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Somalia: An Opportunity that Should Not Be Missed
Somalia: An Opportunity that Should Not Be Missed
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Somalia: Averting a Descent into Political Violence
Somalia: Averting a Descent into Political Violence
Briefing 87 / Africa

Somalia: An Opportunity that Should Not Be Missed

If the international community can agree on but a few core policies, there is the best chance in years to foster peace in Somalia.

I. Overview

The next six months will be crucial for Somalia. The international community is taking a renewed interest in the country; the mandate of the feeble and dysfunctional Transitional Federal Government (TFG) expires in a half-year; and emboldened troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), Kenya and Ethiopia are keen to deal the weakened (though still potent) extremist Islamist movement Al-Shabaab further defeats. This confluence of factors presents the best chance in years for peace and stability in the south and centre of the country. To achieve that, however, requires regional and wider international unity of purpose and an agreement on basic principles; otherwise spoilers could undermine all peacebuilding efforts.

The crisis has been climbing steadily back up the international agenda. The one-day London Somalia Conference on 23 February will bring together senior representatives from over 40 countries, the UN, African Union (AU), European Union (EU), World Bank, Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD), Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and League of Arab States. Somalia’s Transitional Federal Institutions (TFIs) will participate, as well as the presidents of Somaliland, Puntland, Galmudug (regional governments) and representatives of the largest armed group, Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama’a (ASWJ). It should prepare the way for desperately needed greater coordination, especially with Gulf and regional states, as well as between AMISOM and the UN.

Coordination is required because the mandate of the TFG is set to run out in August 2012. Although it has failed to achieve any of its core objectives, many officials desire another extension, such as it received a year ago. But it is unreformable – too many of its members benefit from the fully unsatisfactory status quo. It must not be extended. Instead, the London Conference should agree on a new political framework and principles for governing Somalia.

This is important, because AMISOM and regional forces have made impressive gains against Al-Shabaab and are poised to renew their offensive. Nevertheless, their greatest challenge will probably be not to drive the militants out of major cities and towns, but rather to secure peace thereafter. Al-Shabaab, though weakened, is far from a spent force; its militant jihadi ideology is radicalising young Somalis at home and abroad; veteran foreign jihadis are exerting ever-greater influence; and recently its emir pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and global jihad. But it is no longer the only threat to stability; the resurgence of inter-clan competition and warlordism is as serious. While there is an understandable inclination to strengthen the central state in Mogadishu (in the form of the TFIs) and its security apparatus, past and present transitional administrations have failed to bring stability, in large part because many clans do not support the reestablishment of a strong central government. A more decentralised political framework and local inter-clan reconciliation are required.

The root cause of Somalia’s many troubles – terrorism, piracy, periodic famine and constant streams of refugees – is collapse of effective governance, with resulting chronic conflict, lawlessness and poverty. The most effective and durable solution to these ills is to build gradually an inclusive, more federal government structure that most clans can support. Otherwise, Al-Shabaab (or some similar successor) and other disparate groups of would-be strongmen with guns will exploit continued dissatisfaction with Mogadishu and innate Somali hostility to “foreign occupation”.

This coming six-month period is a critical time for Somalia. To make the most of the opportunity to end more than two decades of chronic conflict, the international community should:

  • increase AMISOM’s force strength and provide more resources. To maintain momentum and consolidate gains, AMISOM should quickly assume full tactical and operational command of the AU, Ethiopian, and Kenyan missions and coordinate closely with Somali allies. Any major offensive should be accompanied by a political strategy to win the support of local clans and social groups and stabilise those areas in which they are present;
  • rebuild internal cohesion among core members of the International Contact Group;
  • enhance the role of Turkey and other Muslim nations in the stabilisation effort, so as to build Somali confidence in the process;
  • endorse closer UN/AU cooperation and insure that the two organisations’ Special Representatives work closely together;
  • endorse the formation of a truly inclusive Somali deliberative body, one that represents all clans and most regions of the country, and can establish an interim government to replace the TFG if necessary;
  • create a Local Stability Fund to help local administrations that are economically viable, can administer and impose law and order, are committed to peace and renounce terrorism and are willing to engage in an inclusive dialogue and give priority to cross-clan alliances that seek to establish viable administrations;
  • create a joint financial management board and consider establishing within it a governance and economic management program for the major national sources of revenue, such as Mogadishu port and airport, as well as Kismayo port, based on the kind of partnership between local government and internationals to promote transparency and accountability that lowered corruption in post-civil war Liberia. Once funds enter the treasury, Somalis should transparently decide their use; and
  • encourage the Somali authorities to indicate continued willingness to negotiate a political accommodation with or incorporate into a national/regional security force Al-Shabaab commanders and fighters willing to renounce terrorism and work towards peace, since this would weaken the group further and could help stabilise newly recovered areas.

