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HIrshabelle: A corrupt, unelected Narco State

By Mohamed Omar Hashi
Friday October 14, 2022

Some of those discordant voices have come from parts of the government, independent self-appointed politicians, NGOs, local elders, community leaders and wider citizens. Numerous challenges have plagued the state, with different stakeholders vying for more power and participation in regional decision-making and its level on the federal level.

This state of affairs was developed after the 2016 decision to form the Federal Member State (FMS) out of the territories of two neighbouring regions, Hiiraan and Middle Shabelle. This seemingly administrative move brought to the front some underlying splits. It highlighted the absence and broader dissatisfaction of the Hiiraan people, who felt marginalised. On several occasions, the region's citizens have made efforts to gain some influence, power-sharing, how their representatives are selected, and raise awareness of the alarming levels of corruption within the newly formed state. 

Presently, the state is led by some unelected officials, including its current president, Ali Abdullahi Husein, vice president, Yusuf Ahmed Hagar Dabageed and 90 state Members of Parliaments (MPs). They were directly appointed by the previous president Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo and former National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) Fahad Yasin Haji Dahir. The tensions boiled over during the elections in 2020, bringing some of the fault lines in regional politics to full view. With two years passing, the resentment amongst the residents remains at a high level. The primary driver of discontent is not the separatist idea of splitting the region into its original format of two states but rather a general lack of political participation and inclusiveness, the absence of security and the lack of opportunities for social or economic development.

Terrorist activities in this area have been highly disruptive and which looted the citizens of the resources that were their primary livelihoods, including livestocks. The failure of the regional state to respond resolutely gave the terrorists the space to operate. This put the local communities in an unenviable position to resist the extremists with little help from the outside. This level of vulnerability changed to an extent with the election of current President Hassan Sheikh Mahamud, who declared war against terrorism and pledged to assist the locals in expelling terrorist organisations from their midst. The recent fight against AS in Hiiraan region reaffirmed the government's decisiveness to deal with the security threats actively, with Ma'awesley, local-driven mobilisation forces, taking the brunt of the fighting upon itself. This group thus filled the security vacuum and assumed a crucial role in the struggle to keep the drive terrorists out of the region and protect the lives of citizens.

Within the context of the broader conflict in Somalia, this article looks into the core factors that contributed to the ongoing crisis in the Hirshebelle state. One of this paper's central areas of interest is the corruption that underscores the escalating insecurity, emphasising the behaviour of the political leadership that appears more interested in profiting from their positions than in representing the people.

1. Hirshabelle: Unpacking the corruption and narcotic state of affair 

Abuse of power and widespread corruption

The most widely used definition of political corruption is the attempt to disregard the rules and use power to advance a personal agenda. It can be argued that corruption is not necessarily a result of an inadequate legal framework but rather develops in the absence of accountability for self-serving and law-breaking activities. A fundamental problem in Hirshabelle is that the officials who can enforce the rules and punish the offenders are frequently profoundly involved in corruptive activities. Widespread corruption removes any legitimacy from the institutions and provides a fertile ground for violent groups to form and prosper. Such persistent conditions are often regarded as 'rogue states' where it may not be possible to establish the rule of law and stamp out terrorist activity. This scenario is currently unfolding in Hirshabelle, with noticeable growth in the influence of terrorist groups.

The factors described above destabilise the state and prevent the local population from participating in the political environment and holding officials accountable. At the same time, they reduced the capacity of the government to resist the influence of armed groups or assert firm control over the entire territory. The longer the terrorist organisations are allowed to maintain a presence in the state and rival the influence of the administration, the perception of the government and its ability to keep order will be cast more and more in question. Under such conditions, with a state that is either powerless or unwilling to confront the terrorists, the citizenry is taking the initiative into its own hands and forming armed resistance. This resistance was consolidated in the form of the Ma'awesley mobilisation force acting as the primary adversary to the terror group Al-Shabaab (AS). 

Funds lost to corruption are also negatively affecting the ability of the state to provide the necessary public services and job creation, especially for the young generation. Currently, the system is geared to silence any criticism of the state and its representatives, which is especially problematic considering the involvement of many officials in illegal activities. Current state officials often regard corruption as a way of solving practical problems, a shortsighted approach that will necessarily lead to further decaying of the institutions' power. Ultimately, the widespread corruption makes impossible any meaningful effort to counter the main problems the region is facing, such as the threat of terrorism, poverty, social tensions, ineffective jurisprudence, high unemployment rate and the growing influence of organised crime. In a nutshell, corruption is not just typical for Hirshabelle politics; it is the essence of Hirshabelle politics. 

Corruption can be found at every state level, affecting every aspect of life. It restricts the ability to improve the citizens' financial situation - leaving most people disenfranchised while those in power reap the benefits. This kind of uneven playing field reinforces the notion that engaging in corruptive activities is more profitable than building one's fortune through hard work and dedication. It devalues positive virtues such as competence and fairness. The state has tight control over the business landscape and the power to choose who gets appointed. The motivation for favouring specific individuals is almost always tied to their usefulness to the corruptive schemes. 

The bureaucratic nature of the system places too much power in the hands of the few directly contributing to the deepening crisis. A whole new class of corrupt elites has emerged in the state, motivated primarily to bend the legal system to their benefit. A key element is the willing acceptance of the fact that corruption leads to success and the readiness to bribe superiors to achieve one's objectives. Negative aspects of corruption, including its devastating impact on the economy and widespread resignation from political activity by the population, are easily ignored in this context.

