Long affected by war, Somalia seemed to emerge from years of hopelessness on Monday (10 September) with the election of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud by the country’s transitional parliamentarians. Widely applauded by the international community, these elections nonetheless proved to be a challenge for a state that has suffered from a lack of effective governance for over 20 years. The newcomer will have to face a country divided between war and ‘money-lords’, Islamist militants from al-Qaeda affiliated al-Shabab, pirates and secessionist provinces, while the regional geopolitics of the Horn of Africa were also recently shaken by the death of long-standing Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi. As a proof of the challenging times ahead, the new Somali president – as well as the visiting Kenyan Foreign Minister – escaped a bomb attack yesterday (12 September) in the capital Mogadishu.
Ken Menkhaus, a professor of Political Science at Davidson College, is a specialist in the politics of the Horn of Africa. In an interview with The Global Journal, he provided his perspective on these latest events as well as how they might impact prospects for Somalia’s future.
Elections in Somalia occurred three days ago and have resulted in the victory of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud against the incumbent President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed. What are your thoughts on the outcome?
The election results were a genuine surprise to most observers. Most of us anticipated that Sheikh Sharif, the incumbent, and his circles of supporters, who have constituted Somalia’s ‘money-lords’ over the past five years, would manipulate and purchase an outcome that would bring them back to power or keep them in power.
Does it mean there are good prospects for democracy in Somalia?
Because it was an election that was only held in the Parliament and because the parliamentarians were themselves appointed by people who were appointed by people who were appointed, this is an ‘appointocracy’, not a democracy. The fears that the members of Parliament would simply take the money that was being offered to them to keep Sheikh Sharif in office did not materialize. Instead, we saw a mobilization of Somali civil society leaders and professionals, and some members of the diaspora, who organized themselves very effectively: first to challenge Sheikh Sharif as presidential candidate, then to form a coalition around a handful of candidates and eventually just Hassan Sheikh. They were able to convince the members of Parliament to do the right thing – that this was a historical moment in Somalia where they could begin to take control of their government and get good people in office or that they could continue with one of the most corrupt transitional governments in the world.
Remarkably, a lot of Somalis who found themselves in a critical place at a critical time did the right thing, and overwhelmingly! This was not a close election! However, what happened was not a mass mobilization in Somalia. It is a very unique variation on the Arab Spring. In this case it was not street protest, it was organization by second-level professionals and civil society leaders who successfully outmaneuvered the ‘money-lords’ and persuaded Somalis in Parliament to vote their conscience. It is a fantastic outcome. It suggests a level of resilience and commitment and organization on the part of Somali civil society in the professional class that we did not know had survived. The Somali civil society has taken a real beating in the violence over the past six years but it turns out they emerged from it strong enough to win this outcome, and willing to take risks that were pretty substantial in order to do.
Would you say this establishes a path for long lasting peace in Somalia?
I hope so. Peace is a different issue now. What this did, it signaled a commitment on the part of the Somali social, political and economic elite to put the country on a different course politically. The violence is coming from different quarters. This was a struggle against the ‘money-lords’. Now, the struggle is going to be against the jihadis. There was an assassination attempt right away! The game is going to be more complicated because Hassan Sheikh and his supporters are going to have to simultaneously try to continue to outmaneuver the ‘money-lords’ and the warlords in Mogadishu who have a very strong vested interest in the status quo – and who could pose a security threat. They will also have to fight a rearguard battle against the Jihadists, who ironically now share a common interest in sabotaging this new government. This is much more dangerous to the shabaabs than the old government was – the old government was easy to hate. Most Somalis despised it. But now, Hassan Sheikh is very respected. He is someone who stayed in Somalia throughout the war, who took big risks to set up one of the institutes of higher education that’s provided education for thousands and thousands of Somalis – he’s a very respected civil society figure. He reaches across a wide range of communities and he is amongst the moderate Islamists. He is associated with the al-Islah. He’s got the credentials that are going to make it very difficult for al-Shabab to vilify – that’s why he’s more dangerous to them.
