Last year Mukhtar Robow had a $5 million US bounty on his head. Now the former Islamist al Shabaab militant has downed his guns and donned the garb of a democrat.
Robow is not the first ex-militant to enter Somali politics the momentum behind his bid to become a regional leader has turned his effort into a watershed moment in the stand-off between federal government and Somali’s seven semi-autonomous regions.
How Mogadishu and the states ultimately find ways to share power – including via elections such as the December 5 vote in South West state where Robow is running – is critical.
“It’s a pivotal point in the confrontation between government and federal member states, probably a greater threat to Somalia’s security than al Shabaab itself,” said Matt Bryden of the Nairobi-based think tank Sahan Research.
The confrontation is being played out through Robow, a key figure in the country’s troubled recent history.
Somalia has been trying to claw its way out of the civil war that engulfed it in 1991, when clan warlords overthrew a dictator and then turned on each other.
Al Shabaab has been fighting for more than a decade to topple central government and implement strict Islamic law, often sending suicide bombers against civilian targets.
Once a charismatic spokesman for the group known for military fatigues and long beard, Robow fell out with the leadership in 2013 following a power struggle.
He laid low with his militia for several years before renouncing violence and recognising the authority of the federal government in August 2017. He is running as an independent.
During this time the US withdrew a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture and removed him from the list of sponsors of terrorism, although other international sanctions remain on him.
The former insurgent, who once trained with the Taliban, cast himself in a civilian role, donning dark suits and a clerical cap. After the Shabaab bombing that killed around 500 last year, Robow was photographed donating blood.
On Sunday, the state electoral commission announced it accepted his candidature, dismissing federal demands he be barred because of remaining US Treasury sanctions.
Other states like Jubbaland and Puntland, with own polls slated for the coming months, are watching closely whether government again attempts to block Robow’s candidacy.
“If they (government) try to force the candidate people want out, they can do that in other areas. Then there will be no peace,” a senior Somali regional official told Reuters.
Somalia’s ministry of information did not respond to requests for comment on Robow’s case after the Sunday ruling of the election commission.
A PROPAGANDA COUP?
Robow allies and some analysts suggest central government is less concerned with his past and more worried his popularity with the Rahanweyn clan – one of Somalia’s most powerful – will propel him to victory ahead of their chosen candidate.
Robow himself has not yet reacted publicly, but hours after submitting his papers to the electoral commission, five other candidates threw their support behind him.
“All the intellectuals, youth and traders of South West state, have decided Sheikh Mukhtar Robow will be our candidate,” Hassan Haji, himself a candidate, said after the commission’s announcement.
Robow is campaigning on a security card, promising in an October rally: “If I win, I will eliminate al Shabaab militants, bandits in government uniforms and other clan militias who disturb our South West state.”
For many Somalis, Robow’s rehabilitation as a politician is a step too far. Much online debate about him refers to attacks he helped co-ordinate with al Shabaab.
Despite their misgivings and those of central government, Robow could be a potential thorn in al Shabaab’s side, some analysts believe.
Rashid Abdi of the International Crisis Group think tank argued allowing him to stand for office could be portrayed as a propaganda coup for central government as it tries to encourage more insurgent defections.
“It’s about people seeing the potential of democracy,” he said. “If there’s no reward for coming over, it just encourages a fight to the death.”