An election process that was marred by outbreaks of violence has finally concluded.
Last Sunday evening Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was president of the country between 2012-2017, was re-elected by the country’s MPs, decisively defeating the incumbent, Mohamed Abdullahi ‘Farmajo’. Thankfully the concession was amicable the transition looks like it will be peaceful. The process up to this point wasn’t.
You think the Kenyan election process is painful?
The process was laborious: it started with the elections of senators to the Upper House of the Somali parliament, then the election of MPs to the Lower House, then the elections of the Speakers, who in turn organised the vote for the President. A process that was marked by serious outbreaks of violence which twice brought the country to the brink of civil war and resulted in the deaths of many in bloody clan clashes has finally reached a conclusion. (Well, the elections to the Lower House haven’t actually finished yet, but the handful of MPs yet to be elected wouldn’t change anything in the final vote for the President.) But an audible sigh of relief could be heard on Sunday night/Monday morning, originating to the north of Kenya.
Now another laborious process begins: the appointment of a Prime Minister, who then presents his Cabinet to parliament for approval. It is a tradition in Somali politics that this will be rejected at least once, meaning Somali won’t have a functional government for weeks, possibly months.
But there’s no rush. (Except there is – the IMF won’t authorise vital funds for Somalia unless this final stage is also completed quickly.)
The C Word – Clan
In Somalia the appointments of Ministers to the Cabinet is complicated because a balance between the four major clans, their various sub-clans and the minority clans has to be achieved. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud (let’s call him HSM – it’s quicker) is a Hawiye/Abgal, from the largest clan and its largest sub-clan. So his Prime Minister must (MUST) be from the second largest clan, the Darod. Then important Ministries like Foreign Affairs and Defence (and Internal Security and Finance) have to be assigned the next largest clan, then the next largest clan. After we have gone through the major clans, we get to the sub-clans of the clans. But this is not a football league: after first, second, third and fourth, everyone else is fifth. (And feels they should be higher.)
This system of clan allocation goes on all the way down through the Ministers, their Deputies and the security forces. For example, the current Commander of the Somali National Army, General Odowa, is a Hawiye/Abgal like HSM – he’s out of a job, you can’t have the President and the Army both commanded by the same clan! Down in the six Federal Member States the President of Hirshabelle State, Ali Gudlawe (also Hawiye/Abgal), might also be on his way out – you can’t have the President of the country and the President of a Federal Member State from the same clan!
The intention behind the system was well-meaning – the problem is that it means that everything changes not just when a new President is elected but when there is cabinet reshuffle, when someone dies (this happens quite a lot in Somali politics and Somalia generally) and so on. It balances the clans (precariously) but it also meticulously avoids merit in government and enshrines clan agendas over the national interest. A decent civil service would offset this but they all move on with their Minister or security forces commander whenever he does, like the Anthill Mob from the Wacky Races. (It is usually ‘he’, by the way.)
What will HSM be like this time round?
Will HSM be the same as last time? Borges noted that people make two mistakes about history: things will be different and things will be the same. With the return of HSM, what can we expect/not expect?
HSM’s first tenure saw genuine efforts to engage with al-Shabaab, first through approaches to high level members of the terror group to encourage them to leave (‘defect’) and then, the plan was, through a negotiated settlement. It also saw a willingness to work with any and every international partner, especially if they offered people and things and money. (The intervening Farmajo administration worked pretty much exclusively with Qatar and Turkey as well as the Somali’s traditional enemies, the Ethiopians.) He was a darling of the news media (local and international), again in contrast to his successor who never gave an interview to the press. Mogadishu between 2012 and 2015 was a boom town, the scene of massive rebuilding and the return of the Diaspora, keen to rebuild their homeland after years abroad. (Sadly, after 2015 Mogadishu became a boom town again, but this time because of al-Shabaab, who didn’t like their members being tempted away from the group to the government side, or the constant US drone strikes signed off by HSM – most of the Diaspora returners left again.) He had an appealing vision of prosperity for Somalia, based on ‘what is on the sea, in the sea and under the sea’ (shipping, fishing, extractives).
That said, HSM’s first stint in Villa Somalia, the seat of Somali government, was not without controversy. The Central Bank Governor resigned, saying she was being pressured to move government funds to private bank accounts, then the Central Bank was found to be full of forged notes, then the director of the country’s intelligence agency was alleged to be diverting the money given by foreign governments to buy things like guns, ammunition and to pay wages to HSM’s re-election campaign.
Then there were the rumours of those 300 Somali soldiers, trained to fight al-Shabaab, who ended up in Yemen fighting for the UAE as mercenaries. Then there were the hundreds of young Somali women who were given the chance to work abroad, an unheard of opportunity for a rural Somali woman. Unfortunately ‘abroad’ meant Saudi Arabia, as house-girls, were many said they were physically and sexually abused. There was a persistent gossip that HSM was just a puppet of his wealthy wife and a cabal of political strongmen, wealthy businessmen and, well, hoods. His Damul-Jadid Party’s manifesto bears many similarities in terms of its vision for Somalia to al-Shabaab’s, minus the Global Jihad and al-Qa’ida paragraphs.
The Somali coat of arms is a shield flanked by two leopards. It is unclear if Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is one of those unusual leopards that can change its spots. If he can be a different president from last time in some ways and the same in others, Somalia could benefit: perhaps finding security at least through the defeat of (or a negotiated settlement with) al-Shabaab; that would provide the stability to allow Somalia to take advantage of the longest shore on mainland Africa (and offset the drastic effects of climate change inland, which will soon make the area beyond the littoral uninhabitable); and Somalia might finally manage to build enduring institutions and deliver a one person, one vote system of government, not a bearded-old-man-whose-great-great-great-grandfather-was-important system. The next few weeks will give an indication of whether Somalia has a new president – or the same old one.