Ethiopia and Kenya help dismember Somalia

A new deal has recognised Jubaland, a strip of land in southern Somalia and bordering on Kenya and Ethiopia, as yet another quasi-independent entity in the region.

After nine days of late night meetings and plenty of arm-twisting, the fragile government of Somalia was finally forced to accept that a further slice of its territory had slipped beyond its control. The deal, signed in Addis Ababa, recognised Jubaland as yet another quasi-independent entity. This strip of land in southern Somalia and bordering on Kenya and Ethiopia, it is the illegitimate heir of both of these countries.

Jubaland is of critical importance to the whole of southern Somalia. Trade through the port and airport of Kismaayo is a lifeline for the region. In theory Jubaland will be the ‘Interim Juba Administration’ and last for just two years, while Somalia re-forms itself into a Federation. In reality it is now outside Mogadishu’s control – just like those other fragments of Somalia, including Puntland, Galmadug and the self-declared independent state of Somaliland.

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was only sworn in as Somali president a year ago, was unable to resist the intense pressure of his neighbours and agreed to the deal. The entire sorry saga was witnessed by Nicholas Kay, the UN’s Special Representative in Somalia; welcomed by Catherine Ashton for the European Union and supported by the African Union. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the South African chair of African Union described the agreement as “historic”, declaring that it was “a further illustration of the capacity of the Somalis to triumph over their differences.” 

It is hard to see what there was to welcome. 

The deal officially recognises Ahmed Mohamed Islam (known, like all Somalis by a nickname - ‘Madobe’) as the ‘leader’ of Jubaland. Yet only a month earlier Sheikh Madobe was described in a major UN report as a “spoiler” and one of the chief threats to Somali stability.

The Sheikh was said to be “subverting the efforts of the Federal Government leadership and its partners to extend the reach of Government authority and stabilise the country, particularly in Kismaayo.”

What the Baroness Ashton and her colleagues have done is anoint a man who has been roundly denounced by the Monitoring Group, established by the UN Security Council. Its July report pointed out that the Sheikh had been a member of the short-lived Union of Islamic Courts, which was ousted by Ethiopia during its 2006 invasion of Somalia. What happened next is interesting. As the report puts it: “Madobe’s forces returned to Kismayo in August 2008, when Al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam recaptured the city following the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Somalia.” At this time the Sheikh Madobe was a key player in the al-Qaeda linked network.  But, as is ever the case in Somalia, clan and inter-clan rivalry came into play and the Sheikh fell out with his former allies. He threw in his lot with the African peacekeepers and the Federal Government.  But Sheikh Madobe did not cut his ties with al-Sabaab altogether and the UN report accuses him of continuing the export of charcoal from territory controlled by the Islamists – a trade long since outlawed by the UN because of its catastrophic impact on the Somali environment.

Under the new arrangement the Sheikh retains the port and the airport, although he is required to hand control to the Federal Government within six months. Since this would cut his income and hence his power, there seems little chance of the handover ever taking place.

The outcome has been a triumph for Somalia’s neighbours, even though Kenya and Ethiopia will continue to vie for influence in this critical part of the country.

The Kenyan foreign ministry has long seen the establishment of a buffer state along its northern border as vital to its security interests. Thanks to Wikileaks, we know that Kenya’s Foreign Minister, Moses Wetangula, practically begged the United States for its support when he saw Johnnie Carsons, President Obama’s most senior US Africa official, in January 2010.  The Kenyans were requesting backing for an invasion of Somalia to create Jubaland, but the Americans were far from keen.

As the confidential embassy telex puts it: “Carson tactfully, but categorically refused the Kenyan delegation’s attempts to enlist US Government support for their effort.” It was, said the telex, the third time Wetangula had made the appeal, but Carsons resisted, pointing out – rightly – that “the initiative could backfire.” Critically, Carsons warned that: “if successful, a Lower Juba entity could emerge as a rival to the TFG” (Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government). This is exactly what has now come about.

Brushing these concerns aside, Kenya sent its troops into Somalia in October 2011. As predicted, they found it very heavy going and it was to take almost a year before al-Shabaab were driven from Kismaayo.

For the Ethiopians, the establishment of Jubaland is a further fragmentation of Somalia, its sworn enemy since the Somalis invaded their country in 1977. It was an attack that is imprinted on Ethiopian memories, fuelling a determination to see the end of a powerful, centralised Somali state.

As if the situation was not complicated enough, newly created Jubaland could be sitting on reserves of oil. Several fields have been detected in the waters along the Kenya-Somali border, but, like many African frontiers, the location of the border is a matter of dispute.  The Somali government refuses to recognise oil licenses granted to multinational companies by Kenya, and has persuaded several oil-majors, including Total and the Norwegian state owned Statoil, to withdraw their claims. But, said the UN in July, the Italian firm, ENI, was still pressing ahead with its claims.

As Jonnie Carsons remarked in 2010, Jubaland “raises more questions than it answers.”

