Somalia’s fleeting opportunity for hopeful change?

Will the change of leadership usher in a new dawn for exhausted people in Somalia?

Somalia''s newly elected President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud waves after winning the election, in Mogadishu
Most Somalis applaud the change of leadership and are eager for the new president to succeed [Reuters]

Celebratory gunfire filled Mogadishu on a cool evening, on September 10, 2012, as citizens cheered the defeat of the corrupt leaderships of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the election of a new leader for the country.

The objective of this essay is to assess whether this change of leadership will usher in a new dawn for an exhausted and humiliated people or if it will reproduce the misery of the past 30 years. Many of those rejoicing the change of leadership might wonder why the question mark in the title of the article.

There are three reasons for the guarded optimism of the author. First, the process which produced the change was deeply and thoroughly corrupt and as such one might conjecture if such a mechanism can produce a genuine break with the past. Second, one wonders if the UN and the international community (IC) that steered the transition have the decency to change their attitude and genuinely assist the new leadership serve the Somali people. Finally, a critical concern is whether the new Somali team will break with the sectarian ways of building a government and reintroduce what Somalia’s most distinguished democratic Prime Minister called “Karti iyo hufnaan” (governance based on integrity and competence).

The process of change

The final stages of Somalia’s political transition began last year after the TFG regime failed to live up to its obligation of preparing the country for democratic transition. The UN, AU and Western members of the IC took the matter in to their hands and decided to force the process of change. British Prime Minister David Cameron was most emphatic in articulating that the transition will end as planned in August 2012.

Such a categorical deadline pleased the Somali people, but thoughtful Somalis were troubled by the PM’s endorsement of the ongoing corrupt process being used to induce a regime change. Many Somalis saw the British intervention as a thinly veiled attempt to subvert the forthcoming Istanbul Conference organised by Turkey to help Somalis help themselves.

All along, the UN Special Representative (SR) remained the principal actor guiding the transition process and was emboldened by the new rhetoric from the IC. He ran with the corrupt practice and allied himself with the TFG leadership who did everything conceivable to gerrymander the process in their favour. In one instance, he was confronted by the three major TFG leaders in Galkayo who forced him to agree to the so-called Galkayo Agreement.

The author learned this from a team member of the SR who had foreseen this coming as the latter was ill-prepared for the confrontation. As a result, the SR succumbed to the demand.


Inside Story – The promise of Somali elections

The last three steps of the transitional process involved the selection of “traditional Elders” (TE), the nomination of members of parliament, and the election of a new president. Selecting 135 “traditional elders” (TE) anchored the rest of the process, since this group nominated members of parliament. Once summoned, the TE were sequestered in an old military camp where the three senior leaders had virtual monopoly in accessing the TEs and consequently were well positioned to influence this process although others contested their dominance.

It appeared at the time that the most dominant figure among the three leaders was the former speaker of parliament who supposedly controlled nearly a third of the elders from his genealogical group. However, all the top three leaders were able to ensure a majority of those selected “TEs” were amenable to their respective agendas. Soon it became apparent that the TEs were willing to receive substantial bribes from the three leaders as well as those eager to be appointed to parliament. The purpose of these “gifts” was to help the TEs appoint the “right” MPs.

Once the selection of MPs began, vast sums of money began to change hands. Individuals who were eager to be appointed as MPs paid money, while several of the presidential candidates who coveted MPs’ support paid up to $20,000 per MP seat in order to replace those appointed with their supporters. Such a scheme produced a parliament vastly populated by members whose votes were mortgaged. In one case, a presidential candidate was able to buy 10 MP slots for his supporters.

Once parliamentarians were appointed, the three TFG leaders who had their eyes on becoming president of Somalia jostled to have undue influence on the process.

Given the tribal formula that governs Somalia’s current political dispensation, each of the three presidential candidates strove to have an MP from the opposing camp forced into the speakership.

The consequence of this affair was that whoever was elected to that post would automatically disqualify any member of his kin group from running for president. The TFG president and PM successfully seduced someone from the former speaker’s group to run for speaker and as a result knocked off Sharif Sh Aden from being a contender for the presidency. The former speaker was livid, but after two interventions from the Kenyan government and business friends from UAE decided to throw his lot with his supposed arch-enemy, Sharif Sh Ahmed.

