The Saga of Mukhtar Robow and Somalia’s Fractious Politics


Much has changed for Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow, a key founding member of the Somali jihadist organization al-Shabaab, over the past decade. In November 2008, al-Shabaab was sweeping across southern and central Somalia toward the capital city of Mogadishu. Robow led the jihadists not only in their fight against the Somali government and allied international forces but also in their enactment of territorial governance and implementation of a harsh form of Islamic law (shari’a). That month, according to an al-Shabaab communiqué from the time, he and other senior al-Shabaab officials delivered public speeches announcing the jihadist-insurgent rulers’ new system of law and order.

Ten years later, in October 2018, Robow, who once condemned democracy as “unbelief” (kufr), announcedhis candidacy for the presidency of Somalia’s South West State. South West State is one of the five semi-autonomous member states that make up the often-fractious Somali federal republic (excluding Somaliland, which doesn’t see itself as a part of Somalia). The country’s federal government maintains ever-fluctuating, often combative relations with the administrations of regional states. Robow’s announcement set off an intense debate about the prospects of an ex-jihadist gaining a leadership position through democratic elections.

The former jihadist’s campaign shook up Somali federal and regional politics. But the federal government, backed by Ethiopian military forces, ultimately blocked him from participating and eventually detained him. His detention, which his supporters saw as the result of the federal government’s blatant interference in South West State’s regional government and an attempt to broaden federal power over the regional states, raised concerns from Somali politicians and international organizations — including the United Nations — about the rule of law, the federal executive branch sliding toward authoritarian tendencies, and the harming of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency efforts.

Robow’s arrest and detention have broader implications for Somalia’s fractious politics, specifically the growing tensions between the federal government’s leaders, President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” and Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khayre, and the semi-autonomous regional states. In addition to worsening already sore relations between the federal and regional state governments, Robow’s arbitrary arrest also threatens to benefit al-Shabaab and harm efforts to attract defectors from the insurgent group.

From Jihadist to Defector to Democrat?

Robow was instrumental in building al-Shabaab’s military cadres following the Ethiopian invasion and subsequent occupation of Somalia in December 2006. Robow served not only as a senior commander but also as the group’s official spokesman for several years and had popular support both from within his own clan, the Rahanweyn, and with clan elders in and around Mogadishu. In 2010, he was replaced as spokesman following internal disputes with al-Shabaab’s supreme leader (amir), Ahmed Godane, and more hawkish insurgent officials, some of whom deemed Robow to be too tied to clan politics to the detriment of “pure” jihad. The friction also followed reported overtures — though Robow denied them at the time — by clan elders urging him to negotiate with President of the Somali Transitional Federal Government Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.

Between 2012 and 2013, al-Shabaab’s ranks were riven by an internal schism that led the American militant Omar Hammami and some of his allies to begin openly condemning what they saw as Godane’s authoritarian leadership. In 2013, Robow began to distance himself from Godane, criticizing what they said was the leader’s persecution of Hammami and other dissidents. In September 2014, Godane was killed by a U.S. targeted air strike. Robow was subsequently invited to attend the meeting of al-Shabaab’s consultative leadership council, where a new amir would be elected, but he declined.

It was not until August 2017 that Robow was finally forced to make his de facto decision to distance himself from al-Shabaab’s core leadership complete. At that time, he and his clan militia loyalists were beset in Robow’s home regions of Bay and Bakool by al-Shabaab forces attempting to seize or kill him. He formally and fully defected from the group he once co-led in mid-August after being flown to Mogadishu and meeting with federal government officials. Just over a year later, however, Robow would find himself in an existential struggle with members of that same federal government.

Questions Surrounding Robow’s Candidacy

Robow’s candidacy raised uncomfortable questions about how international actors, including the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations, should engage with him if he was elected. Despite having been recently removed from the U.S. State Department’s “most wanted terrorists” list, Robow remains under U.N. Security Council sanctions and, as of a few weeks ago, is on the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctions list.

Before detaining Robow, the Somali federal government tried — and failed — to block him from running, in part by raising the spectre of his violent past in an attempt to stir up regional opposition to his candidacy, particularly in Ethiopia and Kenya. The ultimate decision to detain him was criticized by some within the government, including the speaker of the federal parliament, who has called for the Robow’s unconditional release.

