A Welcome Chance for a Reset in Somalia
A Welcome Chance for a Reset in Somalia
Somalia's newly elected president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud holds hands with incumbent president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed after winning the elections in Mogadishu, Somalia May 16, 2022. REUTERS / Feisal Omar
Q&A / Africa

A Welcome Chance for a Reset in Somalia

It took sixteen months, but Somalia’s elections have finally concluded – and without major incident. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Omar Mahmood looks at the challenges confronting the new chief executive and suggests some ways of tackling them.

What happened in Somalia’s presidential election?

On 23 May, outgoing Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” officially handed over power to his successor Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. The ceremony marked the conclusion of Somalia’s longest-ever electoral cycle, which reached its denouement in the presidential contest held on 15 May, more than sixteen months behind schedule. Mohamud, who had previously served as president between 2012 and 2017, made history as the only Somali president in the modern era to win a second, albeit non-consecutive, term.

Somalia’s elections are indirect. Regional states select their senators for the upper house of parliament. The process for the lower house of parliament begins when clan elders and other respected clan members select delegates, who in turn select their parliamentary representatives. Representatives of the two parliamentary houses then combine to vote for the chief executive. If no single candidate garners two thirds of the votes in the first round, the top four contestants move on to a second round, which again, in the absence of a two-thirds majority vote getter, sees the top two candidates proceed to a third round that is decided by simple majority. From a crowded field of over 30 contestants, Mohamud emerged to defeat Farmajo in the decisive third round.

Two factors help explain Mohamud’s second political ascent. First, Farmajo almost certainly suffered from the incumbency disadvantage that besets Somali presidents: no sitting executive has managed to retain office over the past two decades of indirect elections. Somalia’s complex set of political and clan alliances makes it difficult for leaders to satisfy enough parties to secure a second consecutive term. Often, a culture of washamsi (which loosely translates as “ganging up”) plays out, as the opposition coalesces around whoever seems to be the incumbent’s strongest challenger. Candidates need to build alliances and engage in elite deal-making as voting rounds progress, soliciting the support of those who have lost.

Some presidential candidates told Crisis Group that Plan A was to win [and] Plan B was to rally behind anyone other than Farmajo.

These dynamics were particularly visible this time around. Mohamud more than quadrupled his vote total between the first and third rounds, while Farmajo failed even to double his. Prominent candidates Sheikh Sharif Ahmed and Abdirahman Abdishakur Warsame both endorsed Mohamud after their first-round defeat (they have since been named to special envoy positions in Mohamud’s new government). Puntland leader Said Deni, who was also a contender, did the same after the second round. As Crisis Group has reported previously, Farmajo’s determination to centralise power within his administration ran into fierce opposition from other political forces, notably amongst the political elite that preceded his time in office and in some of the subnational units known as federal member states. Many saw the presidential election as an opportunity to remove Farmajo from office. Some presidential candidates told Crisis Group that Plan A was to win, but failing that, Plan B was to rally behind anyone other than Farmajo.

The second reason for Mohamud’s success was his conciliatory tone, which resonated with members of parliament and other political elites fatigued by Farmajo’s confrontational attitude toward domestic opponents and some foreign partners. Mohamud campaigned on promises of “no retaliation” against those who did not support him in the election and making “no enemies” inside or outside Somalia, drawing a contrast with Farmajo’s combativeness.

As is common in Somali presidential elections, there were allegations of vote buying, with money changing hands between candidates and voting parliamentarians, but even if true, it is not clear that this played a decisive factor in the outcome. Several sources told Crisis Group that some candidates spent even more per vote than in the 2017 election. Yet it also appears that candidates did not always succeed in securing the votes they had paid for.

What are the implications of the vote for Somalia?

Most Somalis and the country’s international partners, such like the U.S. and the EU, appeared to welcome the result, primarily because it finally brought the protracted and hugely divisive electoral cycle to a relatively orderly close. Diplomats had frequently worried throughout the cycle that losing candidates would take to the streets to challenge the outcome. Yet the presidential vote concluded without major incident (six mortar rounds – likely fired by Al-Shabaab, the country’s Islamist insurgency – landed near the election venue on the day of the vote, but caused no casualties) and the results were accepted across the political spectrum, making the exercise a success.

It was a dramatic turnaround. Only a year ago, Somalia’s political elites appeared on the brink of war. In April 2021, security forces under Farmajo’s command fought with other troops that aligned with the political opposition in Mogadishu after Farmajo pushed a measure through the lower house of parliament extending his government’s time in office by two years, which he said was necessary because of the drawn-out electoral cycle. The clashes could have brought down the federal government, but in the end Farmajo stepped back from the fight. With these memories fresh, many breathed sighs of relief at the peaceful transfer of power, which seemed to suggest that Somalia’s political leaders prefer not to be seen as responsible for the federal government’s destruction. Farmajo’s political defeat also indicated that the diffuse nature of power makes it difficult, if not impossible, for one politician to dominate Somali politics, though his attempt to do so still caused considerable damage.

