May 27, 2024


On May 5th, the Federal Government of Somalia formally requested that the mandate of the special political mission in Somalia, UN SOM, not be renewed

More by Kenya Forum Somalia Correspondent

Somalia demands an end to the UN political mission

Somalia demands an end to the UN political mission

Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud (right)

Somali politics is plagued by constant brinkmanship – but will it work with the international community?

On May 5th, the Federal Government of Somalia formally requested that the mandate of the special political mission in Somalia, UN SOM, not be renewed when it expires in October 2024. While the original request has since been tempered by a request that a transition occur to a UN Country Team lead, it has been greeted with surprise and concern by the international community.

The Somali Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmed Moalim Fiqi, who issued the request an experienced politician and, like many of his brethern, he does like drama. However, he is not operating on his own initiative – the formal request to the President of the UN Security Council will undoubtedly have been signed off by the Somali President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.

Why is Somalia doing this?

It is likely that this is a calculated move on the part of the Somali government, partly to express frustration with international actors, partly to garner attention on a crowded international stage and partly to exercise the sense of Somali pride that is referred to by commentators as ‘Somali exceptionalism’, and which will undoubtedly have been aimed at a Somali audience

Resentment at international interference – and oversight

The Somalia government resents the presence of both UN and AU political missions in the country and openly complains about interference and the sluggish pace of international response to the country’s many crises. It also begrudges the oversight the presence provides. The Somalis have history in this respect: the previous administration expelled the UN’s Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG), who heads the Un presence in the country, in December 2019. The current administration is thought to have influenced the decision not to renew the tenure of the latest SRSG last month.

But this latest step is an escalation.

No longer an international priority

Equally, Somalia is conscious of being side-lined on the international stage in the aftermath of COVID-19 and the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza. Even Sudan challenges Somalia for the spotlight – a diplomat recently said that, while Somalia was once the number 1 priority internationally, it is now at best 3=.

Some commentators also wonder if this is an attempt to force a decision on what comes after the conclusion of the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) at the end of this year. The reality is that, after a faltering offensive against al-Shabaab, dwindling capacity and morale in the Somali security forces and a one-person, one-vote election still far off, most agree that something must come after ATMIS. It is just not clear what – another AU mission? a regional mission under IGAD or the EAC? a multinational force under, say, Turkey or another palatable (and capable) country?

To the brink

Finally, there is also an element of playing to the Somali audience and tapping into national pride – and parallel affrontery. Brinkmanship is a key feature of Somali politics. But, while the Somali government says it is ready to run the country, the international community consistently disagrees.

Some commentators also note that every time affairs are taken to the brink, the retreat is never all the back to the starting point. If the brink is a ledge, the ledge becomes looser and looser each time. The risk is always that brinksmanship can lead to an irreversible miscalculation (and a long drop).

Back from the brink?

The subsequent request, issued on May 9th, for a transition to a lead by a UN Country Team (which already exists) defuses the situation and reassures the international community: some foreign actors and organisations were considering a pause in activity and contingency planning for a worst-case scenario, compete withdrawal. ‘Afghanistan 2’ could be heard regularly around the fourteen or so bars of the Halane Compound within the Mogadishu Airport complex, where most of the international community presence resides (or, some Somalis say, cowers).

The replacement UN SRSG for Somalia will be veteran US diplomat James Swann, who was also UN SRSG between 2019-2022: he is likely to be at once firmer with but also more understanding of the Somali government.

But every trip to the precipice lessens the international appetite for continuing support to Somalia at current levels. And that support is critical to securing the country and the region against the al-Qa’ida linked terror group, al-Shabaab, and large-scale organised crime that ranges from smuggling (drugs, fake goods, weapons, people) to piracy. Little wonder that neighbouring countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia continue to support the Somali government – but prepare to secure their borders and their interests, just in case the precipice gives way.


Related Articles