New Somalia President could signal better regional ties ahead

Hassan Sheikh Mohamud

Somalia's newly elected President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. 

Photo credit: File

Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is facing a load of expectations from both his people and neighbouring countries, seeing him as an old hand to improve ties and solve some of the region’s pressing problems.

Mr Mohamud, 66, won back the presidency last week beating 36 other contenders to clinch the seat. It was the first time in Somalia’s post-independent history for a former President to be re-elected.

In Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta sent a quick congratulatory message and “wished the new Somalia Head of State good health and success as he takes over the reins of leadership, and assured him of Kenya's continued cooperation and comradeship,” according to a dispatch from State House, Nairobi.

As President of Somalia, between 2012 and 2017, Mohamud was the first President of the Federal Republic of Somalia to have implemented the Provisional Constitution passed in 2012.

Yet he was also the man who presided over a country whose problems spilled over into neighbouring countries like Kenya. An al-Shabaab menace meant Kenya was constantly attacked, drought and insecurities meant Kenya had to host more refugees and porous borders meant Kenya had to deal with a smuggling problem.

Dismas Mokua, a Political Risk Analyst in Nairobi, thinks the weight of insecurity, desire to keep international partners on his side as well as the need to tap into a diaspora with economic might should all contribute to a better foreign policy.

“He has a hot potato in his hands,” Mokua spoke of al-Shabaab. “He will need to instill confidence and mend fences,” he added about cooperation with outside partners.

Mohamud was the President who authorised Somalia’s maritime boundary legal suit against Kenya at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The case was decided last year in October, largely in Somalia’s favour, but Nairobi said it won’t obey it.

So what does Mohamud’s return mean? A senior Kenyan diplomat told the Sunday Nation Kenya expects Mohamud’s Somalia to be “good neighbours keen to create prosperity and good relations.” But the official said that will mean departing from old ways.

Those old ways include reasons Mohamud was voted out in 2017: State resources were routinely being pilfered, according to a UN Monitoring Report, and civil servants and security forces routinely missed pay making them demoralised to allow al-Shabaab resurgence.

In general, Kenya thinks Mohamud ignored al-Shabaab problem, burdening the then African Union Mission in Somalia (now African Union Transition Mission in Somalia [ATMIS]) and making Kenya more vulnerable to Shabaab attacks as it contributed troops.

Between 2012 and 2017, Kenya faced the deadliest al-Shabaab attacks including Westgate and Garissa University attacks, where 67 and 147 people were killed in the respective incidents.

This week, Mohamud promised to address some of the problems, linking them all to domestic failures.

“It is all about, again, moving forward about the reconciliation, not the social reconciliation but the political reconciliation. Putting the contentious issues in place and asking the people to discuss freely and fair,” he told Turkish News Agency, Anadolu on Tuesday.

“Political stability means building the foundation of a democratic state, finishing the constitution, establishing electoral laws, and the political party systems, political party laws, local governance system. And all these must be an agenda that consensually agreed among Somali people,” he added.

Mohamud will, in fact, inherit the same problems he left unattended, including weak institutions that have made it difficult to govern some regions of Somalia.

“He must first seek political stability and solutions to the security challenges will be found. The immediate past regime has overseen the fragmentation and politicisation of the Somali Security Forces, the prolonged electioneering period having worsened any gains made,” said Joel Okwemba, a 2022 Africa Policy Accelerator Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a US think-tank.

“At the onset, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud will have to unify political factions having gone through a toxic elite politics since 2020/2021 when the talks by the Council of Presidential Candidates collapsed, further distancing the Federal Government and Regional State Governments,” Mr Okwemba told the Sunday Nation.

That could have a long-term goal of ending al-Shabaab cells inside Somalia, he told the Sunday Nation. In the past, the militants profited from largescale bad blood between federal states and the federal government, creating enclaves in Jubbaland, Hirshabelle and Galmudug states, as there was weak cooperation between the two levels of security forces.

But that will still need a Somalia that enjoys good ties with neighbours. Mr Okwemba said future cooperation with Somalia “would require a revitalisation to see an improved relationship that exploits Kenya’s Security Council membership to Somalia’s advantage; especially in pushing for a Security Council Special Session on financing for ATMIS and Somalia Security Forces.”

ATMIS is supposed to help build Somalia’s own security forces which should take over full responsibility from end of 2023. But the mission must get adequate funding, something it still lacks.

Mohamud, however, is seen as more conciliatory this time, a signal that his second administration may learn from past mistakes. Dr Hassan Khannenje, Director of the Horn International Institute for Strategic Studies in Nairobi says despite Mohamud having sued Kenya at the ICJ, he knows much is at stake if relations break down.

“He has struck a more conciliatory and less confrontational regional foreign policy posture which raises hopes of a possible rapprochement with Kenya. This is in contrast with Farmaajo who exploited the Maritime dispute to whip up nationalist sentiment for political support across Somalia,” Dr Khannenje told the Sunday Nation.

“He will need regional diplomatic support strengthen his hand internationally as well as security support beyond the current ATMIS mission to assist in strengthening the Somali national army and in fighting al-Shabaab. He will need enhanced regional trade and investment to help revive Somali economy that is in a state of near collapse.”

The economic problem may be something both Kenya and Somalia should focus on, argued Abdirasak Aden, a former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information during Mohamud’s first term. As a former senior advisor to the President, Aden said the military component against al-Shabaab only addressed half the problem, which is why it didn’t solve it. Now, both sides can look

“Both countries need to look beyond the era of just a military cooperation against al-Shabaab because that hasn’t solved the core of the problem,” Aden, now Executive Director of Farsight Africa Research and Policy Studies in Somalia, told the Sunday Nation.

“If we create opportunities for our youths, we could dissuade many youths from joining al-Shabaab. We can deal with the remaining few through the battlefields.

“The neighbours must work for a unified Somalia too. And Kenya is in the UN Security Council so it has a lot of responsibility on its hands to ensure the long-term interests.”

A former activist, Mohamud joined politics in 2010 and won the presidency in 2012, defeating Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. His first administration was seen as pragmatic and he has rallied the Somali public as one leader who understands local problems: he rarely travels abroad, even though he is Indian educated.

In the past, he tried reconciliation, and succeeded in part. Observers think one of his strongest selling points was his promise to champion federalism which means he will build federal state autonomies and close working relations with the federal government. His predecessor, Mohamed Farmaajo was accused of imposing nationalism and often tried to control affairs of federal governments, as shown when he ‘nullified’ the re-election of Jubbaland President Ahmed Mohamed Madobe (who defied the nullification before Farmaajo later called an interim government of Jubbaland).

“The region in general and Somalia's immediate neighbours in particular should expect a new Somali president who, while a bit more conciliatory and pragmatic than his predecessor, will have to tread prudently and on a tightrope in his foreign relations pivots and possible resets,” said Adam Aw Hirsi, a political analyst and a former senior Somali government official.

His government, however, must inherit the mistakes of his predecessor as well, including a new political movement that bought his ideas.

“Hassan Sheikh Mohamud's administration will be both under the spotlight and microscope of the utopian nationalist fringes in the diaspora with an obvious ax to grind and the powerful troll armies perfected and efficiently weaponised by the outgoing Nabad & Nolol (Peace & Life) regime,” Aw Hirsi added, referring to Farmaajo’s slogan.

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