Ahmed Mohamed Islam during a meeting in Kismaayo earlier this year. Photo: Getty

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. His most recent book is a biography of Robert Mugabe with Sue Onslow.

People protest Macron’s policies amid a rail strike and spreading student sit-ins. Credit: Getty
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How Emmanuel Macron may become France’s first president to defeat strikers in decades

Or, as has happened before, the French may suddenly summon their revolutionary spirit and choose to disavow him. 

Since his election almost exactly a year ago, French president Emmanuel Macron has never ceased to surprise his compatriots and wrong-foot his political rivals. Two recent TV interviews, given a few days apart, provided another example of how he intends to disrupt the status quo to his advantage – both at home and on the international stage.

Two weeks into a three-month strike by the national rail network SNCF, called by the powerful, communist-led CGT trade union, Macron needed to convince the French public that his planned reform of the state railways was not an act of stealth privatisation but a necessary adjustment of an employment status dating back to 1920 (when train-driving was both physically strenuous and dangerous).

Today, around 150,000 rail workers in France benefit from a job for life, retirement at the age of 57 (compared to 62 nationally) and an array of benefits. Among these workers, train drivers are even better treated: they retire at 52 with free life travel or heavily discounted fares for their family and extended family (spouses, children and in-laws). Partly as a result, the state railways have amassed debts of €50bn. The French government is proposing to bail out SNCF in exchange for ending the existing employment terms for new workers (while maintaining them for current employees).

President Macron chose to give his first televised interview on the subject on 12 April at lunchtime in a primary school classroom in Normandy. Seven million viewers tuned in. The interviewer was polite, the exchange was civil and the unusual setting intrigued, amused and charmed the audience. Was Macron convincing? The strikes, which resumed later that evening, were not as well-attended as before. Are the unions already losing momentum?

Former French presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy sought previously to reform the state railways in 1995 and 2010. Both were forced to retreat after weeks of strikes paralysed the country (indeed, there has not been a strike-free year on the SNCF since 1959). They also capitulated because a majority of French voters, imbued with the spirit of the revolution, were unconditionally backing the trade unions.

 But today is different. Macron knows this. So do the unions. Ultimately, the French alone will decide with whom they side: their inner rebel or their inner reformer?

The stakes are high for both sides and for the country. A recent opinion poll found that France was almost perfectly divided: a slight majority (52 per cent) backing the reforms and a large minority (48 per cent) supporting the strikers. Macron, who won just 24 per cent of the vote in the first round of the 2017 presidential election, has faced no greater challenge to his domestic authority.

Yet as the centre-right Républicains and the enfeebled centre-left Parti Socialiste have all but left the political stage, the only loud adversaries of the French government are at the extremes.

Both the far right and the far left are deploying the same arguments against Macron’s reforms. Front National leader Marine Le Pen (the runner-up in last year’s presidential election) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), who finished fourth, are accusing the government of planning the full privatisation of the railways at the behest of the EU. They are playing on fears, weaving conspiracy theories, so that their voters see in Macron’s reforms the end of the French welfare system.

France spends more on social security than any other EU country (34.3 per cent of GDP compared to the EU average of 28.7 per cent). Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Germany all trail behind. With good reason, the French are deeply attached to their welfare state: its dismantlement is not proposed by Macron.

The inconsistency of the president’s detractors was rarely more apparent than during his second TV interview on the evening of 15 April. Unique in its format, this three-hour affair, staged at the Palais de Chaillot with the Eiffel Tower in the background, was broadcast on private news channel BFMTV. For once, the president had not received the questions in advance – a revealing encounter lay ahead.

But Edwy Plenel, a Trotskyist activist and founder of the powerful news website Mediapart, and Jean-Jacques Bourdin, a talk show host on the popular Radio Monte Carlo, resorted to gratuitously attacking Macron and talking over each other without once destabilising the president. The French had to endure the sorry spectacle of populist journalism à la française, while their head of state emerged unscathed. Once again, Macron had challenged the norm, and prevailed.

Strikers who invoke the May 1968 évènements, in an attempt to galvanise the French workforce, are unwise to do so. Talk of a mai chaud (a May simmering with social anger) is at best hasty and at worst delusional.

Some French universities have been occupied and blockaded by radical leftist and anarchist students (partly in protest at more selective entry requirements). They have demanded the resignation of Macron and for student work to be automatically marked ten out of 20, ensuring undergraduates pass their exams while striking. Yet their filmed “general assemblies”, available on YouTube, should reassure Macron’s supporters. The students’ incoherent political message poses little threat to the government.

As so often before, the French may suddenly summon their revolutionary spirit and choose to disavow Macron. But there is now the genuine possibility that he may become the first French president in decades to beat “the street”.

Should Macron succeed, it will be due to his personal conviction and to his now-legendary luck. But it will also be due to the French people, who will have decided finally to trust him – at least for the time being.

Agnès Poirier is the author of “Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940-1950”

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge