Trading bullets for ballots, former al Shabaab No. 2 tests Somalia’s democratic process

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Trading bullets for ballots, former al Shabaab No. 2 tests Somalia’s democratic process

November 26, 2018| Arlaadi Online

© Mohamed Abdiwahab, AFP| Former al-Shabab deputy leader Mukhtar Robow speaks to journalists on August 15, 2017 in Mogadishu, Somalia.

When al Shabaab’s deputy leader Mukhtar Robow defected from the jihadist group, it was hailed as a major step for peace hopes in Somalia. But now that he’s running for a December 5 regional election, some think it’s a step too far.

At a crowded meeting hall in the southern Somali city of Baidoa last month, Mukhtar Robow faced a gathering of local politicians and reporters squeezed into the room as a crowd of supporters and curious onlookers gathered outside the premises.

Robow, also known as Abu Mansour, is no stranger to the media spotlight. As one of the founding members of al Shabaab — the al Qaeda-linked Somali terrorist group — Robow once served as the jihadist group’s deputy leader and spokesman.

For many years, he was the public face of the organisation, appearing in al Shabaab propaganda videos, granting interviews to local journalists and addressing press conferences in the Somali wilds. As an al Shabaab military commander with battlefield experience and training in Afghanistan, Robow was considered a dangerous man. The US slapped a $5 million bounty on his head and the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on him as a “specially designated global terrorist”.

Security and livelihoods

Robow has campaigned on a security platform with a simple message that translates as, “I knew how to found al Shabaab, I know how to finish them.”

Robow’s candidacy has implications not just for his war-torn Horn of Africa nation, but also for international military and reconstruction missions in conflict and post-conflict zones across the world.

“He has been very popular among his clansmen,” explained Hussein Sheikh-Ali, founder of the Mogadishu-based Hiraal Institute, in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from the Somali capital.

While al Shabaab recruits most of their foot soldiers from impoverished members of Robow’s Rahaweyn clan, the jihadist group is not popular among Somalis.

Opposed by federal government and al Shabaab

The enthusiasm, however, was not shared by the internationally-backed Somali federal government in Mogadishu.

In a sharp rebuke to the Shabaab defector, Somalia’s internal security ministry released a statement that Robow was not eligible to run for the regional elections, which will see voters elect representatives to the 149-member state assembly as well as the president of the South West state.

While the US has lifted the $5 million bounty on Robow, he remains on the Treasury Department’s sanctions list, which would require the Somali federal government to negotiate with international bodies to clear him.

The problem, though, is that Somalia does not have a formal constitution and, legally, the powers of the federal and state government have not been adequately detailed. It’s also unclear whether the federal authorities have the ability to enforce a ban on a regional presidential candidate.

Al Shabaab too has denounced the political ambitions of the group’s highest profile defector. The usual warnings denouncing Robow as a sold-out collaborator who will suffer for his misdeeds have increased in recent weeks.

In a particularly Somali twist of fate, the federal authorities and al Shabaab find themselves on the same side of the Robow candidacy controversy.

Many experts in Somalia believe there’s no question that how Robow’s case is handled will have a bearing on the defections of high-level al Shabaab figures in terms of how they assess their political future.

A recent report by the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia noted that Robow’s defection had “encouraged” members of his sub-clan to “collectively disengage” from al Shabaab. The report noted that 20 senior al Shabaab figures had defected “at Robow’s instigation”.

With Robow throwing his hat in the political ring, a regional election in a far-flung corner of the world has now gained international attention. Inside Somalia, the December 5 election is also viewed as a critical test for the country’s 2020 presidential election following regional elections in other Somali states.

“It’s a very, very important election for Somalia,” said Sheikh-Ali. “In that sense, this election feels like D-Day. It’s like Elections 2020 is happening now.”

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