Somalia: Turbulent leadership [op-ed]

Published: April 18, 2021

By Farhia Abdi

Social, gender and political justice advocate

After thirty years of bandaging the country’s political leadership, institutions and federal system, the current atmosphere of Somali politics portrays that the best way forward is moving backward. Understandable, there are those who find this kind of thinking appealing because it is born from the fatigue of uncertainty and a longing for normalcy. However, the question is, what is the best for the country? For example, is Somalia going back to the past that brought the current disunity, lack of security and stability? Somalia is a country that has experienced a prolonged and brutal civil war after the collapsed of the last military government in 1991.

The dictator, Siyad Barre’s regime that seized power illegally was one filled with corruption, brutality and human rights violations against its own people on the full watch of the international community. The collapsed of the military regime created a vacuum which led the country into chaos and a complete breakdown of law and institutions as well as full civil war, the effects of which still remain today.  

Thirty years after its civil war, and political instability, the country is yet to have a proper reconciliation to heal the wounds. In 2000, a decade into the civil war, and hundreds of thousand people dead, the Somalis came together and agreed to a temporary formula of political power sharing (called 4.5) without adequate dialogue about the root cause of their civil war and agreement on post-transitional form of governance. This chosen formula of 4.5 is a clan-based distribution of parliamentary seats and executive posts on strict clan considerations (majority vs minority).  

According to the system, these parliamentarians, are selected by their clan leaders, and in turn choose the country’s president under indirect election: a formula that is still active today. However, in 2012, Somalis drafted a new constitution that is closely aligned with its original 1961 constitution but more moderate and based on a federal system where two-chamber parliaments should be elected under electoral system based on “one person one vote” every four years. While there is evidence the old indirect rule of (4.5) model served its purpose, and four presidential elections were accomplished under this system, the country have not moved away from it.  

Having said that, there are obvious impediments of having one person one vote in Somalia due to the draft status of the constitution, the central federal government lacking control over the country; Alshabab as a parallel governing factor, lack of an accurate census and the majority of the country lacking basic government system of infrastructure and services. Nevertheless, leaders debate how to reach such a possibility, and there is no consensus on an emerging lasting solution. A good example is the on-going impasse of the electoral process. 

Current leadership

The subject of Leadership, generally and particularly in Africa, is an increasingly pertinent one that has been approached from various standpoints. Every society views their leadership from within their cultural perspective. From the earliest days of the first civilian government through the most repressive years of the Barre military dictatorship in the 1980s, the Somali society remained resilient. However, power is seductive and as American ex-President, George W. Bush once said, ‘power is addictive.’  Thus, unchecked power can inflict harm on a society as Somalis know so well.

The current government’s flittering with constitutional uncertainty will carry a risk for a society that is still trying to recover from civil war and dealing with lack of security. When the norm of leadership and a social contract is changed or interfered with, it becomes a social norm that continues to influence social behavior and shape the ways of life.

The country needs a conceptual model for constructive engagement with leadership development in practice so that the next generation of leaders will learn how to lead and put the interest of the country ahead of their own. Further, I would say that leadership education is necessary to build a nation that is at peace with itself and looks forward to the much-needed socio-economic and political development. 

Governing and development

Governing requires ensuing social and political assurances, so that society feels confident in their own well-being. In the case of Somalia, security and corruption appear to be impeding any possible development and confidence. This is not something that is born from the current government alone but rather a process that preceded the government. However, the problem appears to have been amplified when the current government chose to delay and refuse to honor the electoral process that all Somalis have come to accept as governing. The action on the April 12, 2021 by the current parliament – whose mandate ended December 2020 – to extend their own mandate, and by extension of the current president concerns the Somali people, as well as international partners.  

This action further damages any progress that is made by the people. The statements by the EU, US and UK stressed such action did not serve the interest of the people of Somalia and certainly posed a grave threat to the peace and stability of Somalia and its neighbours.

They threatened to reconsider their relationship with Somalia if the term extension is implemented. It is not clear how the current government intends to benefit from this unilateral action that is opposed by the people. However, one thing is clear; this action could trigger trauma for Somali people who have not yet healed from the trauma of the civil war. The situation created by the action of the parliament, and government has bent an unsettling further security risk as well as eroded the people’s confidence. 

Moving forward

I am marginally optimistic that the county will be course-correcting as the Somali people are resilient and able to steer the country into the right political course. Today, Somalia is yet at another cross roads and needs to choose carefully what path they will take. The country’s constitution adopted a federal system, and it is not a prefect system, but regardless of its shortcoming, it is still the best course of action for the country.

There are those that want to dismantle the federal system and return the country to the unitary system with Mogadishu as the center of the political universe.

This system has been tried and failed, and the current term extension is nothing but a prelude to such an outcome. It is up to the Somali people under the leadership of their member states to reject any overture to that goal. The communications that have emerged from international partners for the last couple of days are hitting the right note, but I hope they are not just lip service.  The international community had let Somalia down in the past, and they should stand with Somali people this time in their struggle to determine their future.

Today, the government’s action could make an emboldened Alshabab militia re-emerge as the dominant governing voice throughout the country. It would be a shame if the Somali leaders (federal, member states) and international community that invested so many resources in Somalia over the years allow the country to slide back into political instability, social unrest and armed confrontations.

Farhia Abdi

Social, gender and political justice advocate


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