The Rise of a Narco State

A confluence of several factors leads to the rise of the hashish trade in the state of Hirshabelle, ranging from geographic location to the weakness of the local security structures and the willingness of the officials to turn a blind eye in exchange for bribes. This trade has rapidly expanded in the few years, with the illegal drug trade spiking simultaneously. Paired with the absence of the rule of law, and economic activity in the region, hashish and alcohol smuggling has empowered several groups that primarily rely on income from this source. 

Perhaps the most damaging is the tendency of the political representatives to tolerate and even collaborate with the narco-traffickers, to the point that drug money is essential for maintaining the political order. It is fair to ask whether Hirshabelle is effectively an equivalent of a narco-state, where decision-makers directly control the organised crime groups that engage in large-scale drug dealing. In the worst cases, state resources might be used to perpetuate this criminal activity. Due to the near-total inability of local law enforcement to curtail the hashish trade, the leading trafficking groups are becoming united under a single chain of command, which occurs only in jurisdictions where no real deterrent is present.

Changes to the local community due to the rapidly growing drug trafficking activity have been numerous and far-reaching. The funds from the sales of hashish are often used to corrupt the officials responsible for enforcing the laws. The rise of vigilantism in Hirshabelle is a direct result of the failure of the local and federal governments to hold up to their promises of maintaining security and order. The perception that government officials have capitulated to the drug trade or are actively participating in it is causing the citizens to feel threatened by the presence of the criminal element in the state. The inability to establish a Drug Control Agency on the national level provides evidence of the state's indifference to the problems of the ordinary citizens of Hirshabelle.

However, the most problematic consequences of the collaboration between hashish traffickers and the officials will only become apparent in the long term. The disintegration of the legal authority and the breakdown of the relationship between political elites and regular people will be very difficult to overcome once it progresses past a certain point. When criminals can control the institutions, and drug money infiltrates every part of the system, it becomes nearly impossible to root out the influence of those influential groups and return the rights to the constituents.

2. Alternative security mechanisms – a grassroots approach

Ma'awesley in the Hiiraan region: a community-led self-defence force

The primary impetus for forming the Ma'awesley armed force was the behaviour of the terrorist group AS. The terrorists were engaged in the kidnapping of children not older than 8 to serve in their ranks, sometimes even sending them directly into battle. Arson, looting, and killings at the hands of AS members were also quite common. In response to the outrages, local citizens began to procure weapons and organise to defend their families and possessions. Those self-organised groups eventually started to use the name Ma'awesley for the broader movement. The reprisals from AS for taking part in self-defence were extreme, with their farmland, animals, and houses being stolen or destroyed.

In the early stages, the local mobilisation forces could not count on reliable funding sources and had little tangible success stopping AS. During this phase, the group were primarily composed of local citizens who had lost their friends and family to terrorists. The civilian population were brutally terrorised as punishment for supporting Ma'awesley, with abductions and random killings being the norm. Incidents of this kind occurred as recently as September 2021. This led to widespread resentment and public denunciation of the terror group, and, in turn, the local mobilisation forces grew in numbers. However, the level of support for the group, both from the federal and state level, was not reciprocated. Even the results achieved on the ground against AS were insufficient to draw the attention of either the former government or the regional government of Hirshabelle. The Ma'awesley continued to develop a local network and attract local citizens to join their ranks. In return, Ma'awesley had to maintain a good relationship with the population and prioritise their original agenda, which was to protect the communities in which the fighters and their families lived. This kind of accountability and direct links with the local community contributed to the absence of predatory behaviour of the group.

As a purely local force composed of civilians, Ma'awesley can quickly react to threats but not maintain a standing army in the region without more systematic support from the government. Better access to resources and equipment is needed to make the military might of the forces more permanent and provide a spike in morale. 

This process started with the change of government, with the new leadership intrigued by the possibility of countering the influence of AS by providing funding to local forces. A properly equipped and highly motivated force with a detailed understanding of the local conditions has understandably fared better on the battlefield. Moreover, the success of the self-organised local forces in Hiiraan provides a positive example that could be used elsewhere in Somalia to improve the local security situation and eradicate the threat of terrorism throughout the country.

3. Concluding remarks

We can conclude that the state of Hirshabelle is currently ruled by corrupt politicians that were not elected by popular vote and thus have little interest in protecting the population's interests. The region's administration lacks credibility, has no sense of accountability, and has repeatedly failed to perform even the most basic responsibilities towards the citizens. Most notably, the inability of the Hirshabelle to counter the threat of terrorist groups caused local citizens to turn to unofficial alternatives, such as Ma'awesley, as their last resort. In effect, Ma'awesley serves many of the functions that should be provided by the state, especially in the security sphere. 

The new President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, recognised this, shifted the government's policy doctrine and started providing critical support and guidance to local forces. Closer collaboration between the local and Federal levels translates well into the ability to prevent terrorist organisations from controlling the region. Still, Ma'awesley faces obstacles from the leadership of the Hirshabelle, which remains highly corrupt and motivated to preserve the status quo. Until political changes can be enacted and the power to choose representatives in free elections can be returned to the citizens, it will be complicated to resolve the main problems, including drug trafficking, terrorist violence, and widespread political corruption.

Mohamed Omar Hashi was a Member of the Transitional Federal Parliament of Somalia from 2009 to 2012, and holds an M.A. in International Security Studies from the University Of Leicester. 
E-mail: [email protected]


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