Yet few would contend that the electoral cycle was a particularly positive contribution to the development of democratic institutions and the rule of law in Somalia. Signs of extreme manipulation in the parliamentary elections that preceded the presidential race were especially worrying. Undue influence to predetermine outcomes appeared even greater in this cycle than previously, probably due to the polarisation that became a feature of Farmajo’s tenure. Farmajo’s controversial emphasis on centralised governance led to a wide perception that the elections involved particularly high stakes, with some politicians suggesting that they were effectively a referendum on the merits of a centralised versus federalised model of governance for Somalia.

Through successive agreements around electoral modalities, the presidents of federal member states won greater latitude in selecting parliamentarians, which they used to favour those whom they believed would vote for their preferred presidential candidate. The level of apparent manipulation surfaced as an unusually high number of parliamentary races featured only two contestants – known in the Somali political lexicon as malxiis or “best man” system. The federal member state president’s preferred candidate then either won overwhelmingly in the vote or by default when the opponent dropped out. Because this phenomenon was so rampant, there was little protest: all states appeared to be culpable – the only exception being in Hirshabelle, where relatively competitive elections were held for the final handful of seats that were filled. Somalis usually refer to the indirect parliamentary elections as selections, but in the case of the 2021-2022 cycle, a more accurate term might be “appointments”.

While the lack of competitive parliamentary proceedings did not undermine the competitiveness of the presidential vote, it still raises concerns. As outlined above, the vast majority of members of parliament won seats on the basis of political loyalty rather than an ideological platform, individual merit or standing among the constituencies they purport to represent. Political loyalties are notoriously fickle in Somalia, but if the representatives feel tied to their political patrons, parliament may wind up more divided than it has been in the past. Additionally, parliament already struggles to fulfil its legislative functions and check the executive branch. It seems unlikely that a parliament composed of members chosen in part for their lack of independence will be able to build an autonomous institution.

Moreover, the parliamentary electoral cycle raises wider questions about the overall legitimacy of Somalia’s political institutions and how well they serve the citizenry. Crisis Group interviews with civil society actors and other civilians indicate a public disenchanted with all the manipulation favouring political elites. In this sense, the parliamentary elections were a missed opportunity for government leaders to establish a better relationship with ordinary Somalis who complain that they are seeing little dividend from years of state-building efforts – ie, the effort to establish and fortify public institutions viewed as legitimate and capable of providing for security, justice and well-being following the collapse of the state in the 1990s – by further giving them a chance to be heard.

What is Farmajo’s legacy and what does Mohamud’s victory mean? What are the regional implications?

Farmajo’s administration made some positive contributions to Somalia’s state-building efforts, but also presided over an increasingly divided politics. On the positive side, it carried on with the previous government’s economic reforms aimed at alleviating the country’s debt burden and it rolled out much-needed security-sector reforms, including the biometric registration of federal soldiers. Farmajo enjoyed some popularity, particularly among Somali youth, who appreciated the strong nationalist sentiment associated with many of his policies.

On balance, however, Farmajo’s push to centralise power widened political cleavages and set Somalis against one another. Following Somalia’s struggle with centralised governance under the Siad Barre dictatorship (1969-1991) and state collapse in the 1990s, federalism became the model to balance power between reinstituted state structures in the 2000s. In Somalia, the system consists of a federal government that serves at the helm, with significant authority granted to federal member states. Farmajo set about rolling back the autonomy of these member states, in addition to that of other institutions at the federal level that could also challenge him. In this pursuit, his administration often used a heavy hand to discipline politicians who criticised his ideas, replacing dissident officials at the state and federal levels and deploying soldiers to bring local authorities to heel in regions such as Gedo and Galmudug. These tactics both divided Somalia and spurred a strong backlash.

Even with international partners, the Farmajo administration tended to create unnecessary friction, with Somalia drawing close to some neighbours at the expense of others. For instance, Farmajo entered into a tripartite alliance with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. Yet details of this framework, which included an arrangement by Eritrea to train 5,000 Somali security personnel who have yet to come home, were shrouded in secrecy. Somalia’s relations with Djibouti and Kenya, which were not part of this alliance, suffered as a result, with Nairobi and Mogadishu twice severing ties for several months.

Farmajo went to great lengths to strengthen links with Qatar, but in so doing strained relations with other Gulf partners.

