Somalia al-Shabaab

State-Level Military Forces Can Potentially Turn Tide in War Against al-Shabaab

Security personnel secure the scene of a car bomb attack in Mogadishu's Hamarwayne District. (ABDIRAZAK HUSSEIN FARAH/AFP via Getty Images)

In August, the Federal Government of Somalia’s (FGS) paramilitary police arrived in the capital of Galmudug state in central Somalia. Their arrival was part of the third major FGS attempt in nine months to seize illegitimate advantage, and political dominance, in what was supposed to a be self-governing regional entity.

Continuing federal government efforts to undermine regional state governments are destroying the settlement between the central government and regions made in the 2012 Provisional Constitution. In doing so, the FGS has exposed how little it values winning the war against al-Shabaab, which has entrenched itself in the hinterland for over eight years. A strong partnership between Mogadishu and the regions is vital to a unified counterinsurgency effort. These gambits are also severely hampering the Daraawiish—the state-level paramilitary field forces—from engaging al-Shabaab most effectively. This matters, because in many cases the Daraawiish are more effective against al-Shabaab than the isolated, under-equipped, and somewhat publicly alienated, Somali National Army.

The horrors of the civil war in Somalia inflicted grievous wounds across the entire hinterland. Among the worst was the ferocious destruction of Hargeisa in 1988. Thirty years later, remembering these traumas, the developing Federal Member State (FMS) administrations retain deep skepticism about the wisdom of an expansive and powerful federal government. Part of this meant establishing their own police forces, allowed by the provisional constitution. A new policing model was also agreed upon as a policy framework in 2016, embodying the same balancing between the federal powers of Mogadishu and the FMS governments.

However, Jubaland and South West State (SWS) were not prepared to foreswear military forces. Jubaland created its Daraawiish, also known as the Jubaland Security Forces. The Daraawiish label harked back to the pre-1991 rural police mobile force in Somalia. In SWS, Daraawiish forces, effectively clan home guards, were created in 2015. These forces then became the South West State Special Police Force in February 2016.

Both state forces are statutorily established, official bodies, as is the Daraawiish in Puntland. The Daraawiish in all these states have often been perceived as more legitimate than the Somali National Army (SNA). This is because the forces are closer to their communities and their troops are often garrisoned in the places they are recruited from. As a result of this community bond, Daraawiish forces retain significant potential to counteract al-Shabaab.

In several places, the Daraawiish have more fighting potential than the SNA. The Daraawiish ideally would exist only temporarily as a war-fighting force, and then shrink and revert to ordinary rural police. But the FGS fears that the war-fighting functions of the Daraawiish will harden and become permanent, leaving the regional states with their own armies.

In early 2017, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” was inaugurated as president of Somalia with a considerable amount of hope. He had rare cross-clan support. But these high hopes have withered. By mid-2018, for example, there were growing fears that undue political influence could be placed upon FMS authorities to toe the Federal Government’s line.

FGS manipulation of the December 2018 presidential election in SWS gave these fears real force. Abdiaziz Mohamed “Laftagareen,” a former MP and minister, would not have won without FGS manipulation. The same motivations appeared in Galmudug state, where the FGS orchestrated a low-key political insurgency against President Ahmed Duale Gelle Haaf, and a splinter administration was created.

In Jubaland, from the end of 2018, there have been fears that the FGS might help seize the nominated capital, Bu’ale (still under al-Shabaab control), marshal political forces opposed to President Ahmed Mohamed Islam Madobe there, and thus cut the ground out from under Madobe’s feet. The attempted landing of troops in Kismayo by Ethiopia during the August 2019 Jubaland elections, only created the perception of a new Ethiopian-FGS alliance against Madobe. It also affronted Kenya, Madobe’s long-time backer.

In the eyes of the states, this mutual fear and mistrust, plus active FGS interference, justifies retaining their separate military capabilities. But it also means that the significant potential the Daraawiish has to degrade al-Shabaab is not being exploited. It is being hampered by the lack of lethal and non-lethal support, despite several statements on paper that the FGS would provide both types of support.[1] International actors have generally heeded the FGS and provided minimal support to the Daraawiish in different states. Here, inertia also seems to be a significant contributing factor.

Whatever the reason that support for the Daraawiish is being held up, there remains the larger, ongoing political question: the lack of a political settlement over the roles and relative power of the FGS and Federal Member States. For many of the prominent figures in Mogadishu, fighting al-Shabaab is sometimes almost a secondary consideration; maneuvering for power, influence, and profit is often far more important. Geographical position puts many FMS leaders, on the other hand, more out on the front line and more exposed, making them generally more committed.

Donors remain tangled on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, they could deeply offend the FGS, historically the preeminent interlocutor and repository of national sovereignty, by providing material support to the Daraawiish. On the other hand, they could lose the opportunity of employing more locally legitimate and combat capable forces with, in many cases, a higher chance of defeating al-Shabaab. Navigating this dilemma will not be possible without genuinely negotiating the relationship between the FGS and regional FMS governments, and, by extension, a path forward in which al-Shabaab is effectively combated.

Dr. Colin Robinson, from New Zealand, is the Military Expert at Sahan Research, part of an EU-funded project.

[1] For example, the Communique of the National Security Council, Sixth Meeting, February 6–10, 2018.