It’s Still Dangerous to Be a Politician in Somalia

It’s still dangerous to be a politician in Somalia.

September 12, 2012:

Somalia’s new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, survived an assassination attempt Wednesday when suicide bombers attacked the Mogadishu hotel where was living.


Militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the bombings.


Somalia’s parliament elected Mr. Mohamud president on [September 10]. It was the last step of a U.N.-backed plan to bring a stable central government to Somalia.

January 29, 2013:

A suicide bomber Tuesday detonated explosives outside the prime minister’s home in Somalia’s presidential palace compound, killing two people, security officials said. [Al Shabab] claimed responsibility for the attack.

Remember, these attacks occurred after (1) a multi-year military offensive carried out by African Union troops, Kenyan soldiers, and Somali government forces against Al Shabab and (2) a months-long political transition that was hampered by delays and left key questions regarding the nature and extent of federal authority unresolved. Somalia’s conflicts are not over.

Somalia, in my view, fits neither the narrative of “hellhole where nothing ever changes” nor the narrative of “brand new success story.” Reconquering rebel-held territory and holding elections (or in this case selections) for new political leaders do not necessarily end strife and division. Before one touts Somalia as a model for Mali or anywhere else, it’s important to keep in mind the formidable obstacles to national unity and reconstruction that remain there.

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s Trip to Minneapolis

I had a trip to make last week and another coming up this week, so I’m falling behind somewhat on blogging. But important things have been going on. In particular I’m frustrated that various commitments are preventing me from writing more about Mali. Public commentary on that country’s crisis has begun to really upset me, especially commentary that seems to celebrate violence.

Anyways. Today I have a quick point to make about Somalia, whose (relatively) new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud visited the United States last week. On January 17 Hassan Sheikh met with President Barack Obama and Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough, and (separately) with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. After the latter meeting, Clinton announced that the US government had official recognized the government of Somalia, the first time Washington has done so for any government in Mogadishu since 1991. Hassan Sheikh also spoke at a forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies – you can watch the video here.

The US recognition of Somalia’s government was, in one sense, the big news of the trip. But what struck me most was that on January 18, President Hassan Sheikh traveled to Minnesota, where he addressed the Somali diaspora community there (Minneapolis is home to the largest Somali community in the US).

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud called on Somalis living in Minnesota to help rebuild their war-torn homeland.

Mohamud spoke to about 4,000 people late Friday night at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Although most of his speech was in Somali, he said in English that it was, “the beginning of a new foundation.”

Semhar Araia attended the event and collected her reactions and photographs here; I highly recommend reading/viewing them.

The trip struck me not because it is surprising but because it is unsurprising. Two data points don’t necessarily make a pattern, but let’s recall that the previous president of Somalia, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, toured Somali diaspora communities in the US in 2009, visiting Minneapolis and Columbus, Ohio, home to another sizable Somali community. Sheikh Sharif was the first Somali president to make such a trip, and it is noteworthy that Hassan Sheikh is building on this precedent. One reason, of course, is that the Somali diaspora is a critical source of money and minds for Somalia. The relationship between diaspora and homeland is also, it should be stressed, far from simple.

I am aware, in the abstract, that large-scale diasporas are reshaping our world and transforming notions of community and nation. But this emerging tradition of Somali presidents making official visits to Minneapolis makes that trend particularly vivid. In a legal sense, no part of Minnesota is part of Somalia. But in an existential sense, an important part of Hassan Sheikh’s country is in Minnesota. I would be very surprised if this is the last trip a sitting Somali president makes there.

Somalia: Extending AMISOM’s Mandate

The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has played a decisive role in the Somali government’s reconquest of territory in the southern part of the country from the rebel group Al Shabab.

AMISOM was created in January 2007. The United Nations Security Council authorized the African Union to deploy troops in Somalia in February 2007, and has periodically renewed that mandate. The most recent renewal came in November 2012, when “the council extended the AMISOM peacekeeping mission for four months, instead of the usual 12, to allow for a review of operations, including consideration of the request to lift the arms embargo and a call for permission to resume the export of stocks of charcoal.” The request to lift the embargo, which has been in place since 1992, comes from AMISOM. Introductory commentary on the charcoal issue can be found here.

The new mandate will expire around March 7, and regional leaders have begun calling for its extension. In December, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud released a joint statement calling for the mandate’s renewal. This week, Uganda’s Chief of Land Forces General Katumba Wamala (bio here) added his voice:

“Somalia is like a baby that is still suckling. She needs all the support from the rest of the world,” Katumba said recently in Somalia, where he is currently on the on-spot assesment of the peace operations. Uganda is the leading contributor to the military and police components of the mission.

The AMISOM mission is supported by mainly the United Nations, the European Union and the African Union. “The capacity for Somalia to stand on its own and survive as a country are not yet in place, irrespective of the efforts the world has been putting in,” Katumba said. He explained that in the last few years, tremendous steps have been taken in trying to revive the country, but more support is still needed.

