The following is a guest post from Faiza, a Somali political affairs analyst.
It has been a rough few months for Somalia…but this time the last few months have been ironically bittersweet. Somalis can say for the first time in over two decades that their government enjoys international backing and their country has potential for a strong economic resurgence. Despite glimmers of hope, however, Somalia is still plagued by incompetent leadership, al Shabaab, foreign meddling, millions of internally displaced people, and civil strife. This time it is coming from the man who symbolized hope…for a fleeting moment. It is coming from the Office of the Presidency, and from the President himself.
President Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud essentially entered the Somali national stage (he was well known in Mogadishu as a civil activist) on 10 August 2012 after narrowly claiming victory against incumbent (and notorious profligate) President Sheikh Sharif Hassan. In the nine months since taking over, Mahmoud has barely been able to exercise any authority outside of Mogadishu (he has even been given the sobriquet of “President of Mogadishu”). Mahmoud’s appointment of Abdi Farah Shirdoon as prime minister, failure to work with Ethiopia and Uganda, and his inability present a cogent security strategy are the biggest obstacles he is facing in securing stability in Somalia.
President Mahmoud’s nomination of Abdi Farah Shirdoon to be prime minister revealed his Machiavellian strategy of centralizing power by dividing and conquering. While the appointment of a prime minister, clan-wise, in Somalia is very quid pro quo, Mahmoud’s appointment of Shirdoon—a politically impotent but loyal businessman from the powerful Marehan clan—brought to light his original intention of marginalizing the position of prime minister (who technically retains the most power, according to the Somali Constitution). Shirdoon recently escaped a vote of no confidence from Somalia’s “do-nothing” parliament just seven months into his tenure, and since has barely attempted to display any serious leadership.
While much of the international community has been quick to laud the symbolic election of President Mahmoud and his government with pledges to rebuild, Somalia’s closest and most important regional partners—Ethiopia and Uganda—have been eerily silent on Mahmoud’s government. For the first time in memorable history, Ethiopia has not had a visibly large presence in Somalia. While many Somali media outlets are debating the merits of this withdrawal, Ethiopia’s retrenchment in the Somali security sector has opened a power vacuum, which Kenya is (haphazardly) trying to fill. And although Uganda has paid a heavy premium on leading and contributing to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), it too has been rather ambivalent about Mahmoud’s leadership and has threatened to withdraw its 7,000 forces. As Ethiopia and Uganda deliberate withdrawing, rising powers such as Turkey and Qatar have been dueling it out in (moderate [Sufi] Islamist vs. Salafist) a proxy war in Somalia.
No situation has explicated Mahmoud’s disinterest in creating a national dialogue more than the Jubbaland controversy. Regional and clan leaders have historically vied for control of Kismayo, a strategically situated city in the fertile lands of southern Somalia. Mahmoud’s failure to reach out to actors in Kismayo, one of Somalia’s largest economic hubs, concerning the Jubbaland impasse has in the eyes of many invalidated his authority as President of Somalia. This invalidation was evident when a group of Kenyan-backed Somali militants (twice) refused to allow representatives of the Somali Federal Government into Kismayo. Mahmoud’s authority as the president of Somalia was further damaged after he failed to recognize the forces that evicted al Shabaab militants from Kismayo, and after he failed to engage local clan leaders in establishing Somali Federal Government authority over Kismayo and the rest of southern Somalia.
While there is plenty of talk in the West of possible new oil and energy deposits in the Horn of Africa, no issue is a bigger impediment in developing Somalia than Somalia’s internal instability. President Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud needs to accept his role as well as his limitations as President of Somalia by first, firing his current prime minister and hiring an politically relevant and astute leader; secondly, reaching out to Ethiopia and Uganda; and finally, working to create a national dialogue with Somalis in all regions of the country on matters of security and development. President Mahmoud must not internalize the international accolades he is receiving and take advantage of the political leverage he still has available to him to stabilize Somalia before al Shabaab makes its return.