Somalia’s New President
After a long delayed indirect election, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud faces many challenges.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: Protests erupt in Nigeria’s Sokoto state after suspects in the killing of a female student were arrested, Namibia launches a sovereign wealth fund, and Burundi’s president says he is willing to talk with rebels.
If you would like to receive Africa Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.
Somalia Elects a New President
Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was elected president of Somalia on Sunday, five years after being voted out of office. Mohamud returns to the position he held from 2012 to 2017, when he was defeated by Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as Farmaajo.
Mohamud’s current win marks the conclusion of a long drawn-out process in which the country’s population of nearly 16 million did not cast votes. Instead, the president was chosen through three rounds of voting by 328 lawmakers, who in turn were picked by clan representatives through an indirect presidential election. Mohamud received 214 votes against Farmaajo’s 110 votes (one didn’t vote and three reportedly spoiled their ballots).
Somalia’s elections were scheduled to take place more than a year ago but were not held because large swaths of the country are under the control of the militant group al-Shabab and also due to prolonged infighting within the government. The process only picked up pace due to a May 17 deadline by the International Monetary Fund for a new federal government to authorize programs or lose funding.
Political divisions. When Farmaajo came to power in 2017, he enjoyed public support as a reformer, having promised the next election would be under a “one person, one vote” democratic system rather than clan-based, but the move failed to get universal buy-in amid instability caused by militias and extremists.
Armed clashes broke out on the streets of the capital of Mogadishu in April 2021, when politicians rejected Farmaajo’s attempt to extend his tenure by two years. Farmaajo wrote in Foreign Policy that it was to allow delayed elections to be held, but critics argued it was a “power grab.”
Now that he is on the way out, there is a long to-do list for the incoming president, including tackling the impact of an ongoing drought in which around 6 million Somalis—38 percent of the population—face famine, according to the United Nations. Observers say political divisions have also emboldened al-Shabab militants. Perhaps reflecting on the task ahead, Mohamud said, after being sworn in on Monday, “Our country needs to go forward, not to go back.”
“National reconciliation is number one, creating a healing environment for the nation to come together,” said Hodan Ali, the director of the Benadir Regional Administration’s Durable Solutions Unit and a senior advisor to the mayor of Mogadishu.
“[Mohamud] has got immediate tasks of dealing with a security apparatus that has been politicized over the past five years. The military and our national security have been used to advance political agendas and drive really toxic culture within key government institutions.”
Samira Gaid, a former security advisor to the Somali government and now the executive director of the Hiraal Institute, a security think tank in Mogadishu, agreed that “the first challenge for Sheikh Mohamud is really reuniting the country. … The past five years [have] been really a polarizing dark period for most Somalis.” Tensions increased in the run-up to the fraught election, demonstrated by soaring gun prices.
Mohamud enjoys popularity among young intellectuals and the political elite. He co-founded SIMAD University in Mogadishu. “He has a really strong support from the youths that you see on Twitter versus the youths that you see on Facebook,” Gaid said. (Members of the large Somali diaspora, who have been exposed to other forms of governance globally, tend to favor Twitter as a social media platform.)
Qatari influence. In contrast, Farmaajo’s support base began to sour after his administration was accused of targeting journalists and opponents and of escalating a diplomatic quarrel with neighboring Kenya.
“Somalia over the past five years has [seen] its international relationships shrink and really align itself with Eritrea and Ethiopia in terms of regional alliances,” Ali said. “Qatar had become really the de facto relationship in terms of foreign policy for the Farmaajo regime.” This came at the expense of historic relationships with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
Toxic politics have severely hindered the government’s ability to prioritize key public services. Somalia’s politicians have largely been recycled since the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Somalia’s per capita GDP of about $440 makes it difficult to fund government projects with tax revenues.
As a result, Somalia is dependent on foreign aid and remittances. Somalia received more than $1.7 billion in remittances in 2020, almost 25 percent of its GDP, according to the World Bank. The drought has seen many Somalis move from rural communities into urban centers, abandoning previous livelihoods.
Somaliland separatism. In the background looms the question of Somaliland. In March, Somaliland’s officials visited Washington, urging recognition of the territory’s sovereignty. For the last 30 years, the self-declared nation has functioned as a relatively peaceful de facto state, having its own currency, military, government institutions, and regular democratic elections since 1991.
“Europe has joined together from an economic perspective, from a security perspective, and I think this continent—especially the Horn of Africa—needs to do more integration rather than dividing and becoming smaller and smaller enclaves,” Ali said. “However, we understand that for the last 30 years they have been functioning with a stability that the south hasn’t had and it is unfair to keep them this way because Mogadishu cannot get its act together.”
U.S. troop deployment. This week, U.S. President Joe Biden reportedly authorized the redeployment of U.S. troops to Somalia. Washington had around 750 troops in Somalia until former President Donald Trump ordered a withdrawal that took place in January 2021. The U.S. decision could help bolster an African Union mission to Somalia, numbering some 20,000 troops, that has been fighting al-Shabab for the past 15 years.
In appointing a new prime minister and attempting to jump-start the Somali economy, the new president has a thorny path ahead of him. “I fear that the expectations will be too high, and of course the disappointment comes right after,” Gaid said. “It’s not a magic pill that someone is elected and they will fix it.”
The Week Ahead
Wednesday, May 18: The U.N. Security Council meets for a briefing and consultations on the regional G5 Sahel joint force.
Wednesday, May 18, to Friday, May 20: The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) meets in Lomé, Togo, to strengthen institutions’ audit accountability and governance.