I would be very surprised to see AMISOM leave Somalia in March. It will be interesting, though, to see what happens with the arms embargo issue and the charcoal issue.

Africa News Roundup: Somalia’s New Prime Minister, Protests in Ethiopia, Bombings in Nigeria, Cabinet Reshuffle in Guinea, and More

Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has appointed a new prime minister:

[Abdi Farah Shirdon] Saaid, a political newcomer, has been a prominent businessman in neighbouring Kenya and is married to Asha Haji Elmi, an influential Somali peace activist.

A Western diplomat said Saaid had a reputation for being above Somalia’s notoriously volatile clan politics, similar to the new president, and the news of his appointment would be welcomed by foreign governments.

“Like all the decisions the new president has made so far, this is a good one, and Somalia is on a bit of a roll with the election of (Mohamed Osman) Jawaari as parliament speaker and Mohamud as president,” the diplomatic source told the Reuters news agency.

Mohamud, a former academic and a political newcomer himself, was elected president in a secret ballot on September 10, a result hailed by his supporters as a vote for change in the Horn of Africa state ravaged by war and anarchy since 1991.
Saaid’s appointment as the prime minister will have to be approved by Somali legislators, diplomatic sources said.


Ethiopian Muslims will elect a new Islamic Council this Sunday, October 7.  The election has stirred protest among many Muslims who believe the government is trying to influence the Council.
A protest erupted after the Friday prayer at the Anwar mosque, the largest mosque in Addis Ababa.  People were waving yellow papers, symbolizing a warning card for the government and the crowd was chanting for about 20 minutes, shouting slogans such as “let our voice be heard” and “release the prisoners.”  Dozens of protesters were brought to a police station during and after the demonstration.
The anger behind the protest started earlier this year, as some Muslims accused the government of interfering with religious affairs by trying to promote a more liberal form of Islam from Lebanon, known as al-Abhash.

Peter Tinti: “Understanding Algeria’s Northern Mali Policy”

In the recent killing of students in Nigeria’s Adamawa State, the prior destruction of mobile phone towers by Boko Haram seems to have contributed to victims’ difficulties in placing calls to warn others.

Two explosions in Nigeria’s Taraba State, in the town of Jailingo, occurred respectively on Thursday and on Friday/Saturday night, killing at least two persons and wounding at least nineteen.

Micah Zenko wonders, “Foreign governments and peoples ask for international humanitarian interventions all the time, so why do we only pay attention to some and ignore others?”

An unexpected cabinet reshuffle in Guinea.

IRIN reports on a cholera outbreak on the Kenya-Somalia border.

What else is happening?

Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Some Background on Al Islah

Somalia’s new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, selected by the new parliament last week, was inaugurated yesterday in Mogadishu. I talked a little about Mohamud’s background in a previous post, but I think it would be worthwhile to give some information about al Islah (Arabic: “Reform”), the movement to which he reportedly belongs.

The International Crisis Group’s 2010 briefing “Somalia’s Divided Islamists” (.pdf, p. 2, footnote 6) summarizes the group’s history:

A group of Saudi-trained clerics, led by Sheikh Mohamed Ahmed (“Garyare”), began a discreet campaign to organise Islamist
resistance to [former Somali President Siad] Barre [, who fell from power in 1991]. In July 1987, Garyare and his friends launched the al-Islah (Reform) movement in Saudi Arabia. It was accepted as a member of the Islamic Brotherhood (alIkhwan al-Muslimin) and formed an alliance with two Somali
armed opposition groups – the SSDF (Somali Salvation and Democratic Front) and USC (United Somali Congress). The alliance broke down after al-Islah failed to dissuade the Somali rebel groups from getting too close to Ethiopia.

A reader has provided me with several other sources on the movement, including the movement’s official website, available in Somali and Arabic. From the site’s history section (Arabic), we get a different account than Crisis Group’s. This account divides the movement’s genesis into three stages: “the stage of spreading the idea,” “the stage of assembling and organizing,” and “the stage of expansion and opening up.” The description of the second stage gives us a broad picture of the movement’s approach:

The Society of Islamic Reform was founded in 1978. Among its most prominent goals were reforming Somali society in every aspect of life and working to raise the level of individual and societal commitment to Islamic principles and values, in accordance with the approach of moderation and temperateness in  the aims of Islamic shari’a, in the framework of cooperation with local and practical reality.

The third section also lists the movement’s current policies, among them “a strict stance against internecine fighting,” cooperating with sheikhs and clan leaders to resolve conflicts, maintaining neutrality, and promoting education and the Arabic language.

Finally, another piece worth reading is this report on Al Islah’s stance toward the recent presidential elections. As of June, the movement’s founder denied that it would field a candidate. Mohamud, then, should perhaps not be seen as “Al Islah’s man,” but rather as someone whose ties include a tie to the movement.

Further links and discussion are welcome in the comments.

