Somalia: a long road ahead

New MPs pray during the inauguration ceremony for members of Somalia's first parliament in twenty years. (Photo: AU-UN IST/Stuart Price)

New MPs pray during the inauguration ceremony for members of Somalia’s first parliament in twenty years. (Photo: AU-UN IST/Stuart Price)

By Hanna Ucko Neill, Global Conflicts Analyst

Somalia: a long road ahead

Somalia marked an important milestone last week, as it swore in its new and first formal parliament in 20 years, but another key measure of its progress – the selection of a new president – has failed to materialise. Some real progress on its political transition, women’s rights and security has given Somalia an undeniable feeling of optimism and forward momentum. But each area of progress faces old realities: the ‘roadmap’ to transition and the parliament itself are marred by corruption and intimidation, women’s rights face huge challenges from the prevalent political culture, and the al-Shabaab insurgency remains a security threat despite some significant military gains by African Union forces. Somalia’s ability to leave these problems behind decisively depends on the new government – which may not be fully formed for some time.

Waiting for a government

Encouragement, support and United Nation warnings notwithstanding, the political process failed to produce a new president, which was meant to coincide with the expiration, on 20 August, of the Transitional Federal Institutions that have governed the war-torn country for the past eight years.

There is no new president because there is not yet a full parliament. The new parliament, which will consist of a lower house with 275 members and an upper house with a maximum of 54 members, only swore in 215 of its 275 members on 20 August, and the number now stands at 228. Somalia’s ongoing security issues make a general election impossible, so a group of elders face the task of naming a full parliament. Political manoeuvring among these elders has caused months of delays. Some elders were reportedly selecting unqualified candidates, selling seats, accepting bribes, and nominating family members, and there were even reports of death threats.

When the parliament is eventually complete, it will select a new president, who will then select a prime minister whose job will be to designate a cabinet. The process took another step forward after 228 legislators selected a new speaker, former Labour Minister Mohamed Osman Jawari, by the proposed deadline of 28 August. Because the political transition has to take into account Somalia’s intricate clan politics and loyalties, a person from a clan that wins the post of speaker is not eligible to serve as president. This means outgoing speaker and presidential hopeful Shariff Hassan Sheik Aden, who is from the same clan as Jawari, is unlikely to be president when that post is filled.

It is unclear when that will be. UN officials have expressed concern over the delays so far, which do not bode well.  A spokesman for the UN mission to Somalia said it might be late August or September before a president is selected. The International Crisis Group, who said the process has been marred by ‘unprecedented levels of political interference, corruption and intimidation,’ estimates that it might be as late as October before a full government is in place.

A bump in the roadmap

Despite a broad sense of optimism in Mogadishu when the parliament was sworn in, the transition process was seen by many as undemocratic. Many Somalis blame the signatories of the September 2011 ‘roadmap’ – setting out the conditions needed for a smooth transition – and accuse them of prioritising short-term political goals at the expense of transparency and democracy. They now fear the re-ignition of clan-based violence. The political process saw drawn-out negotiations which left the cabinet marginalised and the parliament ignored, and many clans and sub-clans feeling under- and misrepresented.

On a positive note, Mogadishu appears to be flourishing and, for the first time in several years, presidential candidates are holding rallies and putting up election posters and billboards. The election of the new president was expected to be a three-horse race between Interim President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, Speaker of the Parliament Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden and Prime Minister Abdiweli Ali, but it is now unlikely that Aden will be chosen. Nonetheless, a leaked UN report indicated that corruption in the transitional government had played a large part in the country’s political woes. Because the president, speaker and prime minister of the transitional government are all in the running for the presidency, there are doubts that this government would truly be the fresh start Somalia needs.

Numerous obstacles’

The results of the presidential election may be unpredictable, but that does not preclude other candidates, such as former Prime Minister Muhammad Abdullahi Farmaajo, from fanning the flames of violence. His return to Mogadishu has already led to clan-based clashes between his supporters and those of Sheikh Sharif. Meanwhile, a pledge that 30% of the new parliamentary positions would go to women was widely praised. But the promotion of women is not without controversy – despite the stated aim – and several elders now maintain it is a step too far in Somali culture. So far the percentage of women MPs stands at 16%. Two women are running for presidency. One of them, MP Asha Ahmed Abdalla, has accused the government of corruption and intimidation. The UN too has expressed concern about the delays, acts of intimidation and violence. Secretary-General’s Special Representative and Head of the UN Political Office for Somalia  Augustine Mahiga said the past ten months of negotiations had revealed numerous obstacles which might well prevent any change in the political status quo.

Despite high hopes, Somalia is unlikely to witness a smooth political transition. Added to the political turmoil, 2.51 million people are facing a humanitarian crisis and an additional 1.29m are at risk of sliding back into crisis without sustained assistance, according to the UN humanitarian agency OCHA.

Recent developments indicate that the African Union forces are making progress against al-Shabaab, (rebranded al-Qaeda in Somalia), but also underline that al-Shabaab are by no means a spent force.

On Monday 27 August, radical Kenyan cleric Aboud Rogo Mohamed was shot and killed. Mohamed was on UN and US sanction lists for allegedly supporting al-Shabaab’s actions in Somalia as an ‘ideolological leader’ of Al Hijra, also known as the Muslim Youth Movement (MYM) in Kenya. His death sparked riots in Mombasa and the head of the MYM, Sheikh Ahmad Iman Ali, took to Twitter to say: ‘We are on the right track when our leaders get shahadah (martyrdom).’

There was further progress against al-Shabaab this week when they retreated from the strategic port of Marka. But al-Shabaab fighters have recently advanced north, towards Puntland, the focus of Somali pirate activity. The Kenyan peacekeeping contingent is currently focusing on capturing the strategic southern port of Kismayo, al-Shabaab’s last stronghold. And while Ethiopian forces backing Somali troops have cleared large swathes of al-Shabaab’s influence in the Mudug, Hiraan and Galguduud regions, Mogadishu and the Afgoye corridor, it is indicative of the security situation that the first session of the new parliament was held at Adan Adde International airport, one of the few secure areas of Mogadishu.

The sooner Somalia can set up its new government, the better – but if the new government has too many old problems, the country will not be out of the woods yet.


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