A high-ranking former Al Shabab Deputy Leader, Abu Mansoor Robow, is running for regional office in Somalia and it is raising questions about the future of Somali democracy, and how inclusive it should be.
An announcement by the former deputy leader of Al Shabab (Sheikh Mukhtar Robow aka Abu Mansoor), to run for the presidency of South West State in Somalia, prompted the Somali Federal Government to object to his candidacy. But the newly formed regional Electoral Commision cleared him to run and announced that the former deputy leader of Al Shabab would be on the ballot. Abu Mansoor Robow is the highest ranking member to defect from Al Shabab. He was one of the key founders of the Al Shabab movement as well as one of the few remaining veterans who was trained with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and returned to Somalia.
It is obvious now that there is no law or precedence guiding the criteria to ban or allow former defectors to run for political office. One could argue that the absence of an alternative political space for high-ranking defectors might mean there is little option for those who have lost faith in groups like Al Shabab.
But while considering this one must remember that some Somalis are still haunted by memories of Abu Mansoor Robow while he was part of Al Shabab and all the killings that took place under his command. The radical Al Shabab movement has attempted to present itself as grounded in a coherent ideology, that wants to offer the population justice and security. But, its leadership seems to be confused about developing locally or enforcing a global agenda.
One of the most concerning aspects in recent years is that Al Shabab may have taken root outside Somalia and into the extended region as well as in the Somali diaspora. In the beginning, western fighters were present alongside Al Shabab, but over the last few years, there seems to be more East Africans and other African volunteers as well as members of the Somali Diaspora.
Thus the development of movements in countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, as well as in the Somali diaspora living in some western countries, should be feared.
The radicalisation of youth in Somalia and neighbouring countries is a big challenge group as Al Shabab understands that its future depends on its ability to find recruits. Countering radicalisation requires countering extremist propaganda, reducing youth vulnerability, changing youth perceptions, creating opportunities for youth and reducing socio-political uncertainties.
More importantly, is to win the hearts and minds of the Somali people by articulating the argument that radicalisation is largely driven by a unique set of beliefs that are alien to Somalis. More has to be done to refocus the movement and diminish the perception—shared by many Somalis and foreigners—that the conflict with Al Shabab is a part of a larger global phenomenon.
Waging war delays answers to key political issues about negotiating a lasting peace, advancing inclusive politics and building a viable state. You cannot defeat Al Shabab solely through military means. There should be a different policy on multiple fronts that converge in weakening and neutralising Al Shabab.
For a durable solution, it is paramount for the government to engage the Al Shabab movement. Engaging in dialogue with the core leadership would likely provoke internal debate and rifts in the movement. Based on experiences in places like Afghanistan, the points of discussion could include, but not be limited to, humanitarian access and recovery, improving basic public health services for the population under their control, a possible discussion on the kind of alternative political space they envisage for themselves and how to move them towards denouncing violence.
The onus is on Somalia’s politicians to provide responsive leadership that can instil hope and earn trust, to get them, especially the disgruntled leaders of Al Shabab, interested in what life has to offer after they defect.
At the heart of transforming a conflict-torn society is the firm commitment to inclusivity and reconciliation. Both are critical for brokering a national political settlement. Both are prerequisite for establishing functioning governance structures that promote and enable stability.
In the end, the people of South West State and their representatives will decide the fate of Abu Mansour in the coming days. This election is a major test for many disgruntled fighters sitting on the fence, and it will definitely prompt discussion among the authorities at regional and federal levels of what could be a viable alternative for key figures in movements like Al Shabab, who see that the organisations and the causes they have fought for have lost credibility.