A Sobering Start for Somalia’s New President

On Monday, Somalia’s new parliament selected Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as the country’s new president. Mohamud’s term has begun on a sobering note, with an assassination attempt on the president yesterday by three suicide bombers from the rebel movement Al Shabab. Mohamud was unharmed, but the attack claimed the lives of eight soldiers. Al Shabab, which has regularly conducted bombings in the capital Mogadishu since its “tactical withdrawal” last year, vowed that attacks will continue. Reuters (previous link) comments,

The timing of the attack showed the militants had reliable intelligence, perhaps someone on the inside. This will be a problem for Somalia’s new leadership.

A foreign ministry official, Mohamed Maie, said security staff and African Union soldiers had let their guard down.

While al Shabaab is steadily losing ground, it can still regroup and easily infiltrate government-controlled areas. More worryingly, there are still disenchanted, radicalised Somalis ready to strap on explosive belts.

Among Mohamud’s biggest challenges will be to capitalise on the security gains made over the last year and reform a disparate and badly paid security force so that it pledges its allegiance to the country, rather than rival power-brokers.

The international media is full of analyses of how difficult Mohamud’s job will be. IRIN expands on this theme with commentary from several experts, while the LA Times approaches the topic through some “man in the street” interviews.

At the same time, some observers see real potential for change in Somalia at this moment. Part of that change, some say, should involve a shift in the international community’s strategy. Bloomberg editorializes,

Americans — the State Department, nongovernmental groups and businesses — can best help by ending the welfare handouts to the central government and shifting aid and investment directly to projects that change the lives of average Somalis. With al-Shabaab mostly gone, a good first step would be for UN agencies and charity groups, which decamped from country after a rash of kidnappings, to get their peaceful boots back on the ground.

Abdi Aynte, meanwhile, writes,

For years, members of the international community have been micromanaging the politics of Somalia from afar, often in pursuit of wrongheaded policies. The exception to this is the African Union peacekeeping force (AMISOM), which has shown a remarkable degree of neutrality.

In order for this government to succeed, external actors must take two steps: First, they should immediately cease their appetite for meddling and imposing their will on Somali governments. President Mohamud has an unrivaled legitimacy from the Somali people. The Nairobi-based politicians should give him space to chart his own path – and make mistakes along the way.

Second, the international community ought to change the culture of supporting individuals over institutions. Much of the failure of Somalia’s institutions stems from foreign powers giving an outsized influence to unelected politicians and armed groups.

It’s also, of course, very much worth hearing what the president himself has to say. His interview with South Africa’s eNCA (sent to me by a reader of this site) is excellent. His three priorities, he explains, are “security, and service delivery, and economic recovery” – but he adds, “Number one will be security, number two will be security, and number three will be security.” He also makes some interesting remarks on the ideological struggle with Al Shabab in the context of a country that is nearly 100% Muslim.

Somalia’s New President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud

Yesterday, Somalia’s new parliament selected Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as the country’s new president. The voting proceeded in three rounds; the first round yielded four candidates, including incumbent President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and former Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali. Ali and another candidate dropped out of the second round, and so Sheikh Ahmed and Mohamud went directly into the third round, which Mohamud won 190 to 79. As of a few weeks ago I had the impression that many analysts expected Sheikh Ahmed to win re-election; Mohamud’s selection comes as a surprise to some.

Reuters has a sketch biography of Mohamud:

Mohamud [born 1955 and from Jalalaqsi in central Somalia] graduated from the Somali National University in 1981 before obtaining a master’s degree in education from India’s Bhopal University in 1988.

During the early years of Somalia’s civil conflict, he worked for the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF.

In 1999, the fluent English speaker co-founded the Somali Institute of Management and Administration Development in Mogadishu, which later became Simad University, and served as its dean until 2010.

In 2011, he founded the Peace and Development Party.

Wikipedia and the BBC have more. The BBC states that Mohamud is from the Hawiye clan.

Both the United Nations and the White House have issued statements praising the outcome, each describing the election as a “step forward.”

International media coverage of Mohamud has been largely positive so far, although different outlets have characterized his background in different ways. A few examples:

  • Xinhua: “The civic activist and academic is seen as new breed of leaders coming to power in the war ravaged Horn of Africa nation following the similar landslide victory for the new speaker of the Somali parliament Mohamed Osman Jawari.”
  • New York Times: “Mohamud, a moderate political activist and academic, took on one of the world’s most challenging political posts on Monday.”
  • BBC: “Mohamud could represent a different kind of future for the country because he is not associated with the violence and corruption of the past.”

AFP‘s article on Mohamud is well worth reading – it stresses how little the world knows about him, and includes a few morsels on his religious background and his experience holding talks with Al Shabab. AFP stresses, “Unlike many Somali political figures, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is not part of the diaspora. The new president has never served as a minister, nor, up until the past few days, as an MP.”

Last but not least, here is an article on Mohamed Osman Jawari, the new speaker of parliament.

What is your opinion of the election, and of Mohamud?