Somalia: New Leadership, Persistent Problems
Somalia: New Leadership, Persistent Problems
Commentary / Africa

Somalia: New Leadership, Persistent Problems

The recent election of President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo is an important step toward Somalia's recovery after decades of instability. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2017 annual early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group encourages the European Union and its member states to support the government by injecting new life into the national reconciliation talks and boost assistance for sub-national governance.

This commentary on the new leadership in Somalia is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2017.

Somalia finally has a new leadership but faces a slew of longstanding problems, moving forward. The country’s course in the next year will depend in particular on how the new Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) handles the fallout from a fraudulent and fractious electoral process and the country’s multiple security threats. If left unaddressed, these challenges combined with others such as illicit foreign funding of politicians, divisions over the country’s regional and international relations and persistent clashes driven by clan-based interests will create opportunities for armed actors – including Al-Shabaab and an emerging Islamic State (IS) – to continue to operate and expand.

The Day After Divisive Elections

The FGS and federal member states have come through a delayed, chaotic and divisive election process to select a new president and two houses of parliament. Newly elected President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo secured unprecedented cross-clan support but expectations are high and a backlash against him is probable unless he moves quickly to fulfil his pledge to rebuild the security forces and state institutions, tackle corruption and unify the country. Furthermore, Farmajo’s intention to reshape Somalia’s foreign policy could prove unsettling for the country and the region. He won partly thanks to his campaign image as a staunch nationalist, opposed to foreign meddling, but he will need to move cautiously to manage tricky regional politics and ease the anxieties of powerful neighbours. In turn, the African Union (AU) and other partners need to be aware of the destabilising potential of the perceived resurgent Somali nationalism embodied in Farmajo and should encourage discreet diplomacy between Somalia and its neighbours to promote dialogue and accommodation.

The indirect election process made positive steps toward improving representation at clan-based level and could pave the way for direct elections. But the absence of transparency and accountability among electoral bodies undermined the polls’ legitimacy and increased the chances that the results will be contested. There are credible allegations of foreign states (mostly in the Gulf) supporting their favoured candidates financially. Gender balance in the new parliament will improve but the proportion of women will still fall short of the 30 per cent quota.

President Farmajo will have to navigate Somalia’s dysfunctional politics, including its contentious federalism project.

Conflicts Between and Within Federal Member States

President Farmajo will have to navigate Somalia’s dysfunctional politics, including its contentious federalism project. The lack of agreed policies or framework to tackle disputes among federal member states or between them and central government makes his work particularly tricky. The most intractable of the conflicts between federal states remains that between the Galmudug Interim Administration (GIA) and Puntland over the city of Galkayo which straddles their common border. Clashes in November and December 2016 saw hundreds killed and thousands displaced. Tensions subsided following a ceasefire agreement in late December, but the violence highlights the ferocity of competition between clans for territorial control.​​​​​​​

Disputes within federal states also hamper efforts to rebuild the country. On 10 January, local Galmudug state parliamentarians passed a no-confidence motion against GIA President Abdikarim Guled, which he rejected on the grounds that it fell short of the required two-thirds threshold and was passed while parliament was closed. The GIA also faces resistance from the Sufi-aligned, anti-Al-Shabaab militia, Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama (ASWJ), which continues to control Galmudug state capital, Dhusamareeb.

In Somaliland, which does not recognise the FGS’s authority, elections planned for March 2017 have been pushed back until October due to drought. Since clan tensions have risen significantly there, the process could be more violent than in the past.

Al-Shabaab Adapts as Islamic State Looks for a Foothold

Al-Shabaab remains resilient and continues to launch strikes against civilian and military targets across Somalia, especially in Mogadishu’s heavily guarded centre. Though weakened, it has adapted and become versatile in using both urban and rural guerrilla tactics. Effective counter-insurgency will require concerted action by both military and civilian actors. While U.S. airstrikes and ground operations have degraded the group’s military strength and eliminated high-profile figures, they do not constitute a long-term solution.

Al-Shabaab still holds territory in the south and centre but discontent is rife among the population, especially in the Juba valley, where the group’s coercive collection of zakat tax has angered residents. In Middle Shabelle and Hiraan regions in the centre, local clan militias have mobilised and had some success in disrupting Al-Shabaab’s operations. Deep fragmentation among Somali clans makes them incapable of an organised large-scale revolt. Some could ally against Al-Shabaab but they would have to use great care as arming clans hastily and indiscriminately would risk more instability.

The emergence of IS after one of Al-Shabaab’s spiritual leaders pledged allegiance to the group in October 2015 is a further potentially serious threat to stability. Despite attempts by both Al-Shabaab and government troops to isolate pro-IS factions in the south and centre, IS briefly seized control of Qandala on Puntland’s Gulf of Aden coastline in the north in October 2016. The Puntland administration claims to have flushed IS from the town, but militants reportedly still control its peripheries. While IS has so far failed to break Al-Shabaab’s partnership with al-Qaeda, the local faction will try to exploit Al-Shabaab’s internal weaknesses to gain influence in the coming months.

Cracks in the Security Forces Play into Al-Shabaab’s Hands

The Somali National Army (SNA) is undermined by infighting over control of checkpoints (where soldiers can extort money) which has given Al-Shabaab opportunities to retake territory, most recently in Buulo Gaduud in the south west and War-Sheekh in the south east on 7 January. A wave of SNA defections to Al-Shabaab, lured by the group’s money and reassured by its pledge not to kill defectors, has buoyed the jihadists’ numbers and morale.

Unless the Somali leadership gives priority to reforming its security forces, external initiatives to help on this front will fail.

Unless the Somali leadership gives priority to reforming its security forces, external initiatives to help on this front will fail. Present rates of corruption – in Transparency International’s 2016 ranking corruption was perceived to be worse in Somalia than in any other country – not only call into question the leadership’s priorities but also fuel insecurity. Military reform need not be expensive, but troops must be committed: motivated groups like ASWJ have shown that with limited external support, Al-Shabaab can be defeated.

The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has had some significant successes against Al-Shabaab but is still struggling to fight a non-conventional war for which it is ill-suited and inadequately resourced. The SNA’s and FGS’s failure to secure and govern areas liberated by AMISOM has sapped peacekeepers’ morale and led some troop contributing countries to plan to leave the mission in the next two years. A hasty withdrawal would be disastrous, but AMISOM must plan to progressively hand over responsibility for security to effective Somali forces.

Refocusing Support on State Administrations and Clan-level Reconciliation

To help stabilise Somali politics and reduce violence, the European Union (EU) and its member states should continue to encourage the federal government to prioritise a bottom-up, national reconciliation process and to seek lasting political settlements with and between federal member states. In tandem, federal states, supported by the FGS, should launch grassroots efforts to reconcile clans and make local governance more inclusive. The EU and its member states should accompany this process by shifting the focus of their support from the federal government to state administrations to boost their role in intra- and inter-clan reconciliation and help reinforce local security forces.

If sub-national governance remains weak and dysfunctional and clans at loggerheads, there will likely be more conflict for Al-Shabaab to exploit. Donors – including the EU and its member states in part through the EU Training Mission (EUTM Somalia) – should adopt a strategy of decentralising their counter-insurgency support, currently focused overwhelmingly on Mogadishu, by increasing investment in federal states’ security forces and coordination structures.

The EU, having recently reduced its funding for AMISOM by 20 per cent, should maintain the current level while assisting the AU to secure additional funding from other donors. It should also agree with the AU and AMISOM on a new, more feasible force structure, help them work toward greater cooperation with state security forces, and plan a credible exit schedule.

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