In the first week of the New Year, Somalia was one of the few countries that dominated the headlines. Not because one of her finest daughters, Ilhan Omar, who came to the US two decades ago and was elected as an American lawmaker, but because Somalia declared the UN’s chief diplomat—who had only been working there for three months—‘persona non grata’.

The accusation was that the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, Nicholas Haysom, interfered in a sovereign state’s internal affairs – a bold claim that many, including myself, considered impulsive, ill-timed and a cover up that could only prove counterproductive for Somalia.

Let us try to unpack this.

Al Shabab’s Democrat

In August 2017, the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) announced that Mukhtar Robow (aka Abu Mansour), the former spokesman and a deputy leader of Al Qaeda-linked militant group AL Shabab has defected. Shortly after that announcement, the government flew him to Mogadishu where he held a press conference.

Robow thanked the government for the dignified manner in which they received him. He also stated that he broke up with Al Shabab several years earlier due to disagreements on legal interpretations. Unfortunately, Robow did not explain what that meant or what his eureka moment was. He did not express any remorse for his terrorism nor asked for forgiveness – and no questions were asked.

Shortly after, Robow embarked on a government funded rebranding campaign. During that period he met with a number of traditional clan elders, international diplomats including the British Ambassador, and various government officials and Members of the Parliament.

The international community swiftly removed Robow from the sanctioned terror watch-lists, indicating the FGS and IC were clearly on the same page to showcase the Robow model of de-radicalisation by letting him participate in the South West federal state election.

He flew in and out of Mogadishu to rally his clan base, and was allowed to travel to Saudi Arabia on a Somali diplomatic passport.

Race to the Top

Within his clan, which is the largest in the region, Robow was popular enough to unseat the incumbent—Sharif Hassan Aden—who enjoyed mythical reverence of being the Machiavellian par excellence of Somali politics.

Nevertheless, in a move that seemed as an attempt to reinforce the probability of winning against Aden, FGS doubled its handpicked candidates and deployed the highly trained federal counter-terrorism force to South West.

Once FGS’ determination to win by any means became clear, Aden dropped out of the race, packed, and moved out of town – literally.

All of a sudden, the FGS took a 180 degree turn and the posterman turned to pariah – a dangerous terrorist who could not be trusted. Robow was pressed hard not to run, but he remained adamant. And there is where the showdown intensified and the controversy began.

In the week before Robow was taken into custody, a leaked memo by a Western intelligence elements circulated among international NGOs and to those in-the-know. In a nutshell, the memo alleged that government forces included a team of assassins who were under order to terminate Robow. The target date was “either December 12 or 13th.”

On the 13th, all candidates were invited to the Baidoa airport compound where the electoral commission as well as the state government and other foreign elements were based. There, Robow walked into a sting operation. Though the details of what exactly ensued inside the compound is not clear, one thing is: Robow was taken into custody by Ethiopian forces claiming they were part of African Union peacekeeping forces – a claim that AMISOM has denied.

Demonstrations and Violence in Baidoa

As word spread protests erupted in Baidoa and political outrage festered in Mogadishu, mainly by MPs from the South West state. FGS forces along with Ethiopian forces with tanks and armored vehicles confronted peaceful protestors demanding Robow’s release. Within a few days, they were violently disbanded, and on December 19th, the candidate that had FGS’ backing was declared the new president of South West.

Amnesty International has issued a statement urging Somali and Ethiopian forces in Baidoa to “refrain from using lethal force against protestors.”

Then, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) sent a letter to the FGS in which it expressed grave concern over the 15 people killed in Baidoa—that included a child and an MP—and inquired about the General who commands the region’s police.

A video of the General surfaced where he is seen threatening to shoot anyone who comes out to protest, and the letter asks a for clarification on the legal basis that justified the arbitrary arrest of Robow and denied him the right to participate in the election. In response, FGS declared the SRSG, Nicholas Haysom, “a persona non grata” for interfering in Somalia’s internal affairs.

This reaction has earned FGS some praises and sparked trivial polemics on diplomacy and national sovereignty on social media. It raised concerns within various opposition groups and autonomous political entities or federal states such as Puntland, Jubbaland and Gulmudug that saw this as the latest of FGS’ pattern of intimidation to silence any and all forms of criticism.

It was also mocked by some who thought the reaction was in fact a tactical overreaction since concerns raised were in line with UNSOM mandate and the standard operation endorsed by the previous Somali government.

The UN reaction came a few days later. According to the 1961 Vienna Convention, persona non grata is a diplomatic doctrine that does not apply to United Nations personnel. Moreover, “Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has full confidence in Haysom (and he) deeply regrets Somalia’s decision,” said Guterres’ spokesperson. Yet, the Secretary General plans to appoint a new representative to Somalia.

But the negative consequence of this haphazard decision was swift. The EU and the UK immediately stopped funding FGS’ police force. A few days later, UK Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, landed in Hargeisa – making him the first British Cabinet Minister to ever visit Somaliland.

The Secretary met with President of Somaliland, Muse Bihi, to discuss “shared priorities of security and economic development as well as counter terrorism and the role UK military plays in mentoring the Somaliland coastguard.” The UK is the biggest stakeholder in UNSOM and the SRSG without which Soma Oil and Gas—economic exploitation of the century—could not be sustained.

Propelling Factors

It is an open secret that the FGS is adamantly imposing ‘regime change’ on all federal states. So far, they have succeeded in two out of the five. Why?

First, FGS does not want any of the current leaders to challenge its authority on consigning four sea ports controlled by the federal states to Ethiopia.

Second, next month the FGS is set to deliver a more controversial project than the ports – auctioning out 206 oil blocks that it does not control without any checks and balances and at a time when territorial demarcation is not agreed upon and is already causing bloodshed between Somaliland and Puntland.

Three, mindful of its corroding relationship with the federal states, the FGS is determined to have loyal cronies who would pave the way for their return in 2020.

Four, in April last year, the unthinkable came to pass. Abiy Ahmed became Ethiopia’s Prime Minister. He, as the pilot of ‘Horn of Africa transformation’ and a man who, due to his background in intelligence, Ahmed is determined to sideline or banish all those who had close association with the previous Tigray-dominated regime whose members are determined to torpedo his government.

That calculus implicated all leaders of the federal states—save Hirshabelle whose leader is new on the scene—as well as Somaliland and Robow. Ahmed knows all those political charlatans who came to Addis Ababa to take their orders and knows who bankrolled Robow’s adventures in and around Bakool. Likewise who pressured the FGS to embrace Robow without any precondition or any demand to disarm and disband his militia.

Whether Robow was a pawn or a player is for historians to debate. But, in his current status as a political prisoner, the FGS is not only turning a mass murderer into a martyr, it is alienating Robow’s clan-based supporters. Not to mention how authoritarian this arbitrary decision makes FGS look, and how permanently this may damage the defection alternative. Already one minister has resigned in protest.

If the FGS is serious about reclaiming Somalia’s sovereignty, it must come up with a comprehensive strategy for genuine Somali-owned reconciliation, cut the umbilical cord of dependency on foreign aid, overhaul the foreign-based security system and establish a Somali military force with federal command and control that can guard its borders.

This requires vision and commitment to make the appropriate sacrifices and endure the process. Without genuine reconciliation, the FGS cannot get legitimacy. And without legitimacy FGS’ quest for sovereignty would only prove a quixotic ambition, if not a counterproductive one.