Change always breeds optimism and it was no different when Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed was elected as president of Somalia in February last year. Expectations were sky-high as the new president — universally known by his nickname, Farmajo — took office.
Farmajo himself did little to temper these hopes. “This is the beginning of the era of unity, the democracy of Somalia and the beginning of the fight against corruption,” he said in his inauguration speech.
But if that was the beginning of the era of unity, then it ended in dramatic fashion earlier this month. In shambolic, humiliating scenes in Parliament, soldiers loyal to the president squared off against soldiers loyal to parliamentary speaker Mohamed Osman Jawari, as Jawari fought to survive a no-confidence motion. A crisis was only averted by the intervention of peacekeepers from the African Union Mission in Somalia. Under immense domestic and international pressure, Jawari has now resigned but the ugly spat left the limitations of the federal government of Somalia brutally exposed.
“This whole episode has been completely disheartening because it reveals the dysfunction and the pettiness of Somali politicians. The country has so many problems that require attention and wisdom and a sense of responsibility to address, but Somali politicians appear to spend most of their time squabbling amongst each other and jockeying for position,” said Joshua Meservey, a senior policy analyst on Africa and the Middle East at the Heritage Foundation.
A port in a storm
At the root of the dispute between the president and the speaker is a deal to run the port of Berbera, located in the autonomous Republic of Somaliland. Although legally part of Somalia, and therefore under the federal government’s writ, Somaliland has functioned as a de facto independent state for more than two decades — a state that by any measure is more peaceful, prosperous and democratic than Somalia proper.
Its deal with the Emirati company DP World, which has businesses in marine and inland terminals, maritime services, logistics and other services, reasserts Somaliland’s independence, and includes a $442-million pledge to develop the territory’s infrastructure. In addition, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is building a military base in Berbera, and talks are ongoing with Russia for a base next door.
Support from the UAE and Russia would greatly strengthen Somaliland’s claim to independence.
The Somali federal government has bitterly condemned the port deal and the building of the base, and Jawari tried to pass legislation invalidating the DP World contract. But he did so without getting input from the president and Farmajo did not take kindly to the slight.
Caught in the middle
Another dynamic at play is the ongoing diplomatic dispute in the Gulf between Qatar on the one side and Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other. Saudi and the UAE lobbied hard for Somalia’s support but the federal government chose to remain neutral, nervous of alienating Qatar or Turkey, a major investor in Somalia, which sympathises with the Qatari position.
“Somalia was caught between a few powerful countries with huge influence inside the country,” said Meservey. “That caused a cascade of problems for Somalia. The Emiratis appear to be very involved in resisting Farmajo’s agenda in Somalia. They are irritated, as are the Saudis, that Somalia didn’t go along with the embargo and he wasn’t their preferred candidate to win the electoral process. Now the Emiratis are interacting bilaterally with federal states … which brings us back to Somaliland.”
As well as this perceived threat to Somalia’s sovereignty, the Gulf crisis is affecting domestic politics. On Monday, a plane with $9.6-million in cash was seized on the runway in Mogadishu. It had just flown in from Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE.
The Emiratis say the money was earmarked for humanitarian efforts but several analysts speculated that the cash was intended to pay off local politicians, sowing further divisions in an already fractured government.
Even on its best days, the federal government has little control over the country.
Much power is devolved to semi-autonomous states, large swaths of territory are still ruled by the Islamist group al-Shabab and officials are almost entirely reliant on AU peacekeepers to provide security.
These are, unequivocally, not the government’s best days, which raises the question: What hope is there that Farmajo’s administration can govern Somalia when it cannot even govern itself?