Somalia’s new president must seek regional, federal cohesion while countering al-Shabaab threat

Somalia’s new president must seek regional, federal cohesion while countering al-Shabaab threat
The author writes that Somalian government troops and local militias have been recapturing areas from al-Shabaab militants, including ports, that are sources of revenue and weapons for the insurgents. (Photo: File image)

The polls have delivered a new chapter for the country, allowing attention to turn to other pressing problems. 

After a 15-month delay in voting, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud became Somalia’s new president on 15 May. Political leaders had disagreed over the election process, including whether to conduct a one-person, one-vote election or an indirect one. In the end, May’s poll was indirect, with clan delegates voting for parliamentarians, who then cast their ballot for the president.

The government of former president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (Farmajo) had planned nationwide direct elections after years of indirect voting. But in June 2020 the National Independent Electoral Commission put this on hold due to a lack of funds and election infrastructure. Disagreements on the credibility of election management bodies, locations and security added to the delay. 

Now that the polls and their disputes are over, the country and its international partners can focus on Somalia’s other priorities. These include finalising the constitutional review, building a viable Somali security force and fighting al-Shabaab. Constructive re-engagement with global financial partners also needs attention, as does the drought crisis affecting around 26% of the population. The country will need the continued support of its international partners to achieve these goals.

Mohamud, who was head of state from 2012-16, was voted in as Somalia’s 10th president after running against Farmajo. This is the first time a president has been re-elected since the formation of the Transitional Federal Government in 2004. 

Farmajo tried hard to retain power. Observers say he used government resources and the security apparatus to try to extend his time in office. Although the Lower House of Parliament prolonged his term without approval from the Upper House in 2021, he dropped the extension due to strong internal and international opposition. His actions nevertheless increased mistrust among political leaders and further delayed the polls. May’s election has ushered in a new political chapter marred by many uncertainties.

Mohamud now has a second chance to lead Somalia. His experience will be an advantage in navigating the system and mending prior mistakes. His previous presidency was characterised by state-building and dialogue with political stakeholders. His administration helped shape the country’s federal structure by establishing four of the current five regional member states and encouraging power-sharing. He also constructively engaged regional member states. 

In 2015 his administration launched the National Leadership Forum, which provided guiding principles for cooperation between the federal government and member states on state formation and managing relations. The forum reduced political disagreements and allowed national leaders to tackle critical issues. It facilitated a peaceful electoral process culminating in Farmajo winning the presidency in 2017.

Mohamud’s new term in office will be aimed at mending relations — unlike the previous president, whose lobbying agenda was reform. He’s expected to build on past accomplishments and is unlikely to challenge the existing federal arrangement and exacerbate tension with regional governments. This will help ease the political standoff between regional and federal leaders that has fuelled political uncertainty and violence in the past year.

Somalia faces a dual security and political crisis that escalated due to election delays. The country is also situated in a turbulent neighbourhood, which hampers regional responses to its crisis. Political stability must be Mohamud’s top priority. This includes building trust between federal and regional leaders and discussing long-standing issues, such as reviewing the provisional constitution. 

A stable political environment would enable more effective national efforts against al-Shabaab, including non-military measures like dialogue and providing government services to lessen the group’s role and influence. This is vital considering that various military interventions haven’t diminished the threat posed by al-Shabaab.

The African Union Transition Mission in Somalia, tasked with eliminating the terror threat and handing responsibility to Somalia’s national forces, ends in December 2024. Troops will be downsized in phases. The United States is redeploying 500 soldiers to the country — fewer than before — to maintain a “small but persistent” military presence after it withdrew in January 2021. 

But Somalia’s national army needs help to take over from the AU mission. Al-Shabaab’s capacity has increased, with recent studies showing that the group spends around $25-million yearly on arms. Political wrangling has hampered the task of building a national army that can secure the country and extend government authority.

Mohamud should take a comprehensive approach to the security problem. Al-Shabaab must be weakened ideologically and financially by, for example, disrupting its local source of income. Experts say that dialogue is still an option despite al-Shabaab’s successful attacks in recent months. Political cooperation between different leadership levels in Somalia could help undermine the group’s local funding and close governance gaps it uses to advance its ideology. 

Mohamud must also contend with an external environment that’s shifted since he was last in power. Neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya no longer have a common position on Somalia after their approaches diverged with Ethiopia’s 2018 change of administration. 

Somalia’s relations with Gulf actors have also evolved since Mohamud’s first term, exacerbating the country’s internal divisions. The 2017 crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council that led to a blockade of Qatar by other Gulf countries adversely influenced Somalia’s internal political situation. And the United Arab Emirates has bypassed Somalia’s federal government to work with its regional governments. 

To withstand competing external interests in Somalia, Mohamud’s administration must clearly articulate the country’s common interests and carefully coordinate its foreign relations. If well managed, Somalia could benefit from the constructive involvement of external stakeholders. 

The May election is a milestone for Somalia and its international partners, whose continued support is vital to stabilise the country. Although doing so will be a long-term undertaking, with the current local and international momentum, it can be achieved. DM

Selam Tadesse Demissie, Research Officer, Horn of Africa Security Analysis, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Addis Ababa.

First published by ISS Today.


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