By Muddassar Ahmed
This month, Somalia will finally get a permanent constitution and government after years of transitional institutions. Despite two decades of civil war and unrest, the Somali capital of Mogadishu is currently undergoing an economic rejuvenation, with commerce, with banking and even tourism making a comeback.
What can explain this? While the recent presence of African Union troops has provided greater security, allowing the entrepreneurial spirit of the Somali people to flourish, less recognition has been given to Somalia’s own leadership. In particular, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, Prime Minister of the Transitional Federal Government, has played a central role in Somalia’s revival.
Over the past two decades, one of the major impediments to ending the turmoil has been the lack of strong, non-partisan leadership, with the country being torn apart by warring factions. More recently, the transitional government was split in a stand-off between President Ahmed and Prime Minister Sharmarke. The political feud brought the machinery of government to a halt and seemed to put an end to hopes that the transitional government might succeed in restoring stability. But since Ali’s appointment in June last year, the new Prime Minister has been at the forefront of the fight for peace, prosperity, and democracy.
It turns out that his sober, technocratic approach to politics was just what the country needed. Under Ali’s “Roadmap for the End of Transition”, representatives from across the country are working to create permanent democratic institutions by 20th August. For the first time, popular legitimacy is the end-goal. Under Ali’s leadership, a draft constitution has been ratified by a council of 825 Somali traditional elders, and will be put to a national referendum, paving the way for democratic elections in the near future. The constitution gives unprecedented control to Somalia’s independently-minded regions – which will even be granted powers over foreign policy – and guarantees that women will make up at least 30 per cent of parliamentarians, as well as constitutionally enshrining their right to an abortion when the mother’s health is in danger.
This political progress is all the more remarkable considering that Prime Minister Ali came to power in the midst of the worst drought in East Africa for over half a century. Not only did he manage to push forward plans for democratic institutions, but his response to the crisis itself showed tremendous ability in bringing the disparate bureaucratic forces of government into a single committee to tackle the issue.
His premiership has also seen the dramatic reversal of fortunes in the battle against the miliant Islamist group Al-Shabaab, who have been driven from Mogadishu and are now limited to parts of Southern Somalia. His willingness to cooperate with the Kenyan military in the coordinated Linda Nchi operation and ongoing support for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has led to notable and continuing success against the militant group.
This domestic success has allowed him to score significant international political victories as well. Under his leadership, various foreign dignitaries and VIPs have visited Somalia personally, including Turkish PM Recep Erdoğan, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, and Saudi business heavyweight Al-Waleed Bin Talal – as well as the British Foreign Secretary and German Development Minister. Such visits would not have even been considered this time last year, and do much to raise Somalia’s international profile and secure much-needed political and financial support for the recovery.
Perhaps the most striking symbol of his success was moving the UN Headquarters for Somalia back to Mogadishu after 17 years in Nairobi. This was a powerfully symbolic act for a country struggling to reassert its national identity, forcing international actors to get involved directly in the country they’re supposed to be helping.
But perhaps his most lasting legacy will be his personal example. Prime Minister Ali shows what the new Somalia needs to embrace: a measured, moderate, and ultimately constructive approach to politics. The future of Somali leadership should not be modeled on personal heroism, but on calmly and competently balancing different interests to defend the general interest.
(Muddassar Ahmed is the CEO of Unitas Communications Ltd, an international strategic communications consultancy based in London. He is also Chairman of the John Adams Society UK and a NATO Young Atlantacist Fellow.)