On the 15th of May 2022, the Somali parliament made history by electing Hassan Sheikh Mohamud (HSM) as president for the second time, just over five years after he had lost the presidency to Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmaajo”. In a highly crowded field of candidates that included the incumbent, another former president, and a former prime minister, HSM emerged victorious in the third round of a long election night.
The saying that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” is often cited by pundits and politicians. The prevailing wisdom that led the overwhelming majority of parliamentarians to vote for HSM was based on the belief that he had learnt from his time in the political wilderness and would not repeat the mistakes that marked his first term, or indeed those of Farmaajo. HSM was widely perceived as the ideal president to move the country forward.
It is important to highlight the dismal political, security and social infrastructure inherited by HSM. On the political side, the Federal Member States that make up the Republic of Somalia were highly fragmented. Further, the Al-Shabaab terror group had been operating with impunity whilst growing both in size and influence, and the country was suffering from a prolonged drought that was causing extreme food insecurity which in some regions bordered on famine.
In forming his government, starting with the appointment of a prime minister and the subsequent naming of a cabinet, HSM opted for familiarity and political proximity, instead of choosing from across a broad coalition of heavyweights. That in itself is not an unusual step; every administration in Somalia since the reestablishment of the federal state in 2012 has sought to accommodate core supporters and close friends. HSM declared a much needed national offensive against Al-Shabaab the likes of which has not been seen in more than a decade. The speech outlined a multifaceted approach addressing religious ideology, financial resources, the military campaign and appropriate rehabilitation for defectors.
However, while most Somalis have welcomed this declaration of all-out war against Al-Shabaab, there is increasing criticism that the cabinet is not fit for purpose. Faced with a war that the country cannot afford to lose, the current cabinet appears unsuited and ill-prepared to execute the president’s decision. For instance, out of a cabinet of almost 70 members, only seven or eight have publicly aligned their portfolios to the ongoing war. An ideal war cabinet would consist of members mainly serving as the public face of the war, aligning the objectives of the war with their dockets and engaging the Somali public, as well as international partners, on a regular basis.
Faced with a war that the country cannot afford to lose, the current cabinet appears unsuited and ill-prepared to execute the president’s decision.
Secondly, there is heavy reliance on militias. While some have criticized this approach in a country with a long history of clan rivalries, the bigger challenge has been obtaining the uniform engagement of all the clans in Hirshabelle State where the current military offensive is concentrated. Moreover, there is growing evidence that senior politicians in both the national and federal state levels are working against the military campaign by preventing certain clans from joining in the war. The criticism against the government’s overt support for clan militias could be mitigated by incorporating them into the Somali army. This would ensure that the clan militias served the interests of the country as opposed to those of their own clans and also prevent the derailment of President Mahmoud’s aim of ending Al-Shabaab’s reign of terror.
Thirdly, executing the offensive on a nationwide basis would deny the terrorist group the luxury of shifting forces from one battlefield to another. There is growing evidence that Al-Shabaab has been moving troops and logistics from South-West and Jubaland States where they control significant territories. Even if the offensive in Hirshabelle is fully successful, Al-Shabaab will still be left holding these territories from where they can and will launch operations.
The criticism against the government’s overt support for clan militias could be mitigated by incorporating them into the Somali army.
In addition to these intricate and intertwined factors, the proverbial elephant in the room is the role and cohesion of the federal member states as it also impacts the trajectory of the war. So far, the president has taken a prudent, pragmatic and collaborative approach to the federal member states. In return, most of the states’ leaders have accorded him a honeymoon period as they assess the prospects for their political survival, with the presidents of the five federal member states facing elections in the next 10 to 24 months. Having a friendly federal government, or at least one that is indifferent to one’s re-election is what each one of them hopes for. However, since collaboration in the war against Al-Shabaab trumps all else, it is incumbent upon the president to use success in the war as a metric for future collaboration and cooperation with the leaders of all the federal member states.
Somalia is a nation at a crossroads, on the verge of defeating an international terrorist organization. All leaders, including politicians, businessmen, and religious clerics have a moral duty to be on the right side of history. Contributing to ensuring the total success of the president’s solemn, substantive and strategic vision of “not turning back” in the war against Al-Shabaab should be the national yardstick against which every leader, and all governmental and non-government institutions, are measured.