Unwinding the Political Stalemate in Somalia
May 24, 2019

By Ndubuisi Christian Ani, PhD

In the last two years, the internal political situation in Somalia has worsened dramatically at a time when the African Union (AU) mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is planning an exit by 2021. From the initial discord over a decision by President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” in mid-2017 to remain neutral in the Gulf crises, the situation has deteriorated to a formal declaration by Somalia’s federal member states to cease cooperation with the central government. This include putting a hold on cooperation for the ongoing constitutional reform as well as the preparation for the 2020 elections.

The AU, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and partners have to urgently scale up mediatory efforts to minimize the external and internal factors fueling the political discords.

IGAD recently took a bold step on 27 February 2019 by expanding the role of its Special Envoy on Somalia to include the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden in recognition of the external influences on the stability of Somalia. IGAD should work closely with the AU to get influential external actors like the United Arab Emirate (UAE) and Qatar to transform their roles to positive influence on the state-building efforts in the fragile country.

Since June 2017 when the Gulf Crises erupted, Somalia have borne the major brunt of the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Farmajo’s decision to maintain neutrality in the Gulf Crises, unlike Djibouti and Eritrea, is both a non-partisan and Qatar-friendly decision. Qatar had supported Farmajo’s election bid and continues to support his government.

However, Saudi Arabia’s ally the UAE, has taken concerted steps at the federal member states level to reverse the central government’s stance. Somalia’s federal member states accused the government of taking a unilateral decision and jeopardizing the investments of Saudi Arabia and UAE. Additionally, the UAE has been providing direct support to the federal member states in the face of alleged minimal funding from Mogadishu.

The magnitude of UAE’s apparent lobbying in the region became quite apparent when the government of Somalia seized a plane with $9.6 million in cash from the UAE in April 2018. The Somali government eventually bowed to UAE’s pressure by claiming that the seizure was a misunderstanding. But analysts hold that the funds were meant to ensure the unrelenting support of politicians, especially at the federal member states level.

Indeed, most of the states including Puntland, South West, Jubbaland and Galmudug have gone on to defy the central government’s position by declaring their allegiance to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

This highlights the significant influence of the Gulf States in the region and their untapped potential to get the political actors in Somalia to work towards a common goal.

Further complicating the situation is Farmajo’s penchant for interference in the internal affairs of federal member states such as Galmudug and recently in the South-West State.

On 8 September 2018, Somalia’s federal member states formally declared that they had suspended all ties with the central government accusing it of dictatorship among other issues such as corruption and failure to enhance security in the region. They also suspended their cooperation on the ongoing constitutional reform and the preparations for the 2020 elections.

Except for HirShabelle which eventually restored ties with the central government, the federal member states also met on 24 October and decided to create a political party and to form their own unified security force. The move threatens the ongoing strenuous plans to develop a unified security force at the national level in line with the Security Pact and the Somalia Transition Plan. The decision of the federal members was followed by a 9 December impeachment motion against President Farmajo in the parliament. Although the motion eventually failed, the prevailing tension jeopardizes Somalia’s stabilization effort.

More recently, federal member states and opposition members of parliament disagree with the government’s attempt to initiate oil exploration in the southern parts of the country. They argue that the central government has again not initiated negotiations and agreement with federal member states on such issues in line with Article 53 of the Somali Provisional Constitution which says that the government should consult the federal member states ‘on negotiations relating to foreign aid, trade, treaties, or other major issues related to international agreements’.

Nicholas Haysom, the former UN Envoy for Somalia who was expelled in January 2019 by the government of Somalia just few months after he was appointed, surmised the international concern when he stated that “What we’re facing is a quite serious political issue – the stand-off between the Federal Member States and the Federal Government may well paralyze our efforts to help Somalia get back on its feet.”

As the internal tensions between Somali politicians continue to worsen, Somalia’s relations with the self-proclaimed independent Somaliland have also reached a new low – a situation also linked to the Gulf Crises.

Analysts argue that the UAE’s effort to highlight the cost of Somalia’s neutral stance is the basis for its new deal with Somaliland over Berbera Port as well as an ongoing construction of a UAE military base. This led Somalia to call on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to take action against the construction of a UAE military base in Somaliland which is seen as a move that threatens Somalia’s unity and security. The UAE is expected to train Somaliland police and military forces as part of the military base deal.

While the political actors in Somalia are united against the tripartite deal made by UAE with the ‘secessionist’ region as well as Ethiopia, the situation went further to provide an opportunity for internal tensions. This was when the former speaker of parliament Mohamed Osman Jawari led a parliamentary vote on a bill that forbids the awarding of foreign contracts without the approval of the Somali Parliament. The parliamentary bill was passed without the input of the presidency leading to a clash between Jawari and Farmajo’s administration.

It took the intervention of AMISOM officials to cool off the stand-off between soldiers loyal to the president and those loyal to Jawari. Jawari eventually resigned from his post on 9 April 2018.

Political disagreements could be reflective of political activism and gradual effort to clarify roles and responsibilities. But tensions and continued failure to reach a common position on key national issues presents a challenge not only for the fight against Al-Shabaab but threatens the stabilization project in the country that has been in crises since 1992.

More worrying is that these developments are taking place as the AU and the UN are planning for AMISOM’s exit by 2021. As such, it in the interest of the AU and IGAD to enhance political and mediatory support in Somalia in order to address the concerns of political actors. This includes intervening to minimize the unbridled external interferences.

The AU and IGAD should regularize channels for strategic consultation with members of the League of Arab States and the Gulf Cooperation Council to push for responsible international engagement in the Horn of Africa especially in Somalia. Such interface could enable the UAE and Qatar to transform their influence to a positive role in Somalia’s state-building.