Over the past three decades, few states have experienced prolonged conflict or repeatedly failed at establishing effective government as Somalia has. Perhaps only matched by Afghanistan, Somalia’s capital Mogadishu is once again on the brink of cataclysm caused by recent violent clashes between security forces —loyal to the incumbent President Mohammed Abdullahi ‘Farmaajo’— and forces loyal to the opposition since the Lower House of Parliament’s decision to extend the president’s term by two years on April 12th, 2021. The security sector has been fractured along clan lines, with reported defections and mutinies within the army. Opposition figures and their forces have taken different positions across the capital, further limiting government control. This has created a security dilemma that has revived memories of the 1990s abyss. While the President and Parliament have since reversed the decision, it has done little to pacify opposition forces or to build confidence internally or externally.
The political tussle
Critical players in the current crisis include the 18-member Council of Presidential Candidates (the political opposition), the incumbent President, and five presidents from the federal member states of Puntland, South West, Hirshabelle, Galmudug, and Jubaland. The leaders of Puntland and Jubaland have sided with the Council of Presidential Candidates in opposition to the incumbent president. Somalia’s international partners, including by the United States, the European Union (EU), the African Union (AU), Norway, the United Kingdom (UK), and Canada, among others, have added pressure on the government, urging it to protect the country’s democratic transition by asking parties to embrace dialogue and implement the election agreement of September 17th, 2020. While the proximate causes of the current conflagration in Somalia are the failures by the government to effectively prepare and hold democratic elections, and the decision by the Lower House to extend the government’s mandate, Farmaajo’s role in engineering this crisis cannot be overstated.
The Farmaajo Factor
Amid a plethora of proximate triggers, the role of President Farmaajo in instigating the current crisis for political expediency has been notable. The President was elected in 2016, with clear-cut tasks including finalization of the Constitution, ensuring the country’s first-ever democratic elections based on universal suffrage, facilitating a security transition from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to a Somali national army, and promoting economic recovery and reconstruction. However, the desire to overcome the “one term presidency curse”, which befell his predecessors, overwhelmed Farmaajo’s commitment to the four tasks and made him turn towards authoritarianism, ultimately pushing Somalia to the tipping point.
Aware of his declining popularity and the uncertainty of Somalia politics, Farmaajo’s first insurance policy was to undertake authoritarian capture of state institutions and political processes as soon as he was sworn into office. First, he appointed his campaign Chief, Fahad Yassin, as the Head of Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) and made him his political hitman. He politicized the security sector and used it against political opposition and federal member states opposed to his ‘recentralization’ agenda, such as Jubaland. As such, the focus on counter-terrorism and on strengthening the national security apparatus was lost; exposing the country to increased insurgency from the al-Shabaab militant group and making AMISOM a near permanent guarantor of security despite exit calls. Second, it was parliamentary control —which was initiated by a “parliamentary coup” against the former Speaker of the Lower House, Mohamed Osman Jawari, who was forced to resign in April 2018— to pave the way for the pro-Farmaajo parliamentary faction to control the House. This faction acquiesced to Farmaajo’s wishes, including his presidential term extension, which ultimately sparked the current violent clashes. The last and perhaps most contentious measure underpinning the current crisis is his alleged interference with the electoral process to influence his re-election. This led to a fallout between the President and his Prime Minister, Hassan Khaire, who subsequently resigned in July 2020. Amidst the political chaos, the clock on the universal suffrage electoral model ran out because of lack of preparedness and capacity as well as increased insecurity from militant Islamist attacks by al-Shabaab.
The compromise electoral model —based on clan representation through delegates and parliamentary election of the President— that was agreed upon on September 17th, 2020 between the federal government and the five member states failed to materialize because of the opposition’s allegations of undue government interference, thereby creating a stalemate. The political opposition —including the leaders of Jubaland and Puntland— threatened to boycott the polls, accusing the President of appointing intelligence agents, pliant civil servants, and political loyalists to the election management teams.
The electoral impasse which continued after the September 2020 agreement revolves around three sticking points: first, the opposition demands serious electoral reforms and a new workable electoral calendar. Restructuring of the election management teams should guarantee the independence of institutions and credibility of the process and outcome on one hand, while Jubaland and Puntland demand restoration of the states’ role in elections and an impartial body for elections of break-away Somaliland to safeguard federalism on the other. Second, the state of Jubaland has pegged its participation in the elections on the withdrawal of federal forces from the state’s territory of Gedo. Finally, there is an argument over the legitimacy and role of the President and parliament post-February 8th, 2021, when his term and parliament’s terms constitutionally ended.
Farmaajo’s attempt to extend his term is the proximate cause for the current crisis, and it builds on years of attempts at power consolidation that ultimately weakened centre-periphery relations and undermined institutional building. With emerging fractures within the security establishment and increased internal factionalization, an urgent third-party intervention to demilitarize the capital, reverse the current course, and bring the parties to dialogue based on the September 2020 agreement is not only critical, but arguably the only practical way among available options to save Somalia from the ghosts of its 1990s state collapse.