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After several months of delay, a new president of Somalia was elected on February 8, 2017. The fact that an election took place at all should be counted a success.
Despite the so-called Somali New Deal Compact of September 2013, in which the country’s government pledged to international donors and its people that it would hold an inclusive election by the end of 2016, the process was highly imperfect in both design and execution. Once again, insecurity stemming from the jihadist al Shabab insurgency, clan rivalries, tensions among newly formed subfederal states, and violent criminality prevented a broadly participatory national election. Instead, the vote was left to 14,000 elders and influential political figures who, over the course of several months, elected 275 members of the Parliament and 54 senators. These officials went on to pick the new president. Extensive corruption and vote buying tainted the process. To secure support from the elders and influentials, potential parliamentarians were reputed to have paid tens of thousands of dollars for a vote. Intimidation and clan politics also marred the process. But the fact that the incumbent President Hassan Sheik Mohamud accepted defeat and stepped down is an important win, not just for Somalia itself but in the continent more broadly.
The new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, has some strong credentials, not the least of which is a reputation for not being corrupt. He is a dual citizen of Somalia and the United States, with technocratic experience from both countries. But Mohamed, known by his nickname Farmajo (derived from the Italian word for cheese), is facing many tough challenges. These include fractious politics and entrenched corruption, a stubborn insurgency and insecurity, and an increasingly challenging external environment.
Coping with clan divisions will be the new president’s first challenge. It will be difficult for him to persuade the Hawiyes, the largest clan and one of the rival groups of the Darod clan from which he hails, that he will govern impartially. And even if he does that, he will have trouble overcoming clan cleavages sufficiently to push through at least some badly needed governance improvements and reforms. Farmajo’s last stint as prime minister of Somalia (2010–11) ended after just eight months precisely because of this problem.
The 2012 election of the outgoing president, Mohamud, was celebrated at the time as a major step forward in overcoming pernicious clan politics. Hailing from the dominant Hawiye clan, he was seen as an impartial academic who understood the need for good governance. Ultimately, however, he was unable to translate his mandate into performance-based legitimacy. During his time in office, he increasingly resorted to both clan politics and patronage and nepotism.
The lower house of the newly elected Parliament is still dominated by clan cleavages. To be sure, there are some hopeful signs. Fifteen percent of the parliamentarians are younger than 35 and presumably more responsive to the needs of the Somali people, and 24 percent of parliamentarians overall are female. That’s not quite the 30 percent that Somali nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the international community had hoped for, but it is still a significant increase compared with the composition of the previous Parliament. Women’s groups have been among the most effective peacemakers and anticorruption activists in Somalia. But neither an increase in women’s representation nor the somewhat younger makeup of the new Parliament will easily erase the dominance of clan rivalries in Somalia, just as women’s representation in Afghanistan has not overcome problematic ethnic and tribal politics there. Nonetheless, the hope is that the Parliament, first formed in 2012, will be at least somewhat more responsive to the needs of the Somali people than what came before.
Somalia’s formal legal federalism and its implementation, including the establishment of new federal states, is one of the main achievements of the past four years. The upper house of the Parliament is now made up of representatives from these states. The hope was that such devolution would lead to a more peaceful Somalia, but the new ruling elites of the states are not necessarily more accountable to their people than politicians in Mogadishu. Meanwhile, the shape of the new states continues to be contested, sometimes violently, by clan and regional groups within the new states and among the states as well. The balance of power among the states and between the states and the federal government will remain a work in progress.
Al Shabab is adroit at exploiting clan cleavages and local feelings of marginalization. Its ability to present itself as above clan politics fueled the group’s rise and continues to give it traction. Last year, the group overran the strategic city of Marka, where the local population has been dissatisfied with being administered by the government of the new South West State. Similarly, in Juba State, al Shabab has injected itself in disputes in areas bordering Ethiopia and Kenya and in the southern reaches of the state. The military forces of the new states are essentially clan-based militias and are even more exclusionary and narrowly parochial than the still predominantly clan-based Somali National Army.
Al Shabab is adroit at exploiting clan cleavages and local feelings of marginalization in Somalia.
