Mohammed Abdullahi “Farmaajo” has been elected as Somalia’s 9th president. The dual American Somali citizen’s electoral triumph ignited an outpouring of joy and celebration among Somalis both in Somalia and in the diaspora around much of the western world. After most of the past decade saw a host of clan backed corrupted elitists squandering resources in an attempt to keep unproductive leaderships afloat, Farmaajo, who appears to be free from any affiliations with the elitist bigwigs or foreign powers, is a breath of fresh air and a source of optimism for many Somalis.
A newcomer of sorts, he only entered the Somali political scene some seven years or so after giving up a comfortable life in Buffalo, USA employed at the New York State Department of Transportation in Buffalo. Despite the turbulent nature of Somalia’s parliamentary wrangling and the massive task at hand faced by that country’s government, Farmaajo’s approach, a track record of getting things done during his stints in political office and his pan Somali rhetoric has seen him strike a chord with fellow politicians and the general Somali population. After his clinching of the Presidential vote last week and the subsequent jubilant reactions of his compatriots, it wouldn’t be farfetched to say that Mohammed Farmaajo, who got his nickname for his love of cheese growing up, is a leader beloved by the people he is slated to serve. This is a status enjoyed by very few leaders, if any on the African continent.
The likes of neighbouring Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and the unrecognized Republic of Somaliland were keenly following events in Mogadishu, most having invested resources in a candidate they felt would best protect personal interests. The governments of the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, who frequently find themselves at odds which each other as they compete to gain a foothold into a strategically important region, also attempted to influence the results of the election. One couldn’t be blamed for having placed wagers on the election outcome being heavily influenced, even decided by external players. Farmaajo’s winning the presidency is a victory in a sense. The fact that these foreign powers weren’t able to get their way suggests that the Somali electoral process has been able to regain its independence, which it had lost for quite some time now.
The leaderships in Addis Ababa and Nairobi are most probably in a period of self examination as they question what went wrong and worryingly ponder the dip in influence they have over proceedings in Mogadishu. Nevertheless, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn sent a half hearted congratulatory message to the new President this week. Despite the outcome of the situation, diplomatic ties must be maintained if these governments aspire to protect their gains and strategic futures.
What would be the best way to proceed with in regards to the likes of Ethiopia? With what appears to be a promising future on the horizon for Somalia, where do the people of Ethiopia stand? Is there any reason for re-establishing the enmity between the two countries that was fostered in the seventies during the Mengistu Haile Mariam-Siad Barre rivalry and the height of it, the Ogaden war? This article will attempt to articulate why it shouldn’t be so, from an Ethiopian perspective.
The election of a Pan Somali leader has seen the Somalia’s political right rejoice. The patriotic sector of the population has been figuratively speaking, stung by the presence of thousands of soldiers from foreign countries. Above all the decade long military presence of Ethiopian soldiers, the historical enemy, is a sore point that they haven’t been able to reconcile with. Many feel that now, more than ever, the prospects of the new leadership pursuing the booting out of foreign troops from the country are particularly good. A slight rise in anti Ethiopian rhetoric has been noticed in Somali diaspora social media circles.
It isn’t without merit. Even the Ethiopian government will have trouble justifying their continued military presence in Somalia. Since entering the country to oust the Union of Islamic Courts in 2006, the Ethiopian army has waged massive military operations to liberate specific areas of the country, capturing Mogadishu in 2006 and focusing on the areas surrounding the towns of Baidoa and Beledweyne areas after 2011. In the process they have propped up clan groups and armed insurgents who were willing to do their bidding. The Kenyans entered the fray in 2011 and fought vigorously to liberate the lucrative port city of Kismayo, which they eventually succeeded in doing by 2012. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has deployed thousands of peacekeepers from the likes of Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti into areas liberated by Ethiopian and Kenyan military operations. But since 2012, this massive buildup of troops in Somalia hasn’t resulted in the Al Shabab group’s operating capabilities diminishing significantly. This is in no little part due to the AMISOM foreign armies rarely straying into Al Shabab territory. Despite claiming to maintain a presence hell bent on wiping out the Al Qaeda affiliated jihadist militant group, Al Shabab remain unchallenged in the areas under its control, bar the odd US military drone strike. AMISOM troops roam the areas of the country they control, they will fire back and defend their bases, but since the Kenyans capture of Kismayo in 2012 during the promptly launched Operation Linda Nchi, there has been no sincere concentrated efforts to wipe out Al Shabab from its strongholds, its hideouts, which actually consists of the majority of southern Somalia.
