How General Odowa dismissal brings Somalia closer to a despotic rule

A month ago, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud dismissed the chief of staff of the Somali National Army, General Odowa Yusuf Rageh, in a move that surprised many, especially the general who apparently did not see that coming.

In this piece, we will see how far the personality of the young general was out of step with the changes programmed by the president and his security advisers.

We will see also that this change in army leadership is part of a larger strategy to overhaul Somalia’s security policy and governance, leaving the country open to special interest and increased foreign interference at the expense of national aspirations for a free, unified and democratic society.

An inspiring young general

On June 19, the Somali government relieved the young chief of staff of the Somali National Army, General Odowa, of his duties. The decision has generated much speculations, especially since the general, popularly called General Odowa, himself said during an interview with VOA, that he was clueless about the reason of his dismissal and questioned the timing at a time the army is preparing for the “second phase” in the offensive against Al-Shabab.

The general was promoted to Brigadier General by previous president Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo in 2019. He was then entrusted with leading the National Armed Forces until now led by elderly generals trained during the Mohamed Siyad Barre regime. Odowa was held as an aspiring officer who grew up during the Somali civil war.

His appointment was well received by the public as it demonstrated that finally younger generation were recognized and promoted. The opposition, especially the tribal-minded current president Hassan Sheikh, welcomed the promotion as he hailed from the same clan.

The unwritten rule and the complex nature of Somali politics dictate that normally the president appoints someone from another clan to head the main national institutions to maintain some balance reflecting the heavily clan-divided Somali society. Odowa at the time of his appointment was the right fit in many aspects.

Resisting call to mutiny

However, Odowa mild-manner, discipline, and focus on the security job at hand turned sour when opposition politicians from his clan took aim at him. By turning a deaf ear to their exhortations to mutiny and side with them, soon earned him their ire.

This opposition brought together former presidents and high-level politicians, the majority of whom came from Odowa’s Hawiye clan. Hassan Sheikh, the current president was one of the ringleaders behind the call to mutiny of high-ranking officers from this clan and the threats to pay with their lives if they did not comply.

At that time, Hassan Sheikh’s veiled-threats to kill him and General Farhan Qarole even if his harshest words were addressed to Qarole who had replaced the mutinous General Saqid John as the head of the Mogadishu police. A few months after Hassan Sheikh took power Qarole was assassinated in unclear circumstances officially attributed to Al-Shabab.

In such a context, it was expected that Odowa would be relieved of his duties or, even worse, be the victim of one of these suspicious assassinations that are always and quickly attributed to Al-Shabab, that they claimed responsibility or not.

Loyalty to the nation, not the clan

Odowa demonstrated professionalism and continued to be loyal to state institutions in the face of apparent mistrust and strong supervision from the Minister of Defense who never let go of him in his travels.

However, two months after his inauguration, President Hassan Sheikh, taken by surprise by the offensive against Al-Shabab initiated by the governor of Hiran, Ali Jeyte, reluctantly let Odowa give Jeyte and his ma’awisley vigilantes the support they needed from the army.

The army under the command of Odowa and Tahlil gave positive results on the ground by eliminating the extremist group from the territories in Hiran, Galgadud and Middle Shabelle they had occupied for more than a decade, but from the political point of view the result was rather mixed.

Moreover, Hassan Sheikh saw in the offensive an opportunity to distribute arms to the militiamen of his clan and to confine them to regions far from the front lines with Al-Shabab. He also took the opportunity to empty Gedo of the tactical forces which represented a bulwark against Al-Shabab in the region and the criminals infiltration from the Kenyan and Ethiopian borders.

Beside the fact the young general opposed the use of the army for clan purpose in Barawe clashes, there is little indication that General Odowa protested against the use of the military army for political purposes by the president. If there have been dissensions, nothing has filtered out so far.

Perhaps his subtle but most telling criticism of Hassan Sheikh’s decision is the sensitive timing to fire him and Tahlil, but also indirectly Ali Jeyte, three individuals who have been the backbone of recent gains against Al-Shabab. The suspicious simultaneous sacking was welcomed by the militant group which has since gone on the offensive.

Killing the national dream

Odowa’s 4-year tenure was endowed in Farmajo’s dream of a strong army and was tasked to lead the growing army under a unified command centre. The aim in the previous administration was to progressively replace poorly trained clan militiamen nationalized by Hassan Sheikh in the first term. These troops were more loyal to clan than the nation as we witness on April 2021.