In the end though, how much control and authority will this President actually exert?
He has very little right now. He is inheriting a weak government that does not control even most of the capital Mogadishu. He is looking at a situation in which some of the security forces that were associated with the transitional government – now post-transitional government – answer to other players. Members of parliament who are also warlords will not even allow his police force to go into their neighborhood. He’s going to be fighting multiple battles to both extend the post-transitional federal government (TFG) and to deepen its capacity to do something besides divert money. Luckily for him, there are some very good Somalis inside the post-TFG, in the civil service. They had not been able to have any impact to date because the ‘money-lords’ were preventing that. Now they are going to have an opportunity and it will be interesting to see if they will be in a position to outmaneuver some of the bad guys and really begin to administer the country. This is going to be a long and very difficult process.
How did self-declared autonomous region Puntland and secessionist Somaliland react to this election?
Puntland is going to be paying close attention to the selection of the Prime Minister. Over the past eight years, the implicit understanding in Somalia is if the President is from one major Somali clan - the Hawiye - then the Prime Minister will be from a Darod clan - that would include the clan that dominates in Puntland. There are several Darod clans and it is quite possible that the Prime Minister is selected from one of the other Darod clans, at which point Puntland might feel a bit marginalized. Puntland has the ability to seek out involvement in Somali politics because it is located in a remote area of Somalia. If it refuses to cooperate, there is not a whole lot the rest of the country can do.
Somaliland is a secessionist country. It had taken pains to wish the rest of Somalia well. Because of the popularity of Hassan Sheikh - and he has good links with a lot of Somalilanders who work in civil society and through the Somali Institute of Development and Management that he has run - there is no doubt there that no one is wishing him ill. He is not the kind of person who is going to immediately articulate a platform calling for the reintegration of Somaliland in Somalia. He’s going to be much more practical and focused on getting Mogadishu and Southern Somalia in order. He of course will subscribe to the principle of territorial integrity of Somalia, because all Somali politicians have to do that. I don’t think he will push it as his first agenda. Somaliland for the moment is just going to be left alone and that’s fine for both sides.
How will the death of Meles Zenawi affect regional geopolitics and Somalia?
This has been the big question: will Ethiopia’s attitude towards Somalia change with the death of Meles Zenawi? One of the concerns was that Ethiopia would not be eager to see any changes with any consequences until leadership is more settled. But what we have seen last week is that despite Meles’ death, talks proceeded with the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). The first round of talks was successful, which suggests to me that Ethiopia is going to continue its priorities. That is very significant: if they can move forward with the talks with the ONLF, they certainly are going to be attuned to embrace changes they see in their interest in Somalia. A lot depends on whom Hassan Sheikh selects as a Prime Minister: they do have a dog in that hunt. There are certain Darod clans they need to be particularly attentive to for their domestic and cross-border issues.
What about the international community? Is it likely new embassies will open in Mogadishu?
The opening of embassies will have nothing to do with how they feel about Hassan Sheikh, but will have to do with how they feel about security. The assassination attempt [yesterday] is exactly the kind of development that will give pause to foreign embassies. With this terrible news out of Libya [two days ago], I think Western foreign ministries are going to be even more security conscious when it comes to where they are placing embassies. That kind of an overrunning of an embassy is just unacceptable from a security perspective.
What strategy will the UN-backed African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) follow now that the elections are over?
On the one hand, AMISOM is already on the offensive. It has taken Merca, which was an important town for Shabab; it is moving down Kismayo. The challenges that it faces now are that it is engaging in a country that is, technically at least, not transitional. That raises an interesting question as to what kind of authority Hassan Sheikh and his government now have over what AMISOM can and cannot do. I don’t know the answer to that but it is a very interesting question. This is an interim government. Does it mean it has limited sovereignty to control decisions where AMISOM should be, whether it should be in the country at all? This is the kind of complex and tense relationship we’ve seen in Afghanistan with regard to the international forces there.
Photo © Ken Menkhaus ; Map: reserved.