A new president took over the reigns of power in Somalia on February 8 after a resounding victory over his predecessor through an election in which votes were on sale for the highest bidder and millions of dollars changed hands in a country where more than 73 per cent of people live under $2 (Dh7.35) per day according to a World Food Programme report in June 2015.
Despite this monumental corruption, which the New York Times described as a ‘Milestone of Corruption’, Somali people have celebrated around the world as 311-member clan-picked lawmakers elected the new Somali president at an airport hanger protected by African peacekeeping forces. The new President, Mohammad Abdullahi Farmajo, who had worked as prime minister from November 2010 to June 2011, comes at a very critical time of the country’s political situation. He defeated his closest contestants, the outgoing president Hassan Shaikh Mahmoud, who was in office since 2012, and Shaikh Sharif Shaikh Ahmad, who held the office from 2009 to 2012, from a list of 24 candidates.
Since the collapse of the central government in 1991, Somalia mostly remained a lawless country where feuding clans, warlords and extremist groups carved the country into enclaves. The civil war displaced more than a million people with the Dadaab Camp in Kenya alone housing around half a million Somali refugees over the last 26 years, making it the largest refugee camp in the world. Other tens of thousands of people are either locally displaced in a land ravaged by draught and war-engendered famine or relocated to Europe and North America while thousands of youths risk their lives every day on the high seas in search of peace and bread. Several attempts were made over the last 26 years to bring Somalis together and form a national government, but all of them failed abysmally. The question is therefore, why the people think that it will be different this time?
A brief glance at the country’s chequered history may provide some answers. In the decade after independence in 1960, Somalia was seen as the most democratic country in Africa. In a newly-published book, Abdi Samatar, professor, University of Minnesota, characterised Somalia’s leaders at the time as Africa’s First Democrats, thus the name of the book. Somalia was the first country in Africa where a sitting president was defeated in an election and he willingly and peacefully handed over power to his successor in 1967. In the following two decades, Somalia built one of the strongest armies in Africa, south of the Sahara, and achieved a few other milestones in economic and social development, particularly in public education and improving the country’s literacy rate. However, Somalia tumbled when it went into a war with Ethiopia over a territorial dispute. Ethiopia reversed its initial defeat by deploying Cuban forces and getting massive military support and experts from the Soviet Union. Unable to face such unholy allies, Somalia withdrew its forces abandoning most of its military hardware in enemy hands. Some commanders of the demoralised army staged a failed coup d’état attempt. The government dealt the situation with summary executions and targeted entire tribes due to its growing paranoia against perceived threats.
The general resentment of the government actions, the massive growth of corruption, and resulting deterioration of the economic situation forced the people to start an armed opposition. Soon the military disintegrated into tribal militias and the central government collapsed in 1991 with the president fleeing the country. The country fell into a long-drawn civil war between clan militias, leading to one of the greatest humanitarian crises initiating United Nations and United States intervention in Somalia, which culminated in the infamous Black Hawk Down battle of Mogadishu between General Aideed and American Rangers that subsequently resulted in the withdrawal of American and UN peacekeeping forces.
The first regional attempt for Somali reconciliation was hosted in neighbouring Djibouti in 2000. After a marathon conference that lasted several months, Abdiqasim Salad Hassan, a former veteran politician, was selected as president. This was seen as a milestone development and Hassan received a hero’s welcome upon his return to Mogadishu. However, four years later, Hassan’s administration could barely reach parts of the capital, while clan warlords controlled the main revenue nerves of Mogadishu and the rest of the country.
In 2004, Colonel Abdillahi Yousuf Ahmad, replaced Hassan in another conference of clan-selected assembly in Kenya. Yousuf couldn’t enter the capital until African peacekeeping forces supported by the Ethiopian army pushed the forces of Islamic Courts out of Mogadishu. The involvement of Ethiopian troops in the Somali conflict and the defeat of the Islamic Courts, which brought a semblance of stability to the capital city after they defeated the warlords that divided the city and for the first time opened the port and airport for operations, was seen by many Somalis as an invasion given the historical hostility between the two countries over territorial dispute. This resulted in the supporters of Islamic Courts declaring an offensive against the Ethiopian army. The struggle seen by many Somalis as a war of liberation was spearheaded by the newly-formed Al Shabab Al Mujahideen, which was commanded by militant members of the Islamic Courts.
When the Ethiopian army withdrew from Mogadishu after heavy losses, Shaikh Sharif Shaikh Ahmad, the former chairman of the ICU was elected as president in a reconciliatory conference held in Djibouti in 2009. But the Al Shabab movement, which by now had become affiliated with Al Qaida, rejected Shaikh Sharif’s government and waged a war against him. With the support of AMISOM forces, however, Shaikh Sharif managed to drive Al Shabab from the capital and some neighbouring areas. However, Al Shabab’s terrorist attacks became more deadly and the situation was further deteriorated by a devastating famine over vast swathes of the country in 2010-2011. The famine, described as the worst in the country in 25 years, coupled with the scourge of piracy that impeded international shipping, costing about $6.9 billion a year in global trade by 2011, attracted international attention again to Somalia. A concerted effort led by Turkey, European Union and African Union and some Gulf Cooperation Council members succeeded in helping the Somalis to end the transitional government, and for the first time since 1991, the Somalis were able to elect a clan-nominated parliament that in turn elected Hassan Shaikh Mahmoud as President of a newly-agreed Somali Federal Republic in 2012. This was significant because it was the first time the presidential election was held on Somali soil despite the venue being protected by Amisom forces.
During Hassan Shaikh’s tenure, Mogadishu has seen some of the most daring and most devastating attacks by Al Shabab, with the country further fragmented into numerous autonomous clan fiefdoms supported by neighbouring countries. The chiefs of these mini states gave greater allegiance to Ethiopian and Kenyan leaders than the Somali president. United by their common fear of Al Shabab and historical Somali territorial claims on both Ethiopia and Kenya, these two countries moved mechanised military units across the border into Somalia. Although they pushed back Al Shabab militia from some areas, they also stoked the desire of local commanders for political power and helped them to carve out the country into mini-states under the pretext of creating a federalism in Somalia.
While the mini-states owe their existence and protection to Ethiopia and Kenya, the president and his government branches in Mogadishu were also protected by Amisom forces. This situation created great resentment among the Somali people who saw their country literally colonised by foreign powers under different names. Many people saw Ethiopia, a landlocked country with more than 90 million people, trying to find access to the Somali sea, the longest coast in Africa. Kenya is also logged in a dispute with Somalia over an oil-rich maritime border area.
Although Hassan Shaikh’s government was internationally recognised and Somalia was removed from the failed state index, it was plagued by political infighting and corruption, prompting Transparency International to rank Somalia among the most corrupt nations in the world.
It is against this background in addition to massive unemployment and hopelessness among the youth, with 70 per cent of the country’s population under the age of 30, that many Somali people view the new president as a symbol of hope. A hope that harkens back to an era when Somalia was cited as an example of democracy and good governance in Africa.
Bashir Goth is an African commentator on political, social and cultural issues.