Water Woes Risk Boosting al-Shabaab and Derailing Elections In Somalia

Courtesy of STRATFOR (subscription required), a look at how water and food shortages are being exploited by al-Shabaab to derail planned elections:

Widespread food and water shortages in Somalia risk boosting al-Shabaab’s recruitment efforts and, in turn, its ability to conduct more terrorist attacks against politicians that could derail long-awaited elections and further undermine the country’s overall security. In March, the spokesperson for al-Shabaab — which has been active in Somalia since 2006 — said the Islamist militant group had formed a special committee to respond to the ongoing drought in the Horn of Africa. The seven-member committee has reportedly visited several communities that have been heavily impacted by food and water shortages to deliver cooking oil, rice, sugar and other aid. While the group’s violent attacks, forced evictions and other activities that harm civilians limit its popular appeal, al-Shabaab has a longstanding ”hearts and minds” strategy in which it coerces local support by providing staple goods and resources. As the humanitarian situation worsens in Somalia, people living in the large swaths of territory in the Somali states of Hirshabelle, Jubaland and Southwest that are under the control of al-Shabaab militants (and are therefore inaccessible to aid groups) are more likely to join the group’s ranks in exchange for access to water and food. 

  • While the drought on its own is causing widespread hunger by destroying crops and killing livestock, the impacts are compounded by high global commodity prices and shortages of essential food items brought on in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Prior to the war, more than 90% of Somalia’s wheat imports came from Russia and Ukraine. Rising global prices have also impacted Somalia’s imports of rice, sugar, vegetable oil and fuel
  • Government records show that Somalia’s harvest in January was the third-lowest in 25 years. U.N. data also shows that households lost about 30% of livestock holdings since mid-2021 due to starvation and/or disease. In February, water and staple food prices rose above 140% of the five-year average. 
  • Earlier this month, the United Nations warned that approximately 350,000 Somali children were at acute risk of starvation without urgent action. According to a U.N. report issued in January, approximately 6 million Somalis (approximately 40% of the population) were at risk of acute hunger. 

Al-Shabaab’s recent tactical successes illustrate the group’s ability to threaten political actors and gatherings. Al-Shabaab frequently carries out attacks on political targets with the aim of uniting ethnic Somalis in East Africa under an Islamic government. The group has ramped up these politically motivated attacks in recent months in an effort to derail upcoming elections. Most recently, the group carried out the April 19 mortar attack on Somalia’s parliament building while lawmakers were in session, injuring six people. On March 23, Al-Shabaab also conducted two separate attacks that both targeted political figures, including a shooting at Mogadishu’s Aden Adde International Airport and coordinated bombings in the central Somali town of Beledweyne near the Ethiopian border. Amina Mohamed Abdi, a female Somali lawmaker, was killed in one of the attacks in Beledweyne when a suicide bomber blew himself up near a meeting she was holding with a group of local elders. 

  • On April 19 (the same day as the mortar attack), local media reported that the group had taken control of Mataban district in the Hiiraan region, located on one of the key roads linking southern and central Somalia. 
If al-Shabaab is able to swell its ranks, it would increase the physical risks to politicians and could derail upcoming elections. Al-Shabaab’s recent attempts at recruitment to exploit the drought and food security could increase its long-term capabilities by translating into more fighters, as well as an increased willingness of local populations to host those fighters. Somalia’s parliamentary and presidential elections have been beset by delays due to COVID-19, political infighting, insecurity and accusations of central government interference. Somalia’s presidential election is currently scheduled to take place sometime in early May, following the swearing-in ceremonies for most lower-house parliamentarians and upper-house senators on April 14 and the selections of speakers for both houses on April 26 and 27. There will be an increased risk of additional al-Shabaab attacks in the lead-up to the presidential ballot, as al-Shabaab is all but certain to continue targeting state and federal officials with the ultimate goal of again derailing the election. While individual attacks on the scale seen in recent weeks are unlikely to postpone the presidential election, a series of attacks that kill or injure more politicians would likely cause further delays by making lawmakers (and civilians) afraid to attend major events and political rallies.
  • Al-Shabaab’s attacks targeting political leaders also often put civilians in danger, which harms Somalia’s overall security environment — preventing business and development that would support electoral processes in the country. Past electoral delays have increased political uncertainty and infighting among national and state politicians, creating a power vacuum that al-Shabaab and other militant groups have capitalized on to gain territory and resources by aligning with disparate politicians and carrying out attacks. 
  • On April 27, clashes between Somalia’s prime minister and president over whether the African Union or the national security election committee should provide security at the meeting venue caused delays in selecting the speaker for the lower house of the country’s legislature.

If elections are postponed, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) could withdraw funding support, worsening Somalia’s humanitarian crisis and security situation. In the event that the elections are delayed, Somalia would likely miss the IMF’s May 17 deadline for the installation of a new government in order to receive future budgetary support. While the IMF has historically been flexible in accommodating the threat insecurity poses to Somali politics, the organization has recently taken a more aggressive position on deadlines given Somali elections’ repeated delays caused by political infighting. While the withdrawal of funding is not guaranteed if Somalia misses the May 17 deadline, it becomes more likely the longer elections are delayed. IMF funding is a critical source of income for the Somali government, and its absence would very likely have devastating humanitarian consequences that al-Shabaab could exploit to recruit even more fighters, exacerbating Somalia’s insecurity. 

This entry was posted on Friday, April 29th, 2022 at 8:47 am and is filed under Somalia.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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