In the last few months the situation in Somalia has gradually been getting worse. With the country about to hold elections, increasingly violent confrontations between supporters of the president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, and opposition supporters, mass demonstrations and terrorist attacks by Al-Shabaab (banned in the Russian Federation), there is a risk that another civil war may break out in the country.
Over the last few years Somalia has, in many people’s minds, become associated with economic collapse and lawlessness. Somali pirates have seized ships passing through the country’s territorial waters and demanded ransoms. This activity has been earning the armed bandits (many of whom may not actually be from Somalia) more than a hundred million dollars a year. Aside from Somalia, the peninsula known as the Horn of Africa is also occupied by two largely unrecognized splinter states, Puntland and Somaliland. The central government in reality controls no more than a third of the country, barely maintaining its grip on the capital. The borders of Puntland and Somaliland are very close to those of the former Italian and British colonies in the region. Thus Somaliland occupies almost exactly the same territory as the former British Somalia, while Puntland claims all the territory of what was once Italian Somalia – a claim opposed by the central government. Not only do these breakaway territories have their own currencies, passports and other state attributes, they are also at war with each other. It is not surprising that this situation is playing into the hands of various terrorist organizations and radical religious groups, and is resulting in almost permanent internal instability.
On July 10, four mortar shells exploded near the official residence of the President, in Mogadishu, the Somali capital. The shells hit hotels and schools in the immediate vicinity of the presidential palace, but, so far, there have been no reports of any casualties.
That was the second terrorist attack on Mogadishu on July 10 alone – earlier that morning, a suicide bomber targeted the city’s police chief, Colonel Farhan Mohamud Qaroleh, who was not injured, although the blast killed six of his bodyguards and wounded 9 other people. So far, nobody has claimed responsibility for that terrorist attack, but the authorities have blamed the terrorist group Al-Shabaab.
On July 6, after a fierce battle with government troops, militants from Al-Shabaab seized the northern town of Baadweyne, near the Ethiopian border. Baadweyne has been under the control of Al-Shabaab since last April, but when the Somali army arrived early on July 6 the militants were forced to leave the town without a fight, yet they retook the city after a battle with the government troops later the same day.
The terrorist group Al-Shabaab was formed in Somalia in 2004. It is estimated to have some 7,000 militants in total. By 2010 the group had occupied a huge amount of territory, but in 2011 it was forced to abandon the capital, Mogadishu, and since then it has fought a guerilla campaign against the national government and its allies. In February 2012, one of Al-Shabaab’s leaders announced that the group had joined the international terrorist organization Al-Qaeda (banned in the Russian Federation).
Somalia’s armed forces are now engaged in a wide-ranging operation in central and southern regions of the country, in order to ensure the stability necessary for the holding of presidential and parliamentary elections. The elections to the upper chamber of the federal parliament are scheduled to take place between July 25 and August 10, and the elections to the lower chamber will last from August 10 to September 10. Then the parliament will elect the president on October 10.
Somalia has a unique election system in which the clan elders elect the members of the lower chamber, and the regional parliaments elect the members of the upper chamber. The parliament then elects the president, who proposes a cabinet of ministers. This system was introduced in 1991, after the end of the republic’s bloody civil war. The current president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, was elected in this way in 2017. After the accession of the new president, Somalia decided to change the established procedure and cancel the system of direct elections in order to strengthen the role of the central government. But the opposition was highly critical of this initiative, which they saw as an attempt – among other things – to extending Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s term of office.
Since the president’s term of office expired at the beginning of February, the country has now been several months without a legitimate government. The opposition no longer recognizes Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed as the head of state. According to Somalia’s provisional constitution, in the event of the president’s death or incapacity, the speaker of the parliament takes over as interim president. However the constitution does not say what should happen if a president’s term expires and there is no political accord. In similar circumstances, the previous president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, had his mandate extended by a year. According to the leader of the splinter state of Puntland, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed recently claimed in a private conversation that he had enough support from the national armed forces to stay in power as long as he wanted.
That is the background to the standoff between the government and the regional authorities, who were for a long time unable to reach agreement on the holding of the parliamentary elections. The situation has led to protests, as well as terrorist attacks – and, in the current power vacuum, there is no authority capable of taking action against the perpetrators.
For several years the government of Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed – popularly known as Farmaajo, has been promising to hold the first fully “democratic direct general elections” in the country since 1969, and talks between the government and the regional authorities on the elections began last year. A year ago the president dismissed Hassan Ali Khaire from the post of prime minister because of the lack of progress in the talks, replacing him with Mohamed Hussein Roble.
12 presidential candidates from opposition parties have come together to form an opposition council, which is resisting Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s bid for reelection on the ground that he has appointed his own supporters to the electoral commission. They are therefore calling for the creation of a national transition committee, which will be in charge of holding the parliamentary elections. Since the alliance of Somali opposition leaders refused to recognize Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed as the head of state and called for public demonstrations against the government, the country, especially Mogadishu, has been swept by a wave, which quickly escalated, with a number of protesters being killed.
According to opposition politicians (notably the leader of Puntland, Said Abdullahi Dani) the conduct of Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed risks plunging Somalia back into the chaos of the 1990s. They claim that the state security forces – controlled by the president – are being used not to fight terrorism, but to clamp down on his political opponents. The chaos is also being exacerbated by the unilateral refusal of the president (who no longer has any mandate) to consider an initiative by the international community concerning the introduction of a federal system of government in Somalia. The UN, EU and African Union all consider that such a system would allow the country to avoid many of the problems due to a lack of political balance in the country.
The unrest has made its mark on the Somali capital – over the last few months large numbers of troops, as well as military hardware, have appeared in the city, and many main streets have been closed off. But these measures, far from resolving the problem, have merely served to feed the flames of public discontent. As a result, three decades after the foundation of the Somali state, the country’s political elite is deeply polarized, and the divisions are set to get worse. The country is once again on the brink of a bloody conflict.
Nevertheless, it is to be hoped that Somalia’s central government will succeed in negotiating with the opposition and holding the presidential elections, as otherwise the conflict will only escalate.
Vladimir Danilov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.