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Somalia: February 2017 update

Published Thursday, February 16, 2017

Somalia has just completed a long and much-delayed (s)electoral process to create a new parliament and elect a new president. Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (known as Farmajo) was elected the country’s president by parliament on 8 February 2017. President Farmajo faces many daunting challenges.

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Although the incumbent, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, was the favourite to win ahead of the presidential vote, he was decisively defeated by 184 votes to 80.

Power was transferred to President Farmajo on 16 February.  His formal inauguration is scheduled for 22 February. A dual US-Somali citizen, 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 has a reputation for competence that will now be put to the test.

Africa Confidential described the process of creating a new parliament as “extremely tortuous and drenched in bribery and violence” and reserved judgement on whether it will be a “stepping stone towards one person, one vote democracy” when the next election season arrives in 2020 (as was originally the hope about the elections that have just finished). Much the same has been alleged of the presidential contest.

As always in Somalia, clan interests and alliances played a major role in deciding the (s)election outcome, as did the involvement of foreign powers. This will remain the case under President Farmajo, who comes from the Darod clan. Most now expect that, in order to ensure balanced clan representation, his prime minister will come from the Hawiye clan. More broadly, the new government will need to be sufficiently “inclusive” of all the larger clans if it is to have credibility.

The credibility of Somalia’s new government will depend on its ability to deliver security. Al-Shabaab was unable to prevent the (s)electoral process from taking place. However, Africa Confidential claims that many of the Elders involved who came from areas where al-Shabaab is strong have repudiated their involvement on returning home and apologised for participating in it. Their apologies have reportedly been accepted provided they also pay $300 to al-Shabaab, significantly boosting its coffers. If true, this suggests that President Farmajo’s political base remains distinctly fragile.

Al-Shabaab continued to launch regular attacks on the Somali security forces and civilians while the (s)electoral process was taking place. A suicide bombing attack on a Mogadishu hotel in January reportedly killed between 15 and 20 civilians. In January 2017 al-Shabaab attacked a Kenyan military camp and reportedly killed at least 21 soldiers (Kenya claims that nine of its soldiers and dozens of terrorists died). The fact that Kenya has national elections later this year makes their troops a particularly attractive target for al-Shabaab at the moment.

Given the continuing weakness of the Somali National Army, the new president will be keen to see the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), whose multinational forces have been supporting the Somali Federal Government, play an effective role. The force has also suffered some set-backs over the last year or so. Last year, Ethiopia withdrew its troops from the mission. For now, Kenya remains committed to it.

President Farmajo will also be hoping that a decision by the Kenyan Government to close the Dadaab refugee camp, where 200,000 Somalis currently live, is shelved. Earlier this month, a Kenyan court ruled the decision was illegal. The Kenyan Government has said it intends to appeal against the verdict.

The problems facing AMISOM may open the way for the talks with al-Shabaab that President Farmajo has suggested he would like to see. But talks do not look imminent. It may be that the authorities will start by trying to draw those who are al-Shabaab ‘by convenience’ into negotiations, rather than target hardliners.

President Farmajo also faces a big challenge in consolidating the country’s emerging federal system. His predecessor failed to finish a constitutional review process that might have given it a more resilient underpinning. For now, the division of powers between the centre and the regional states remains opaque.

Perhaps the most urgent challenge facing the new president is the severe drought that is affecting Somalia. In January 2017 the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia said that five million Somalis – about half the population – do not have enough to eat.

In February, the UK Government’s Envoy for the Horn of Africa, Sir Nicholas Kay, said that hundreds of thousands of Somalis could die in the next few month unless there is action to address the threat of famine. However, the crisis has not yet officially been declared a famine.


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