Nairobi – For months, the mysterious disappearance of a Somali intelligence agent raised few eyebrows in elite circles, but now the young woman’s fate threatens to trigger a major political crisis, with the president and prime minister at loggerheads.
Ikran Tahlil, a 25-year-old officer with the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), was abducted near her Mogadishu home in June, and last week her employers concluded that she had been kidnapped and killed by al-Shabaab jihadists.
The militants promptly – and unusually – issued a denial, while Tahlil’s family accused NISA of murdering her – a view backed by many Somalis who have taken to social media to denounce the agency and demand justice.
The reasons behind her abduction remain a source of speculation.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble said NISA’s report naming al-Shabaab as the culprit was “not convincing and lacks sufficient evidence”. Forty-eight hours later, he fired the agency’s director, Fahad Yasin, a close friend of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed.
The president, commonly known as Farmajo, soon came to the aid of his old friend and dismissed the sacking as “illegal and unconstitutional” in a statement released on Monday.
Yasin is expected to present a detailed report on the abduction to the national security committee, which includes the president, but the crisis has already revealed a storm brewing at the heart of Somalia’s government.
A Swedish-trained civil engineer and political neophyte, Roble was appointed premier by Farmajo in September last year.
But the two men have frequently clashed in recent months, as Somalia grapples with its worst political crisis in years after Farmajo extended his mandate in April without holding elections.
As fighting erupted in Mogadishu, piling pressure on Farmajo, the head of state asked Roble to organise the parliamentary polls, which are now scheduled to kick off between October 1 and November 25 following months of delays.
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The vote for the lower house follows a complex indirect model whereby state legislatures and clan delegates pick lawmakers, who in turn choose the president.
As Roble’s public profile has grown, relations between him and Farmajo have turned increasingly hostile.
“There is now an open rivalry between Roble and Farmajo. This has been building over the past few months, especially since Roble has taken over management of the electoral process,” said Omar Mahmood, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG).
“I’m not sure any potential presidential ambitions are driving Roble,” he told AFP, adding that the premier was more likely responding to the “public outcry” over Tahlil’s disappearance.
The row now threatens to throw an already fragile electoral process into deeper peril, observers say.
“This conflict, if not resolved amicably, will complicate every other ongoing political effort including the election process, which will be delayed if not completely stopped”, Abdikani Omar, a former high-ranking civil servant, told AFP.
Even worse, the spat could trigger a serious security crisis in the deeply unstable Horn of Africa nation, according to analysts.
The international community is already worried, with the United Nations, the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), the United States, the European Union and East African bloc IGAD among those urging the country’s leaders to end their dispute as a matter of urgency.
“We urge Somali leaders to de-escalate the political confrontation surrounding this investigation and, in particular, avoid any actions that could lead to violence,” they said Tuesday in a statement released by the UN assistance mission in Somalia.
“We… (call) for a rapid resolution of this dispute, including a credible investigation of Ikran’s disappearance and the completion of the electoral process without any further delay,” they added.
Somalia’s intelligence agency is an essential weapon in its fight against the jihadists, who will be quick to exploit any sign of weakness and who still hold large swathes of rural areas.
A decade after the al-Qaeda-linked militants were ousted from Mogadishu, the government controls only a small portion of the country, with the crucial help of some 20 000 soldiers from Amisom.
“If both sides dig in their heels, then the possibility of this political crisis morphing into a security crisis is a very real outcome,” ICG analyst Mahmood warned.
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