Blunting Al-Shabaab’s Impact on Somalia’s Elections

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The Al-Shabaab insurgency is in attack mode as elections draw near in Somalia. To stop the militants from disrupting the vote, federal and regional authorities should bolster security measures around polling stations and prepare impartial means of resolving disputes that may arise over the outcome.

What’s new? The Al-Shabaab insurgency has threatened to disrupt Somalia’s high-stakes elections due by the end of February. The Islamic State’s local branch may also stage its own assaults. A larger number of polling stations than in previous elections means that militants will have a wider range of targets to choose from.

Why does it matter? Militant attacks and intimidation of delegates and candidates could reduce participation in the polls and undermine their legitimacy. A disrupted electoral contest would sharpen political discord in Somalia, which Al-Shabaab and the Islamic State can exploit, while undermining longer-term efforts at reconciliation.

What should be done? Authorities should step up efforts to secure voting locations and their surroundings and keep security forces in place for some time after the polls. They should also stand up an impartial election dispute mechanism to ensure that most Somalis perceive the elections as fair.

I. Overview

As Somalia heads into fraught parliamentary and presidential elections, due to take place in January and February 2021, jihadist groups are on the lookout for ways to wreak havoc. The Al-Shabaab insurgency has said it will disrupt the vote and warned citizens against taking part. Both Al-Shabaab and the Islamic State’s local branch, a newer and weaker but still deadly player in Somalia, appear emboldened by the late 2020 drawdown of Ethiopian and U.S. forces from the country, which leaves a partial security vacuum. Jihadist violence and intimidation could undermine participation rates and thus the legitimacy of results. Militants will also be primed to exploit any aggravated political tensions that may arise from a contested vote. The federal and member state governments need to pull together to curb the jihadists’ chances of playing spoiler. Authorities should rapidly beef up security at and around polling stations, and keep these measures in place after the vote, while instituting an agreed-upon mechanism for adjudicating disputes over the results.

Securing the vote will be a major challenge. Events, including a conflict in northern Ethiopia that prompted Addis Ababa to pull out thousands of troops stationed near Al-Shabaab’s stronghold in south-central Somalia and President Donald Trump’s order to reposition U.S. troops from the country, mean that Somali authorities must shoulder more security responsibilities. Given limited capacities, federal and state authorities will struggle to stem militant attacks on candidates and voting delegates, who will be spread over an increased number of voting areas. That said, authorities, working with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), should continue to strengthen security arrangements, relying on the Somali police to protect designated voting centres while using the Somali National Army where needed to defend the areas around these hubs. Federal and state authorities tasked with election security should draw down the mobilised forces only gradually, in order to shield participants from harm.

Meanwhile, Somalia’s federal and state leadership should urgently resume dialogue with the political opposition to address the latter’s concerns about election management and avoid a contested vote that will likely trigger protests – and serve as a gift to the militants. They should also stand up the impartial electoral dispute resolution mechanism they agreed upon in September, in order to ensure that grievances do not linger unresolved. The more Somalis see the election as fair, the fewer frustrations militants will have to exploit. By contrast, a botched election could set off violence of which militants can take advantage.