Nairobi/Brussels, 22 February 2012

Women take part in a demonstration against the Somali President Mohamed Abdulahi Farmajo in Mogadishu on December 15, 2020 accused of interferences in the electoral process. STRINGER / AFP
Statement / Africa

Somalia: Averting a Descent into Political Violence

Tensions are running high following the Somali parliament’s decision to extend the incumbent president’s mandate by two years. External partners should urgently convene – and mediate – talks among the country’s bitterly divided elites, to prevent its worst political crisis in years from escalating.

Somalia’s long-running political crisis has entered a new, dangerous phase. In a hastily convened session on 12 April, members of parliament overwhelmingly endorsed a bill that would delay elections by two years, in effect extending the term in office of President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo”. The move is an alarming escalation of a dispute that could well spiral into widespread violence unless Somalia’s political elites return to the negotiating table. The opposition is said to be considering forming a parallel government; cracks have deepened in a security apparatus long divided along clan lines; and the president’s opponents have vowed to resist extension of his rule. But even though the hour is late, it is not too late for the parties to reverse course. Somalia’s external partners, led by the African Union (AU) and backed by the U.S., the UN Security Council and the European Union, should step in to organise – and lead – fresh talks among all stakeholders to craft a roadmap to timely elections. All external actors should unambiguously signal readiness to impose sanctions on parties who obstruct a new initiative to find a consensual path forward.

The distrust that has prevented Somalia’s politicians from preparing elections has been on full display over the last few months. President Farmajo and leaders of Somalia’s subnational units, known as federal member states, agreed on a framework for indirect elections on 17 September 2020. But despite several rounds of subsequent talks, they have repeatedly failed to work out the voting system. Following the expiry of Farmajo’s four-year term on 8 February, the opposition demanded that he hand power to an interim government headed by the prime minister. An attempt by Farmajo’s rivals to hold demonstrations to press home this point was met with lethal force, with clashes between police and demonstrators leaving at least eight people dead. Somalia’s external partners then urged talks to resolve the deadlock. But the parties argued bitterly over the venue, the agenda and the security arrangements. When they finally convened on 3 April at Mogadishu’s international airport, which is guarded by AU troops, negotiations collapsed after four days.

In response, Farmajo and his supporters decided to raise the stakes by summoning parliament to initiate the term extension his opponents had consistently accused him of planning. During a special session convened by lower house Speaker Mohamed Abdirahman Mursal, MPs argued that the failure to reach a compromise made the 17 September agreement impossible to fulfil. They subsequently mandated the National Independent Electoral Commission to hold elections by universal suffrage in two years. The president signed the bill into law two days later.

The parliamentary decision has sent political tensions soaring to levels not seen in Somalia for years – and which could snowball into violence due to two key factors. First, the de facto term extension has shattered already low levels of trust among Somalia’s rival political actors. Farmajo’s opponents have rallied under the banner of the Council of Presidential Candidates, an alliance that includes two former presidents and a former prime minister. They represent important clan constituencies, including in Mogadishu, and have vehemently denounced the extension of Farmajo’s mandate, pledging unspecified action. These opposition candidates are allied with the presidents of the Puntland and Jubaland federal member states. Farmajo, for his part, enjoys the support of leaders from the federal regions of Galmudug, Hirshabelle and South West. With lines of communication cut between duelling parties and with the opposition said to be considering formation of a parallel government, the risk is high that parties will use force to secure political concessions. 

The crisis has sorely tested the cohesion of Somalia’s fragile army and police.

