Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (known as Farmajo) was elected Somalia’s president by parliament on 8 February 2017. During the campaign he promised to renew the fight against corruption and suggested that he would be open to talks with al-Shabaab. He came into office with a reputation for competence. However, just over a year on, this reputation is already being severely tested.
President Farmajo faces a big challenge in consolidating the country’s emerging federal system. His predecessor failed to see through a constitutional review process that might have given it a more solid legal and administrative underpinning. Farmajo has made slow progress to date on this count. For now, the status of the regional states remain ‘interim’ and the division of powers between them and the centre opaque. There have been tensions between Mogadishu and some of the regional states. Some wonder whether Western backers of the federal experiment in Somalia might begin to lose faith in it over the period ahead.
Farmajo, who hails from the Darod clan, is also facing challenges from the powerful Abgal sub-clan of the Hawiye clan, which has felt under-represented in his government. Some have gone so far as to call for his prime minister, Hassan Ali Khayre, to be replaced by one of their own. During the first quarter of 2018, opposition politicians have been canvassing for an impeachment motion in the federal parliament (which has barely sat at all since February 2017) against President Farmajo – so far without success. Khayre, meanwhile, is pressing a no-confidence motion in the Lower House Speaker. Western and African governments have expressed concern about the growing political instability.
Behind the scenes, foreign interests further complicate the political picture. Various Gulf States are busy trying to increase their influence, including by sponsoring local politicians. In terms of the wider confrontation between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, and Qatar, on the other, the Farmajo government has sought to remain neutral. In retaliation, they have stopped making regular budgetary support payments to Somalia. But some regional states have taken the side of the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Some have interpreted the UAE’s agreement with Somaliland to open a naval base in the coastal town of Berbera as part of a strategy to raise the costs for Mogadishu of refusing to fall into line. This has come in the context of the UAE and Ethiopia buying significant stakes in Somaliland’s wider plans for the development of the port at Berbera. On 12 March tensions deepened when the Somali federal parliament voted to expel the state-owned UAE company DP World in protest at its involvement in developing the port at Berbera.
Africa Confidential assessed in January 2018 that there had been no improvement in the security situation since Farmajo took office. Since 2016, after several years of fighting in which it lost control over substantial areas of territory, al-Shabaab has increasingly prioritised conducting asymmetrical attacks on Mogadishu and other urban centres. However, it retains control over substantial tracts of territory in the south of the country and supply routes between towns.
Al-Shabaab’s conducted its deadliest attack ever (although it has never officially claimed responsibility) in October 2017 in Mogadishu, when bombs in two lorries killed an estimated 512 people, most of them civilians. The attack generated a wave of public anger against al-Shabaab in the capital, but there was also disillusionment with the performance of the national government.
US airstrikes against al-Shabaab targets have been increasingly often deployed in tandem with SNA and African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) operations. In November 2017, for the first time there were three US airstrikes against so-called Islamic State targets in Somalia.
After a relative lull at the end of 2017, since January 2018 there have been further major al-Shabaab attacks in Mogadishu. For example, on 22 March a car bomb killed at least 14 people near a hotel.
During President Farmajo’s first year in power, the issue of AMISOM’s future began to be posed more sharply. The third conference to be held in London about Somalia since 2012 took place in May 2017. It agreed a plan whereby the SNA would gradually take over from AMISOM. In August 2017, the UN Security Council renewed AMISOM’s mandate until May 2018 while endorsing its scaling back. AMISOM announced subsequently that 1000 troops out of its total complement of 22,000 would leave Somalia by the end of 2017.
With donor support, efforts are underway to improve the coordination between the Somali National Army and forces loyal to the regional states. The aim is to increase the size of the SNA from its current level of around 11,000 to 18,000-strong.
President Farmajo took office in February 2017 amidst a severe drought. Over a year on, although the threat of famine has so far been averted, the drought remains intense. The agricultural sector has virtually collapsed. The forecast for rain is poor. Donors provided more than $1.2 billion towards famine prevention during 2017. In January 2018, the UK Government announced an additional £21 million in funding.
President Farmajo has so far had no success in improving relations with the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. After several postponements, Somaliland held presidential elections in November 2017. The victor was Muse Bihi Abdi of the ruling Kulmiye Party. The defeated candidate, Abdirahman Irro of the Waddani Party, claimed there had been fraud but the Supreme Court upheld the result. There was some violence before and after the elections but clan elders, as in the past, played a part in calming the situation.