The 8 February election of new Somali president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed sparked a renewed sense of optimism in a country long plagued by violence and political instability. However, Somalia has for decades been associated with the concept of a ‘failed state’, and its diverse set of problems won’t simply be overcome by the much-publicised rebooting of its political process, which culminated with the election of Mr Mohamed.
Instead, the recent election represents just the beginning of yet another new dawn for this troubled east African nation, in which President Mohamed must now grapple with the same fundamental challenge that has proved beyond his predecessors: how to mitigate Somalia’s chronic insecurity and achieve meaningful progress in a society shattered by decades of conflict.
The electoral process itself was fraught with difficulty and took place amidst an atmosphere of heightened security concerns, yet passed off remarkably peacefully. Initially the government had planned to give all adult citizens a vote, but these plans had to be scrapped due to repeated threats to attack polling stations from Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab.
When the scaled-back vote did eventually take place – after being postponed several times since the back end of last year – more than 14,000 tribal elders selected 175 Members of Parliament, who in turn were tasked with electing the president. Whilst more than 20 candidates made it on to the ballot paper, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed – commonly referred to as ‘Farmajo’ – triumphed over incumbent Hassan Sheik Mohamud, who had been in power since the last election in 2012.
The electoral process and resultant smooth handover of power were met with widespread praise from international observers along with Somalia’s western backers, notably the US and EU, who financially supported the vote. The election also signalled democratic progress since the 2012 election, when only 135 elders were given the opportunity to select the country’s MPs. Due to the fragile security environment, a fully democratic vote with public participation was not possible. Yet the vote still marks a huge step forward, paving the way for public participation next time round if the security situation has improved.
Such an improvement however looks unlikely, given the long-term challenges created by Somalia’s complex history of conflict and instability, which the new President is now faced with the unenviable task of ending. The current wave of violence dates back to the overthrow of military leader Siad Barre in a 1991 uprising, when a collection of clan-based militia groups toppled the government and seized control of the capital, Mogadishu. Since then, for more than 25 years, Somalia has been left without an effective central government and has been torn apart amidst a climate of lawlessness, where armed actors have been able to operate with almost total impunity.
US intervention during the mid-1990s failed to stem the tide of violence, instead resulting in the infamous ‘black hawk down’ incident and the withdrawal of US troops. In the 2000s, attempts to forge a functioning and legitimate central government failed, despite the creation in 2004 of a western-backed ‘Transitional Federal Government’ (TFG). This arrangement quickly unravelled when in 2006 a radical militia grouping known as the ‘Islamic Courts Union’ (ICU) took control of the south of the country, including the capital Mogadishu. In response, the UN and African Union launched a multi-country mission in 2007, known as AMISOM, which over the next few years made steady progress in pushing back the militants and restoring some degree of order.
In the current decade, Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab have come to represent the most significant threat to the Somali state. Al-Shabaab advocates the Saudi-inspired Wahhabi version of Islam, and has imposed a strict version of Sharia Law across territory under its control. At the height of its power in 2011, the group was estimated to have more than 7,000 fighters and was in control of large swathes of central and southern Somalia. However, the AMISOM force – made up of troops from Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Sierra Leone – has regained most of this territory in recent years, forcing Al-Shabaab to retreat back into their rural strongholds.
Despite this progress on the military front, the same set of decades-old problems remain prevalent in Somalia, and prevent progress beyond the maintenance of a minimum level of security. The Somali National Army remains weak and under-resourced, whilst the central government in reality has very little power beyond the confines of the capital, with a distinct lack of the financial and institutional capacity necessary to project influence out into the regions.
The most pressing and immediate issue for the new government to deal with, remains the continued ability of Al-Shabaab to carry out marauding gun and bomb attacks across the country. A report earlier this year by Human Rights Watch stated that Al-Shabaab has continued to commit ‘’targeted killings, beheadings and executions…forcibly recruit children…and severely restrict basic rights in areas under its control.’’ Jihadist attacks against both military and civilian targets have continued at an alarming rate, with schools, restaurants and hotels becoming frequent targets. For example, 20 people were killed in January last year in an attack at a restaurant in Mogadishu’s Lido beach area, in addition to further terrorist attacks throughout 2016. Other notable targets included police stations, UN offices and hotels across the capital, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people.
Concerns over such attacks have further increased in light of the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and its latter extension into Libya and Nigeria. The spread of transnational terrorism to other parts of the continent is now fuelling fears of increased links between Al-Shabaab and ISIS, which could cement the spread of jihadism in east Africa, with disastrous consequences for Somalia.
The threat from jihadism however is just one part of the overall picture, with the new president inheriting what has been characterised for decades as a ‘failed state’. This assertion is still just as true now as it was more than two decades ago when the Somali government first collapsed. Human Rights Watch describes ‘’dire humanitarian conditions’’ across the country, with civilians having to endure ‘’abuses by all warring parties’’. More than 1.1 million Somalis are currently internally displaced and much of the population remains exposed to extreme vulnerability, with limited access to even the most basic of services necessary for survival. Meanwhile Amnesty International recently reported that around 4.7 million people in Somalia are in need of humanitarian assistance, along with almost 1 million suffering food insecurity. The access of aid agencies is significantly hampered due to continuing violence between numerous armed groups, taking place in a country with almost non-existent rule of law and virtually zero accountability for human rights violations.
Whilst some observers contend that Somalia is no-longer a ‘failed’ state, citing the successful vote and the recent election of President Mohamed as evidence, it is clear that Somalia at the very least remains extremely fragile. In reality, whilst these developments may appear as positive steps forward, the government is only able to function through western support and has little influence on events outside of certain areas within the capital. In addition, AMISOM troops help to keep a lid on levels of violence, preventing the currently precarious condition of widespread instability from spilling over into full-scale armed conflict.
As was also true after several earlier ‘new dawns’ in Somalia over the past decade-and-a-half, there is a degree of hope and an opportunity to build upon the successful semi-democratic exercise which has taken place. However, in reality, given Somalia’s condition of chronic instability and huge power vacuums, President Mohamed faces a set of security challenges which are almost insurmountable in nature and likely impossible to overcome. Despite the best of intentions underlying the positive statements of western leaders, the desired goal of full democratic elections in Somalia, and the development of anything close to a functioning nation-state, still looks a long way off.