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Elections Somalia

On a difficult mission – Somalia elects Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as the new president

COMMENT René Brosius 10 June 2022

In the evening of 8 February 2017, it was clear: Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed also known as “Farmaajo” is Somalia’s 9th president. People in Mogadishu were excited, the streets were filled with joyous pedestrians that were celebrating the feeling of hope which Farmaajo represented. There was no feeling of fear, Somalia’s capital had become a safe space where people were free to express themselves in public and come together to celebrate the political shift. A few years later, on the subsequent election day, on 15 May 2022, most of this feeling of hope was gone and President Farmaajo was replaced by Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, his predecessor in office, after a tough election process, marked by numerous politically motivated assassination attempts. One question remains: What has happened in the last five years that the man who represented hope and change could fail so miserably?

The answer is both sobering and encouraging at the same time. President Farmaajo and his political movement Nabad & Nolol (Peace and Life) have spent the last five years trying to turn back the clock. Many measures were aimed at reviving the autocratic structures of the former military dictatorship under Siad Barre. To achieve this, it was accepted that society would be divided, the country’s development set back by years, and the country’s international relations strained. This strategy was only partially successful as the majority of Somalis resisted this attempt. In this respect, the outcome of the election is a hopeful sign for the country’s future. 

In the last five years, the country has taken significant steps backwards. Somalia’s former presidency did not take advantage of the comparable mood of optimism in 2017, the hope and the great international support to build state infrastructure, increase security and initiate an economic upswing. Instead, the federal order, the two parliamentary chambers and the Supreme Court were deliberately weakened. The security agencies were massively politicised and instrumentalised for domestic political purposes.[1] The intelligence service NISA was expanded to become the uncontrolled power centre of the country after the largest attack in Somalia’s history on 14 October 2017, which has not yet been solved and resulted in over 500 victims.[2] NISA became an intelligence service with its own military apparatus and close ties to the terrorist group Al Shabab.[3] Foreign policy was completely subordinated to domestic political goals. Thus, AMISOM’s (African Union Mission in Somalia) presence in the country was publicly criticised with a nationalist undertone to ultimately gain military control over the country as quickly as possible. At the same time, alliances were made with governments that tolerated autocratic tendencies in Somalia, such as Ethiopia[4] and Eritrea. This policy was paid for by thousands of young, bona fide recruits who were sent to Eritrea for training and were presumably also deployed in the Tigray conflict with heavy losses.[5]  

Therefore, it is not surprising that people did not recreate the memory of 2017 and run into the streets and celebrate on the evening of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s election. Not because there was no celebration of the election victory, but because fear and insecurity had returned to the streets of Mogadishu in recent years. Nevertheless, the interest in the election was enormous. In numerous live streams, hundreds of thousands of Somalis worldwide followed the three ballots to elect the new president because the election was also the end of a crisis in the country that lasted almost two years. The origin of this crisis was a broken election promise. The Farmaajo government had not implemented one of its most important election promises, a “one person, one vote” electoral system, by the regular date of the parliamentary elections in December 2020. The result was a parliament that no longer had legitimacy and a president whose constitutional term of office ended on 8 February 2021.[6] 

Throughout the summer of 2020, the conditions of an alternative electoral procedure were discussed. It was only on 17 September 2020 that an agreement was reached that provided for an indirect election procedure that was entirely outside the constitutional provisions.[7] Later, after the president had attempted to extend the election period by two years, this agreement was updated and confirmed in May 2021.[8] 

According to this, the 275 members of the House of People and the 54 senators of the Upper House were each to be elected by 101 elders and representatives of their clans. The distribution of parliamentary seats among the individual clans had already been agreed upon in the 2016 election and before.[9] According to this, there were theoretically 33,229 eligible voters in this election in a country of about 16 million people. The second half of 2021, especially the beginning of 2022, was overshadowed by massive attempts to rig elections. Considerable pressure was put on clans to send only certain well-meaning elders to the polls. Where bribes were not convincing, military sanctions were threatened, and families were intimidated. Massive pressure was also put on opposition candidates. In some cases, they were banned from travelling to polling stations or their air travel was interfered with to prevent them from travelling to the elections. Among the most prominent of those affected were, for example, the former speaker of parliament and critic of the government, Mohammed Osman Jawari, and the former president of South-West State, Sharif Hasan Sheikh Adan. Reports accumulated that elected elders were sometimes replaced by military or intelligence officials, and sometimes even prominent representatives of NISA itself stood as candidates, such as Fahad Yassin, the head of intelligence under President Farmaajo and a key figure in the politicisation of the security structures, Abdulahi Kulane, his deputy, or the acting director of NISA, Yasin Farey. However, there were also positive developments. Hir Shabelle state, especially the Middle Shabelle region, had the most open elections. This is because, compared to other federal states, there was little influence here on the selection of delegates or candidates.[10]

A negative example is South-West-State, where there was massive manipulation, and a conspicuous number of people with family ties to President Abdiaziz Laftagareen became MPs. Attacks on journalists and political assassinations also overshadowed these elections. Amina Mohamud, a member of parliament critical of the government, was murdered by a suicide bomber on her way to the election venue.[11] Together with her, almost 50 people were killed on 23 March 2022. There was an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, and even an arrogant display of power by Farmaajo’s government throughout the election period. 