Similarly, Farmajo went to great lengths to strengthen links with Qatar, but in so doing strained relations with other Gulf partners, who at the time were deeply at odds with Doha. Although Somalia proclaimed neutrality, its close association with Qatar belied this stance and relations with actors like the UAE grew increasingly embittered. These strains were often caused by mutual gamesmanship and cannot be laid entirely at Farmajo’s feet, but his actions often appeared to be governed by an alienating and retributive mindset that significantly ratcheted up tensions.

Mohamud picked up on this in his campaign, calling for “no enemies” both at home and abroad. While slogans do not often translate into practice and Mohamud has also struggled to abide by this rhetoric, the overall approach he took to both domestic politics and foreign relations during his previous time in office was premised more on consultation and less on confrontation. If he follows through on the tone set by his campaign now that he has taken power, it should allow Mogadishu to reset some damaged relationships and recalibrate others, but keeping friction with foreign and domestic counterparts at manageable levels once more substantive issues have been put on the table will still be challenging.

Resetting relations with the federal member states will be the incoming administration’s immediate priority. Some member state leaders installed by Farmajo remained loyal to him until the very end, seeing their political fortunes as tied to his. How Mohamud navigates the new government’s relationship with leaders who opposed his ascent to power will be an early indicator of his commitment to his other campaign slogan around “no retaliation”. There is reason to believe that Mohamud will not pursue centralisation with the same vigour as his predecessor; during his prior term he was more supportive of Somalia’s federal path than Farmajo’s recent administration. Indeed, he oversaw the development of a major part of the federal architecture, with the states of Jubaland, Southwest, Hirshabelle and Galmudug all emerging during his first term. But the process was rancourous at times. Mohamud feuded with Jubaland leader Ahmed Madobe before they came to agreement over that federal state’s formation, and he also stood accused of manoeuvring allies into positions where they could lead regional administrations, such as in Galmudug.

Mohamud’s victory is likely to introduce greater balance into Somalia’s foreign policy.

Mohamud’s victory is likely to introduce greater balance into Somalia’s foreign policy as well. Relations with Kenya should improve in the short-term from their nadir under Farmajo, as his nationalistic posturing frequently played off the notion of an adversarial relationship with Nairobi. Yet, while a leadership change can re-set ties, fundamental issues remain between the two neighbours. Although the International Court of Justice (ICJ) made a long awaited ruling on their disputed maritime boundary last October, largely in Somalia's favour, enforcing that will require cooperation. This remains a source of consternation in Nairobi. (It was under Mohamud’s previous administration that Somalia referred the case to the ICJ against Kenya’s wishes.)  

Mohamud will also have to decide how to approach Somalia’s other large neighbour, Ethiopia. Mohamud was close to Ethiopia’s previous government, which was replaced by current Prime Minister Abiy amid social unrest in 2018; that relationship cost him votes from some MPs when he tried to get re-elected in 2017. Farmajo subsequently forged a strong relationship with Abiy, but it was based on personal relations more than ties between the two countries’ institutions. Moreover, dynamics in Addis Ababa have shifted a great deal in recent years. Distracted by civil war and other internal crises, Ethiopia’s dominant role in Somali politics has faded. In this sense, Mohamud will likely prioritise a good working relationship with his neighbour, but the declining nature of Ethiopia’s position within Somalia means the practical need for Mogadishu to cosy up to Addis Ababa is not as apparent as it was before.

Another important challenge for President Mohamud will be to try to rebuild relations with Gulf partners that suffered during the political crisis that pit Qatar against some of its neighbours along the Gulf early in Farmajo’s tenure. President Mohamud’s “no enemies abroad” slogan could augur a recalibration of Gulf relations, with Somalia maintaining ties with Qatar, while seeking to re-engage with the UAE. The two Gulf monarchies have largely reconciled after the Al-Ula accords in early 2021, suggesting that conditions are ripe for Somalia to strive for normal relations with both rather than playing one off the other. In turn, Mogadishu should encourage Qatar and the UAE to stop treating Somalia as a theatre for zero-sum competition.

What should President Mohamud’s priorities be?

President Mohamud faces several urgent tasks. The closure of the electoral cycle itself is an opportunity to refocus distracted government officials on the pressing concerns of the day – a sorely needed fresh start. But domestic and international euphoria about the conclusion of the elections should be calibrated given the magnitude of challenges that lie ahead.

The incoming administration’s immediate priority should be a swift humanitarian response to a prolonged drought in the region, which has devastated crops and cattle herds. If rainfall remains below average through June, millions could be at risk of famine. Somalia has experienced recurrent droughts over the past decade, and a key lesson from the drought in 2017 was that an early response and rapid relief mobilisation helped significantly limit the population’s suffering. The government should reinforce calls for more resources from donors and prepare itself to coordinate the response. A humanitarian surge could also bring political dividends after an electoral cycle that few Somalis viewed as taking their needs and concerns into account.