Despite its intimidation campaign and terrorist attacks, al Shabab was not able to prevent the parliamentary and presidential election process. That does not mean, however, that the group is any weaker than it was a year ago. The government’s counterinsurgency effort has been stalled for the past two years. The group retains the ability to conduct major terrorist attacks in Kenya and Somalia, and it regularly does so in Mogadishu, including against hotels that government officials use as workplaces and homes. It also collects taxes from businesses in the capital and throughout much of the country and continues to control the roads, determining who, if anyone, can travel on them.
In January 2016, the group attacked and devastated a Kenyan military base in southern Somalia, reportedly killing more than 100 soldiers. It was one of the deadliest days for the Kenyan military, exposing the many deficiencies of its counterinsurgency strategy. A year later, in January 2017, al Shabab attacked another Kenyan military base in Somalia, killing some 50 soldiers. For its part, the Kenyan government has denied the reports.
To be sure, al Shabab does face internal challenges. In November 2016, for example, a group of about 50 members split off and declared themselves a branch of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Somalia, operating in Puntland. The group seized the town of Qandala, some 45 miles away from the strategic port of Bosaso, a key economic hub of Puntland and potentially a major, if still elusive, prize for al Shabab. For now, despite such factionalization, al Shabab’s internal security branch, Amniyat, remains loyal to al Shabab’s leader, Sheikh Ahmad Umar Abu Ubaidah, and has been busy killing and arresting potential defectors. It is unclear, however, how much longer the group will be able to maintain cohesion.
Further, the Islamist insurgents’ presence in Puntland is neither new nor strong. It has captured international attention partially because the Puntland Interim Administration, the government of what has formally become a subfederal state, has been unable to effectively put down the group. Puntland forces—which include the “formal” forces of the Interim Administration, the formal paramilitary darawish forces, and other clan and formerly antipirate militias—have been overstretched. They have been patrolling the border with central Somalia and fighting not just al Shabab but also at times one another.
Meanwhile, the capacity of the Somali National Army is limited. It is nominally supposed to field some 20,000 troops, but the actual numbers are unknown. The counterinsurgency force of the African Union, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), has trained some 11,000 army troops to date, but the quality of training varies widely and often is inadequate. Mostly, the army remains a collection of local clan militias whose allegiance is for sale. The fact that soldiers have recently faced salary delays of up to 13 months (salary delays for the Somali police have run up to 15 months) compounds the problem. When Farmajo was prime minister in 2010, he scored kudos with the army for getting its salaries paid on time and reducing the huge corruption in the disbursement. Replicating the previous success will be crucial.
Salaries or not, it will be a long time before the Somali army will be able to stand on its own. And yet it may soon have to, since the AMISOM mission is set to end by 2020. Although AMISOM suffers from numerous problems, its departure will be devastating for Somalia. More immediately, the current 21,000-member force, comprising soldiers from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda, will be decreased by 10,000 by the end of 2017. No one believes that the Somali army is ready to pick up the slack. A key priority for the new Somali president will thus be to halt the AMISOM exodus. When Ethiopia withdrew 4,000 soldiers who operated in Somalia separately from AMISOM (another 4,000 remain within the AMISOM framework), the vacated territories immediately came under al Shabab’s attack or influence.
Now, both Uganda and Kenya are threatening to withdraw their portions of AMISOM forces early. Those countries have not been able to pay their soldiers for months. Internal corruption issues are a problem; a more significant reason for the lack of payments is the reduction of international payments for AMISOM. The European Union cut its funding by 20 percent in 2016 because of other priorities and dissatisfaction with a variety of policies of the AMISOM-contributing countries. Even before the funding crunch, the mission was understaffed, underequipped, and lacking in tactical coordination among its various national forces. For over two years, it has been in a largely static garrison mode, rarely venturing out to go after al Shabab. Its future looks even worse.
The hollowing out of AMISOM reflects, in part, a new regional environment.
Ethiopia, a major contributor to the mission, is seeing greater instability than at any time in several decades. The regime is built around the Tigrayan ethnic minority. Perceptions of its ethnic favoritism have led to large street protests. In response, the government has detained some 25,000 people and has killed several hundred. It has sought to shut down the country’s few independent civil society groups, and it has imposed an effective blackout of media and social networks. Several months ago, it went so far as to impose a state of emergency that has yet to be lifted. Ethiopia’s decision to withdraw the first 4,000 of its soldiers from Somalia thus comes as no surprise.