Unfortunately, Hassan Sheikh has since his ascension killed that dream. Indeed, the current president has always said he did not believe Somalia needs a strong army. His recent effort was to reverse previous defense policy by dismantling Turkish-trained troops and preventing the bulk of the 5,000-strong Eritrea-trained troops from being repatriated.

Thus, Hassan Sheikh nipped in the bud a national army reflecting the clan diversity. Beside the Turkish-trained troops recruited from every Somali regions, he specifically saw as a threat the carefully selected and highly diverse Eritrea-trained soldiers who underwent a comprehensive 3-year training in an austere environment.

Advised by the British-funded mercenary organization Sahan Research, he ditched these troops as if they were a useless bunch in a country plagued by rampant insecurity. While he repatriated a fraction of them as proof that he was true to his promise to bring these soldiers stranded in Eritrea, he sequestered them for months and then sent them to face Al-Shabab poorly equipped only to be surrounded and massacred within days of their deployment.

Hassan deceiving tactics

Instead, Hassan Sheikh quickly recruited hundreds of young men from his own clan and sent them for training in Egypt and Uganda. This project funded by the United Arab Emirates would serve special interests rather than national.

To deceive the population, troops hastily trained in Uganda, called Military Police, were deployed in Mogadishu. Media publicity made believe in their effectiveness against street gangs, glossing over the relentless Al-Shabab attacks in the capital.

Furthermore, the choice of General Ibrahim Sheikh Muhyaddin Addow could shed some light on the true intentions of the generals’ dismissal. Addow commanded the Presidential Guard, or Red Berets, guarding Villa Somalia alongside African forces on mission in Somalia during President Hassan Sheikh’s first term.

Addow who hailed from the president’s clan is a man who became rich during this period between 2012 and 2017. He then settled in Kenya transferring a fortune estimated at millions of dollars which he invested in real estate.

In addition, he allegedly played a role in a plot against President Farmajo hatched by Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble. This plot aimed to take command of the army by deposing, or even assassinating, General Odowa if he had refused to yield. The plot failed.

Removing unwanted obstacle

The recall of General Addow from retirement announces three things. First, a malleable faithful in the hands of Hassan Sheikh takes the reins of the army. Second, the army is concentrated in the hands of the president’s clan. Third, all forces coming under the federal government forces stationed in Gedo are firmly under the indirect control of Ahmed Madobe.

Indeed, with General Odowa, the president also replaced the chief of the army, the very able General Mohamed Tahlil Bihi known for his seniority, resourcefulness and his tangible victories on the ground against Al-Ashabab. While Odowa candidly stated that he did not know the reason for his dismissal, Tahlil made it clear during the handover ceremony that his dismissal is related to the Gedo issue.

It is evident from his recent political and military maneuvers that President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud wants to force Gedo, a province to which Tahlil Bihi is clan-linked, into the hands of his allied Ahmed Madobe, President of Jubaland state. Brigadier General Ahmed Aden Ali, the one who replaced Tahlil, is in fact an Ahmed Madobe loyalist, with no combat experience.

Madobe, who installed by the Americans and ruled Jubaland protected by Kenyan troops for 13 years, refuses to organize elections demanded by the residents of Gedo.

Upcoming upheaval

All of these changes and machinations are part of a sinister plan that is leading Somalia into uncharted waters. The enthusiasm generated by a defensive policy that emphasized the inclusiveness and diversity of a professional army will soon be a thing of the past.

Also, with the president’s tendency to secrecy, his quest to unilaterally extend his mandate and his unease with the deliberative process and legislative power of parliament, the establishment of a long-talked-about state of emergency is looming.

A disjointed army mostly controlled by foreigners (Emiratis, Egyptians, Americans and British) with their own interests and an expanded clan-based “presidential guard” are prepared to suppress any political resistance to foreign control or an increasingly despotic Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.

What is also troubling is the president’s tendency to mimic the despotic regime of Ismail Omar Guelleh in Djibouti by placing his close family, clansmen and friends at the top of key economic and security sectors in the country. A trend imitated by Somaliland, Puntland and Jubaland.

General Yusuf Rageh and General Tahlil Bihi who espoused Farmajo’s patriotic push were seen as an obstacle and had to be removed, but will the Somali nation allow such plans to proceed or rise up to liberate their country?

AbdiQani Badar

AbdiQani Badar is a historian, political commentator and avid writer. He has written extensively on Somali issues and historical events.