas of interest include security, governance, democracy and development. He was previously the Horn of Africa researcher for the International Crisis Group.