Secondly, the crisis has sorely tested the cohesion of Somalia’s fragile army and police. Hours before parliament convened to vote on the term extension, Mogadishu police chief Sadiq “John” Omar condemned what he described as a power grab and ordered his men to block the entrance to the building, arguing that parliament’s term had expired. Police Commissioner General Hassan Hijar Abdi immediately dismissed Omar and sent forces to secure the venue. Well-placed security sources told Crisis Group that a number of soldiers from Somalia’s elite Turkish-trained Gorgor army units have since abandoned base and retreated to their clan strongholds. Elders from these clans also told Crisis Group that any attempt by authorities to disarm their troops will trigger full-scale fighting. The longer the crisis lasts, the greater the danger that these rifts will grow, raising the spectre of a return to civil war.

Resolving the crisis will not be easy. Farmajo has dug in, warning outside actors to stay out of Somalia’s internal affairs. The timing of the parliamentary decision – two days before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began – was likely designed to limit the opposition’s capacity to hold demonstrations at a time when most Somalis are observing the fast. Publicly, the opposition has reacted with restraint. Privately, however, it is working to ensure that Farmajo does not get his way. If opposition politicians go ahead to form a parallel government, they will add fuel to the fire and send tensions soaring higher.

As Crisis Group has consistently advocated, there is no alternative to concerted third-party mediation to break the electoral impasse, given the distrust among Somalia’s actors. In the past, the reluctance of external partners to engage directly was understandable, not least due to Mogadishu’s insistence that it could broker a compromise through Somali-led talks. That claim no longer holds. Instead, the spiralling crisis threatens to undo all the progress made in establishing a degree of political stability in Somalia over the last two decades. Moreover, the political stalemate and the wrangling among security forces have offered an opening to Al-Shabaab militants. Emboldened by the partial withdrawals of Ethiopian and U.S. troops at the end of 2020, militants have already stepped up attacks and resumed the large-scale assaults on Somali and foreign military targets that outside forces had prevented them from staging for several years. The crisis has also offered a propaganda coup for the militants, who have boasted that it vindicates their depiction of elites as power-obsessed incompetents.

Somalia’s key external partners need to do more. They have shown admirable unity in rejecting the term extension, with the U.S., UN, AU, EU, UK and regional bloc IGAD all issuing strong statements to express opposition. Now they should urge all Somali actors to resume talks. Ideally the AU, through the office of Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security Bankole Adeoye, who has already shown interest in resolving the standoff, would mobilise external partners to step up their diplomacy. First, the AU, with the backing of key external partners, should appoint an envoy who, working in concert with the UN envoy, should meet the main parties separately and urge a return to talks. In particular, these emissaries should emphasise to Farmajo that he will need to accept external mediation, given that the opposition will not agree to talks under his supervision. To improve the chances of Farmajo shifting his position, the U.S. could engage directly with his key backers in Qatar and Turkey and urge them to prevail on the president to show greater flexibility, given the risk the crisis poses to Somalia’s stability.

External actors should make clear that they are prepared to impose targeted sanctions.

Next, external actors will need to coordinate with Somalia’s political elite in calling for an inclusive summit to discuss a pathway to elections. Convened by the AU, with the U.S., EU and UN acting as guarantors, such a meeting should focus on delivering a timeframe for elections within weeks, rather than months. Talks could build on the 17 September agreement, but would not necessarily be bound by it, as only a narrow section of the political elite – Farmajo and the presidents of federal member states – crafted the document. Realistically, however, any election would need to broadly follow the contours of the 17 September agreement, given that an indirect election is the only feasible way to hold a vote in today’s security environment, in which Al-Shabaab controls swathes of territory in the south-central Somali countryside. Ideally, new talks would involve more participants, particularly representatives of the Council of Presidential Candidates and civil society.

To ensure that parties stick to their commitments, external actors should make clear that they are prepared to impose targeted sanctions. The U.S. has signalled a willingness to take action and urged key actors to change course in response to the latest developments. The EU has also promised to take “concrete measures” if authorities do not reverse the term extension. These are positive early steps. Somalia’s elites crave the legitimacy that comes with international recognition. Many use foreign passports to travel, hold assets outside Somalia, and keep their families in the U.S. or EU countries. Credible threats to impose visa bans and asset freezes might well concentrate minds.

Despite its many domestic challenges, Somalia has managed to establish a degree of political stability in the past decade and a half. Most strikingly, political elites have fashioned consensus on election management in past electoral cycles and found a way to both hold regular votes and oversee peaceful transitions of power. The current impasse – which could easily tip into major violence – threatens to unravel those gains. Somalia’s elites must return to dialogue.