Robow’s detention not only removed a major challenger to the federal government’s preferred candidate, Abdiaziz Hassan Mohamed “Lafta Gareen,” but also eliminated the need for the United States, United Nations, and other international governments and bodies to face the difficult question of whether and how to engage with Robow if he had won. This question was all the more salient because of continuing U.S. and U.N. sanctions against Robow and doubts among his critics about whether he had truly abandoned militant Islamism when he foreswore al-Shabaab, or whether this was a pragmatic move made for his own survival rather than a true ideological transformation and rejection of jihadism.

Robow’s Arrest and Somalia’s Federal-Regional Political Struggle

Robow’s arrest should be understood in its wider domestic and regional context, specifically the increasing power struggle between the federal executives, Farmajo and Khayre, and the Somali regional states and their respective executives, including powerful President of Jubaland Ahmed Mohamed Islam “Madobe” — a former Islamist insurgent — and former Puntland President Abdiweli Mohamed Ali Gaas.

Farmajo and Khayre have increasingly curtailed opposition and supported challengers to the sitting regional state presidents in an attempt to centralize power and limit dialogue with the opposition. A year ago, the two leaders removed the opposition mayor of Mogadishu after he attempted to set up a more independent regional administration for the state of Banadir. Later, the oppositional Speaker of the Parliament Mohamed Osman Jawari was forced to step down without due process after Farmajo and Khayre loyalists tried to bring a no-confidence motion against him in the federal parliament. This process of silencing opposition continued with the federal government leaders supporting challengers to the sitting heads of the regional state administrations, leading to clashes in the Hirshabelle regional state, whose administration eventually cowed to Farmajo and Khayre. In South West State, the sitting regional president, Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden, was forced to step down, leaving the election open for Farmajo’s and Khayre’s preferred candidate, Gareen, until Robow declared his candidacy, thereby posing a major obstacle to the federal government’s attempt to curtail regional opposition.

Farmajo and Khayre continue to seek the support of external actors and states, such as Ethiopia, in their attempt to build more centralized mechanisms of power rather than enabling the refining and reform of the federalized state structure. The regional states, however, continue to wield considerable power because they are at the forefront of the struggle against a resurgent al-Shabaab. Moreover, some states, such as Puntland, have established good relations with, and have in the past obtained support from, powerful external actors like the United Arab Emirates.

Over the last six months, the federal government’s efforts have taken a somewhat authoritarian turn, including targeting researchers for critical analysis of Somali affairs and the ongoing conflicts with jihadist groups. For instance, the government banned the Sahan Research think tank from operating in the country. A seemingly coordinated trolling campaign on social media by Farmajo and Khayre supporters targeted Sahan’s head, Matt Bryden, as well as International Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa Project Director Rashid Abdi after they published critical comments about Robow’s arrest.

In autumn 2018, a major conflict developed in South West State when local clan elders criticized Gareen, with the state’s electoral commission eventually resigning in protest against federal interference. The central government then invited 79 regional members of parliament to Mogadishu in a move that many local human rights activists described in interviews as a blatant attempt to influence the election amidst allegations of bribery and corruption. Growing local protests led Mogadishu to deploy security forces in the state’s capital city of Baidoa, leading to new condemnations from regional officials and clan elders and to the possibility of clashes between the opposing forces. In December, the regional states and their supporters struck back, aided by an ongoing impeachment attempt against Farmajo.

Robow was initially seen as a peripheral candidate with questionable chances of winning. But following Aden’s resignation in November, he increasingly came to be viewed, according to interviews with local residents and human rights activists,  as a viable opposition candidate. He became an alternative to the perceived encroachment of the federal government and a potential powerful champion of local interests and federalism thanks to his continued popularity and influence among his own clan. Somalia’s ongoing crises presented Robow with a major opportunity to take advantage of growing resentment among many locals about what they perceive to be the federal government’s attempt to control South West State and bring its opposition to heel.

Robow the Politician

Before his sudden detention, Robow proved to be a skilled politician. He situated himself effectively within broader political and societal conflicts, seemingly distancing himself from his days in al-Shabaab. He was running in part as the man who could ultimately defeat al-Shabaab since he, as a founding member and former senior leader, claimed to “know how to finish them.”