Kenya’s Somalia policy, and its treatment of its own Somali minority, has often been highly problematic. In August 2017, Kenya is to hold its next presidential elections. It is not inconceivable that the vote could produce ethnic and tribal violence, although perhaps not on the scale of the 2007 elections. The fact that International Criminal Court proceedings against President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice President William Ruto for instigating the ethnic violence surrounding that election collapsed does not augur well for the deterrence of violent ethnic politics. Extrajudicial killings and murders have risen over the past year, including of major human rights activists. Unemployment, social frustration, and corruption remain high. This is hardly a conducive environment for a wise external counterterrorism policy, especially one that ensnarls an often maligned internal ethnic group.
The dangers of ethnic politics in Burundi, which contributes some 5,400 troops to AMISOM, are far greater still. Not long ago, the international community feared another wave of Hutu-Tutsi genocide when its president decided to run for a third term, abrogating the ethnic power-sharing agreements that kept peace in the country since the last genocide. Often perpetrated by supporters of the president’s Hutu ruling party, violence has simmered, with some 325,000 displaced since November 2015. The fact that the violence has not yet exploded into genocide or civil war does not mean that the country’s problems have been resolved. Although the Burundian contingent is the weakest element of AMISOM, the country’s government may want to recall its troops for far more nefarious purposes, even at the cost of losing the AMISOM payments and salary support.
External rivalries of key international actors in Somalia have also been growing. Turkey and the United Arab Emirates are explicitly competing with each other in the country. In October 2016, Turkey announced its intention to open a military base in Somalia. In response, the UAE persuaded the state government of Somaliland to allow it to open a military base at the port of Berbera. (The Somaliland government had previously threatened to lease Berbera to China in order to get international support from the United States and United Kingdom for its independence, but China then took its base in Djibouti.) As external actors cultivate their own proxies and allies, they strengthen clan and state-federal rivalries and sometimes outright violent conflict, which al Shabab skilfully exploits to its advantage. Good governance and the build phase of counterinsurgency thus never arrive.
Finally, the broader international donor environment is also much more challenging these days. The EU is preoccupied with many issues, including refugees. And although it would like to see a reduction in the flow of refugees from the Horn of Africa (as well as from elsewhere), it has been cutting funding for Somalia. The United Kingdom, long a principal driver of international Somalia policy, is preoccupied with Brexit. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has said little about its policies toward Somalia or in the Horn. But it has indicated a strong disinclination to provide aid to Africa or to engage in state building more broadly. The new government may well be satisfied with a very narrow counterterrorism policy in Somalia, restricted to targeting key al Shabab terrorist leaders. Yet such a narrowly cast counterterrorism policy has caused much damage in Somalia over many years and often contributed to deeper and lasting instability in the country.
Although it would like to see a reduction in the flow of refugees from the Horn of Africa, the EU has been cutting funding for Somalia.
Somalia’s new big cheese will quickly find out how much has been bitten off his capacity to govern. But he does have policy choices to make and some governance options. Crucially, he must demonstrate quickly to international donors as well as domestic constituencies that he is effectively cracking down on corruption, starting with corruption within Somali national forces. In addition to boosting morale, reducing corruption in salary payments would make existing money go further and may have some positive spillovers on quelling clan rivalries. More broadly, the new president should mobilize progressive voices in the new Parliament, Somalia’s NGOs, women groups, and businesses that have demonstrated effective governance capacities and to engage them about ways to deliver effective governance not perverted by clan favoritism. His cabinet appointments should also reflect a diligent clan balance, but all individuals appointed should possess technocratic skills and honesty. He will have to carefully maneuver with respect to the newly formed states: issues regarding distribution of resources among the states and between the federal level and the states are hardly resolved. Even diligent and determined anticorruption efforts at the federal level may not be welcome by all interim state administrations. But powerful anticorruption demonstration effects will strengthen his hand and legitimacy.
Such early steps will also consolidate his mandate domestically, weaken al Shabab’s narrative (if not its operational capacity), and boost the chances of sustained Western support. Although Farmajo cannot control his regional environment and the geopolitical rivalries that beset it or the difficult internal dynamics within AMISOM’s contributors, he can robustly engage with the foreign donors and actors in Somalia to reshape their policies in the country to enhance stabilization efforts, not undermine them. None of these measures are easy to implement or are transformative enough to save Somalia’s from its decadelong predicament of conflict, corruption, and misgovernance. But they are necessary first steps.