Conflict has renewed in central Somalia. Such news is not uncommon; Somalia has effectively been at war for a quarter of a century. Recent domestic and international efforts to bring peace to the war-torn nation have had some success, however, and Somalia is even expected to hold limited elections by late November. This progress is at risk from skirmishes between the autonomous regions of Galmudug and Puntland. If the fighting spreads, it could plunge Somalia back into civil war and adversely affect regional security.
In 1991, Somalia’s two-decade dictator, President Muhammad Siad Barre, was ousted from power. The coup sparked a power struggle between tribal warlords and thousands of civilians died in the fighting. After the infamous failure of the US and UN intervention in the early 1990s, there have been numerous unsuccessful efforts to reinstate a national government. Islamist extremists have seized, lost and regained influence in the south and the capital, Mogadishu, in a cycle of interventions by Ethiopia, the African Union (AU) and Kenya. Though an internationally-recognised government returned to Mogadishu in 2012, it holds little sway over the autonomous regions that have been established in Somalia’s central and northern districts.
Throughout this long period of political uncertainty, Somalia’s regions have developed their own political systems. Some have declared themselves independent, as the north-eastern region of Somaliland did in 1991. Others, including both Galmudug and Puntland, claim autonomy within the Federal Republic of Somalia. The regions are managed by their political elite, including clan elders, business leaders and intellectuals, and they provide services and security to the population in place of the federal government. Given the regions’ ad hoc evolution, the limits of their authority and territory can be unclear.
Galmudug and Puntland have a fractious history owing to regional and clan rivalries. Both governments claim the city of Galkayo and surrounding Mudug region, and tensions over the disputed area have frequently resulted in fighting. The latest confrontation erupted in early October and began after Puntland allegedly sent troops to defend a construction site on the city’s outskirts. Subsequent clashes between militias loyal to the warring authorities have led tens of thousands to flee the vicinity.
If the conflict between Galmudug and Puntland escalates, it could easily spill over into neighbouring regions. To the south, the forces of the internationally-recognised government are still struggling to secure control of territory long held by al-Shabaab - the main Islamic terrorist group operating in Somalia. Conflict could also upset attempts to hold elections - limited to clan elders and community representatives - that are intended to add legitimacy to the Mogadishu-based administration.
The fighting may create a vacuum for terrorists groups to regain control of Somali territory. On 26 October, forces loyal to the Islamic State (ISIS) seized a port town in northern Puntland after a battle with local militia, the first time the group has captured substantive territory in the country. If the Puntland government remains distracted by fighting Galmudug to the south, the terrorist group may break out of its exile in rural areas to become a potent force in the war-scarred country.
Fighting between Galmudug and Puntland could also have an impact further afield. Both Ethiopia and Kenya have been troubled by the Somali civil war and the two countries host hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees. In addition, both nations have their own internal security issues. Kenya has been plagued by terrorist attacks claimed by Somali-based al-Shabaab and resultant anti-refugee sentiments have seen Kenyan authorities close the country’s largest refugee camp. Ethiopia is currently in a state of emergency after security forces violently suppressed widespread anti-government protests in October. Should escalatory fighting in central Somalia prompt a wave of refugees to cross international borders, it could further destabilise these pivotal Horn of Africa nations.
Finally, instability in Somalia threatens world trade. The country borders the Gulf of Aden, through which all ships must travel to access the Suez Canal - the key link between the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. Piracy became a way of life for many of Somalia’s coastal communities during the long civil war and by 2011, attacks were occurring five times a week and costing shipping companies billions annually. The multinational maritime coalition, Combined Task Force 150, has stepped up its patrols in recent years, leading to a decrease in piracy. However, this decline has been aided by Somalia’s improving security and economic conditions. If these gains are reversed, piracy may resurge. This could prove particularly threatening if a Somali-based faction pledged to ISIS utilises local piracy tactics to engage in terrorist operations, potentially closing the critical trade route.
Much of the given analysis relies on a worse-case conflict scenario between Galmudug and Puntland. At the opening of Puntland’s 38th parliament on October 29, the region’s president offered to resume peace talks with Gulmudug. The two sides may yet come to terms over Galkayo’s status, leading to an easement of tensions in central Somalia. Yet the fact that the outcomes described remain conceivable should serve as a reminder that trouble in Somalia does not end in Somalia. Observers would be well advised to remember that.
William Baulch is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.