Somalia’s strategic importance in the Horn of Africa has sparked a fierce competition for influence in recent years among outside actors like the U.S., Turkey, China, and the Gulf states.
Farmaajo administration dismantled two decades of federalism and state-building, resulting in chaos and insecurity as the terrorist group Al Shabaab took advantage of the resulting political vacuum.
After the election, rather than addressing these critical security gaps, Sheikh chose to prioritize nation-building over state-building, diverting scarce resources needed to stabilize areas liberated from al-Shabaab. These areas require police stations, judicial systems, and mobile health clinics to provide basic governance and services after more than 15 years in the terrorist group’s shadow.
Sadly, the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) lacks a comprehensive short- and long-term stabilization strategy for addressing this issue, leading to high levels of unemployment, hunger, malnutrition, and extreme poverty in the liberated areas.
Sheikh’s pursuit of nation-building is driven by three main motives. Firstly, the pressing need to unite the country under the “one-Somalia” policy, championed by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee, and incorporate Somaliland into the fold. Secondly, the need for safety and stability to ensure democratization and the holding of free and fair elections based on the principle of one person, one vote. Last but not least, the need to shift from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to Somalia-led security, in line with President Joe Biden’s “partner-led, U.S.-enabled” policy, while maintaining relentless pressure on al-Shabaab, which in turn requires the lifting of the long-standing U.N. arms embargo, originally imposed in 1992.
Instead of pushing for the professionalization and reform of Somalia’s security sector, the Biden administration has enabled President Sheikh’s nation-building project under the banner of the “one-Somalia” policy. This has put a heavy burden on the U.S., which is now supporting Somalia’s unrealistic goals with military aid, despite the government’s poor track record when it comes to weapons monitoring and its fragmented, tribalized military. This short-sighted policy has emboldened the irredentist agenda of the Daarod clan, leading to an outbreak of violence in previously stable Somaliland between state security forces and the militia of the local Dhulbahante clan over control of the city of Las Anod, in Somaliland’s Sool region. As a result, La Anod has become an al-Shabaab safe haven, posing a potential threat to Ethiopia’s hinterland. The ongoing humanitarian crisis triggered by the Las Anod conflict has only further destabilized Somaliland.
The Sheikh administration’s inability to manage the Las Anod crisis has only added fuel to the fire. Its response has been lackluster and contradictory. At first it advised the Dhulbahante militia to resolve its disputes with Somaliland officials peacefully. However, corrupt clan elders and their armed supporters had an ulterior motive, which al-Shabaab seized upon as an opportunity. They declared the regions of Sool, Sanaag, and Cayn to fall under the FGS instead of the de facto control of Somaliland. The Sheikh administration found itself caught in a political dilemma, and in a reckless move, it gave into the demands of Daarod politicians, endorsing the declaration without assessing the potential risks. The Somaliland authorities vehemently rejected the proclamation and were met with hostility by clan militias, resulting in violent confrontations and the displacement of tens of thousands of Somaliland citizens within their borders and into neighboring Ethiopia.
The conflict in Las Anod is being fueled by the spread of misinformation and fabricated videos by both the Dhulbahnate militia and Al-Shabaab media, with the flight of civilians creating a “CNN effect” that has prompted international action. The EU special representative for the Horn of Africa, Annette Weber, released an impartial statement highlighting two key issues: unaddressed grievances within the community and political instability arising from Somaliland’s disputed status as an unrecognized de facto state. The State Department’s statement, by contrast, accused the Somaliland authorities of impeding democracy by delaying elections, demanding that they hold them promptly while also calling for the army to withdraw or face sanctions.
The Sheikh administration subsequently appointed a Somalia-Somaliland envoy to initiate negotiations to resolve the Las Anod crisis. However, at the same time, the government neglected to hold accountable members of the Somalia National Army (SNA) who participated in the conflict and are still on its payroll, thus impeding peace efforts. It is believed that nearly 2,000 former SNA troops from the Harti and Marehan clans of Daarod — including the Haramcad, Duufaan, and Gorgor military and police units trained by Turkey — are contributing to destabilizing Somaliland with assistance from al-Shabaab and ISIS militants. That they are still on the payroll should not come as a surprise given that an estimated 70% of FGS civil service staff are ghost employees that receive salaries without performing any work.
The outgoing U.S. ambassador to Somalia, Larry André, has been a strong advocate for the “one-Somalia” policy, which reinforces Darod irridentism. He gave President Sheikh’s Somali-Somaliland envoy the cold shoulder and only took his phone call, while having dinner with Mukhtar Robow, an al-Shabaab co-founder turned minister of religion, at an iftar hosted by the U.S. embassy in Mogadishu. Actions such as these are detrimental to the U.S. “partner-led” approach and could create a pretext to undermine the Somaliland Partnership Act mandated by Congress, which requires regular assessment reports on U.S. security cooperation with Somaliland due on June 1.
Members of Sheikh’s administration have acknowledged that his failure to implement crucial security reforms has frustrated U.S. officials, and the Biden administration now faces the dilemma of how to mitigate the consequences of its failing “partner-led, U.S.-enabled” approach. Assistant Secretary of State Phee convened an emergency meeting on Feb. 28with key stakeholders, including the Somalia government, the U.K., Qatar, Turkey, and the UAE, to ensure continued support for stabilization efforts, including weapons and ammunition management, and to create a path for the U.N. Security Council to lift the arms embargo. The stakeholders also called for de-escalation and peaceful dialogue to end the fighting in Las Anod. However, none of the key outside stakeholders trusts the Sheikh government and considers it a reliable partner.
Guled Ahmed is a non-resident scholar at MEI, a renewable energy and water infrastructure expert, and an entrepreneur. The views expressed in this piece are his own.