Somalia Opposition

Rising Politicization Risks Splitting Somali National Army

Supporters of opposition presidential candidates demonstrate in Mogadishu on February 19, 2021. (-/AFP via Getty Images)

Last month, Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) forces closely aligned with President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (“Farmaajo”) attacked his opposition twice, including at a demonstration, over the course of barely 24 hours between February 19 and 20. As the measures taken by the most senior FGS leaders to stay in power have grown more extreme, tensions have risen. The reasons for military politicization, coupled with the events in February, may result in the Somali National Army (SNA) splitting asunder in full-scale fighting between the FGS and the opposition.

Despite a long period of attention by intervening states and international organizations, the political climate and security situation in Somalia means that the country has many parallels with the average small African semi-dictatorship. Themes common to Somalia and many states in Africa include the irrelevance of military solutions—mediation is a much better tool, subnational favoritism, corruption, domestic repression, and the growth of parallel forces in addition to the main state army.

The current administration has extensively misused parallel military forces. When the current FGS administration entered office in early 2017, there was one official parallel military force in southern Somalia, the United States-sponsored “Danab” commandos. After the SNA withdrew from Mogadishu’s streets in March 2017, it was replaced by several quickly changing paramilitary forces. But the first major additional parallel pure military force was the “14 October” Brigade. While initially favored, much of that brigade is now bogged in a stalled offensive against al-Shabaab in the Lower Shabelle region immediately south of the capital. More important in 2021 is the growing Turkish-sponsored “Gorgor” commandos that count now six battalions in country—the last having arrived on March 9—along with the special “Haram’aad” police unit.

Misuse of Parallel Military Forces

The current FGS administration has twice tried to misuse Danab for its domestic political purposes. First, it sent some forces to Gedo in the first quarter of 2020, and then later when the president heard the news that the opposition was planning protests on February 19 this year. The US has stood firm and blocked such partisan use, but Turkey is less worried. The Gorgor commandos have been deployed repeatedly to provide military muscle when the FGS wished to arrange supportive presidents and legislatures in the Federal Member States. Haram’aad is now nearly at a strength of 1,000, having been originally only 320. Its clan composition has been altered by adding fighters from the Darod and Marehan clan—the clan of the president.

The developing electoral crisis over the past few months has led to greater misuse of forces. The current administration and opposition have not been able to agree on whether and how to hold an election after the 2017–2021 presidential and parliamentary terms. There is growing and credible concern that President Farmaajo may be focused on remaining in power using force and foreign monies. Perhaps the clearest disillusioned voice was Puntland President Said Deni, who in a February public speech alleged that FGS President Farmaajo told him that he had money, troops, and patriotic forces who would support him throughout the country, including in Deni’s home region of Puntland.

Potential Risks

The events of February 19 and 20 epitomize the potential risks that the continuing electoral crisis presents, especially when considering what happened that day. On February 19, opposition presidential candidates planned to hold a demonstration at Daljirka Dahsoon square in Mogadishu. The night before, much of the security hierarchy, including a deputy director of the National Security and Intelligence Agency, the Land Force Commander, and military intelligence, organized an assault by a battalion plus an additional company of Gorgor forces to clear the demonstration site. The Gorgor units cleared the square, but balked at the order to also storm the Maida Hotel where the opposition was staying. It appears that they were deterred from doing so by the presence, among others, of two former Somali presidents. The next morning the Haram’aad police fired upon marching demonstrators as they were being led by senior opposition figures.

Efforts continue to be made to resolve the electoral impasse, but force might still be used. The opposition commands the loyalties of a significant portion of the original Hawiye SNA brigades in and near Mogadishu. In Middle Shabelle, former president Sheikh Sharif can count on the absolute loyalty of brigades 3 and 4 (new designations). Mahaday, a town in Middle Shabelle, briefly fell to al-Shabaab on March 15, quite possibly because large parts of brigades 3 and 4 were in Mogadishu, instead of at their normal garrisons. In addition, perhaps half the fighters of both brigades 6 and 7 (formerly brigades 3 and 6) in Lower Shabelle, plus parts of Brigade 1 (new designation) now back in Mogadishu itself, would rally to the opposition’s call. Meanwhile, on the core FGS constituency’s side, there are credible fears that Gorgor would fire into protesters wholesale to defend Villa Somalia.

Despite the risks, there are also some hopeful elements. Brigade 77 of the SNA is the Villa Somalia guard force, and was expanded in early 2020 to some 1,500 strong. Reports indicate that they may remain relatively loyal to the idea of Somalia as a state, rather than to the current president. It is also a hopeful sign that the Marehan deputy brigade commander of brigade 77, from the president’s clan, refused orders to assault the candidates’ hotel on February 19—although he was fired on the spot. Should fighting between opposition groups and government-aligned SNA forces break out in Mogadishu, some suggest that escorting the current president to safety and out of the city might bring it to an end. Therefore, there is some hope in well-connected observers’ belief that brigade 77 would safely escort the president out of Mogadishu, without incident, if that became necessary.

Dr. Colin D. Robinson is a Research Fellow with the African Research Institute at Óbuda University in Budapest. He spent 2018-2020 on European Union contract analyzing and reporting on military forces in southern Somalia.