Elections in South West State, Somalia are scheduled on November 17. Under its constitution, Somalia is a federal republic, giving different regions of the country and their associated clans, a degree of regional autonomy. Among these, SWS has suffered the most insecurity, violence, displacement and destitution since the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1990 – this in spite of its being the breadbasket of Somalia.
The reasons are historical and cultural. The clans of this region are not herders like most Somali clans. Rather they are farmers or practice mixed farming and herding.
During the civil war, this region was occupied, looted and pillaged by powerful clan militias from other regions. The people of this region have also been betrayed by their own political representatives, who have been more focused on acquiring power at the centre and accruing personal wealth from foreign largesse, than working for the well-being of their own constituents and advocating for them at the federal level. Many traditional elders and much of the population felt betrayed when in 2009, regional politicians agreed to cede claims to three of the original six inter-riverine regions during the establishment of SWS.
Additionally, any leader that hopes to achieve legitimacy in SWS, which tends to be more rural and conservative than other regions, has to be conversant not only in state-based political and legal systems, but also in customary decision-making and peacemaking processes, such as the xeer (contract) and on Islamic decision-making and peacemaking processes, diin (religion).
These processes are someone different among clans in SWS than among pastoralist clans of northern Somalia. Some of the politicians running for the position of president of SWS have operated in the national and international arenas for so long that they are no longer conversant in these practices.
For the historical reasons described above, along with the destitution and instability resulting from the civil war, al Shabaab found easy recruits in this region. For some, al Shabaab offered an ideology in which Islam united all people, and were equal regardless of clan. This was heady balm for clans whom other Somalis look down upon and whose distinct language was often mocked by other Somalis.
For others, it offered income-generating opportunities in the face of the loss of livelihoods generated by the war. It also offered a sense of security and predictability in the face of the random violence of the ongoing conflict. Regrettably, for others, it was a chance to exercise power through coercion and violence.
In 2012, there was a schism between top al Shabaab leadership, involving top commander Ahmed Abdi Godane and deputy commander Mukhtar Robow (aka Abu Mansur).
Robow was perceived to be the more ‘moderate’ of the two, with local, rather than global, ambitions. He split from Godane in 2013 and moved his followers to Bakool. In 2014, the US government killed Godane. In 2016, the Somali government offered amnesty to Al Shabaab militia, who agreed to surrender. Last year, tired of violence and insecurity, Robow surrendered after some negotiations.
On October 4, Robow announced his intention to run for office as President of SWS. He is running against eight other candidates, including the incumbent, Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan. However, on October 5, the Somali government issued a statement refusing to accept his candidacy. The Somali government is responding to pressure from the international community and a variety of foreign donors, who do not consider Robow an acceptable candidate. However, some observers surmise that the government may also be responding to clan politics at the national level, and to pressure from the incumbent and other candidates, who are afraid Robow will won, given his popularity.
This is a mistake on the part of the international community and the Somali government. To achieve sustainable peace in this long-suffering region, residents should be granted the right to choose their own leaders – those whom they believe will prioritize the interests and the needs of the people. This is the promise of federalism and how it is supposed to work. If the international community is genuinely interested in building peace in Somalia, we must acknowledge that history has taught us that the best way to end insurgencies is to bring insurgents into the political process. The Somali government needs help to defeat the remaining al Shabaab. If allowed to run for office, Robow will presumably bring his fighters, followers, supporters, and sympathizers with him out of the shadows into the civic life. It is only our prejudice against certain types of insurgents (previously Marxists, presently Islamists) that prevents us from recognising that this is best path for peace in Somalia. The international community needs to set aside its prejudices and let the people of SWS, as well as all Somalis, to choose the kind of country they want to live in.