Somali Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre has named a former Al-Shabaab leader, Mukhtar Robow, as minister for religious affairs in his newly formed cabinet.
Mr Robow’s appointment was announced Tuesday, a move that could either help strengthen the fight against the Islamist sect or provoke further clan clashes.
Mr Robow co-founded Al-Shabaab and served as a spokesman of the deadly group that has long been designated as a terrorist organisation by the United States. He had a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head.
Al Shabaab insurgents have killed tens of thousands of people in bombings in their fight to overthrow Somalia’s Western-backed central government and implement its interpretation of Islamic law.
Mr Robow split from the terror group in 2013 and publicly denounced the sect when he defected to the government side in 2017. But the relationship soured after he grew too politically powerful.
Somalia’s previous government arrested Mr Robow in December 2018 as he campaigned for the regional presidency of the southwest state.
Security forces shot dead at least 11 people in the protests that followed, sparking criticism from the United Nations.
Mr Robow’s new job sparked a flurry of hashtags on Twitter crowing he had made it #FromPrisonertoMinister.He had been held under house arrest until recently.
His appointment could help strengthen government forces in his native Bakool region, where insurgents hold substantial amounts of territory but where he also commands support. It could also fan flames with the region’s president, who sees him as a political rival.
“We welcome his appointment. The move will advance reconciliation and will serve as a good example for more high-level Al-Shabaab defections,” said political analyst Mohamed Mohamud.
“Al-Shabaab members who might be thinking of surrendering … can dream of serving their country at the highest levels.”
Mr Robow’s appointment by Prime Minister Barre comes one month after Mr Barre was nominated as prime minister by newly elected President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.
Mr Mohamud, elected by lawmakers in May, has promised to take the fight to the insurgents after three years in which his predecessor, consumed by political infighting, took little action against Al-Shabaab.
This had allowed the insurgents to build up substantial reserves of cash and carry out attacks over a wide swathe of Somalia.
Last week, scores of Al-Shabaab fighters and Ethiopian security forces were killed in clashes along the two nations’ shared border.