Source Responsible Statecraft
WASHINGTON, U.S.--The recent appointment of a former al-Shabab deputy Mukhtar Robow (aka Abut Mansur) as the Minister of Endowment and Religion in Somalia’s new cabinet has generated considerable debate about what Robow’s appointment means for the war on terror in Somalia as well as for potential reconciliation efforts.
Some have questioned the foresight as well as the perceived injustice of appointing someone who played an integral role in the history of al-Shabab, an organization that has committed terrible atrocities against civilian populations.
Reconciling with members of al-Shabab might not be as far-fetched as it appears provided the international community (particularly the United States and Europe) refrains from negatively intervening in Somali politics.
Mukhtar Robow was born in 1969 in the Bakool region of southern Somalia. A fertile region considered Somalia’s breadbasket. After obtaining basic religious education in Somalia, he, like many Somali students, traveled to Sudan, one of the few countries accepting Somali students after the disintegration of the Somali state in 1991, to attend university. He studied the Sharia in Sudan in the 1990s. Thereafter, he ended up in Afghanistan where he trained in al-Qaeda training camps.
Upon his return to Somalia, he played a key role in the founding of al-Shabab in the early 2000s. At that point al-Shabab was a small nucleus of like-minded militants within a larger Islamic movement in Mogadishu known as the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC).
Robow became a prominent and charismatic member of al-Shabab, developing a reputation as a moderate voice within the movement. An internal schism of al-Shabab’s leadership in 2013 led to the assassination of several important leaders and the defections of others.
Protected by militia mostly from his clan, Robow fled to his home region of Bakool. He remained there and kept a low profile until August 2017 when he surrendered to the Somali government. Importantly, his surrender was preceded by his removal from the U.S.’s Reward for Justice list in June 2017.
Within a year after surrendering to the Somali government, Robow decided to run for the presidency of his native South West State, one of five regional states (excluding Somaliland) that makeup the member states of the Somali federal government. After declaring his candidacy, Robow began to draw large crowds, which raised the prospect that he could win.
Fearing that Robow might undermine the chances of its preferred candidate, the federal government contended that he did not meet all the preconditions for political office.
Robow remained a prisoner of the government held in the headquarters of the National Intelligence and Security Agency. He was released from prison a few days prior to his appointment in early August by the incoming administration of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.
Some argue that Robow’s release from prison and ministerial appointment is significant for the war on terror in Somalia as it might encourage further defections from al-Shabab.
His appointment as a minister and political trajectory does, however, raise a couple of important points regarding the war on terror in Somalia, and how U.S. policies impact the potential for defections from and negotiations with al-Shabab.
Second, sanctions by the international community have a negative effect on efforts at negotiation and reconciliation. On this point, it should be remembered that Robow’s surrender to the Somali government was preceded by his removal from the U.S. 's Reward for Justice list.
Given that negotiating with and reconciling with at least some elements of al-Shabab might become unavoidable moving forward, the negative effects of sanctions should seriously be considered.
It’s too early to know what impact Robow’s appointment will have on long term political dynamics, but it represents a possible path that can only be pursued if foreign governments and institutions reconsider sanctions as a political tool and give Somalis the space to negotiate amongst themselves, a necessary step given that they are the ones who ultimately have to live with one another.