NAIROBI—Somali and African Union troops have made steady progress ousting al-Shabab militants from strongholds in Gedo and Juba, but now a political battle for control of newly liberated regions is posing a challenge for the country's recently established central government.
Communities in southern Somalia are pushing to make the autonomous region known as Jubaland a semi-autonomous state that would function like semi-autonomous Puntland, or Puntland's neighboring breakaway republic of Somaliland.
While community and clan leaders have reached some agreement on how to divide and rule the territory, the bigger challenge is convincing central government officials to accept the plan.
"[We] would like to be frank with people about the talks and politics that is going on," said federal parliamentary member Mohamed Ismail Shuriye, who says Mogadishu officials and regional partners remain far from agreement.
With many Somalis and regional representatives favoring formation of semi-autonomous states, some believe the central government fears it will lose power to regional and local authorities, as has happened with Somaliland and Puntland.
"Currently there is so much political wrangling that is taking place, [I] hope the political issues will end well and there will be common understanding between the players," Shuriye added.
Somalia’s newly-elected President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has been walking a fine line on the subject, telling reporters on Wednesday that regions have the right to form new states, but that the central government must have a role in the process.
"Jubaland should not be different from other states in relation to the central government," said President Mohamud. "That doesn't mean that we will name regional representatives from Mogadishu, but the government is responsible for the way people from those regions want to form their own local authority."
Some experts say members of parliament and Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon's newly appointed ten-member cabinet will have different views on how to administer the proposed semi-autonomous state. They suggest there should be some kind of temporary arrangement to prevent war over the spoils of liberation.
Multiple sources say the central government is worried about foreign influence in the region, which shares a long porous border with Kenya, whose troops arrived in the area last year to combat al-Shabab militants.
Juba-based negotiator Farhan Abdi Afdoob says regional inhabitants don't view neighboring countries as enemies or occupying forces.
"Ethiopians and Kenyans who are present in our regions are not different, and there is not one of them we view as our enemy," he said, explaining that, as Somali nationals, none of his constituents would accept being taken over by a foreign power.
"We are people who cannot secede from the Somali people," he said. "We are people who are satisfied with the new constitution and want to be governed like other federal states. We want the freedom to build our own federal state and we don’t want interference from the government, separating us along ethnic lines and creating conflict between us."
Afdoob says his constituents are asking central government only to support their initiative and treat them like other federal states in the country.