Somalia’s President tried to sack his Prime Minister on Monday, taking the country back to the brink of violent clashes between political factions.
The Somali political space has many traditions, but few of them are positive or conducive to long term security and stability. One is fiery rhetoric that sometimes spills into violence (the assassination of a politician or clashes between different parts of the security forces led by their clan loyalties over their duty).
Another is Votes of No Confidence, in either the President or the Prime Minister who, constitutionally, must always come from different clans, and who float on a turbulent sea of shifting alliances between the four major and the numerous minority clans.
Yet another is taking advantage of goings on elsewhere in the global world order to try to slip through something naughty like a self extension of tenure or the railroading of an election.
All of these are happening, to one extent or another, in Somalia right now.
On Monday the President of Somalia, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (nicknamed ‘Farmajo’), sacked his Prime Minister, Mohamed Hussein Roble, alleging that Roble was involved in an illegal land grab. He also threw in the possibility of a Vote of No Confidence based on the Prime Minister’s failure to deliver the country’s national elections within the one year period of the parliament’s extension, which expired on December 27th. In response Prime Minister Roble reshuffled his cabinet to ensure that he had a friend in the Ministry of Justice (which would investigate the charges against him).
The President then surrounded the Prime Minister’s office with loyal troops to prevent Roble from continuing in his role: the Prime Minister then gathered a protective huddle of senior politicians and security forces commanders and physically walked to his office (the offices and residence of both the President and Prime Minister of Somalia are within a few hundred metres of each other in Villa Somalia, the seat of government).
Mogadishu was quickly flooded with troops loyal to one faction or the other and the Somali info-sphere was filled with inflammatory rhetoric (‘coup!’, ‘traitor!’, ‘blood will be shed!’ etc etc). Once again the descent of the capital into inter-communal violence and the very real possibility of civil war loomed.
Fiery rhetoric leads to political violence
It costs a lot to be a politician in Somali: sometimes the cost is the politician’s life. But mostly it is a minion of that politician such as a driver or a security guard or just Average Abdi, a normal citizen with a loose link to a faction – same clan by birth, for instance – or just someone who has the bad luck to be the waiter serving tea to a politician in a cafe or a student at a graduation attended by a minister when the bomb goes off. (The al-Qa’ida linked terror group, Al-Shabaab, apparently freelances its bomb-making capability in this regard.) All of these examples are based on real events and have happened, many, many times in Somalia.
On this occasion the violence has not started – yet. But between me pressing ‘POST’ and you reading this article the violence might well have already started. This is often due to a misstep but the end result is usually the same: a lot of dead people. In this case President Farmajo’s mis-step was to wait until the day of the expiration of the parliament’s extension and to not have a replacement ready to go.
What normally happens next is this: a compromise is reached and everyone is friends again amongst the political class. The old men have had a chance to show their strength, maybe securing a new position of power or just a significant amount of cash. Pity about Average Abdi getting killed, but with the third highest birth rate in the world Somali has plenty of lives to throw onto the bonfire of its politicians’ ambitions.
While the international community cats are away, the Somali mice will play
This was all predictable: the Somali political class are well aware of the mass exodus of international observers (the UN, the AU, the various embassies) around Christmas through New Year. In 2016 the then President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, tried to rush through an election around this time and in 2019 the current government expelled the head of the UN mission in Somalia.
What is unclear at this point is whether or not this is The One, the incident that does for President Farmajo’s hopes of re-election and maybe even plunges the capital or the country into chaos, or Just Another One, yet another case of Somali political brinksmanship. The danger, of course, is Somalia accidentally tips once again into the chaos of the 1990s, which would have dramatic consequences not just for the country but for the already precarious stability of the region.
And all the while al-Shabaab squats quietly in the bushes in rural Somalia, watching, waiting, readying itself for whenever its time comes.