More broadly, Mohamud inherits a deeply divided Somalia, reeling from the polarisation experienced during Farmajo’s tenure. Reaching out to both political supporters and opponents across society will be important in setting a new tone. Mohamud said all the right things about unity in his campaign. Now, his administration should strive to bring together Somalia’s political elite, including former adversaries, around a common vision to advance Somalia forward and move on from recent divisive politics before turning to other technical tasks, such as finalising the still unfinished constitution.

Mohamud should work to improve ties between the federal government and member states.

Efforts at achieving greater unity must also extend to the regional and community levels. Mohamud should work to improve ties between the federal government and member states in order to establish good working relationships – for starters, national and regional leaders could resume regular meetings that ceased under Farmajo – but his efforts must also include resolving major rifts within member states, some of which have been exacerbated by past federal interventions. For example, the future of the Gedo region in Jubaland state, where Farmajo sent national security forces to replace Jubaland officials amid an intense dispute in early 2020, remains a question mark. In the Hiiraan region of Hirshabelle state, lingering grievances from the 2020 political cycle continue to stoke separatist sentiments. In Galmudug state, fighters from Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a, a Sufi militia that has clashed with Al-Shabaab in the past, advanced on state capital Dhusamareb, just days before the presidential vote. With the national electoral cycle finished, those who live in these communities will rightly expect the federal government to turn its attention to resolving these festering crises.

Mohamud will also face a number of long-running governance projects and challenges. High on the list for Somalia’s international partners will be to see the new administration complete a review of the provisional constitution, with the aim of finalising the document. Related tasks include developing the surrounding framework, including by building out the judicial services and human rights commissions and establishing a constitutional court. Mohamud will also need to continue economic reforms, such as improving public financial management and increasing domestic revenue mobilisation to attain full debt relief and begin exploring electoral reforms to set the stage for the next round of national elections in 2026.

As concerns electoral reform, it will be important to set realistic goals. A one-person one-vote model has been the objective of international efforts in Somalia for some time – and something Mohamud has already expressed support for – but it has proven difficult to implement in practice. Rather than insisting on full universal suffrage in the short term and raising expectations that may ultimately fall short, the government and international partners should treat that as the long-term goal, while in the meantime still undertaking efforts to show significant improvements in the next electoral cycle by tackling flaws that have arisen in past indirect processes, along with increasing transparency and overall participation.

Security remains a pressing concern, with support from international partners in a state of flux.

Security remains a pressing concern, with support from international partners in a state of flux. Many continue to worry about the Al-Shabaab insurgency, which continues to threaten stability in Somalia and the wider Horn, and appears to have been emboldened by the protracted electoral cycle. For this reason, U.S. government announced less than 24 hours after the vote that it will send back approximately 450 troops repositioned out of Somalia in the Trump administration’s waning days. At the same time, however, President Mohamud inherits a freshly negotiated plan for the African Union Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) to withdraw by the end of 2024. That plan is subject to conditions on the ground, the most important of which concerns the status of the security sector, and in particular a requirement that the Somali government develop 22,825 soldiers over the next three years to take over from the mission. Even during negotiations on the mission’s future, details about how Somalia should meet this requirement were lacking and few international partners supporting the force appear to see the timeline as realistic.

To have any hope of meeting this ambitious plan, the new administration will be required to take quick action. The military’s cohesion and public image suffered under President Farmajo, who sometimes used elements of the security forces to intimidate and control his domestic political opponents. Mohamud will have to attend to the resulting fractures within these forces. He can then try to address the gap in force generation, in part by returning to the 2017 National Security Architecture – which was developed toward the end of his previous tenure and ratified under Farmajo. This plan focuses among other things on efforts to solicit troops from member states under a more federalised approach to building up the army. Determining the status of the above-referenced forces sent to train in Eritrea and ensuring their return should also be a priority.

Last, but hardly least, is the enduring problem of how to govern Somalia in the shadow of Al-Shabaab. The insurgency has evolved considerably since Mohamud was last president. It is now more embedded in Somali society and has penetrated several government-controlled areas, including Mogadishu’s port, where it extracts protection fees from businesses. Suspicion is rife locally that it has infiltrated the state apparatus as well, including the intelligence services. These charges need thorough investigating if public trust in state security institutions is to be restored. As Crisis Group will discuss in a forthcoming report, Al-Shabaab remains difficult, and likely impossible, to defeat on the battlefield. Mohamud’s government will therefore need to put non-military options on the table as well and roll out a comprehensive strategy for tackling the insurgency, including undertaking steps to test the waters around the possibility of dialogue as an eventual means to wind down the war.