Is This a Part of UK Propaganda Machine or Miss Opportunity in Somalia?

Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (known as Farmajo) was elected Somalia’s president by parliament on 8 February 2017. During the campaign he promised to renew the fight against corruption and suggested that he would be open to talks with al-Shabaab. He came into office with a reputation for competence. However, two years on, this reputation is being severely tested.

Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (known as Farmajo) was elected president of Somalia by the federal parliament on 8 February 2017.

Farmajo was the prime minister of Somalia between 2010 and 2011. During his campaign he promised to renew the fight against corruption and indicated that he would be open to talks with al-Shabaab. He came into office with a reputation for competence. However, two years into his term, this reputation is being severely tested.

Federal strains

President Farmajo faces a big challenge in consolidating the country’s emerging federal system. For now, the status of the regional states remains ‘interim’ and the division of powers between them and the centre opaque. There have been tensions between Mogadishu and some of the regional states.  Some wonder whether Western backers of the federal experiment in Somalia might begin to lose faith in it over the period ahead.

There has recently been a political crisis in one of the regional states, namely South-West State. Presidential elections were held in December 2018. During the run-up, the federal government was faced with a dilemma when former al-Shabaab leader Mukhtar Robow Ali declared that he would be a candidate. Some argued (including several Western donor countries) that allowing defectors like Robow to take part in politics could weaken al-Shabaab’s influence over those attracted by Salafist values.

Farmajo was hostile to this idea. Robow was arrested on 13 December, only days before the election, which automatically disqualified him from standing – leaving the way open for Farmajo’s favoured candidate to win.

Robow’s arrest sparked unrest, in which at least fifteen protestors died. Since then, the situation has calmed down somewhat. But the International Crisis Group has called it a “tactical victory” which could come back to haunt the federal government in the longer-term. The UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative, Nicholas Haysom, was expelled from the country earlier this month after criticising official actions in South-West State.

Elite tensions at the centre

During 2018 opposition politicians periodically called for an impeachment motion in the federal parliament against President Farmajo – without success. At the end of the year, there was a serious attempt to get an impeachment vote following the federal government’s intervention in the presidential election in South-West State, but in the end the initiative was abandoned.

More broadly, reform efforts have been making slow headway. There has been some progress on preparations for the next elections, which are scheduled for 2020. The model being proposed is multi-party elections based on the principle of proportional representation and a closed party list system. But there have been delays in putting forward new legislation. Time is short if such arrangements are to be in place in time.

Foreign interests

Foreign interests further complicate the political picture. Various Gulf States have been busy trying to increase their influence, including by sponsoring local politicians. In terms of the wider confrontation between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, and Qatar, on the other, the Farmajo government has sought to remain neutral. In retaliation, the UAE and Saudi Arabia stopped giving support to the federal government. But some regional states have taken the side of the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The ascent to power last year of Abiy Ahmed in neighbouring Ethiopia has had an unambiguously positive impact on Somalia. His rapid moves to end Ethiopia’s frozen border conflict with Eritrea have allowed Somalia finally to escape from being the site of a proxy war between them. All three countries are now committed to increased cooperation.

The fight against al-Shabaab

The credibility of the Farmajo government heavily depends on its ability to deliver security. Since 2016, after several years of fighting with the Somali National Army (SNA) and the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) in which it lost control over substantial areas of territory, al-Shabaab has increasingly prioritised conducting asymmetrical attacks on Mogadishu and other urban centres. However, it retains control over substantial tracts of territory in the south of the country and supply routes between towns.

2018 saw further major al-Shabaab attacks across the country. September was a particularly bad month for attacks in Mogadishu. In October it attacked an Italian military convoy of the EU’s training mission, killing three civilian bystanders.

2019 has begun in a similar vein.  On 1 January al-Shabaab carried out a mortar attack on a UN base in Somalia. Three people were injured. On 15 January al-Shabaab confirmed that it retained the ability to carry out attacks against neighbouring allies of the Farmajo government when militants attacked a hotel in Nairobi, killing at least 21 people. This was the largest attack in Kenya since the one on Garissa University in 2015, in which close to 150 people died.

The US has become increasingly involved in the war against al-Shabaab since Donald Trump became president at the start of 2017. A few months ago it was reported to have about 500 special forces in Somalia. An American soldier was killed in an operation in May 2017. Another died in an operation in June 2018. US drone strikes have been deployed increasingly often in tandem with SNA and AMISOM operations against al-Shabaab.

AMISOM’s future

During President Farmajo’s first year in power, the issue of AMISOM’s future began to be posed more sharply. The plan is for AMISOM, currently 22,000 strong, to hand over responsibility for security to the SNA and the Somali police in December 2020. However, there is still not much optimism about the SNA’s ability to fill the gap if/when AMISOM does finally depart. Indeed, if the security situation does not improve and/or the next elections are held up, it is possible that its departure date may be further delayed.

Humanitarian situation

President Farmajo took office in February 2017 amidst a severe drought. Two years on, although the threat of famine has so far been averted, drought remains an ongoing threat. Over four million people still need humanitarian assistance. After good rains earlier in 2018, the latest rainy season was disappointing, meaning that there is a heightened risk of drought in the northeast and centre of the country for at least the next few months.

Somaliland and Puntland

President Farmajo has so far had no success in improving relations with the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. After several postponements, Somaliland held presidential elections in November 2017. The victor was Muse Bihi Abdi of the ruling Kulmiye Party. The defeated candidate, Abdirahman Irro of the Waddani Party, claimed there had been fraud but the Supreme Court upheld the result.

Having come to blows on several occasions in the past, in January 2018 there was renewed confrontation between Somaliland and Puntland over a contested border area. Somaliland troops violently forced out Puntland troops from the town of Tukaraq in Sool. In May 2018 there was another outbreak of violence. Puntland launched an offensive to try and re-take Tukaraq. Dozens were killed as fighting continued into July. Efforts to negotiate a formal ceasefire have been unsuccessful. Since then there have been several further low-level clashes. The situation remains a stalemate.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7298

Author: Jon Lunn