Somalia’s political catastrophe is threatening its relationship with the West
Somalia’s political catastrophe is threatening its relationship with the West
Somalia stepped back from the brink of widespread violence Wednesday when incumbent President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed abandoned his controversial effort to unilaterally extend his term amid months of electoral turmoil. Mohamed’s about-face came after several weeks of escalating conflict, sparked by his decision on April 14 to sign a law extending his mandate and that of federal lawmakers by two years. While the legislation had been passed by the lower house of Parliament, it had yet to gain approval from the Senate, a required step before a bill can become law in Somalia. Mohamed’s decision to sign it anyway led to sporadic violent clashes in the capital, Mogadishu, between federal troops and forces loyal to the president’s opponents.
The term extension had drawn a swift and stern public rebuke from the United States, one of Somalia’s key security partners. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the Biden administration was “deeply disappointed” by the move and opposed “mandate extensions without broad support from Somalia’s political stakeholders.” Blinken added that implementation of the bill could lead the U.S. to reevaluate its bilateral relationship with Somalia, potentially affecting diplomatic engagement and assistance, and perhaps even resulting in the imposition of sanctions and visa restrictions.
The statement underscored a growing rift between Mohamed—who is more commonly known by his nickname, Farmajo—and Somalia’s principal Western donors, namely the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union. All three were joined by the United Nations, the African Union, and the Intergovernmental Authority for Development, an eight-country trading bloc comprising Somalia’s immediate neighbors, in opposing Farmajo’s effort to stay in power. The top diplomats from both the EU and U.K. echoed Blinken’s statement and further warned of their willingness to reevaluate their ties with Somalia unless it followed through on holding federal elections that have been delayed for months.
The Somali opposition has rejected Farmajo’s hold on the presidency, given that his mandate expired on Feb. 8, but he defended the term extension by arguing that the two-year delay would allow the country to prepare for an election based on the principle of one person, one vote—an unlikely outcome given the violent extremist group al-Shabab’s control of much of the Somali countryside and its ability to launch attacks in major cities, where most polling places would be located.
In 2020, the Pentagon assessed that the Somali federal government had failed to meet many of the milestones that would allow its security services to secure much of the country’s territory against militant groups like al-Shabaab and the Islamic State’s affiliate in the region. This judgment casts doubt on Farmajo’s ability to organize and conduct safe and fully representative elections, particularly given the additional pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic and internecine conflict between Mogadishu and Somalia’s federal states. Given the current security conditions, Farmajo’s efforts to remain in office were criticized as a power grab dressed in the false promise of universal suffrage.
After violence escalated in Mogadishu last weekend, Farmajo sought to defuse the crisis with a televised address at 1 a.m. Wednesday, in which he called for renewed “urgent discussions” to hammer out an agreement with his opponents on how to conduct elections. But the gap between Farmajo and his opponents remains wide. Both parties have so far failed to agree on how to implement an agreement they reached in September 2019, which laid out the framework for an indirect vote using a clan-based system that Farmajo firmly opposes. They have also clashed on the membership of commissions charged with overseeing the election, to which Farmajo is accused of installing his confidants, allegedly including members of the security and intelligence services.
Somalia’s Western donors continue to urge political compromise, though their patience may be wearing thin, jeopardizing the substantial amounts of humanitarian aid and disaster relief funds, as well as the governance- and security-related assistance, that Mogadishu receives each year. Between 2014 and 2020, the EU committed and allocated over 400 million euros in food security, state-building, and secure funds to Somalia. This figure is dwarfed by the nearly $2.7 billion in U.S. bilateral aid in the same time period. Both Washington and Brussels have also supported debt relief arrangements that could clear billions of dollars worth of Somalia’s arrears.
In light of the ongoing chaos, the Biden administration faces a diplomatic challenge, but also an opportunity to reconsider its broader relationship with its Somali partners.
Despite the vast sums provided by the U.S. and EU, Farmajo has sought to hedge against Western influence by seeking out support from Somalia’s neighbors in the Horn of Africa and further afield in the Middle East. Turkey and Qatar have funded Farmajo’s security services, while Eritrea and Ethiopia have provided important political support. Turkey and Eritrea have separately trained Somali troops and police and contributed to the creation of multiple parallel and politicized security services that are loyal to Farmajo. Farmajo has also weaponized the Ethiopian troops in Somalia, who are there as part of an African Union peacekeeping mission, in order to bend his political opponents into submission and mold a hostile electoral landscape to his favor. All of this has provoked fierce resistance—often through violent means—by some leaders of Somalia’s autonomous states, such as Puntland in the north and Jubaland in the south.
In light of the ongoing chaos, the Biden administration faces a daunting diplomatic challenge, but also an opportunity to reconsider its broader relationship with its Somali partners. Such a review should consider the limits of U.S. military and financial assistance to the Somali federal government—and the likelihood of continued intransigence on the part of Farmajo. While the U.S. and its international partners firmly telegraphed their opposition to his unilateral term extension, they should also consider fully withdrawing all military and security assistance if Farmajo again tries unilaterally to hold on to power.
The Biden administration has already taken active steps toward a potential change in its relationship to Somalia. In early March, Blinken issued the Biden team’s first public rebuke of both state and federal leaders, expressing deep concerns over political uncertainty and instability in the country. His statement came shortly after White House officials acknowledged that they had quietly imposed temporary restrictions on the use of drone strikes and commando raids outside conflict zones—including in Somalia, where the U.S. has a limited, and recently reduced, troop presence—as they review their counterterrorism policy.
In response to the change in policy, Somali military officials expressed concerns that withdrawing “strike authority” from U.S. field commanders would delay time-sensitive kinetic responses to al-Shabab’s activities. They argued that these changes would allow the militants to muster forces and launch coordinated attacks without the fear of U.S.-led aerial responses. Yet while airstrikes and commando raids have suppressed al-Shabab’s movements and disrupted some of the organization’s leadership, these tactical responses have failed to decisively tip the scales against the group.
This is because governance failures are at the heart of al-Shabab’s overall resurgence. Somalia’s federal and state governments have failed to define the rules and commitments that govern their relationship as collaborative partners in a federal system of government. They have left key questions of constitutional authority, budget distribution, election administration, and security force integration largely unaddressed. Rather than tackle these problems, the federal government has needlessly clashed with rival state governments, squandering precious political capital, not to mention the financial and material assistance provided by international donors like the United States.
Biden administration officials should therefore leverage the size and breadth of the United States’ financial and military investments in Somalia to prod Farmajo toward a broader political arrangement that fairly distributes power between the federal government, the federal member’s states, and members of the opposition. The U.S., working in concert with the EU and U.K., should condition its security assistance and debt relief on the reversal of all unilateral actions that undermine efforts to end the current electoral impasse.
The Biden team should also build on its new counterterrorism rules by permanently implementing stricter controls on airstrikes and commando raids in Somalia. These measures would improve public transparency, re-prioritize civilian protection, and effectively bolster the U.S. government’s standing as a responsible security partner for Somalia.
Domestic actors, led by the federal government, also have work to do in the security sector. They should redouble their efforts to implement the 2017 national security architecture, which defines the size, administration, and control of the country’s security services at both the federal and state level. Federal and state leaders would also need to make mutual progress toward finalizing a permanent constitution, implementing firm electoral procedures, and, most importantly, clarifying institutional relationships between federal and state governments. Without these reforms, which are unlikely to take place without pressure from Somalia’s foreign partners, the country is unlikely to exit the circular crises that are driving al-Shabab’s resurgence.