Sheikh Madobe (right) talks to Kenya’s Lt. Col Jeff Nyaga at Afmadow (Nyambega Geisesa/Daily Nation).
AFMADOW — On May 22, as the sun was setting, a luxuriantly-bearded figure appeared at the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) camp in the Somali town of Belles Qocani guarded by a squad of civilian fighters.
Instead of being alarmed by the gunmen in solid green fatigues armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers, the Kenyan soldiers were happy.
The bearded man, Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed Islam, popularly referred to as Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, is the leader of the Ras Kamboni Brigade, a paramilitary group that is the predecessor of the Ras Kamboni Movement.
“Ours is a political party,” he said when we asked him whether he considered himself a warlord. The Ras Kamboni Movement is named after the coastal Somali town on the Kenyan border, and the members of the Ogaden clan, which is the most populous in southern Somalia, form the bulk of the Ras Kamboni Brigade.
“I got the nickname Madobe from our family because I am the blackest” he said. Sheikh Madobe has risen from nothing to become a key player in the war against the Al-Shabaab.
“He is a key asset in the war against Al-Shabaab as we seek to protect Kenya’s sovereignty and ensure that our citizens are not threatened by this terror organisation,” Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Nyaga, a KDF commander whose men captured Afmadow and is expected to lead the final assault on Kismayu, told DN2.
After the fall of Afmadow, Sheikh Madobe was instrumental in the appointment of a new District Commissioner for Afmadow district.
Stocky and seemingly implacable, the Somali warlord who is backed by Kenya against the Al-Shabaab, is credited with restoring some sort of stability in various towns in southern Somalia.
Without an effective police force and a weak national military, KDF expects the warlord born in 1963 to play a big role in the pacification of liberated towns.
Sheikh Madobe has turned his guns on his former ally, the al-Qaeda linked Somali Islamist group Al-Shabaab and fights alongside the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) and the Somali National Army (SNA).
He was the governor of Kismayu from 2006 until the Ethiopian National Defence Forces overthrew the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), and was almost killed during the battle for Kismayu.
But the worst of all battles for the man who has been fighting for the larger part of his life was on January 22, 2002 when Americans bombed the Kolbiyo district in Kismayu.
“Never have I come so close to death than on that day. We were eight people and I am the only one who survived. That attack remains the worst in my life,” he recalled.
He was wounded by shrapnel but was spirited away to Ethiopia where he spent almost two years in prison or under house arrest.
In January 2009, he was elected as MP but he resigned from his position three months later, becoming the first lawmaker to resign from Somalia’s expanded parliament since former ICU chief Sheikh Sharif Ahmed was elected as President.
At that time, Somalia’s Radio Garowe reported Sheikh Madobe as saying that he had joined the 550-member parliament so as to be released from bondage in Ethiopia.
Sheikh Madobe is keen on seeing Al-Shabaab, which he helped found, chased away from Kismayu, the capital of Lower Juba region, and crushed altogether.
“I have tasted defeat in Kismayu. I will not allow that to happen again,” he says.
The defeat he is talking about happened in the hands of one of his fellow lieutenants. Fighting had broken up between the Hizbul Islam faction to which he belonged and Al-Shabaab over the control of Kismayu. Over 40 people were killed.
In the ensuing fight, the Ras Kamboni brigade split into two: one led by Madobe fighting Al-Shabaab and another one led by Hassan “Turki” aligned with Al-Shabaab.
The fighting stopped in November 2009 when Madobe’s forces lost Kismayu and were forced to withdraw from the port city and most of southern Somalia.
Three months later Turki merged with Al-Shabaab. Towards the end of 2010, Hizbul Islam also joined forces with Al-Shabaab.
Other influential community leaders fighting against Al-Shabaab in Southern Somalia include Prof Abdi Gandhi, a geologist of French and Somali nationality, who is said does not see eye-to-eye with Sheikh Madobe, and Barre Hirale.
Prof Gandhi is also a former Defence minister who used to work as a consultant for the French oil giant Total.
In a previous meeting held in a hotel in Naivasha, Prof Gandhi was declared president of the fledging breakaway semi-autonomous southern Somalia region known as Azania, whose independence Kenya is said not to mind as a buffer state between it and the rest of Somalia.
But unlike Sheikh Madobe, Prof Gandhi is accused of not being all-inclusive, especially in a country where consideration for every clan interest is important. Sheikh Madobe also prefers a united Somalia.
Despite his efforts, some residents in various towns in Somali voice serious concerns about the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force by Sheikh Madobe’s men.
Some feel that he is more interested in instigating unnecessary wars that he then uses as his bargaining chip, allegations that offer an uncomfortable glimpse of the clandestine war that Somali warlords are waging against Al-Shabaab and the lack of accountability they enjoy.
But Madobe insists that in the shadowy war being waged in Somalia, where you cannot easily identify who is attacking you and when, means it is certainly no place for armchair morality.
One of the reasons why many feel that Sheikh Madobe will never take his eyes off this region includes rumours that the sea off its coast, and parts of the inland, are rich in oil.
The area also has a lot of agricultural potential and is rich in fisheries. Coincidentally, Sheikh Madobe told DN2 he is a professional fisherman.
Kismayu port raises hundreds of millions of shillings monthly, and Ethiopia is uneasy with the progress being made by the Ras Kamboni Brigade in case Sheikh Madobe uses its resources to support secession by Ethiopia’s Ogaden Somalis.
Such a prospect cannot be taken lightly, especially in a region where some people have been calling for a semi-autonomous government that comprises Gedo, Lower Juba and Middle Juba.
Already, there are break away regions like Puntland and Somaliland, and other states are pushing for federalism. Asked about these concerns, Sheikh Madobe says: “I am here for peace, nothing else.”
Political calculations, such as the desire to bring a speedy end to wars, make warlords like Madobe instrumental in heralding a new Somalia.
“It’s still important to note that we will have to disarm warlords for the sake of long-term peace,” Wafula Wamunyinyi, the Deputy African Union Commissioner to Somalia, said during an interview in Mogadishu.
But the challenge of disarming warlords in places like Mogadishu became evident a few years ago when a resemblance of a central government started taking shape.
“Some gave up arms but they were still left with their own militia, capable of disrupting any peaceful government operations,” said Osman Abdi, a Mogadishu politician.
It’s even alleged that the Somali Transitional Government’s minister for Defence has his own militia to protect him. Sheikh Madobe insists that his dream is to see a peaceful Somalia, achieved through any means possible.
“We are a political party and we have made tremendous progress from being termed as a militia,” he said.
His group has a strong relationship with Kenya, which guarded him in a safe house for about a year when Al-Shabaab put a bounty on his head.
His family lives in Somalia and Nairobi where it’s alleged to be under the protection of the Kenyan military.
On the battle field, his grasp of military tactics and his ability to laugh warmly and speak about war as if it’s nothing, has become a source of morale and inspiration for Kenyan soldiers.
“You look at him and you get the feeling that you need to keep on fighting. He is such an inspiration,” said a Kenyan soldier when Sheikh Madobe visited the KDF Camp.
In the recent capture of Xayo and Afmadow towns, despite being a high value target for Al-Shabaab, Sheikh Madobe left the security and comfort of an armoured personnel carrier to march with the troops under the scotching sun when entering the towns.
He is no less a hero in Somalia. A Che Guevara-type figure, Madobe’s image can be found plastered on shop windows.
June 12, 2012