Engaging with Al Shabab?

2012-03-04 14:11

Following the success of the London conference on Somalia convened by British Prime Minister David Cameron, a vibrant debate ensued on whether or not the international community should engage with Al Shabab in peace talks.

Bashi Do’oley, a member of the Somali diaspora in Canada stridently argued that, “The real solution is in allowing the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) to talk to Al Shabab. If the US is openly talking to the Taliban why not allow President Sheikh Sharif talk to his erstwhile allies?”

Appealing as this argument is, it is false. In the first instance, Washington’s outreach to the Taliban is not without preconditions. Amongst these are peace talks with a Taliban which distances itself from Al Qaeda. By contrast, in the days running up to the London conference, Al Shabab proudly announced its formal alliance to Ayman al Zawahiri’s Al Qaeda network. Following the announcement US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was correct to rule out talks with Al Shabab declaring that, “it is not on the side of peace, stability of the Somali people”. In any event Al Shabab spokesperson, Ali Mohamud Rage, has rejected any peace talks with the TFG, neighbouring states or even other Somali factions.

Beyond, these obvious difficulties engaging with Al Shabab in its current form also raises specific problems for third party mediators. Does one engage with Al Shabab as a Somali organization or as the local franchise of Al Qaeda? If the latter, it leaves little room to negotiate. If the former, how Somali is Al Shabab given its clan bias in its supporting constituency?

Moreover, as with so many Islamist organizations, Al Shabab is clear on what it is against, but there is little in its programme on what it is for. For instance, what would an Al Shabab dominated government’s policy be towards economic policy or piracy, for that matter? Granted, they do want shar’iah law but how it is implemented can be interpreted in a variety of ways – from more liberal to more draconian. Given the Wahhabist inclinations of Al Shabab, it would pit its interpretations against the vast majority of Sufi Muslims in the country resulting in a further escalation of conflict.

To emphasise the point, there is nothing in Al Shabab’s programme which suggests that it could be a partner for peace.

That being said, and given the internal tensions within Al Shabab between its more nationalist elements and its more Islamist radical elements, which is increasing as a result of the military and economic pressure put on the organization, there could well be a scenario where peace negotiations could be conducted with these more nationalist elements.

Hinting at such a possibility, Clinton did say that the international community would be ready to engage with anyone willing to renounce violence and embrace the peace process. Also hinting at such a possibility, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi stated that whilst there was “no room for compromise” with Al Shabab’s “hard core” members, there was presumably still room for engagement with the movements more pragmatic elements.

In the short term then, the military option has to be pursued against Al Shabab with increased vigour. At the same time, an olive branch needs to be extended to more pragmatic elements within the movement on the condition that they renounce Al Qaeda, renounce violence and engage in the political process where they will be one of many Somali actors attempting to stop the carnage and rebuild their country.

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Hussein Solomon is a Senior Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Free State, South Africa.

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