Looming Jubaland clash of clans casts shadow over Northern Kenya 

Kenya Defence Forces in Somalia.

Kenya Defence Forces soldiers under Africa Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) patrol Kismayo town on November 22, 2015. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Somalia is often imagined as “a nation in search of a state’’—perhaps the only one of its kind in Africa.

This narrative downplays the role of clans in Somali politics. In reality, Somalia is a tale of clans in search of both a nation and a state.

While they exemplify Somalia’s double quest for a nation and state, the anti-Shabaab clan uprisings, the single most important development in the country in 2023, has turned a sharp spotlight on the role of clans in defeating the Islamists and in the post-insurgency nation-building and reconstruction. 

After success in Hiraan, Hirshabelle and Galmudug, Jubaland is the next battlefront against the al-Shabaab. But the turn to Jubaland as the new front is likely to trigger complex clan politics with serious ripple effects on neighbouring Kenya.

Jubaland is the vortex where Kenyan nationalism meets both Somali clannism and pan-Somali nationalism. 

Until June 29, 1925, when Kenya lost Jubaland in a deal between Britain and Italy, Somali clans in the region considered themselves as part of Kenya. 

Besides an important port for both Jubaland and the Northern Frontier District (NFD), Kismayu was a place where the British exiled— and even hanged —Kenyan nationalists.

Harry Thuku, who led the 1922 riots outside Nairobi’s Kingsway (now Central) Police Station, was deported there. 

At independence, crusaders of ‘Greater Somalia’ incited clans in Garissa, Mandera and Wajir— which remained a part of Kenya’s NFD — to push for secession and join Somalia, triggering the ‘Shifta War’ (1963-1967).

A safe Jubaland has emerged as an ideal buffer zone against the al-Shabaab insurgency. In October 2011, the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) entered Somalia to push out al-Shabaab and thwart the group’s cross-border raids. But as Jubaland becomes the new battlefront, the future of Kenya’s buffer zone strategy looks bleak.

Certainly, KDF has contributed to the stabilisation, state building, recapturing of territory, and liberation of towns and cities in southern Somalia as well as pushing al-Shabaab from Kismayo, the militia’s bastion and major revenue base.

But truth be told, Kenya's military’s success in fighting the insurgency has been severely limited. 

Controls hinterland 

The group controls the hinterland and major access roads in the Juba Valley, its headquarters and training ground. 

It still controls all major towns in the Middle Juba region, including Buale, Saakow and Jilib (the group’s de facto headquarters). ‘Liberated towns’ such as Dobley, Afmadow and Kismayo are mainly accessible by air.

The Kenyan military’s initial battleground triumphs and advances into the heart of Jubaland in the 2011-2012 period have stalled.

Since mid-2015, Amisom forces have not conducted significant offensive operations. And Somalia’s troops and Jubaland forces lack the muscle to take the fight to al-Shabaab.

Thwarting al-Shabaab’s cross-border raids — the initial purpose of KDF’s incursion into Jubaland — has remained a bridge too far. Between 2011 and 2015, the militia recruited and radicalised fighters, created cells and carried out hundreds of ‘retaliatory’ attacks on civilians and security forces inside Kenya.

Without a nuanced understanding of Jubaland’s clan dynamics, Kenya ran straight into complex inter-clan supremacy wars.

The power elite in Villa Somalia objected to KDF’s incursion. Under President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo (2017-2022), clan tensions in Jubaland mirrored the tectonic politics between him and the fledgling opposition in the run-up to the 2022 election.

Farmajo accused Nairobi of propping Madobe, his arch-rival. The Farmajo-Madobe supremacy battle rekindled traditional rivalry between the Marehan and Ogaden clans and their allies in Jubaland. Between December 2019 and April 2020, at least 70 people died in fierce battles involving rival clans in Jubaland. 

The long-running maritime dispute between the two countries did not help matters. The International Court of Justice ruled in favour of Somalia in October 2021.

Kenya was caught in clan tensions involving elites in Jubaland and Mogadishu. These tensions reached a dangerous tipping point during the Gedo crisis of 2021 when Modobe’s Jubaland forces clashed with Farmajo’s federal government troops in the Gedo town of Bula Hawo.

Recruit militias 

Mogadishu accused Kenya of supporting and giving refuge to dissident Abdirashid Janan, providing him with a base in Mandera, inside Kenyan territory, from which to recruit militias to carry out attacks on Mogadishu-backed troops stationed in Bula Hawo.

This turned the Marehan and allied clans in Jubaland hostile to Kenya’s intervention. The hostility to Kenya in Gedo is linked to intra-clan competition for political power, resources inside Jubaland and control of the lucrative port in Kismayo.

Kenya’s intervention radically changed the local Somali clan power dynamics and economic fortunes in Kismayu. The invasion uplifted the economic clout of certain Ogaden sub-clans and marginalised previously dominant clan elites, especially the Marehan and their allies.

Without the support of certain clans, Kenya was unable to push the war against al-Shabaab to Gedo and Central Juba. In 2016, al-Shabaab overran its base in El Adde, killing almost an entire company of troops. Hostile local clans in Gedo did not cooperate with Kenyans to thwart the swarming attack.

In turn, Kenyan forces hunted down youths from these clans as “terrorists”.

The Kenya-Ethiopia differences played out ahead of the August 7, 2019, Jubaland presidential polls. 

Tensions escalated between Madobe and Kenya on one side, and Ethiopia and Somalia on the other. Kenya supported Madobe while Ethiopia backed President Farmajo in pushing for Madobe’s ouster. Madobe won the election but Mogadishu refused to accept the results. 

Following the Jubaland elections, the then Leader of the Majority in the National Assembly, Adan Duale and Yusuf Haji — who had been the Kenyan Defence minister when Kenya intervened in Somalia —attended Madobe’s inauguration.

The plane carrying the Kenyan government delegation flew directly to Kismayo, the capital of Jubaland, against a directive by the Federal Government of Somalia that all international flights pass through Mogadishu. Both countries expelled each other’s ambassadors in protest.

Jubaland has a rendezvous with destiny on August 29, 2023, when Madobe’s mandate as president will expire and the region holds elections for a new local assembly and a regional president. Inter-clan tensions are between factions of Somali clan elites allied to the Madobe and those allied to the opposition stoked by fear of the Madobe seeking a third term and manipulation of the election process.

It is doubtful that rival clans and local militias in Jubaland will unite behind a common anti-Shabaab agenda. As a result, Jubaland and Northern Kenya will remain a cesspit of extremism.

Prof Kagwanja is Chief Executive at the Africa Policy Institute and Adjunct Scholar at the University of Nairobi and the National Defence University, Kenya.