Following the conclusion in spring 2022 of its parliamentary and presidential constitutional requirements, Somalia began the process of attempting to re-establish the necessary institutional mechanisms for governance and state control. In March, the country’s five federal republics and the leaders of the most influential clans finished selecting the members of both the upper and lower houses of parliament. In May, a joint session of both chambers met in an airport hangar and elected Hassan Sheikh Mohamud—already a former president—for a four-year term to succeed Mohamed Abdullahi (also known as Farmajo), whose term had ended in February 2021, but who then refused to leave office. Upon his election, President Hassan pledged to work toward much-needed reconciliation with other political groups, while former President Mohamed promised his support.
These promises of reconciliation and support depend on the ability of the new president and his administration to navigate potentially difficult waters between the country’s republics and its federal government, and among self-interested clan leaders. The country is facing impending famine, serious challenges to its economic and social wellbeing, and threats to its security from repeated audacious attacks by the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab movement. Such challenges call for coordinated local, regional, and international efforts in order for Somalia to have a chance at consolidating its institutions, preventing total economic collapse, providing a decent standard of living for its people, and participating in efforts to assure stability in the strategically-located Horn of Africa.
Drought and the Threat of Famine
The drought that is currently threatening to cause a famine is the worst that Somalia has seen in 40 years. In November 2022, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) announced that 7.8 million people have been affected by the drought, with 6.7 million facing acute food insecurity through the end of 2022. And over five million children were in need of humanitarian assistance in 2022, with 1.5 million under the age of five (45 percent of the total child population in the country) severely malnourished.
The country is facing impending famine, serious challenges to its economic and social wellbeing, and threats to its security from repeated audacious attacks by the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab movement.
With the Somali government lacking funds to address the problems of drought, climate change, and resulting malnutrition and famine, there is, naturally, a great need for international assistance. OCHA has stated that $2.27 billion in aid is needed to help more than 7 million people, but only $1.07 billion has been provided thus far. The United States has contributed about $870 million, while the European Union has provided nearly €80 million. As the drought continues to devastate agricultural production and as people move to urban centers or refugee camps in order to secure their sustenance, commitments to provide additional aid are necessary to help the new president and government to reestablish state authority and functioning governance in the country.
The dire state of drought and the impending famine have only increased levels of desperation among the country’s almost 18 million people. According to the World Bank, around 70 percent of Somalis lived below the poverty line in 2019 and GDP per capita income was $502 in 2021, among the lowest in the world. Although the country has made strides in improving its GDP output and is expected to post gains in 2023 and 2024, much needs to be done to address the negative repercussions of the drought and its impact on Somali society in the coming years. Perhaps the biggest drain on the central government, which necessitates international financial and security assistance, is the ongoing effort to address the threat posed by the Islamist al-Shabab movement, which controls various parts of the country and hopes to establish an “Islamic state.”
Although its attacks are sporadic, al-Shabab has managed to remain a serious threat to the central government and state institutions. Just last November, a group of fighters attacked and then holed up in a hotel in the capital, Mogadishu, one that is frequented by government officials and members of parliament. An operation by Somali forces to clear the hotel and end the siege resulted in the deaths of 14 people, including 8 civilians and one soldier. And last October, the group detonated two car bombs near the Ministry of Education in the capital, killing some 100 people and injuring 300 others. In claiming responsibility for the attack, al-Shabab said that it had targeted the ministry because it is an “enemy base” that is “committed to removing Somali children from the Islamic faith.” Somalia’s fight against al-Shabab clearly goes beyond the traditional tools of security to also include efforts to strengthen state institutions of good governance, deliver economic goods, and provide social development.
Perhaps the biggest drain on the central government, which necessitates international financial and security assistance, is the ongoing effort to address the threat posed by the Islamist al-Shabab movement, which controls various parts of the country and hopes to establish an “Islamic state.”
President Hassan has pledged to eradicate al-Shabab, but the task has been challenging. A large African Union deployment of some 20,000 soldiers from around the continent has been helping Somali special forces, and their combined efforts have pushed al-Shabab away from some civilian centers. The United States is also helping train Somali forces after a period of confusion about the continued presence and role of US troops following former President Donald Trump’s decision prior to leaving office to withdraw said troops from the country. Not only is US assistance essential to rescuing the Somali state and its institutions, it also serves the American goal of securing part of AFRICOM’s area of operations along the East African coastline and extending into Yemen, Djibouti, the Bab al-Mandab strait, and the Red Sea.
Pressure from the United States helped force Somali politicians to conclude their previously stalemated parliamentary and presidential elections in spring 2022. Last February, the US State Department imposed visa restrictions on Somali officials involved in delaying the conclusion of parliamentary elections that were set for that month. The State Department then imposed further visa restrictions in March following the failure of Somali officials to carry out those same elections by the extended date of March 15. And once both elections were finally concluded, Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement congratulating President Hassan and the Somali people “on the conclusion of their national electoral process” and pledging US support.
A Challenging Year Ahead
American economic and military assistance alone will not be sufficient to help Somalia overcome the challenge it faces from al-Shabab; nor will the African Union’s security commitment. Somalia must set its federal house in order and actively address the separatist tendencies of at least two of its constituent federal republics. Somaliland in the northwest has in fact developed all the trappings of full statehood and is actively seeking independence and recognition by the international community. To its east is Puntland, which has declared itself autonomous and avoids involvement in the country’s broader affairs. Somaliland’s potential independence and Puntland’s self-isolation both weaken the central government in Mogadishu and its institutions, and also undermine Somali efforts to address poor economic conditions and the unstable security situation that is precipitated by an active al-Shabab movement.
Somalia must set its federal house in order and actively address the separatist tendencies of at least two of its constituent federal republics, Somaliland and Puntland.
The triple threat of economic calamity brought about by years of drought and displacement, instability born of elite disagreements and al-Shabab’s military activities, and disunity in Somalia’s federal structure have combined to create a perfect storm for President Hassan’s new administration. The immediately existential task is to address the deleterious impact of the climate disaster that is afflicting the country and causing displacement—a challenge that demands additional help from United Nations bodies, international nongovernmental organizations, and individual countries like the United States and various European nations. The country also requires domestic, regional, and international cooperation to further weaken al-Shabab and to help broker an agreement between the federal government and the breakaway republics. Although the challenges Somalia faces are many, a concerted global effort can still help turn the tide.
Featured image credit: Shutterstock/sntes