The tiny Gulf country of Qatar may have stolen the limelight from the African Union’s intention to mediate in a crisis in Somalia, turning from villain to hero.
Doha managed to squeeze two crucial turning points out of Somalia in one week; forcing Mogadishu to resume ties with Kenya, a day after political rivals in Somalia agreed to work on a political deal.
In Kenya, there had been a series of backchannels manoeuvred by Qatar to have Somalia and Kenya back on talking terms. Kenya had used Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i to discuss the issues with Qatar. Dr Matiang’i had also travelled to Mogadishu, and later to Doha on several occasions.
With an ongoing maritime dispute in the international court, the severance of ties had worsened tensions between the two neighbours. In private conversations, both the African Union and regional bloc Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) had warned the issues Somalia complained about could not be resolved in the absence of diplomatic recognition. Al-Shabaab, the AU warned, was likely to profit from the bad blood.
Somalia, however, rejected findings of a team deployed by Djibouti under the provisions of Igad, which exonerated Kenya of interference back in January.
Though Somalia’s cut ties were opposed by partners and the African Union, who warned they jeopardised focus on counter-terrorism measures, the resumption of ties could easily be credited to Qatar’s behind-the-scenes manoeuvres.
This week, the special envoy of the Qatari Foreign Minister on Counterterrorism and Mediation of Conflict Resolution, Dr Mutlaq bin Majed al-Qahtani, was in Mogadishu, where he met with political stakeholders currently discussing the electoral calendar to be used. It came following days of tension in Somalia after President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo endorsed Parliament’s decision to extend his term by two years, arguing it provided time for universal suffrage. But following opposition to the move, Mr Farmaajo advised Parliament to cancel the extension.
On Wednesday, stakeholders agreed to reinstate sacked military chiefs who had been accused of defying the army’s commands and siding with clan leaders.
Doha’s intentions may be unknown for now, especially since the Gulf nation had been villain in the eyes of opposition groups and some federal states for propping up President Farmaajo’s controversial decisions. When Dr al-Qahtani sought to meet with Somalia’s opposition groups this week, their chairman and ex-President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, questioned where Doha had been the past four years.
He was doubting their intentions. Federal state presidents of Jubbaland [Ahmed Madobe] and Puntland [Said Abdullahi Deni] also reportedly turned down an audience with him.
In truth, Qatar said little when Somalis bickered over extension of the term of Farmaajo, which was reversed last week following protests. It called for dialogue and calm, the same thing it had said when Mr Farmaajo’s four-year term elapsed on February 8.
Crucially though, Qatar, knowing it had been vilified by the opposition, moved fast, taking advantage of its good offices with Kenya and Somalia. Mr Farmaajo had tried to seek help from the African Union, visiting Kinshasa on April 19 to speak with President Felix Tshisekedi, the current chairman of the African Union. The African Union agreed to appoint a special envoy for Somalia. But Mr Farmaajo was miffed with a statement by the AU Peace and Security Council, which totally rejected the extension and warned it could cause instability.
“The Qatari move seems to have eliminated the need for an African Union Special Envoy to Somalia. After the reversal of mandate extensions and meeting with the Qatari envoy, the opposition is ostensibly happy with the Prime Minister [Hussein Roble]’s way of handling things,” Mr Adam Aw Hirsi, a political analyst and former government minister told the Nation on Thursday.
“And let’s face it, the AU was too slow, too clumsy and too poor in comparison.”
When things heated up last month, the International Crisis Group advised the continental agency to appoint an envoy to help calm temperatures. But the security advisory group said Qatar could be the most important ally of Mr Farmaajo to bring temperatures down since he listened to Doha more.
“To improve the chances of Farmaajo shifting his position, the US could engage directly with his key backers in Qatar and Turkey and urge them to prevail on the president to show greater flexibility, given the risk the crisis poses to Somalia’s stability.”
Dr al-Qahtani met with Mr Roble and some opposition groups this week, before heading to Nairobi to meet with President Uhuru Kenyatta. He has been Qatar’s chief mediator to talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
On Thursday, Somalia restored diplomatic ties with Kenya, following the mediation by Qatar, hours after Dr al-Qahtani delivered a special message from Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Al Thani to President Uhuru Kenyatta. Dr Matiang’i was present during the event at State House.
Mr Abdirashid M Hashi, the spokesman for President Farmaajo said Qatar had steered the resumption of relations but did not elaborate.
“In the interest of good neighbourliness, FGS [Federal Government of Somalia] resumes diplomatic ties with Kenya based on mutual benefit and respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, non-external interference, peaceful co-existence and equality.
“Somalia and Kenya presidents thank the Emir of Qatar for his good offices in this regard.”
Somalia had cut ties with Kenya in December 2020 and ordered its ambassador Mohamud Nur Tarsan to return home and Kenya’s Lucas Tumbo was ordered back to Nairobi. It accused Nairobi of political interference, claims Kenya denied. However, Nairobi did not formally cut ties with Somalia.
Is it all good now? There are those who doubt Mr Farmaajo’s honesty in restoring ties, questioning whether cutting them had achieved anything.
“Remind me, why did we cut relations in the first place? And what has changed?” Mr Mohamed Abdi Ware, former president of Hirshabelle State until 2020, asked on Twitter on Thursday.
Mr Aw Hirsi told the Nation the two countries will have to address issues that caused the severance of ties.
“The diplomatic misunderstanding between Somalia and Kenya has a name and it is called Jubbaland,” he said.
“The last two Somali presidents before Farmaajo butted heads with Kenya over Jubbaland and the one after Farmaajo will likely do the same.”
At least the last two; Ahmed and Hassan Sheikh Mohamud never cut ties or made it public. Since 2011, Kenya has allied with Jubbaland under Mr Ahmed Madobe, whom it sees as an ally against al-Shabaab.
In 2019, Kenya endorsed the re-election of Mr Madobe, even after Mogadishu ‘nullified’ the elections. Later, President Farmaajo recognised Mr Madobe as a transitional leader. The two sides, however, have continually disagreed on security arrangements for elections.
This week, Mr Madobe endorsed Mr Farmaajo’s move to grant powers to organise elections to the Prime Minister.