By Peter MARTELL – NAIROBI -After decades of war, Somalia is taking small steps toward recovery, but breakaway regions, rival clans and the competing interests of neighbouring nations are threatening its fragile progress, analysts warn.
In the past two years, African Union troops have wrested town after town from Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab insurgents, hauling down their black Islamist banners and raising Somalia’s flag.
But asserting the authority of the central government — which until recently controlled just a few blocks of the capital Mogadishu — is a far harder task.
“In Somalia today there is only one federal government that is wholly owned by the Somali people, widely represented by all Somalis, all regions,” Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud told reporters this week.
But others disagree, including powerful militia forces backed by foreign armies.
The worst flashpoint is the far southern region dubbed “Jubaland” bordering Kenya and Ethiopia.
Both nations have troops there after invading in late 2011, while this month several rival warlords declared themselves “president”, sparking anger in Mogadishu.
But the effective self-appointment of former Islamist chief Ahmed Madobe, one of the most powerful of the “presidents” due to Kenyan backing, risks opening a rift between Nairobi and Mogadishu.
“The effort to create a Jubaland state within Somalia will test the limits of federalism in that country, and threatens to touch off clan warfare not only within Somalia but also in its neighbours,” the International Crisis Group warned in a recent report.
Jubaland, which includes the key port city of Kismayo, has a lucrative charcoal industry, fertile farmland as well as potential off-shore oil and gas deposits.
Addis Ababa, long term experts in playing off powerful factions, is wary of Madobe, who hails from the same Ogadeni clan as rebels fighting inside Ethiopia.
Infighting benefits Islamist insurgents
However, Mogadishu’s government — selected last year by clan elders in a UN-backed process and the first to be recognised internationally in more than two decades — is full of confidence.
“Any one group within Somalia that just gets together sits there and says, we are ‘XYZ’, has no legitimacy and has no recognition at local level and at international level,” said Mohamud.
But international recognition counts for little within Somalia, and central rule is controversial.
The last to claim control was Siad Barre, toppled in 1991 after a rule marked by repression of opposition and a bloody civil war against Somaliland.
Years of anarchy meant Somalis reverted to age-old systems of autonomy and traditional semi-nomadic camel herding.
Somalia split into regions, from fiercely independent Somaliland along the Gulf of Aden, to Puntland in the northeast, which recognises a federal government but says that has no role in its internal affairs.
Analysts warn of tough political times ahead.
While AU troops backing Mogadishu have enjoyed territorial success, Roland Marchal, an analyst with French research institute CNRS, notes the fighting force lacks a “political strategy to go with the military strategy”.
Kenya’s army, which invaded in 2011 alongside Madobe’s allied troops, faces a particularly sticky predicament.
In 2012, its cash-strapped military joined the AU force — funded by the UN and European Union — leaving its soldiers backing a warlord opposing the central government it is mandated to support.
Mogadishu lawmakers have submitted a motion demanding Kenya leave Somalia, while Mohamud said Kenyan troops “misbehaved” when a top level government delegation went to Kismayo and “did not treat the committee well”.
Ambitions by central government have highlighted internal divisions within regions.
Tensions in Jubaland have raised concern in Puntland, which swiftly welcomed Madobe’s election by calling on other regions “to establish states in a similar consultative and open process”.
Puntland has been keen to stake out power boundaries, with its oil agency chief Issa Farah warning Mogadishu it alone is the “competent authority” to manage the region’s oil exploration.
Mogadishu’s inability to “exercise its authority over the Kismayo process is undermining its influence in the remaining regions of Somalia and the emerging arrangements towards federalism,” warned Andrews Atta-Asamoah of the Pretoria-based Institute of Security Studies (ISS) in a recent paper.
At present, the only thing all appear to agree on is that the rivalry benefits the Shebab, still in control of swathes of countryside.
East African heads of state last week urged Somalia hold a “reconciliation conference”, warning infighting could “threaten peace and stability”.
Yet many also eye the economic, strategic and political profits of the region.
Kenya wants a security buffer zone to protect its valuable tourism industry, a proposed major port and hopes of offshore oil and gas finds.
It also hopes stability would let it send back the half a million Somali refugees it hosts.
Landlocked Ethiopia has long played a powerful role in Somalia, with Kismayo offering another possible route to the sea.
Yet Mogadishu remains upbeat, mindful its position today was unthinkable a few years ago.
“Somalia is fragmented, it’s divided into regions, clans, groups,” Mohamud said. “The current Somali government is busy with rebuilding and organising to have one Somalia.”
By Peter MARTELL