The irony in the entire affair is that neither the former Speaker nor the TFG President and Prime Minister considered the position of Speaker to be worthy of their dignity signalling their contempt for the idea of institution building in a country that has no functioning national organs. Thus, they did not believe parliament to be the most vital institution of the country’s post-transition establishment.

The mad rush towards the presidency began once the speaker was elected and everyone assumed that the two principal contenders for the office were the TFG leader, Sharif Sh Ahmed and the PM, Abdiweli Gaas. Everyone assumed these two were the candidates to beat since they had stashed away substantial amounts of public money to purchase votes. The rest of the contenders were a mixed group since some had significant cash accounts (some of the money came from overseas) to use for the same purpose, while others loathed the market for MP votes. This foul market for votes operated in the open and under the gaze of the SR and the IC.

The new president comes from civil society and
has been deeply involved in education

The final act of gerrymandering took place just a couple of hours before parliament was to vote for president. Sharif Ahmed and his allies forced parliament to vote on two dozen candidates for parliament who were originally barred from the assembly for being warlords or for engaging in “corruption”. The new speaker of parliament, connived with Sharif Ahmed, and compelled Parliament to vote on the issue through a show of hands rather than the appropriate secret ballot. Advocates for the warlords won by a margin of 10 votes while nearly a third of MPs were too frightened to vote and therefore abstained from the vote.

The warlords were then seated in parliament to take part in the deliberations. The sordid wheeling and dealing went on right to the last minute. Finally, voting began after a delay of six hours. Four of those candidates who paid handsomely for the votes ended as the top vote getters in the first round of balloting.

Sharif, the TFG president, marginally led this count. It appears there was a general agreement among the opposition candidates to support anyone among them who garnered the most votes in the first round, and immediately after the first ballot, the TFG PM took to the podium and openly urged all to support the alternative candidate. The third and fourth ranked candidates withdrew from the competition. Nearly 90 per cent of those who supported the opposition in the first round switched their votes in the final round to Hassan Sheikh who overwhelmingly won the presidency.

The challenge and the promise

Most Somalis applaud the change of leadership and are eager for the new president to succeed.

There appears to be a popular sentiment that the new man must break the prevailing corrupt and tribalistic political order  for reform to have any chance of success.

The critical question is whether the fraudulent and illegitimate process that accidently propelled a decent man to the top post could be unshackled to spawn a new era. A clear manifestation of the depth of the sectarian political disease is the fact that three of the top four candidates in the second round of the presidential vote came from a relatively small genealogical group that populates parts of the old capital.

Many Somalis wonder how could this be and some conjecture that such domination of the process by a small segment of the population is because the cosmopolitan old capital has lost its national lustre and has become an insular city. Others add that because of this insularity candidates from other communities do not have the political and economic support base in Mogadishu and consequently are significantly disadvantaged.

Opening up the economic and political landscape of Mogadishu for all Somalis is essential if the city is going to reclaim its position as the legitimate political center of the nation.

Since the new president comes from civil society and given that he has been deeply involved in education for the last two decades many people feel he could potentially destabilise the faithless political order and induce a refreshing civic epoch. They wonder whether he and those around him have the courage to help the country step out of the quagmire. 

“If the new team fails to measure up to the challenge, history and the Somali people will judge them harshly.” 

The first act that will signal whether the president is embarking on a civic or sectarian journey will be the appointment of the new government. Another indicator of reform will be how the new man and his team relate to the UN and the IC. This relationship will demonstrate if Somali leaders’ subservience to the UN, the IC and regional powers remains or whether a sovereign nation re-emerges. 

Somalis are holding their breath and praying for a bold, sensible and strategic political programme that can inspire the people and translate their goodwill into productive assets for the nation. If the new man is able to articulate such an agenda and act on it, then that will give the population an opportunity to turn this development into a wonderful miracle by demolishing the system that kept Somalis in a political cage for over two decades. This is a fleeting chance that must be seized swiftly.

If the new team fails to measure up to the challenge, history and the Somali people will judge them harshly. Let us hope that the new President has the courage and the wisdom to act faithfully!

Abdi Isamil Samatar is a professor of geography at the University of Minnesota and a research fellow at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is a member of the Somali political party Hiil Qaran.