So if they aren’t hunting Al Shabab, what are the Ethiopians, Djiboutians, Kenyans, Ugandans and Burundians doing in Somalia? They aren’t fighting to “rescue” Somalia, we can safely assume. It is becoming extremely difficult to offer a rebuttal to the average Somalian who accuses the governments of these troops of using them to pursue geopolitical goals. The “war on terrorism” provides a front concealing whatever covert actions these militaries undergo in the name of AMISOM.
Farmaajo himself knows this very well. He elaborated what he felt was the destructive presence of the foreign armies in Somalia in an interview years before his being elected President of Somalia.
“Kenyan, Ethiopian and Djiboutian troops shouldn’t be in Somalia. Some of these countries are our historical enemies and now claim to be defending Somalia. That’s not true! They are not defending Somalia, they don’t care about Somalia. They are destroying humanity.”
While these foreign troops have arguably resorted to no more than eyeballing the Al Shabab militants and only firing back in self defense, many incidents of their shelling of civilian areas and perpetration of war crimes have been documented by the likes of the UN Security Monitoring team. The documented killings committed by Ethiopian troops between 2006 and 2008 are especially heinous. For the price being paid by Somalis (countless dead, a devastated infrastructure and a dagger blow to national pride) the presence of Ethiopian soldiers in the country should have yielded more results.
The argument in favour of foreign military presence centers around the fact that without the presence of AMISOM oriented soldiers, the rather meek and underfunded Somali national defense forces would have crumbled under an Al Shabab onslaught. The extremist group and their medieval ways would have turned the clock back centuries in Somalia if they had been able to control the entire south. They have been robbed of a premium source of revenue when they were chased out Kismayo by the Kenyans in 2012 and lost control of that city’s port. This has proven beneficial in the efforts to pacify Mogadishu and its surrounding areas.
But then what is the argument for the near idleness of the Kenyan army since that coup in capturing Kismayo nearly five years ago? Why haven’t they actively pursued the fleeing militants who fled Kismayo? A lack of answers to these questions further solidifies the above mentioned argument that Al Shabab’s disintegration isn’t a priority for the Kenyan army.
2017 has the potential to be the dawn of a new chapter in Somalia’s history. After the last four years in which Somalia has seen steady development in areas under the control of the federal government, President Farmaajo stresses the importance of continuing on this trajectory. He promises that his leadership will oversee Somalia putting it into gear and precipitating the transformation of the capital city into a business hub open to the Somali diaspora’s investments. Free of the clan affiliations that have ravaged the governing system, he has the best shot at lobbying even the most ardent of political players to get behind him. Reports have emerged that long time Ethiopian funded Sufi militant group Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a (ASWJ), are considering merging their group into the national army at the command of the new President.
In this situation, Addis Ababa will be forced to answer hard questions. The AMISOM war on terror rendered stagnant since 2012 may be forced to pick up the pace and produce results. Although Farmaajo by no means has an army to force his will, failure of the governments of Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti to answer inquiries over their military activities and a failure to cooperate with the new leadership in an attempt to create a long term solution that could hasten the exit of foreign troops in Somalia, will be justifiably seen as affront to the dignity and sovereignty of Somalia, if it isn’t already. The interests of these countries should no longer come at the expense of the security and wellbeing of millions of Somalians. An outright refusal to give the people of Somalia and their democratically elected leader the chance at grabbing their own destiny by the horns will serve to solidify the claims that these neighbouring countries are a part of the problem and not the solution. To avoid creating a hostile, cold war-esque atmosphere in the Horn of Africa as there was in 1977, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, Uganda and Burundi must accept that under Farmaajo, compromising on decade long set ideals will be of the utmost importance to fostering peace and understanding among the millions of people inhabiting East Africa. It would be in the interests of everyone involved. Ethiopia for instance, could start by immediately repatriating a certain General Gebre Heard, who is widely loathed by the Somali public.
