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BRIEFING PAPER: Somalia: February 2017 update

By Jon Lunn

Challenges facing the new president

As always in Somalia, clan interests and alliances played a major role in deciding the (s)election outcome, as did the involvement of foreign powers. This will remain the case under President Farmajo, who comes from the Darod clan. Most now expect that, in order to ensure balanced clan representation, his prime minister will come from the Hawiye clan. More broadly, the new government will need to be sufficiently “inclusive” of all the larger clans if it is to have credibility.

As stated earlier, Somaliland played no part in Somalia’s 2016-17 (s)electoral process. Diplomatic efforts to draw it in were unsuccessful. It has recently postponed its own (already once delayed) presidential election from March to October 2017 – officially due to the severe drought. The international community has criticised this decision. A dramatic breakthrough in relations under the new president of Somalia looks unlikely.

The credibility of Somalia’s new government will depend on its ability to deliver security. Al-Shabaab was unable to prevent the (s)electoral process from taking place. However, Africa Confidential claims that many of the Elders involved who came from areas where al-Shabaab is strong have repudiated their involvement on returning home and apologised for participating in it. Their apologies have reportedly been accepted provided they also pay $300 to al-Shabaab, significantly boosting its coffers. If true, this suggests that President Farmajo’s political base remains distinctly fragile.

Al-Shabaab continued to launch regular attacks on the Somali security forces and civilians while the (s)electoral process was taking place. At least 50 people died at its hands in December 2016. A suicide bombing attack on a Mogadishu hotel in January reportedly killed between 15 and 20 civilians. Several towns and villages have fallen into the hands of militants in recent months but more often than not they have been retaken by the authorities fairly quickly. A smaller pro-Islamic State faction based in Puntland has also been conducting some attacks.

In January 2017 al-Shabaab attacked a Kenyan military camp and reportedly killed at least 21 soldiers (Kenya claims that nine of its soldiers and dozens of terrorists died). The fact that Kenya has national elections later this year makes their troops a particularly attractive target for Al-Shabaab at the moment. For now, Kenya says it remains committed to AMISOM.

The new president will be keen to see AMISOM’s fortunes revive during 2017. He will also be hoping that a decision by the Kenyan Government to close the Dadaab refugee camp, where 200,000 Somali refugees currently reside, is shelved. Earlier this month, a Kenyan court ruled the decision illegal. The Kenyan Government has said it plans to appeal against the verdict.

The problems facing AMISOM may open the way for the talks with alShabaab that President Farmajo has hinted at. But these do not seem imminent. The authorities face the challenge of identifying credible and acceptable interlocutors on the al-Shabaab side. It may be that their preference will be to try and draw those who are al-Shabaab ‘by convenience’ into negotiations, rather than the hardliners.

President Farmajo also faces a big challenge in consolidating the country’s emerging federal system. His predecessor failed to see through a constitutional review process that might have given it a more durable legal and administrative underpinning. For now, the division of powers between the centre and the regional states remains opaque.

Perhaps the most urgent challenge facing the new president is the severe drought that is affecting Somalia. In January 2017 the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia said that five million Somalis – about half the population – do not have enough to eat.21 In February, the UK Government’s Envoy for the Horn of Africa, Sir Nicholas Kay, said that hundreds of thousands of Somalis could die in the next few month unless there is action to address the threat of famine.22 However, the crisis has not yet officially been declared a famine

UK policy on Somalia and Somaliland

The UK Government was a strong supporter of President Mohamud, although it shared much of the frustration of other donors with his performance, not least on corruption.

On 8 February 2017, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson congratulated President Farmajo on his victory.

For all of its problems over the last year or so, the UK Government remains a strong supporter of AMISOM.

The UK Government is sympathetic to the idea of a federal Somalia. This would include Somaliland, with which the UK Government has a positive relationship, co-operating on development, counter-terrorism and piracy issues, but which it does not (and will not) recognise as an independent state. The UK Government has encouraged direct talks between the Somali Federal Government and its Somaliland counterpart in recent years.

General UK policy is not to support secessionism within internationally recognised states. This policy is long-established and reflects the UN’s position since its creation after World War II. However, there have been a small number of exceptions to this rule.

  • There have been exceptions where secession has been mutually accepted by leading parties within a state, usually in the context of a peace process and/or peace agreement (South Sudan and Eritrea emerged in this way).
  • There have been exceptions where secession has taken place from a state which has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of much of the international community, including the UK (a number of new states emerged out of former Yugoslavia in this way).

For the UK to assist Somaliland to gain international recognition, a policy decision would need first to be taken that Somalia – or the idea of Somalia as a state – has lost its legitimacy. The UK would be highly unlikely to act alone, which means that this would have to become the view of the UK’s international allies and partners too. To take that position now would be to break ranks with the current US and collective EU positions on Somalia.

There are many in the international community who sympathise with Somaliland’s wish for independence, but they appear to be waiting for an African Union (AU) member state to take the lead.

Read More: BRIEFING PAPER- Somalia: February 2017 update


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