The 2017 election provided an additional boost to confidence. Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, better known as Farmajo, bested incumbent Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and former president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed in a second-round vote. The election may have been held under tight security at the Mogadishu airport and involved only parliamentarians, but it was still a step in the right direction.
Upon word of his elections, many Somalis took to the streets to celebrate not only in Mogadishu but also in Kismayo, Bardera, and the Gedo region from which he hailed. Nationalist Somalis regardless of clan saw Farmajo’s win as a rebuff to Ethiopia which had opposed his candidacy. Many diplomats also hoped Farmajo’s experience as a diplomat prior to Somalia’s 1991 collapse and then as a bureaucrat in Buffalo, New York, and finally as prime minister for seven months beginning in June 2010, would position him well to govern, manage, and reform.
Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire sought to tap into that optimism. “Now is the time to invest in Somalia,” he said. He inaugurated a National Economic Council. The World Bank issued its first grants to Somalia in 30 years. The Norwegians followed suit, as did several Gulf states. Turkey has invested heavily in Somalia for close to a decade, and the United States nearly doubled its annual aid contribution to $900 million.
Two years on, however, the international community is concluding that Farmajo is not living up to his promise on the two major interrelated issues he must tackle: corruption and counter-terrorism. As such, Somalia’s reputation appears at a tipping point.
Consider corruption: Transparency International continues to rank Somalia dead last internationally in terms of perceptions of corruption. To be fair, Somali corruption is not Farmajo’s fault: Somalia has ranked the worst on earth since 2006. But, while countries like Myanmar and Iraq improve their score, the international community sees little change in Somalia. Varieties of corruption in Somalia are widespread. “It affects virtually every aspect of the Somali society: from public officials’ misuse of public goods for private gain and the solicitation of bribes in exchange for basic services to the clan-based patronage networks used to obtain employment and political appointments,” Transparency International explained.
Corruption is not only a problem because it dissuades foreign investors and hampers development. Rather, in Somalia’s case, it is because it promises a resurgence of violence. The purpose of AMISOM was not only to combat al-Shabaab directly, but to create enough space to rebuild the Somali National Armed Forces (SNAF). In recent weeks, however, it appears that efforts to rebuild the Somali military have fared more poorly than even similar efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Money and weaponry destined for SNAF disappeared and Somali soldiers now go without their salaries. With no salaries, many abandon their posts rather than confront Al-Shabaab. When AMISOM withdrew from Balcad, just 30 kilometers from the capital, SNAF failed to stand up to al-Shaabab, which took the town. SNAF fared no better in Dhanaane, just 16 kilometers south of the Mogadishu’s airport, amidst the federal government’s failure to pay its troops. Bribery also undercuts security in the capital, as terrorists often bribe poorly paid checkpoint guards to look the other way. The March 23 Al-Shabaab bombing killed the country’s deputy labor minister and at least nine others in the heart of the capital is just one example out of many.
Recent SNAF performance raises questions about whether the federal government can defend even small gains made as AMISOM continues to pull out of the country after a decade providing basic security. Politically, the December 2018 arrest of Mukhtar Robow (“Abu Mansoor”), al-Shabaab’s former deputy leader who defected from the group, undercut any incentive for disaffected al-Shabaab militants to throw down their weapons and join the political process. For Farmajo, the refusal to reconcile smacks more of political fear than principle and is also a bit hypocritical given his own former involvement in the Siad Barre regime.
The problem Farmajo and Khaire now face will be donor fatigue. Somali officials and diplomats can tell their foreign counterparts that everything is on track, but headlines about defecting soldiers and bombs in the heart of the capital create a perception that raises concerns at a time when Somalia must compete with Syria and potentially Venezuela for international reconstruction dollars. The simple fact that most foreigners must remain inside the international airport (and even then are sometimes asked for bribes) reinforces the notion of basic risk.
Farmajo’s critics point out his hypocrisy for traveling extensively abroad after criticizing his predecessor for doing the exact same thing. For international donors, the broader issue is not that such travel should more often be the foreign minister’s job, but rather the expense involved and the fact that time spent outside Mogadishu is time not spent supervising and implementing overdue reforms. Further exacerbating donor fatigue is the sometimes exponential disparity in salaries between officials in Mogadishu and Somaliland. It will become increasingly difficult to convince foreign donors that salary support for the federal government’s bureaucracy is wise when technocrats achieve far more at a fraction of the price in Hargiesa. A willingness to sell fishing rights in Somalia’s strategic waters to China is a slap in the face to both many Western donors who fear China’s strategic ambitions but also to Somali fishermen.
Can Farmajo and Khaire turn impending failure around to salvage their legacies? Certainly. Post-war economies traditionally grow far faster than their stable counterparts. Simply put, when economies hit rock bottom, they have nowhere to go but up. But, for that to happen, Farmajo and Khaire must be both serious and successful in their efforts to counter corruption and maintain security. Somalia’s greatest resource now may be its Diaspora. It is one thing to send remittances to build houses or coffee shops, but it is another for more successful Somalis living abroad to invest in more ambitious development. Here, Farmajo should learn the lesson of Armenia: Upon independence, Armenia’s Diaspora sought repeatedly to invest in their homeland, only to be stymied by regime corruption. Not only did they eventually give up, but Armenia lost one-third of its population as a younger generation concluded they had no hope and emigrated.
Farmajo must also recognize that distractions are no substitute for substance. Rather than undercut Somaliland, for example, he should concentrate on achieving the same stability and security he has found. After a three decade separation, the only way to reunify Somalia will be by making the entirety of Somalia so successful that others will want to join. Until that day—if it ever comes– Somaliland should go its own way. Nor will oil or gas provide a magic solution to Somalia’s ills. For Somalia unilaterally to launch International Court of Justice against Kenya over their disputed maritime boundary and then seek to auction off blocs in the disputed zone undercuts Mogadishu’s moral authority. Even if foreign firms do find gas, its exploitation will be years away and likely will not be as lucrative as the government believes given continued insecurity, corruption, and competition with other new fields, such as in the Eastern Mediterranean and Mauritania, or the likely development of a Chinese fracking industry.
The ball is now in Farmajo’s court. Unfortunately, time is now running out.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he researches Arab politics, the Gulf Cooperation Council, Iran, Iraq, the Kurds, terrorism, and Turkey. He concurrently teaches classes on terrorism for the FBI and on security, politics, religion, and history for US and NATO military units.
A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre- and postwar Iraq, and he spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. He is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring Iranian history, American diplomacy, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016), “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).
Dr. Rubin has a Ph.D. and an M.A. in history from Yale University, where he also obtained a B.S. in biology.
This article was first published by the AEI.