Checkpoint Dynamics and the Offensive Against Al Shabaab

Origins of the offensive

The government offensive against Al Shabaab (AS) originated in Hiraan region, in Belet Weyn district. It built on the conflict that was already taking place between the Hawadle clan and AS. This mobilisation of clan militia – known as Macawisley – was supported by various official government forces. The mobilisation was also supported by many observers and analysts, while others were concerned that the militarisation of clans, as happened in the late 1980s and 1990s, around the collapse of the state and the civil war was dangerous and would foment further inter-clan conflict.

The Hawadle are the dominant political-military group in Hiraan region and whom, in principle, share leadership of Hirshabelle state with the Abgal.[1] The Hawadle have had significant success in reclaiming their territory from AS, but only in areas to the east of the Shabelle river, which splits the region. Areas to the west of the river have not been part of the offensive and remain under the influence of AS.

The tensions between AS and the Hawadle began, in part, due to competition over checkpoint revenues. AS had been attempting to extend their checkpoint revenue in Hiraan region through an alliance with a particular Hawadle sub-clan located in the Somalia-Ethiopia border area of north-eastern Belet Weyn. The AS attack on the border district of Ferfer, in Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State (SRS), on 26 July 2022 was enabled by this relationship. This followed another attack on Ethiopian forces several days earlier in the border area of Bakool region in Somalia and SRS, Ethiopia. The response by the SRS administration included support to and encouragement of the Hawadle to turn on AS. At the time, this initiative was supported by the new Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) who expanded the fight to other areas and groups.

The offensive has caused major losses of young men among the Hawadle and AS, but AS has largely been removed from Hawadle-controlled territory. It is important to note however that the Hawadle dominate the Hiraan regional government, meaning other groups see clan and government identity (and power) as the same thing.

Hirshabelle, Hiraan, and checkpoint revenue

Revenues from trade hubs and routes – seaports and road-based checkpoints – are an important foundation of state formation processes across the Somali regions, as argued by Hagmann and Stepputat in ‘Trade makes States’. This applies to internationally recognised states as well as aspiring state-like authorities such as AS.

The Federal Member State (FMS) of Hirshabelle was the last established of all of the FMS under the nascent federal arrangement and has arguably been the most problematic. Hirshabelle is made up of two regions, Hiraan and Middle Shabelle, the capitals being Belet Weyn and Jowhar respectively. These two towns are both located at important transport junctions. Under a coherent administration, tax revenue would be collected from these two major junctions and then managed by the Hirshabelle government, as official state revenue.

In practice, there are multiple checkpoints in both regions and taxation revenue from Hiraan region has remained in the hands of Hawadle elite. The most important checkpoint in Belet Weyn district is close to Belet Weyn airport. Taxation of vehicles here ranges between $50 and $400 USD depending on the vehicle type and cargo, and revenues raised are significant. However, there are many other checkpoints in the district, many of which collect smaller amounts of money ($10-20 USD per vehicle).

Many of the smaller checkpoints change hands over time as different local clans and militias rotate ‘ownership’ of these revenue sources; rotation of power (and therefore access to resources) is a form of power-sharing and can be considered a norm in Somali politics.

Use of revenues

Checkpoint revenue in Hiraan is effectively a clan resource for the Hawadle or whichever clan entity and associated strongmen are in charge of the checkpoint. According to our research, an important use of this revenue is to buy arms and to buy influence. The extent of the arms purchased and resultant power gained is evident in the success of the Hawadle against AS, but also in the relative autonomy of the Hawadle within Hirshabelle State. The establishment of Hirshabelle State in 2016 included an agreement whereby the Abgal and Hawadle were to share the presidency and capital. However, the November 2020 election was won by an Abgal candidate (from the incumbent Hawadle representative) and the capital remained in Jowhar, undermining this political agreement.

One of the uses of the funds collected at checkpoints is to buy influence over a range of foreign military actors operational in the area (within or outside the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) umbrella). Ex-President of SRS, Ethiopia, Abdi ‘Iley’, was expert in utilising his hold over state resources to buy the support of key military personnel within the Ethiopian military. This practice of utilising locally generated revenue to buy influence over foreign security actors to advance clan or elite interests extends to elements of the Hawadle elite in Hiraan region. These funds are also reported to buy influence over key members of competing clans in the district and region.

Conclusion

The success of the Hawadle against AS has taken a heavy toll in terms of money and lives lost, as it has done and continues to do for other clans in central Somalia. The Governor of Hiraan region made it clear that he felt unsupported by the FGS as they led the offensive against AS and claimed that Hiraan would become an independent FMS. He has since been given the position of Head of the Macawisley in Somalia and talk of an independent Hiraan has lessened. However, the status of Hiraan and the Hawadle remains unclear within Hirshabelle.

From the perspective of elements of the Hawadle elite (and perhaps more widely within the clan), control of checkpoint revenues is almost an existential issue, given the competing and well-armed clans in central Somalia. A threat to these revenues without an alternative security arrangement or peace and reconciliation is deeply problematic. In practice, these revenues have contributed to the relative autonomy of the Hawadle in relation to both AS and the Federal and Regional governments. Developing a more coherent Hirshabelle Federal Member State requires major reconciliation efforts between all clans in the State, which does not appear to be on the horizon.


[1] The Abgal, Hawadle and Ga’al Jecel hold the largest numbers of MP positions – 15, 14 and 13 respectively out of a total of 89 MPs.

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