Conflict Between Somali Leaders Halts Military Operations against Islamist Insurgents

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 15

African Union soldier at an insurgent base in Mogadishu.

A new disagreement between Somali president Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad and parliamentary speaker Sharif Hassan Shaykh Aden over extending the mandate of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is disrupting a successful offensive by TFG and African Union troops against the radical Islamist al-Shabaab movement.

Under an agreement negotiated with its international partners, the TFG mandate is set to expire on August 20, by which time the government is supposed to have held elections and introduced a new constitution (Reuters, March 28). With little progress made in these areas or any other areas of government responsibility, Somalia’s parliament endorsed a unilateral three-year extension to the mandate on February 3, with the new term to begin on August 20 when the old mandate expires. TFG Prime Minister Abdullahi Muhammad Abdullah described the extension as unconstitutional.

On March 28, the TFG cabinet (which includes the president) voted to give itself a one-year extension rather than face elections before August 20. Despite this, parliamentary speaker Sharif Hassan Shaykh Aden is insisting that an election for president will be held on schedule this summer. The TFG’s international backers, such as the United Nations and the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), appear to support the speaker’s call for presidential and cabinet elections this year rather than next (VOA, March 30).

In recent days, Sharif Hassan Shaykh Adam appears to have lost the confidence of his own Rahanweyn (Digil and Mirfle) clan, as its elders accused the speaker of wanting to destroy the TFG and called for his dismissal after the speaker attended a UN meeting on Somalia in Nairobi that was boycotted by the rest of the TFG leadership (Shabelle Media Network, April 11;, April 11). The existing five-month old cabinet is drawn largely from Somali diaspora leaders.

In Somalia, infighting between senior leaders has been common during the last two decades of violence, but it is now threatening the government’s military operations against Islamist insurgents, as confirmed to Jamestown by a cabinet minister who preferred to remain anonymous. The minister explained that the disagreement began as soon as TFG troops started what he described as a well-planned offensive against Islamist militias in coordination with African Union peacekeepers. Though TFG forces had begun moving into areas previously controlled by al-Shabaab in the transitional government’s first real military success, military operations were unexpectedly suspended. The minister added the government infighting is threatening the morale of soldiers the TFG needs to continue its strategy to defeat the rebel militias. A recent decision by the TFG to start paying the soldiers’ salaries had gone a long way towards bettering their performance in the field.  [1]

However, the minister says that payment will mean nothing so long as the politicians continue their internal skirmishes. The troops will make little progress so long as the country’s leaders are quarrelling over the constitution as well as personal disputes: “We have been planning a good military strategy since we came into office and the strategy had so far had some successes but we didn’t achieve our target. We were going to clear streets of Mogadishu from al-Shabaab fighters and we still have that plan but the struggling between the country’s leaders is disabling our strategy.”

The payment for the soldiers which Prime Minister Abdullah Muhammad Abdullahi pledged during his speech to parliament on November 20, 2010, was one of the first achievements for the new cabinet. The regular payment of troops was nearly unknown in Somalia prior to this and all former cabinets were accused of pilfering military funds, causing weakness and disappointment in the ranks that often led to troops selling their arms to the enemy. Former deputy parliament speaker Muhammad Omar Dalha says the wrangling is affecting not only military operations but all national institutions, adding that the government will not achieve its targets because of the infighting. [2]

Prior to the eruption of this new dispute, the  TFG’s 8,000 troops, backed by African Union peacekeepers belonging to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), had made good progress in the last few weeks, taking control of more than half the capital city of Mogadishu as well as a number of Somali towns near the Kenyan border.

The Prime Minister said the one-year extension was meant to ensure the continuity of ongoing operations against Islamist insurgents which most Somalis want to continue in order to end the violence. The speaker, however, is not giving them a chance because he named a committee to organize an election meant to remove both the current president and the cabinet.

Although deputy speaker Muhammad Omar Dalha believes that the cabinet has no constitutional right to extend its term, he insists that the morale of both soldiers and civilians has deteriorated because of the current disagreement: “People are losing faith because they are hoping that the government will do its work, but the country’s leaders are fighting and not trying to come together to address their differences.” [3]

A former army chief of staff said that the disagreement threatens the government’s hold on towns and areas they have captured from the insurgents.  Even if the towns go back to the hands of the Islamists, this will not be something new because in Somalia towns change hands periodically.  [4]

Not only government officials but also the Ahlu Sunna wa’l-Jama’a (ASWJ), a moderate Islamist militia that backs government soldiers in their attacks on al-Shabaab, is worrying about the infighting between government officials.  ASWJ coordinator Ahmed Shaykh Aden says the leaders seem to forget that the enemy is still very active in the country. Speaking to Jamestown in Nairobi, the militia leader said the infighting may lead to losing the battle for Somalia as soldiers lose confidence in the government. “This infighting is killing the will to keep the war going against terrorist groups and it is hard for the soldiers to go on when the leaders are grumbling over power. We are in war, so to win we need to put our differences aside, so I am suggesting the president and speaker not lose this opportunity and [will] think about the country’s interest.” [5]


1. Interview with a TFG cabinet minister, March 23, 2011.
2. Interview with MP Prof Mohamed Omar Dalha, former minister and deputy speaker in Nairobi, April 7, 2011.
3. Ibid
4. Interview with a former TFG Army Chief of Staff, Nairobi, March 25, 2011.
5. Interview with Ahmed Shaykh Aden, coordinator of moderate Islamist group Ahlu Sunna wa’l-Jama’a, Nairobi, March 26, 2011.