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November 27, 2018

Trading bullets for ballots, former al Shabaab No. 2 tests Somalia’s democratic process

When al Shabaab’s deputy leader Mukhtar Robow defected from the jihadist group, it was hailed as a major step for peace hopes in Somalia. But now that he’s running for a December 5 regional election, some think it’s a step too far.






At a crowded meeting hall in the southern Somali city of Baidoa last month, Mukhtar Robow faced a gathering of local politicians and reporters squeezed into the room as a crowd of supporters and curious onlookers gathered outside the premises.

Robow, also known as Abu Mansour, is no stranger to the media spotlight. As one of the founding members of al Shabaab -- the al Qaeda-linked Somali terrorist group -- Robow once served as the jihadist group’s deputy leader and spokesman.

For many years, he was the public face of the organisation, appearing in al Shabaab propaganda videos, granting interviews to local journalists and addressing press conferences in the Somali wilds. As an al Shabaab military commander with battlefield experience and training in Afghanistan, Robow was considered a dangerous man. The US slapped a $5 million bounty on his head and the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on him as a “specially designated global terrorist”.

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That was before he fell out with al Shabaab’s leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, in a power struggle. In 2013, he quit the jihadist group, publicly denounced al Shabaab, and retreated to his village in southwestern Somalia, where he was protected by his militiamen and the community.

Four years later, Robow was back in the news when he surrendered to Somali forces in August 2017 in what was widely hailed as a historic defection.

A year later, Robow was pushing the envelope again.

At the October gathering in a Baidoa hotel, the charismatic former Shabaab leader officially declared he was running for regional elections originally set for November 17 and later postponed to December 5.
Robow’s candidacy has implications not just for his war-torn Horn of Africa nation, but also for international military and reconstruction missions in conflict and post-conflict zones across the world.

As militants from Afghanistan to Yemen are being nudged to negotiating tables following a realisation that military operations alone do not bring peace, Robow’s political future has turned into a crucible for reconciliation and reconstruction efforts in fragile states.

His rocky transition from jihadist to politician is also an indicator of the challenges confronting the international community as multilateral institutions sometimes find themselves supporting governments mired in corruption and with no ability to deliver governance outside heavily fortified capital cities.

Electrifying the campaign trail

When Robow declared he was standing for the presidency of Somalia’s South West state, it sparked an electrifying campaign that came as no surprise to analysts on the ground.

Robow’s rallies were packed with supporters in T-shirts bearing a photograph of the smiling candidate and his slogan, “Security and Justice”. Posters and photographs of the personable candidate began to circulate on WhatsApp groups, and Twitter posts featured the candidate working the crowds at campaign rallies.

“He has been very popular among his clansmen,” explained Hussein Sheikh-Ali, founder of the Mogadishu-based Hiraal Institute, in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from the Somali capital.

Read more at  France 24
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