The Regional Risks to Somalia’s Moment of Hope
Eruptions of joy across the Somali-speaking Horn of Africa greeted the election of President Mohammed Abdullahi Farmajo, but to deliver a cure for Somalia’s chronic ills he will need to counter distrust in neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya and win support from the African Union.
The election of Somalia’s new President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo offers the country’s international partners a new opportunity to step up efforts in advancing peace and stability in Somalia as well as the wider Horn of Africa. Yet the hopes of a stable future for war-torn Somalia may be short lived if the fraught regional dynamic, in particular the mistrust felt by regional powers Ethiopia and Kenya, are not effectively addressed.
Farmajo’s near-landslide election victory on 8 February is without parallel. Although the eruptions of joy across the Somali-speaking Horn and the shared jubilation of citizens and soldiers in Mogadishu is rightly giving way to more sober assessments, the view that a seismic shift has occurred will be difficult to ignore.
Ensuring that this election ushers in a new dawn, and that Farmajo’s new-found political capital is well invested, a renewed diplomatic engagement by partners on numerous fronts will be required to support national-level reform and ease regional anxieties. The upcoming London Conference on Somalia, now expected in early May, represents an opportunity to do just that.
A Popular Mandate
Many hope that Farmajo’s credibility and popular support can be channelled productively. The national reconciliation talks, aimed at healing deep wounds from the civil war that broke out in 1991, have stalled and Farmajo’s strong mandate may be what is necessary to resuscitate them.
Although the entire indirect election process was extremely corrupt, Somalis have completed a relatively credible presidential election that has resulted in a peaceful transfer of power. Farmajo’s cross-clan support – the strongest platform for any Somali president – is a rare demonstration of unity in the ethnically homogenous but clan-fractured country. The mandate is indispensable for making critical progress on multiple fronts, particularly on reconciliation, addressing corruption and finalising the constitution.
A number of factors worked in Farmajo’s favour and helped seal his remarkable victory. First, Farmajo tapped into a growing antipathy to the dominance of the Abgal, a Hawiye sub-clan that gave the country its last two presidents. Frustration among other clans was also directed at the implicit agreement between the Abgal/Hawiye and Majerteen/Darod clans that allowed them to control and share both the presidential and prime ministerial seats. Farmajo’s victory was also helped by former President Hassan Sheikh’s decision to support the re-election of Mohamed Osman Jawari of the Digil/Mirifle clan as parliamentary speaker cost him the Digil/Mirifle vote. This tactical support was intended to scupper Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan’s presidential campaign, since it is an unwritten rule that the president and speaker cannot hail from the same clan. This fuelled Digil/Mirifle resentment, who ended up coming together during the presidential election rounds to vote against Hassan Sheikh.
Second, Farmajo is also well liked among diaspora and youth. More than 125 of Somalia’s 283 MPs and senators are from the diaspora and 165 MPs and senators are under 35 years of age. In addition, approximately 30 per cent of the newly elected MPs are also affiliated with Islamist-leaning groups, including Salafi movements and the Muslim Brotherhood (excluding Hasan Sheikh’s Damal Jadid). These have been, for some time, against the previous president’s perceived closeness with Ethiopia and its meddling in Somali political affairs.
Third, Farmajo benefitted from a huge wave of nationalistic fervour and a widely-shared perception he could be the right person to build a robust Somali National Army (SNA), speed up the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM)’s exit, stabilise security, curb interventions by neighbouring countries, and protect Somalia’s dignity and sovereignty.
Farmajo’s immediate task will be to manage the inordinately high expectations. Unless he takes some early steps toward fulfilling his pledges of rebuilding security forces and state institutions, tackling corruption and unifying the country, dissatisfaction could trigger a serious public backlash.
A further immediate impediment to Farmajo’s proposed domestic agenda stems from the entrenched elites. Clan leaderships comprise a form of a very corrupt “deep state” that often operate against the interests of the people. Some believe this network cut short Farmajo’s tenure as prime minister in 2011. Meaningful progress will be unlikely unless these factions are controlled through a mixture of co-option and coercion.
The elections also highlighted the extent to which covert foreign funding of politicians fuelled allegations of clientalism and has impeded Somalia’s democratic transformation. Regional countries, and the Arab states of the Gulf in particular, were widely alleged to be giving cash to the top five presidential candidates. Managing competing foreign interests in future presidential elections and reducing the corrupting influence of illicit foreign funding must be a priority for the Farmajo government. One potential institutional solution would be to formalise the Integrity Commission, set up just days before the presidential elections with the aim of curbing bribery.
