By Andrew Korybko
The Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) condemned Monday’s port deal between Ethiopia and Somaliland, as did Al-Shabaab on similarly nationalist grounds, despite those two being existential enemies. Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamed (HSM) even went as far as to fearmonger that the group might soon revive its activities in the aftermath of that agreement. This curious convergence of interests ominously hints that an unholy alliance might soon form between these two.
The UN’s lifting of its three-decade-long arms embargo on Somalia in early December could enhance the FGS’ anti-terrorist capabilities and thus help it finally defeat Al-Shabaab, though Mogadishu might be reluctant to go on the offensive against this group anytime soon now that they share the same goal. HSM’s furious reaction to this latest port deal, which is actually a diplomatic masterstroke for the reasons explained here, has redirected the public’s focus away from Al-Shabaab and towards Ethiopia.
Social media is now flooded with warmongering from some Somali activists who all of a sudden consider that neighboring nation to be more of a threat to their country than this UN-designated terrorist group despite Somaliland having been functionally independent since 1991. They no longer mind that Al Shabaab has slaughtered thousands of their compatriots since its inception because all that matters to them for the moment is that Ethiopia’s recognition of Somaliland will doom their nationalist dreams.
This socio-political development works in HSM’s interests since it could enable him to consolidate his power, indefinitely delay any future offensives against Al-Shabaab in the face of the faux external threat that he claims Ethiopia nowadays poses, and hope that the group attacks it instead. His fearmongering about its possibly impending revival that’ll supposedly be due to this latest deal could be a signal to them to concentrate their activities against Ethiopia with the FGS’ tacit approval.
In exchange for them launching a cross-border terrorist campaign against Ethiopia, he might eschew any future offensive plans in favor of holding a dialogue aimed at peacefully resolving their disputes like he told the Royal United Services Institute in late November is his “preferred option” if they agree to talks. Now that these domestic existential enemies share the same external one, which each falsely portrays as an even greater existential enemy, the basis objectively exists for this unholy alliance to take shape.
If these are indeed HSM’s calculations or at the very least something that he hasn’t fully ruled out, then he’d do well to rubbish them as soon as possible because the risks far outweigh the benefits. Not only would he discredit his administration through such a Faustian bargain, which could include losing US support if it concludes that he’s indirectly wielding Al-Shabaab as a weapon of hybrid war against Ethiopia, but the latter could be prompted to take out their camps if this terrorist threat soon returns.
Given how HSM has redirected the public’s focus away from Al-Shabaab and towards Ethiopia as supposedly representing their top existential threat, he could come under tremendous pressure to militarily respond to any cross-border anti-terrorist strikes that might be carried out. In that event, any attack by the Somali Armed Forces (SAF) against the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) would amount to them defending a UN-designated terrorist group, which would expose his deal with the devil.
The best-case scenario is that HSM decides against informally allying with Al-Shabaab despite them both being on the same side against Ethiopia’s Somaliland deal and instead continues planning the SAF’s next offensive against that group as opposed to weaponizing it against the ENDF. Egypt and Eritrea might try misleading him into becoming their proxy war pawn against Ethiopia in order to fight it to the last Somali, but he must resist their siren songs at all costs otherwise it’ll end in another national disaster.