Can an ex-al-Shabab deputy-turned-Somali official open space for talks?
The recent appointment of a former al-Shabab deputy Mukhtar Robow (aka Abut Mansur) as the Minister of Endowment and Religion in Somalia’s new cabinet has generated considerable debate about what Robow’s appointment means for the war on terror in Somalia as well as for potential reconciliation efforts.
Some have questioned the foresight as well as the perceived injustice of appointing someone who played an integral role in history of al-Shabab, an organization that has committed terrible atrocities against civilian populations. While Robow’s appointment is unlikely to have reverberations within al-Shabab, his political history nonetheless underscores the possibility as well as the importance of negotiations and reconciliation between high-ranking members of al-Shabab and the Somali government.
Reconciling with members of al-Shabab might not be as far-fetched as it appears provided the international community (particularly the United States and Europe) refrains from negatively intervening in Somali politics. External actors driven by their own priorities and moral judgements have distorted Somali politics preventing the emergence of genuine and historically grounded political solutions.
Mukhtar Robow was born in 1969 in the Bakool region of southern Somalia. A fertile region considered Somalia’s breadbasket. After obtaining basic religious education in Somalia, he, like many Somali students, traveled to Sudan, one of the few countries accepting Somali students after the disintegration of the Somali state in 1991, to attend university. He studied the Sharia in Sudan in the 1990s. Thereafter, he ended up in Afghanistan where he trained in al-Qaida training camps.
Upon his return to Somalia, he played a key role in the founding of al-Shabab in the early 2000s. At that point al-Shabab was a small nucleus of like-minded militants within a larger Islamic movement in Mogadishu known as the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). Al-Shabab’s ascendency as the militant Islamist organization in Somalia came after a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of Mogadishu disbanded the UIC. The underground insurgency that emerged against the occupying Ethiopian forces coalesced around al-Shabab, propelling it into the most powerful and militant Islamist organization in Somalia.
Robow became a prominent and charismatic member of al-Shabab, developing a reputation as a moderate voice within the movement. An internal schism of al-Shabab’s leadership in 2013 led to the assassination of several important leaders and the defections of others. Mukhtar Robow was among those who broke with al-Shabab accusing then leader Ahmed Godane of dictatorial tendencies and mistreatment of foreign militants in the group’s ranks.
Protected by militia mostly from his clan, Robow fled to his home region of Bakool. He remained there and kept a low profile until August 2017 when he surrendered to the Somali government. Importantly, his surrender was preceded by his removal from the U.S.’s Reward for Justice list in June 2017. Since 2008 he has had a $5 million bounty for information that brought him “to justice” after been included in the Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Global Terrorist list. According to the Office of Foreign Assets Control, he is still on the Treasury Department’s sanctions list and is also still on the UN Security Council’s list of individuals and entities subject to sanctions.
Within a year after surrendering to Somali government, Robow decided to run for the presidency of his native South West State, one of five regional states (excluding Somaliland) that makeup the member states of the Somali federal government. After declaring his candidacy, Robow began to draw large crowds, which raised the prospect that he could win.
Fearing that Robow might undermine the chances of its preferred candidate, the federal government contended that he did not meet all the preconditions for political office. Despite the regional election committee disagreeing with the federal government and clearing him to stand for election, the government arrested him in December 2018 with help from the Ethiopian contingent of the African Union forces in Somalia.
Robow remained a prisoner of the government held in the headquarters of the National Intelligence and Security Agency. He was released from prison a few days prior to his appointment in early August by the incoming administration of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Robow’s political history and future aspirations reveal many layers of Somalia’s tortuous internal politics, but his political history sheds light on several aspects regarding the Global War on Terror, particularly as it relates to Somalia and al-Shabab.
Some argue that Robow’s release from prison and ministerial appointment is significant for the war on terror in Somalia as it might encourage further defections from al-Shabab. This is highly unlikely because, as Robow had effectively left al-Shabab in 2013, at a time of real rupture within the leadership of the group. Though some fighters defected with him, his defection did not seriously weaken or threaten the insurgency. It is thus unlikely to do so now when he has been an outcast from the group for nearly 9 years.
His appointment as a minister and political trajectory does, however, raise a couple of important points regarding the war on terror in Somalia, and how U.S. policies impact the potential for defections from and negotiations with al-Shabab. First, Robow’s appointment underlines the importance of political negotiation in the face of failed militarized approaches. This is particularly necessary as it becomes increasingly clear that a military defeat of al-Shabab is proving as elusive as ever.
Second, sanctions by the international community have a negative effect on efforts at negotiation and reconciliation. On this point, it should be remembered that Robow’s surrender to the Somali government was preceded by his removal from the U.S.’s Reward for Justice list. Had Washington not removed him from the list, it is unlikely he would have surrendered. Like Robow, many of the high-ranking members of al-Shabab have bounties on their heads and are under various sanctions by the UN Security Council and the United States.
Given that negotiating with and reconciling with at least some elements of al-Shabab might become unavoidable moving forward, the negative effects of sanctions should seriously be considered. Moreover, the effect of the bounties and the sanctions is to remove the initiative for reconciliation and negotiation from local actors, continuing a history of external intervention that has produced terrible consequences for Somalis.
It’s too early to know what impact Robow’s appointment will have on long term political dynamics, but it represents a possible path that can only be pursued if foreign governments and institutions reconsider sanctions as a political tool and give Somalis the space to negotiate amongst themselves, a necessary step given that they are the ones who ultimately have to live with one another.