The 15th session of the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD-COP15), which started May 9, continues in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
Sunday, May 22, to Wednesday, May 25: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visits Senegal, Niger, and South Africa.
What We’re Watching
Nigeria curfew. Authorities in Nigeria’s northwestern Sokoto state imposed a 24-hour lockdown on Saturday, after some protesters besieged the palace of the Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar, the sultan of Sokoto and the highest spiritual figure among Muslims in the country.
The sultan had condemned the killing of a young female student, Deborah Samuel, who was dragged from her dormitory, beaten, stoned, and burned to death last Thursday by fellow students who accused her of posting blasphemous statements about the Prophet Muhammad in a WhatsApp group.
In a voice recording, Samuel had suggested the group chat created for her class should not be used to post religious content. The video of her killing was posted online, and hundreds of demonstrators then took to the streets calling for the release of two suspects in the murder.
Chad anti-France protests. Chadian police fired tear gas at hundreds of protesters who took to the streets of the capital of N’Djamena and elsewhere to protest France’s involvement in the country, with reports of destruction to some French-linked businesses.
The protests were organized by the Chadian civil society coalition Wakit Tama to denounce France’s backing of the Transitional Military Council, which seized power following the death of President Idriss Déby in April 2021. His son Mahamat Idriss Déby took over as head of the military transition but has yet to set a timetable for a return to democratic rule. Chadians view French support for the younger Déby as legitimizing the military’s rule.
Morocco-Spain ties. Madrid and Rabat have reopened the borders between northern Morocco and the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, which had been sealed for more than two years. The borders were shut during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and were kept closed following diplomatic tensions between the two countries after Spain allowed the leader of Western Sahara’s pro-independence Polisario Front to receive treatment in a Spanish hospital in April 2021.
In March, Spain sought to end tensions by endorsing Morocco’s position on Western Sahara, which proposes Sahrawi autonomy under Moroccan control. The tilt toward Rabat undoes half a century of formal Spanish neutrality in the conflict between Morocco and the Polisario. As Marcos Bartolomé writes in Foreign Policy, the pivot has sparked widespread condemnation across the Spanish political spectrum, a rarity in the country’s fragmented political landscape.
Burundian dialogue. In his first press briefing since taking office in 2020, Burundian President Évariste Ndayishimiye said he is ready to talk with the two main rebel groups operating out of neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo’s eastern region. “If the RED-Tabara and the FNL ask to negotiate, we are ready to welcome them and to dialogue with them,” Ndayishimiye said last Tuesday.
Analysts consider the RED-Tabara, which emerged in 2011, one of the most active Burundian rebel groups. In September 2021, the group claimed responsibility for a series of grenade explosions and an attack on the international airport in Bujumbura. The National Forces of Liberation (FNL)—a residual faction of the group led by former rebel Agathon Rwasa, who is now Burundi’s main opposition leader—disarmed in 2009, but pockets of FNL fighters remain in eastern Congo.
While Ndayishimiye’s comments are an important step forward, rights groups warn that his leadership has shown little evidence of reversing deadly crackdowns against political opponents. Hundreds of thousands of Burundians still live in refugee camps, afraid to return home.
This Week in Tech and Culture
Namibia wealth fund. Namibia launched a sovereign wealth fund on Thursday, following the discoveries earlier this year of oil and gas off its coast. President Hage Geingob said the Welwitschia Fund, whose management will be under the Bank of Namibia, would get an initial injection of around 300 million Namibian dollars (about $20 million) and invest 2.5 percent of its portfolio locally.
The fund will collect some of the royalties from all mineral resources sold as well as some tax revenues. A policy framework states that withdrawals can only be made once the fund’s assets reach 20 percent of the national GDP.
Yoruba culture’s global influence. Nigerian filmmaker Toyin Ibrahim Adekeye examines how Yoruba culture reached beyond the African continent in his first feature documentary film, Bigger Than Africa, which debuted last Friday on Netflix.
Shot in Nigeria, Benin, Brazil, the United States, Trinidad and Tobago, and Cuba, the film looks at why Yoruba culture continues to have influence in these societies.
“When the slave ships docked in North America, Brazil and the Caribbean, hundreds of cultures, traditions, and religions landed with Africans on board. One transcended slavery beyond imagination to remain alive till this day in the new world—the culture of the Yorubas,” Ibrahim Adekeye said.
Chart of the Week
At least 30 Burundian African Union peacekeepers were killed this month when al-Shabab militants attacked a base in Somalia. It was the group’s biggest assault this year, having stepped up insurgencies, including on Mogadishu’s main airport, in March.
What We’re Reading
Brewing beer in Uganda. In the Continent, Kampala-based writer Andrew Arinaitwe examines how climate change is threatening one of Uganda’s favorite alcoholic beverages, known locally as enturire. Rising temperatures are killing a particular variety of sorghum needed to brew the popular sorghum beer. Wedding venues would usually be dotted with drums filled with enturire, but a new documentary by Ugandan journalist Shemei Agabo has revealed the key ingredients for the drink are going extinct.
Harvesting olives in Algeria. In New Lines, writer Saliha Haddad recalls the joy of moving back to her family’s Berber village in Algeria. As the pandemic lockdowns left people feeling isolated, Haddad rediscovered community by taking part in the olive harvest season.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
More from Foreign Policy
At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment
Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.
How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China
As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.
What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal
Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.
Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust
Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Join the Conversation
Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.
Already a subscriber?.
Join the Conversation
Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.
Not your account?
Join the Conversation
Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.