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Somalia must tread warily

Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s victory in Somalia’s presidential election last week brought joyous crowds into the streets of Mogadishu, a testament to the former prime minister’s popularity.

But analysts warn that the iron will and nationalist discourse that Somalis fondly remember from his time as premier could be his biggest obstacles in rebuilding the world’s most notorious failed state.

Mohamed, who is better known by his nickname Farmaajo, or “Cheese”, has inherited an administration that has limited control over Somali territory because of the presence of al-Shabab Islamists, and is heavily propped up by the international community.

This fragile core is further weakened by deeply entrenched corruption and the rivalries in a mazelike clan structure that dominate Somali politics.

“There is a super-sized expectation, but the problems that bedevilled Somalia for three decades won’t vanish because Farmaajo is the president,” said Abdirashid Hashi, a researcher at the Heritage Institute.

Although prime minister for a mere eight months in 2010-2011, Farmaajo quickly won over Somalis with his efforts to improve governance. His resolute nationalism, in which he tried to revive Somali pride in a nation best known for anarchy and bloodshed, was also well regarded.

He culled the number of government ministers, banned nonessential foreign trips by officials and launched a programme for stamping out corruption.

Farmaajo’s image also received a boost from the improved security in Mogadishu, which saw al-Shabab militants driven from the capital a few months after he stepped down as premier. “It was under Farmaajo that the groundwork was laid for this victory,” said Roland Marchal, a researcher at Sciences Po university in Paris.

He was also very popular within the military, not least because his government made sure to pay soldiers regularly, a rarity in Somalia’s turbulent history.

Farmaajo inherits a Somalia still operating under an interim constitution, with little in the way of solid administrative structures: the army, central bank, fiscal administration and electoral commission remain rudimentary.

Although Farmaajo favours a strong central government, Somalia has in recent years shifted towards a system of federalism.

The building of a state will require careful negotiations with powerful regions such as Puntland, Jubaland and Galmudug to finalise the constitution, properly define the federal agenda, which has already been a bone of contention, and stabilise the country.

“The fatal error of past Somali presidents has been to believe they can govern simply because they have a title,” said Matt Bryden, a Somalia specialist with the Nairobi-based Sahan think-tank.

“The federal member states can’t be ignored. Most are still embryonic but they have presence on the ground, they collect taxes and they control the paramilitary forces that are fighting al-Shabab.”

Another tricky issue Farmajo will have to navigate is Somalia’s tense relationship with its powerful neighbour Ethiopia.

The two have a long history of conflict over territory. Ethiopia has on several occasions sent troops into Somalia to fight Islamists and its current powerful military presence in the country and perceived political meddling irks many.

But analysts say antagonising Ethiopia could backfire: the country could withdraw its military from fragile border zones and thus offer a respite to militants, or it could lend its support to Somali regions hostile to central government.

“If he wants to readjust the relationship between Somalia and Ethiopia, he has to be very careful,” said Rashid Abdi of the International Crisis Group. “If he uses the old anti-Ethiopia rhetoric, he is going to quickly run into trouble.”

During his short term as prime minister, Farmaajo’s direct style made him few friends among the country’s old guard of politicians, many of whom were happy to see the back of him.

But his surprise presidential victory after a tortuous six-month voting process — marked by claims of vote-buying and corruption — may prove that he has learned to navigate Somalia’s corridors of power.

“These last days, he has held lots of consultations,” Abdi said.

“It does not look like someone who is going to rush into decisions or act like a disrupter.” — AFP

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Nicolas Delaunay
Nicolas Delaunay
AFP journalist covering East Africa, based in Nairobi.

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