Meanwhile, Farmaajo and his yet to be sworn in cabinet should go about the business of regaining control of the country’s destiny as diplomatically as possible. It isn’t as if he had much of a choice. As much as he is deemed to be a well meaning man of good nature, he is still a fish in a shark infested sea. The Somali political world is fraught with corrupt officials one can describe as “agents” catering to the whims of powers from Africa, the Middle East and beyond.
One cannot blame Farmaajo for his staunch opposition to the foreign military presence on his soil. However, the calls for swift action to kick them out of the country coming from an extremely hyperactive Somali political far right are irrational and destructive. The cries coming from some of the Siad Barre era ideologues of yesteryear are for an emotion fueled course of action, which would see every armed soldier of non Somalian nationality leave the country within 24 hours, diplomatic relations halted and embassies shut down. Rome wasn’t built in a day and rebuilding a reliable Somali security sector won’t be completed overnight either. It isn’t as difficult to gamble with the livelihoods of millions of people when one lives overseas in the Somali diaspora. But for the sake of Somalis who actually live in Somalia and would be most affected, Farmaajo should filter out these destructive voices, many which emanate from abroad and remain cool and calculating in his movements.
The country may boast of a democratic process which is the envy of other democracy starved East African nations. But Somalia’s national army, which Farmaajo has just assumed the role of as its commander and chief, actively patrols less than 10% of what is internationally recognized as Somalia. And this is done in tandem with AMISOM troop movements. Unfortunately for Farmaajo, he isn’t in a position to call the shots and he knows this well. The new government will need to be shrewd yet engaging if he wants to see a significant increase in the national army’s overall influence and strength. This isn’t going to be achieved by being a hard headed patriot. So it would be for the good of Somalia that the minority far right who still harbour ambitions of expansion into Ethiopia and the establishment of “Greater Somalia” remain far from the country’s sphere of influence.
Despite being the biggest shareholder in the Ethiopian and Kenyan armies, the citizens of these countries are not responsible for the actions of their militaries. They have no say in what goes on in Somalia. The hostile rhetoric towards Ethiopians and the Ethiopian state some of the triumphant Farmaajo voters have exhibited is incredulous when one remembers that Ethiopia was the scene of massive anti government uprisings throughout 2016. The emotion is misplaced. It can be used for something much more constructive. With hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees in camps located in Ethiopia and Kenya, the brotherly bond between the masses mustn’t be overlooked. Ethiopians and Somalians tend to flock together when fleeing the region as refugees through the Middle East and North Africa, where in desolate areas, they face risks of exploitation, kidnapping rape and torture at the hands of traffickers and terrorists. How many tragic incidents of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean have seen the lives of young Ethiopians, Eritreans and Somalis cut down in their prime? During the chaos that occured in the immediate aftermath of the US government’s executive order to ban Somalis from entering the US, many Somalis were left stranded in Addis Ababa, while others who were deported from the US, allegedly chose Ethiopia as a destination. In the midst of the broader problems faced by both peoples, fostering division and hate is pointless and imbecilic. It would be serving the common good if Farmaajo’s leadership censored the warmongering hype.
The new President should actively lobby to push for the independence of his national army and the accelerating or annulling of the AMISOM “mission.” He also has the right to know what it is! But Mohammed Abdullahi “Farmaajo” would best opt for a joint regional discussion forum that will have Somali interests at the top of the pile. Regional cooperation is a must.
Ethiopia has apparently not taken the strategic loss well. Unconfirmed reports from Somali media outlets are emerging saying that the Ethiopian government may still try to recover by influencing the cabinet selection process. Whatever the case, the likes of Ethiopia and Kenya must realize that Somalia’s people appear willing to go the extra mile, throw everything plus the kitchen sink in a bid to wrestle back control of their country’s fate.
For the sake of preserving a degree of dignity ahead of the future eventuality, we’d best support the cause, with some sincerity this time.
My name is Zecharias Zelalem.