The Failed State Roadshow
Days after a motion for his impeachment was dismissed, FP sat down with Somalia's president for an exclusive conversation about terrorism, democracy, and whether his parliament has the right to ask him to step down.
NEW YORK -- Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud rules what may be the world’s most failed state, one wracked by poverty, corruption, and a grueling fight against a deadly Islamist militant group. Shortly before arriving in the United States for the United Nations General Assembly, though, Mohamud got a rare bit of good news: The speaker of Somalia’s parliament was dropping an effort to impeach him.
NEW YORK — Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud rules what may be the world’s most failed state, one wracked by poverty, corruption, and a grueling fight against a deadly Islamist militant group. Shortly before arriving in the United States for the United Nations General Assembly, though, Mohamud got a rare bit of good news: The speaker of Somalia’s parliament was dropping an effort to impeach him.
That’s a major win for Mohamud — and, potentially, his entire fractured and fractious country. Mohamud came to New York in part to secure further support for Somalia’s ongoing battle against al-Shabab extremists, and the looming possibility of impeachment would not have helped his case.
“It had no legal base,” Mohamud told Foreign Policy in an exclusive interview at U.N. headquarters in New York on Sept. 29. “It was intended to obstruct the government from moving and making progress toward an electoral process in 2016.”
Those are precisely some of the charges Mohamud’s opponents have been leveling at him. At least 90 of Somalia’s 275 lawmakers — who were elected through a loosely organized clan-based representation system — were reportedly in favor of debating his impeachment in parliament, citing 14 points of failure, including failing to implement the country’s constitution. The parliament would have needed two-thirds approval to move forward.
That’s not to say that Mohamud is on solid ground at home, where his opponents are promising to continue pursuing the case.
“We have neither discussed nor given up the motion,” Mohamed Abdullahi Fadhaye, a lawmaker who supported the impeachment motion, told Reuters on Sept. 26. “We shall take the matter to the court.”
Mohamud wasn’t the only one relieved to have the motion put on hold — for now at least. Donor nations like the U.S. and the United Kingdom see the academic activist as Somalia’s best hope for a peaceful transition to democracy (neither he nor the country’s parliament was directly elected). Their patience for the East African nation, which has been without a fully functioning government since 1991, could wear thin with another unexpected transition of power. In recent years, the presence of al-Shabab terrorists and the threat they pose to the stability of the entire region has made Western nations even more concerned about the situation there.
Late last month, the U.N., European Union, U.K, and the U.S. released a joint statement calling on members of the Somali parliament to dismiss the impeachment motion and instead prioritize moving toward as free and fair of an election as can be hoped for Somalia in 2016, when the country is scheduled to hold its first democratic process since 1967. “The submission of any such motion requires a high standard of transparency and integrity in the process and will consume extremely valuable time,” the statement read.
Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington, D.C., said the support thrown behind Mohamud has much less to do with his abilities as a leader and a lot more to do with the international community’s unwillingness to deal with another political transition in a country that has lacked a federal government for more than two decades and has gone through more than 10 prime ministers in the past decade.
“By any objective standard, he should be impeached,” she told FP in a phone call. “He is very corrupt, and he is guilty of several major abuses of power. If this was a normal functioning government, there’s no way he should be allowed to stay in his office.”
This summer, Mohamud’s administration walked back on what was once expected to be a “one man, one vote” election in 2016. In 2012, 135 clan elders elected the parliament, and the parliament in turn selected Mohamud as president.
Mohamud initially promised to transition Somalia to a democracy, but in July he announced that due to ongoing instability, the popular vote would not be possible by next year. Instead, at most a few million Somalis will participate in the election, and the new government will do its best to transition to a full democracy four years later. The international community has backed the government’s choice to move forward with that process by citing a need for stability — if not perfect democracy — in the country, which has become a hotbed for terrorism and could threaten to spin the entire region into a state of insecurity.
When asked by FP whether he thought having only a fraction of Somalis vote was a good compromise, Mohamud smiled and adjusted his shiny red tie. “There is [a way] to stay between 135 elders and 13 million Somalis,” he said, denying that “one man, one vote” was ever the realistic vision for 2016. “There is no democracy in the world where its population 100 percent votes.”