Robow, despite his significant baggage, was able to emerge as a symbol of independence to his supportersand a potential counterweight to the federal government in Mogadishu. His cause was aided by anger and disaffection toward the central government, expressed by many local residents and human rights activists we interviewed and his own membership in the regionally dominant Rahanweyn clan’s largest and most influential sub-clan. Also notable was the decision of other candidates to drop out and supporthis candidacy. Robow’s supporters saw his shift from jihadist to political candidate as a sign that he might follow a path similar to those of other former senior insurgents-turned-politicians. Chief among these is Madobe, whose Ras Kamboni militia was once allied with al-Shabaab as part of the insurgent Hizbul Islam coalition. Madobe later allied with Kenya, whose troops occupied the major port city of Kismaayo in September 2012, setting the stage for his election as Jubaland president despite opposition from the federal government.

Robow, who had enthusiastic local support for his candidacy before it was abruptly ended, was seen by many as a leader-in-waiting who could resist the central government’s attacks on federalism and attempts to monopolize power. He has substantial support among local residents and clan leaders in South West State and, before his detention, had a strong chance of winning the regional presidency despite the serious challenge posed by the politically astute Farmajo and Khayre. Robow proved to be an adept player in Somalia’s ever-shifting scene of political competition and crisis, one marked by a continuingly deadly insurgency by al-Shabaab — whose leaders have declared him an apostate who should be killed. This has led to the ironic situation of a former ardent jihadist commander who once railed against the evils of democratic elections and nationalism not only endorsing elections but also calling for international and even Western support to monitor the upcoming South West State polls to ensure their fairness.

Support for Robow was not unanimous, of course, with many Somalis on social media platforms condemning him for his violent past. Farmajo’s and Khayre’s opposition to him, however, was more cynical and tied to their own desire to weaken the power of the regional state administrations in their favor.

Conclusion: The Dangerous Effects of Robow’s Detention

The federal government’s arbitrary arrest and detention of Robow has continued setting a precedent of authorities cracking down on political opposition and ignoring the rule of law. Despite relying largely on foreign aid and other political, military, and economic support, the federal government has banned respected diplomats and researchers, including U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary-General Nicholas Haysom, for simply asking questions about the legal basis of Robow’s detention. This bodes poorly for the international community’s long-term goal of building the Somali federal government’s institutional capacity and credibility and for combating rampant corruption and nepotism. Farmajo’s and Khayre’s move also played directly into the hands of al-Shabaab’s leadership by calling into question whether defectors from the organization will be allowed to meaningfully participate in Somali public and political life and weakening fledgling local and federal efforts to attract more defectors from the ranks of the insurgent group.

The key role that Ethiopia has played in carrying out Robow’s arrest, and cracking down on the subsequent protests, was also a propaganda windfall for al-Shabaab. It enables the group’s savvy media producers and leadership to cast the Farmajo and Khayre government as being in cahoots with Ethiopia, which in turn plays into longstanding historical and nationalist antagonisms against the neighboring state.

Robow’s arrest, as well as the popularity he amassed before he was detained, highlights broader struggles between the federal government and the regional state administrations. Unfortunately, given the current trajectory, these states need to play a key role if sustained counter-insurgency efforts are to succeed against al-Shabaab and the Islamic State branch in Somalia. By silencing the ex-jihadist, the Somali federal government has illustrated precisely how its heavy-handed tactics may hamper both its ability to secure international support and its struggle against jihad in its own backyard.

By  AND 

Stig Jarle Hansen is a professor of international relations at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and a noted expert on Islamist movements in Africa. Specializing in Somalia and East Africa, he is also the author of the first full-length scholarly book on al-Shabaab, Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group (Oxford University Press, 2013), and the upcoming Horn, Sahel and Rift: Fault-lines of the African Jihad (Hurst  2019), a comparative study of all the sub-Saharan African jihadist organisations.

Christopher Anzalone is a postdoctoral research fellow with the International Security Program in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He completed his Ph.D. at McGill University in October 2018. He has published and presented extensively on al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda, Islamic State, and jihadist and Sunni and Shi’ite Islamist movements and organizations.

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