On a regional and international level, Farmajo’s stated intent to reshape his country’s foreign policy could prove a daunting challenge, not least because his victory stemmed in part from his campaign image as a staunch nationalist opposed to foreign meddling – especially by Ethiopia and Kenya. As head of state, he will need to move with extra caution to navigate regional politics and ease the anxieties of these powerful neighbours who are suspicious of his brand of politics.
Growing tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia (over Nile waters, the Grand Renaissance Dam and South Sudan) could potentially spill over into Somalia and complicate matters for Farmajo. The speed with which Cairo has moved to embrace the new Somali president is bound to increase Ethiopia’s anxieties at the growing Arab influence in the country.
The resurgent Somali nationalism that Farmajo is said to embody is causing particular concern in Ethiopia, which could become an equal, if not greater, challenge to the new president. Ethiopia and Somalia are historical rivals and Addis Ababa has intervened repeatedly in its eastern neighbour since the central government collapsed in the early 1990s. In 2006, Ethiopia moved swiftly to dislodge the popular Union of Islamic Court (UIC) Islamist government that had managed to restore peace in Somalia during its brief six-month reign. Addis saw the UIC's anti-Ethiopian posturing and Somali nationalist rhetoric in support of a “greater Somalia” that incorporates Somali inhabited areas in neighbouring countries as a threat and acted accordingly.
If Farmajo adopts a similarly antagonistic posture – as his popular “nationalist” constituency demands – then Addis will quickly act to undermine the new regime in Mogadishu, regardless of the progress made in Somalia’s domestic struggles. He will need to move slowly in relation to Ethiopia and Kenya – which shares many of Ethiopia’s concerns about Somali nationalism, given the large Somali population there – and reaching out to emphasise the shared interest between the new president and these countries in stabilising Somalia.
The new president seems to be sensitive to these concerns and has sent emissaries to Nairobi and Addis Ababa with messages of goodwill and reassurances. This is hugely positive and ought to be sustained and supported by the international community.
Still, there are signs that regional tensions may worsen. Pro-Farmajo social media activists posted a picture of an Ethiopian senior official at the election venue captioned “Ethiopia shattered by the poll outcome”. Such taunts were disseminated widely across the Somali-speaking Horn and diaspora. Farmajo’s broad domestic popularity is unlikely to protect him from Somalia’s fragile relationships with its neighbours, and an Ethiopia that senses its interests and influence to be in jeopardy will almost certainly be a spoiler for Farmajo’s agenda of reform.
The African Union’s Role
Somalia’s recent election marks another important milestone in the country: the tenth anniversary of the regional peacekeeping force AMISOM. In this time, the internationally supported mission has helped state forces in their fight against Al-Shabaab militants, provided and delivered humanitarian aid, and trained the Somali security forces.
Yet the mission’s resource and management challenges remain unaddressed, which hamper AMISOM’s peacekeeping capabilities. The African Union (AU) must tackle the dysfunction, national rivalries and frictions among the troop-contributing countries: Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti. Such tensions hinder AMISOM’s military effectiveness in fighting Al-Shabaab and add to the incoherence surrounding the planned exit from Somalia envisioned to begin in 2018. A hasty pullout would be catastrophic for Somalia and the region.
Since AMISOM’s deployment, Al-Shabaab has been significantly degraded but remains a lethal force with the capacity to continue destabilising the country for years to come. While Farmajo served as prime minister, Al-Shabaab lost significant territory and was ultimately forced to withdraw from the capital. With a stable government in place and Farmajo at the helm, greater effort can be made to coordinate between regional peacekeepers and national security forces to step up the campaign against Al-Shabaab and other militants, especially since a local group declaring affiliation to Islamic State briefly seized a patch of Somalia’s coastland late last year.
Since the election, there has been cause for cautious optimism as reports were circulated by several Somali news sources this week that a significant dissident faction of Al-Shabaab led by Mukhtar Robow Abu Mansur was considering surrendering to the new Somali government, in recognition of Farmajo’s huge popularity. This would be a great boost for the new administration, and all efforts must be made to help the new government peel away elements of the militants amenable to a peaceful settlement. No less important, the AU and other international partners must encourage the new government to focus on national reconciliation.