Somalia: 5 key takeaways on the Gaalkacyo conflict and Galmudug crisis

The divided city of Gaalkacyo witnessed weeks of fighting in October and November last year between fighters of the two feuding Galmudug and Puntland administrations. Now a political crisis within the Galmudug region is further complicating the situation in the central Somalia region.

Galmudug and Puntland, autonomous states within the federation of Somalia, each control one half of Gaalkacyo – the northern part of the city is administered by Puntland while the southern is controlled by Galmudug. Scores of people were killed and thousands fled during the recent fighting before an uneasy truce was reached.

What does the crisis mean? Here are five key takeaways from recent developments in the region:

1. Galmudug State increasingly fragile

Regional officials from Galmudug are not only battling with neighboring Puntland, they are also fighting with each other. Last week the regional parliament voted to oust Regional President Abdikarim Guled from office, citing “incompetent leadership,” but the president rejected the vote saying parliament is still out of session.

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Federal and regional security forces are at risk of being pulled into the dispute: Three soldiers died Tuesday in fighting between National Intelligence and Security Agency officers and police at the Galmudug Parliament, according to Dalsan Radio. The fight happened after federal security allegedly took over regional parliament buildings in Adado to disrupt a meeting of MPs opposed to Guled, whom some say is a political ally of the federal president.

The regional president, who was in Mogadishu when the no-confidence vote was taken, returned Wednesday to Adado and was received by local forces, suggesting that he still has some support from security elements in the area in spite of losing the confidence of MPs and apparently also some of the police.

2. Winners in all this: Ahl Sunna Wa Jamaa – and Al-Shabaab?

The regional government’s control has been undermined further by militant groups that hold territory in the state. Al-Shabaab and Ahl Sunna Wa Jamaa hold significant amounts of mostly rural territory – towns Adado and Galkaayo remain under government control.

Ahl Sunna Wal Jamaa is a Sufi group that fights Al-Shabaab but has also sometimes clashed with the federal government. Seeking to boost its own legitimacy, it has taken advantage of the political crisis in Galmudug to form its own parliament. The 65-member body was inaugurated in the town of Dhusamareeb. A recent research report by Mogadishu-based thinktank Heritage Institute says that regional officials blame Puntland for supporting this group: “Those interviewed on the Galmudug side had similar negative perceptions that [Puntland] support Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa (ASWJ) in weakening Galmudug… and they always portray south Gaalkacyo as a highly insecure place.”

On the other side, Puntland fears that Galmudug is allowing safe harbor for Al-Shabaab terrorists. “Many Puntland residents believe that south Gaalkacyo is chaotic – lacking any law and order, allowing Al-Shabaab to plan attacks against the north. They cite the example of the last terrorist attack on the north, which took place on 21 August 2016 and claimed the lives of at least 20 people and injured 30 more. They argue these attacks were planned in south Gaalkacyo,” reads the Heritage Institute reprot.

Fighting between the two administrations threatens to undermine regional and federal efforts against Al-Shabaab.

3. Turmoil detracts from focus on Puntland-Galmudug talks

The political crisis within Galmudug has shifted attentions away from recent progress in halting the Puntland-Galmudug violence and reaching a political settlement. Although Gaalkacyo has been a divided city since 1993, renewed conflict was only triggered in 2015 by implementation of the federal system.

Negotiations late last year established a buffer zone between fighters stationed in the city and created an 18-member joint committee to implement the ceasefire and build confidence between the two sides. If the Galmudug administration itself is in chaos, however, this committee will not be able to make progress.

The ongoing national parliamentary and presidential elections are also a distraction from the Gaalkacyo conflict, drawing away federal and international resources and attention that otherwise might be allocated to resolving the issue.

4. Lack of grassroots reconciliation

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Creative Commons / Ahmed Abdullahi

Genuine distrust and hostility among communities in Gaalkacyo could undermine progress toward a political settlement. Gaalkacyo is on the border between Daarood clans, particularly the Majeerteen and Leelkase, and Hawiye clans, particularly the Sacad. The conflict relates also to clan boundaries in the countryside outside Gaalkacyo town.

Heritage Institute researchers visiting the area last November found that “the interaction between the dominant clans in Gaalkacyo is very limited. There is a perception that whoever crosses to the other side will be killed. They call it ‘Isbaaro waa Qalbi’, meaning a psychological barrier exists between the two communities.”

Researchers concluded, “These negative perceptions accompanied by the lack of genuine reconciliation constitute some of the major contributions to the crisis in the city.”

If there is to be peace in the area, historical grievances between communities will need to be addressed concurrently with solutions at the political level. In the meantime, local radios are being encouraged not to air interviews with officials using belligerent and inflammatory language.

5. Proposed solutions in Gaalkacyo require more political stability

Several options are on the table to resolve the disputes between Puntland and Galmudug. But all of them would require more political stability locally and nationally to be viable.

One option is formally dividing the Mudug region into two using a formula that might involve compromises but could be mutually acceptable in the end. “To make this option practical, the Boundaries and Federation Commission (BFC) would need to conduct a geographical study and delimitation on Mudug region,” the research group recommends.

Another option is to create a joint administration. Supporters of the Puntland administration in Gaalkacyo reportedly oppose such a solution, however.

Heritage Institute says that a third option – designating the town of Gaalkacyo a federal city – would solve the power struggle. But it points out that this would only be possible if the federal government wins the trust of local communities.

Needless to say, there also needs to be a credible federal government for this to happen – and formation of the new federal executive and legislature is still incomplete. None of the options is likely to be seriously discussed until after stability is restored within the Galmudug administration and after a new government forms in Mogadishu.