In a country that is never short of hot button issues, lately the Ma’wisley issue has been stirring the strongest emotions and widely broadening the political division among the Somali people since 1991.
Though the issue reeks of clan sentiments, Somalis who are in favor and those against often hide behind a thinly-veiled arguments of ‘right to self-defense’ and ‘nationalism.’ Supporters of the current Somali President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, consider the Ma’wisley indigenous heroes who are aiding the current government to defeat al-Shabaab. On the other hand, supporters of the former President, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, consider them a treasonous militia that aided an opposition group determined to prevent Farmajo’s term extension plan to reach its objective.
So, in order to fairly assess the benefits and the liabilities that come with Ma’wisley, I will try to ignore these toxic perceptual paradigms and take a look at similar adventurism in the past.
Ignorance is not lack of knowledge about the world around us and motives of the actors that propel the political locomotive that shape our perceptions. Real ignorance is to embrace uncritically everything that media, academia, and governments try to feed us without any attempt to sift through with critical thinking.
Consequences of Ignoring History
Following that same model and relying on regional or federal-state leaders who are eager to risk their nation for personal or clan gain, Ethiopia and Kenya have established a number of militia groups to be the conduit for their military strategic objectives- establishing buffer zones inside Somalia. The most notorious among those militias were:
The same kinds of clan-motivated politicians, corrupt profiteers, front-line states, and narrative-crafters in Nairobi and Mogadishu, and so-called terrorism experts are all cheerleading for the Ma’wisley. These and their recruited ‘influencers’ and youthful credulous masses in social media have been ferociously attacking anyone who dares to scrutinize the official narrative. This author is one of the people labeled as “Shabaab supporter.” It is unfortunate how clannist societies rarely learn from the past.
Identity and Optics
The locals whose families and community members were savagely massacred and their properties, including water wells, were destroyed have every legal and moral right to defend themselves by any means necessary. That said, from the psychological perspective, such traumatized victims do not care about the optics currently saturating the conventional and social media platforms nor do they care if they were called Ma’wisley (the male skirt-wearing) or Da’asley (the flip flop- wearing). However, to those foreign and local actors who have been stage-managing this saga, the name does matter. It is a priceless dog-whistle.
Sustained emotional discussion on the Ma’wisley issue is the most effective way of cementing the single factor narrative (al-Shabaab) in people’s psyche. And that in turn creates collective passivity, false sense of security, and a priceless cover for all other actors (foreign and domestic) who are engaging in various elicit and zero-sum games. The more sensationalized the story, the more effective distraction it will be.
Originally, the organized indigenous vigilante is believed to have been started spontaneously back in 2018. Be that as it may, Ma’wisley has attracted others with ulterior motives (clans, foreign governments, mercenaries & narrative merchants, etc.) One does not have to be a counterintelligence expert to prove that. Optics certainly tells volumes of stories. The most iconic of said optics being a local traditional leader who is immaculately dressed for the occasion and is heavily armed with combat weapons, including automatic hand-gun in a finely designed holster- something that is known to be mercenaries’ favorite. Remember, this whole drama was unfolding in remote rural areas along the Ethiopia/Somalia border. This not in any way suggesting that the cultural elder is in cahoots, but to underscore the likelihood that he was likely duped by someone whom he probably trusted..
There are two facts that cannot be denied here: First: al-Shabaab is a terrorist organization whose long bloody trail crisscrosses throughout Somalia. And, despite their puritanical intolerance and extreme violence aimed to terrorize people into submission, there is a method to their madness.
The recent massacres in Hirshabelle that is symbolized by the Mahas 21 certainly raise many questions. Though I have not been to Mahas, it is roughly 30 miles away of Beled weyne where I was born.
Anyone who is familiar with the Somali cultural norms and rural settlement preferences knows that remote villages are almost always inhabited by specific sub-clans who know each other more thoroughly than necessary. So what strategic appeal might such area have for al-Shabaab? In our attempt to find answers to these questions, let me hyperlink my recently published analysis on al-Shabaab’s highly coordinated attack on Ethiopia, lest it provides critical context.
By ignoring this and staying the current course is tantamount to inviting Ethiopian forces to settle in that area. The pretext maybe is set for Ethiopia to create a “buffer zone” inside Somalia, and, in due course, annex that territory.
Abukar Arman is a Somali political analyst, writer and former Special Envoy to the United States. Arman is also a widely published foreign policy specialist, writing extensively on Somalia and international political affairs.