To move to a full democracy too quickly, he added, could “create confusion” or “create idealistic and unpractical impossible things.” Instead, he said, “1 or 2 or 3 million” Somalis would vote in the election next year. Bruton, on the other hand, shied away from even labeling the 2016 process an election at all. Whatever happens in 2016, she told FP, will not be an election — but “an election-like event.”
But that didn’t seem to bother Somalia’s crowd of international supporters too much last week. Shortly before the high-level meeting on Sept. 28, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the U.K. would send some 70 troops to Somalia to help with medical supplies and engineering. And speaking to reporters at a media stakeout last Monday night, Somali Foreign Minister Abdusalam Omer said it was “heartwarming” to see “the concern and support and the consistency of encouragement from the international community.”
At the same stakeout, Nicholas Kay, the U.N. secretary general’s special representative to Somalia, sounded optimistic but reiterated the urgency to keep the focus on 2016. “Somalia is an emerging success story, but momentum needs to be sustained,” he said. “It’s important that the focus is on reaching and achieving the timetable of the electoral process in 2016. Time is very tight, and so therefore any days lost at all are of concern.”
According to Bruton, the election might be an important benchmark for the international community, but the Somali people are kept at such an arm’s length from their federal government that the results might not even be felt by most civilians.
“If there were no president or parliamentarians, I don’t think the average Somali would know the difference for a minute,” Bruton told FP. “You couldn’t tell — it’s just an elaborate facade that we sort of have agreed to.”
For now, much of the international support instead has to do with keeping someone in power who’s willing and able to beat back al-Shabab.
Although African Union peacekeepers backed by the U.N. have managed to push al-Shabab out of much of the territory it once controlled, the terrorist group continues to threaten stability through asymmetric terrorist attacks and more elaborate offensives in the stretches where it remains most present. In September, a car bomb exploded outside the presidential palace, reportedly killing at least four and injuring dozens more.
Mohamud has touted the integration of the Somali National Army into the fight alongside AMISOM troops as a step forward to independence from the AU mission and a sign that Somalia will one day be able to control the threat of al-Shabab itself. But how successful that transition has been is questionable. Bruton told FP the army has the highest rate of defection she has ever heard of, largely because the soldiers don’t get paid.
Mohamud admitted to FP last Tuesday that the forces’ lack of payment is a major concern, but said that his government was committed to making sure Somali forces start to get regular paychecks soon. After going six months without receiving their salaries, Mohamud said, the troops just received three months of pay. He said they would soon get the remaining money, but didn’t offer any specific timeline.
In the meantime, preventing attacks like last month’s bombing is why Mohamud is appealing for more support — including intelligence — from the international community. For years, the United States has used drones to target al-Shabab militants in Somalia, and in July FP reported that Americans are in fact operating drones from the ground in Somalia. That’s a claim Mohamud would not confirm or deny last Tuesday, first skirting the direct question, then later saying only, “We are not complaining [about] any drone misuse in Somalia.”
And when asked what more he wants for the fight against al-Shabab, he conceded that improving intelligence is key, but also said some terrorist attacks are hard to avoid anywhere, let alone in a place with so little infrastructure. “You know, terrorist attack, suicide bombing happens everywhere,” he said with a slight shrug. “And it continues to happen in the world. Somalia is not an exception.”
As for the impeachment? Mohamud didn’t expect running a country to be a simple task. “One thing we know practically for sure is that parliaments wherever, they are not easy all the time,” he told FP.
And his foreign minister seemed to think the fact lawmakers could even discuss the possibility of ousting a leader through a legal process, rather than through a violent coup, was a positive sign.
“Two or three years ago, Somalis [would have used] bullets to solve issues,” Omer said. “We’re using impeachment and the law now; it’s a progress.”
Photo credit: Andrew Winning – WPA Pool/Getty Images
Siobhán O'Grady was a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2015-2016 and was previously an editorial fellow.
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