As clan militias recently took to Mogadishu’s streets in preparation for battle with government forces, Somalia braced itself for conflict. The tensions began after President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmaajo” attempted to extend his term by two years.
On April 29, the president backtracked on his plans and announced elections would eventually be held, though they were initially scheduled for February 8, per a September 2020 agreement.
“As we have repeatedly stated, we have always been ready to implement timely and peaceful elections in the country,” said Farmaajo in a speech on state television that day.
“But unfortunately, our efforts were hampered by individuals, and foreign entities who have no aim other than to destabilize the country and take it back to the era of division and destruction in order to create a constitutional vacuum,” added the president.
It appears Somalia’s president has succumbed to domestic pressure, as the senate, Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble, some opposition leaders, and four of the country’s six federal member states – including Puntland and Jubaland – rejected his move to extend his term. Condemnation from external powers, including the United States, the European Union, and the African Union, also forced him to think twice.
Then, on May 1, Mogadishu’s Lower House of parliament unanimously voted to hold indirect elections, further raising hopes that the deadlock would break.
Despite President Farmaajo’s announcement of forthcoming elections and the favorable parliament vote, divisions have not subsided.
Yet, despite President Farmaajo’s announcement of forthcoming elections and the favorable parliament vote, divisions have not subsided, and there is still no clear path towards elections. The president blamed his opponents for politicizing the dispute and accused some security forces of trying to grab power. Fears have risen that Somalia could face a return to the violence that plagued the country after 1991, when strongman Siad Barre’s regime was overthrown.
Indeed, clashes between soldiers loyal to the government and opposition groups erupted on April 25, with some militias taking control of districts in Mogadishu. Gunfire was heard across much of the city, although there were no casualties. A few hundred demonstrators also chanted “We don’t want dictatorship,” as they burned the president’s photo.
“We cannot accept another Siad Barre,” one of the renegading soldiers said.
The UN reported on April 28 that the violence had forced between 60,000 and 100,000 people to flee their homes.
“Apart from displacing innocent civilians, the initial violence has created uncertainty and fear of disruptions of humanitarian assistance to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people across the city,” said the UN’s acting Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, Cesar Arroyo.
However, clashes between rival forces have calmed since Farmaajo’s announcement and will likely continue to subside while talks for a political solution convene.
Dr. Mohammed Ibrahim-Shire, a lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, told Inside Arabia that although the extension has exacerbated tensions within Somalia, it has not done so “in a way that led to the collapse of the country’s security apparatus and security forces being split along clan lines.”
“Somalia’s security forces have maintained incredible cohesion in the face of polarizing events.”
“Somalia’s security forces have maintained incredible cohesion in the face of polarizing events. It is just unfortunate that some media outlets have construed clan militias as security forces. Clan militias have been a defining feature of Somalia for decades and many can’t seem to differentiate between these two groups.”
He added that despite the surface tensions, the dispute is mainly between political factions, as opposed to civilians voicing their displeasure at the events.
“Moreover, the majority of Mogadishu residents demonstrated an indifferent attitude,” Ibrahim-Shire said. “Many have experienced decades of civil conflict since the State collapse in 1991 and consequently have largely avoided joining sides and heightening tension. This deliberate choice had a remarkable effect on the overall stability of the country.”
On the other hand, the extremist group Al Shabaab sought to take advantage of the turmoil. In early April, one of its militants carried out a suicide attack on makeshift kiosks in Mogadishu, killing at least ten people. The faction also targeted two army bases. Hussein Nur, a military officer, said the army lost “several” soldiers as a result of the attacks.
Al Shabaab has posed major security threats to Somalia since its operations commenced, and the government has struggled to contain the faction’s insurgencies. Its latest spate of attacks indicate that it could exploit the domestic chaos, therefore increasing the need to find a solution.
Analysts have considered that new elections are the only possibility to end Somalia’s deadlock, and to prevent further violence from erupting. The international community’s reaction will be crucial, given that the widespread condemnation of Farmaajo’s attempts to retain power prompted him to reverse his decision.
US Department of State Spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement on April 26 that Washington stands ready “to consider all available tools.”
“The United States is gravely concerned by the violent clashes [on April 25] in Mogadishu. We call on all parties to exercise restraint and to resolve their differences peacefully,” Price added.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) also voiced its concerns, saying it has “repeatedly warned that the extension of mandates would lead to a political crisis and undermine peace, stability, and security in Somalia.
Both the United States and the European Union threatened Somalia’s government with sanctions should it fail to resume talks over the deadlock.
Both the United States and the European Union also threatened Somalia’s government with sanctions should it fail to resume talks over the deadlock. The EU’s Foreign Policy Chief, Josep Borrell, also warned of “concrete measures” should there be no immediate return to talks on holding elections.
Meanwhile, some regional countries have shown concern as well. Turkey welcomed the decision to hold elections. Ankara has established strong ties with Mogadishu’s central government, and added it stands by the “friendly and brotherly” Somali people.
“However, the UAE has been suspiciously silent about the extension,” added Ibrahim-Shire. “Perhaps this is attributed to the fact that the Somali government has called out the UAE in late February for its direct interference in Somalia’s internal affairs.”
The UAE has faced cold relations with Somalia’s central government, owing to Mogadishu’s siding with rivals Turkey and Qatar, and its opposition towards the UAE’s port building operations in the autonomous region of Somaliland. While there is no indication of any Emirati involvement in the latest events, Abu Dhabi may be keeping a close eye on them, given its past support for opposition figures in Somalia.
In the meantime, external and internal pressure has clearly hindered Farmaajo’s efforts to stay in power. International powers could now play a proactive role by supporting a domestic solution, rather than pursuing the threat of sanctions.
A lack of support for a fair solution may otherwise spell more disaster for a country that has already endured much division and difficulty.