The election of Somalia’s new president Mohammed Abdullahi Farmajo offers the country’s international partners a new opportunity to step up efforts in advancing peace and stability in Somalia as well as the wider Horn of Africa.
Yet the hopes of a stable future for war-torn Somalia may be short-lived if the fraught regional dynamic, in particular the mistrust felt by regional powers, are not effectively unaddressed.
Farmajo’s near-landslide election victory on 8 February is without parallel.
Although the eruptions of joy across the Somali-speaking Horn and the shared jubilation of citizens and soldiers in Mogadishu is rightly giving way to more sober assessments, the view that a seismic shift has occurred will be difficult to ignore.
Ensuring that this election ushers in a new dawn, and that Farmajo’s new found political capital is well invested, a renewed diplomatic engagement by partners on numerous fronts will be required to support national-level reform and ease regional anxieties. The upcoming London Conference on Somalia, now expected in early May, represents an opportunity to do just that.
Many hope that Farmajo’s credibility and popular support can be channelled productively.
The national reconciliation talks, aimed at healing deep wounds from the civil war that broke out in 1991, have stalled and Farmajo’s strong mandate may be what’s necessary to resuscitate them.
Although the entire indirect election process was extremely corrupt, Somalis have completed a relatively credible presidential election that has resulted in a peaceful transfer of power.
Farmajo’s cross-clan support – the biggest mandate strongest platform for any Somali president – is a rare demonstration of unity in the ethnically homogenous but clan-fractured country.
The mandate is indispensable fin for making critical progress on multiple fronts, particularly on reconciliation, addressing corruption and finalising the constitution.
A number of factors worked in Farmajo’s favour and helped seal his remarkable victory.
First, Farmajo tapped into a growing anti-Abgal (a Hawiye sub-clan) mood and a widely shared antipathy to its the dominance of the Abgal, a Hawiye sub-clan that gave the country its and the fact that the last two presidents were Abgal.
But this frustration among the other clans also extended to the implicit agreement between the Abgal/Hawiye and Majerteen/Darood clans that allowed them to control, and share, both the presidential and prime ministerial seats.
Moreover, Farmajo’s victory was also helped by former President Hassan Sheikh’s decision to support the re-election of Mohamed Osman Jawari’s of the (Digil/Mirifle) as parliamentary speaker.
This sly tactical support was intended to scupper Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan’s presidential campaign, since it is an unwritten rule that the president and speaker cannot hail from the same clan.
This fuelled Digil/Mirifle resentment, who ended up coming together during the presidential election rounds to vote against Hassan Sheikh.
Youth and diaspora
Second, Farmajo is also well liked among diaspora and youth: More than 125 of Somalia’s 283 MPs and Senators are from the diaspora and 165 MPs and senators are under 35 years of age.
In addition, approximately 30 per cent of the newly elected MPs are also affiliated with Islamist-leaning groups, including Salafi movements and the Muslim Brotherhood (excluding Hasan Sheikh’s Damal Jadid).
These have been, for some time, against the previous president’s perceived closeness with Ethiopia and its meddling in Somali politics.
Third, Farmajo benefitted from a huge wave of nationalistic fervour and a widely shared perception he could be the right person to build a robust Somali National Army (SNA), speed up Amisom’s exit, stabilise security, curb interventions by neighbouring countries, and protect Somalia’s dignity and sovereignty.
Farmajo’s immediate task will be to manage the inordinately high expectations that could potentially trigger a serious public backlash and further instability.
Unless Farmajo moves with speed to fulfil his pledge to rebuild the security forces and state institutions, tackle corruption, and unify the country, dissatisfaction could trigger a serious public backlash and further instability.
A further immediate impediment to Farmajo’s proposed domestic agenda stem from the entrenched elites, which stop at nothing to preserve their self-serving positions.
Clan elite leadership comprise a form of a very corrupt “deep state” that often operate against the interests of the people.
Some believe this network cut short Farmajo’s tenure as prime minister in 2011.
Meaningful progress will be unlikely unless these factions are controlled through a mixture of co-option and coercion.
The elections also highlighted the extent to which covert foreign funding of politicians fuelled clientelism allegations that some acted as puppets and has impeded Somalia’s democratic transformation.
In particular, Gulf Arab states and Turkey were widely alleged to be giving cash to the top five presidential candidates.
Managing competing foreign interests in future presidential elections and reducing the corrupting influence of illicit foreign funding must be a priority for the Farmajo government.
One potential institutional solution would be to formalise the Integrity Commission, set up just days before the presidential elections with the aim of curbing bribery.
On a regional and international level, Farmajo’s stated intent to reshape his country’s foreign policy could prove a daunting challenge, not least because his victory stemmed in part from his campaign image as a staunch nationalist opposed to foreign meddling – especially by Ethiopia and Kenya.
As head of state, he will need to move with extra caution to navigate regional politics and ease the anxieties of these powerful neighbours who are suspicious of his brand of politics.
Growing tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia (over Nile Waters, the Grand Renaissance Dam and South Sudan) could potentially spill over into Somalia and complicate matters for Farmajo.
The speed with which Cairo has moved to embrace the new Somali president is bound to increase Ethiopia’s anxieties at the growing Arab influence in the country.
The resurgent Somali nationalism that Farmajo is said to embody is causing particular concern in Ethiopia, which could become an equal, if not greater, challenge to the new president.
Ethiopia and Somalia are historical rivals and Addis Ababa has intervened repeatedly in its eastern neighbour since the central government collapsed in the early 1990s.
Addis Ababa has a long history of intervention in its smaller eastern neighbour.
In 2006, Ethiopia moved swiftly to dislodge the popular Union of Islamic Court (UIC) Islamist government that enjoyed immense popularity and managed to restore peace in Somalia during its brief six-month reign.
Addis saw the UIC's anti-Ethiopian posturing and Somali nationalist rhetoric in support of a “greater Somalia” that incorporates Somali inhabited areas in neighbouring countries as a threat and acted accordingly.
If Farmajo adopts a similarly antagonistic posture – as his popular “nationalist” constituency demands – then Addis will quickly act to undermine the new regime in Mogadishu, regardless of the progress made in Somali-domestic struggles.
He will need to move slowly in relation to Ethiopia and Kenya and building new bridges that underscore the shared interest between the new president and these countries in stabilising Somalia.
At the same time, international partners should also keep in mind the historical context and the destabilising potential of resurgent Somali nationalism in the region.
Consequently, it must encourage discreet diplomacy to promote dialogue and accommodation between Somalia and its neighbours.
There are clues that regional tensions may still worsen.
Pro-Farmajo social media activists posted a picture of an Ethiopian senior official at the election venue captioned “Ethiopia shattered by the poll outcome”.
Such taunts were disseminated widely across the Somali-speaking Horn and diaspora.
Such sentiment is likely to reinforce Ethiopia's negative perception and, worse, galvanise it into action to undermine.