Therefore, the former bearer of hope left the country in an atmosphere of insecurity, economic stagnation, and conflict with its neighbours. In addition, there is a devastating drought gripping large parts of the country, the consequences of which have been too little addressed. What has this electoral process shown? First and foremost, the weaknesses of the 2012 provisional constitution and the vulnerability of existing state institutions to political abuse. In the struggle for the nation’s soul, state law and state institutions have been of little help. Instead, the clan structures, which are criticised in the West, prevented the country from drifting into a dictatorship, sometimes with a well-dosed use of armed force.[12] However, the last months have shown much more. Somalia is immensely dependent on the international community, which is shown, among other things, by the current debate on debt relief by the IMF, but also by the effects of the stop of international aid due to the delayed election process. On the other hand, there are massive foreign interests in the country. The USA is waging its war on terror, the EU and others are working to bind the country to the West, China has long had Somalia in its sights as a supplier of commodities because of its suspected oil and actual fish resources, Russia is trying to regain old regional influence, Kenya and Ethiopia are trying to take advantage of the country’s weakness, and various players in the Arab region, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are competing for economic, political and religious influence in the country.  Somalia will only be able to escape all these influences through its strength and unity strategy. In this respect, the new president’s campaign slogan, “Soomaali Heshiis Ah. Dunidana Heshiis la ah.” which translates into “If Somalis live united, they will live at peace with the world”, was very accurate. Many of the country’s internal conflicts are driven by external interests. In this respect, one can only hope that the new government does not make the mistakes of the old government. Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is the first post-collapse president to be given a second term. In the first days after his election, he announced his intention to continue the institutional reforms he halted in 2016, to begin reviewing and somaliizing the provisional constitution, to move forward with clan reconciliation, to normalise relations with neighbours, to promote the strengthening of federalism, to declare the depoliticization of security structures, and to tackle the drought and improve the economic and social situation. Above all, he has reaffirmed his commitment to democracy and announced the implementation of a “one person, one vote” electoral system. All these are right and ambitious projects that could be complemented by integration into the East African Community (EAC).[13]

However, one of the most important tasks will be to bring the dramatically deteriorated security situation in the country under control. In this respect, no matter who wins the next elections, one can only hope that in four years, the people will once again be able to celebrate on the streets of Mogadishu exuberantly and without fear. The peaceful transfer of power from the Farmaajo administration to President Hassan Sheikh Mohammud so far gives cause for hope.


[1] https://africanlegalstudies.blog/2021/11/12/light-and-shadow-in-somalia-how-ahlu-sunna-waljamaa-and-the-elections-are-connected/.

[2] Whether the attack was taken as an opportunity to politicise the security structures or was deliberately initiated to realise this goal has not yet been clarified. Al Shabab has never claimed responsibility for the attack.

[3] https://africanlegalstudies.blog/2021/09/17/house-of-cards-in-villa-somalia/#comments.

[4] For example, the prominent ONLF leader, Abdikarim Qalbi-Dhagah was handed over to Ethiopian in September 2017. This is seen by many Somalis as a gesture of submission by the Farmaajo administration to Ethiopia.

[5] During his farewell speech on 23 May 2022, President Farmaajo confirmed for the first time that thousands of cadets were taken to Eritrea for training in 2019/2020. Since then, many Somali families have lost contact with them, fuelling speculation that they were used as cannon fodder in the Tigray conflict. The UN also assumes that Somali soldiers were used in the conflict.

[6] https://africanlegalstudies.blog/2021/02/10/constitutional-crisis-in-somalia-democratic-free-and-fair-elections/

[7] https://africanlegalstudies.blog/2021/01/23/somalia-before-the-elections-from-democratic-election-to-dangerous-selection-process/.

[8] https://africanlegalstudies.blog/2021/04/28/is-civil-war-coming-to-somalia/.

[9] https://africanlegalstudies.blog/2021/06/25/the-4-5-system-an-instrument-of-exclusion/.

[10] https://theconversation.com/somalias-election-was-different-why-thats-not-necessarily-a-bad-thing-184388.

[11] https://africanlegalstudies.blog/2022/04/15/somalias-complicated-election-process-ends-result-uncertainty/.

[12] https://africanlegalstudies.blog/2021/04/28/is-civil-war-coming-to-somalia/.

[13] https://www.newtimes.co.rw/opinions/somalia-already-comesa-how-long-till-it-joins-eac.

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