A Year of Opportunity and Vulnerability for SomaliaBy Grace Chesson // Thursday, December 29, 2016
Somalia’s experience in 2016 highlighted both the opportunities and vulnerabilities at the heart of the country’s ongoing political transition. With the postponement of parliamentary and presidential elections and the inability of the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) to complete many of the core tasks outlined in its “Vision 2016” political roadmap, the year saw a tempering in the domestic and international optimism that characterized the formative years of the FGS under President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud (est. 2012). Meanwhile, al-Shabaab’s resilience and resurgence has heightened security concerns, compounding the uncertainty of what 2017 holds for Somalia. The country remains entangled in a web of political hostility and violent conflict, with significant implications not only for Somalia, but also for the region and larger international community.
Analysts diverge in their outlooks for the ongoing political transition and consolidation of a functioning, legitimate Somali government. Positive assessments note that parliamentary elections have progressed, with 281 Parliamentarians set to be inaugurated in Mogadishu on 27 December, and Somaliland and Banaadir the only regions (out of six total) yet to complete their respective regional electoral process. Additionally, initiative undertaken by the Independent Electoral Dispute Resolution Mechanism (IEDRM) to report on instances of fraud and intimidation has led to the annulment of multiple parliamentary results – an encouraging indicator of the integrity, if not timeliness, of the electoral process. Finally, the country has achieved a long-awaited milestone in the establishment of a federal state system with the formation of HirShabelle, the final Federal Member State to be created, which led to the establishment of the new regional government, the election of delegates to the Federal Parliament, and the long-awaited conclusion of the federal state formation process.
Unfortunately, there have been multiple setbacks for each gain. Initially, Members of Parliament were to be directly elected no later than August 2016, and the President was to be elected by both Houses of Parliament the following month. This plan amounted to an incredible overshoot. As of 26 December, reports circulated that presidential elections will be postponed once again – for the fourth time – and rescheduled for 24 January 2017. Additionally, disputes over parliamentary results and subsequent annulments by the IEDRM have led to increasing tension between the FGS and state-level electoral bodies, leading Puntland and Southwest states to reject the IEDRM’s decision to nullify parliamentary results. Accusations of much broader voter fraud, intimidation, selective result annulments, and even direct interference by the Office of the President all challenge the integrity of the election and the commitment of the FGS and policymakers to the rule of law and good governance.
Finally, the political process in Somalia is inherently intertwined with the broader security landscape, which continues to be characterized by violent conflict and instability. Al-Shabaab remains the primary security concern – acting not only as an ideologically motivated terrorist organization, but concurrently as an insurgent force, criminal syndicate, and conflict entrepreneur throughout much of Somalia. The withdrawal of Ethiopian forces from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has allowed al-Shabaab to the recapture multiple towns, and persistent clashes between al-Shabaab militants and AMISOM/Somali National Army (SNA) troops have led to significant losses. However bleak, this situation does not entirely eschew the tactical victories that have been achieved by the FGS, AMISOM, and international partners. Military operations, primarily through AMISOM and increased U.S. aerial bombings, have continued to degrade al-Shabaab’s operational capacity. In March, a U.S. strike targeting an al-Shabaab training camp killed at least 150 fighters, and the targeting of numerous high-ranking al-Shabaab leaders has deprived the organization of multiple experienced commanders.
It remains to be seen whether the combination of U.S. counterterrorism support operations and AMISOM counterinsurgency efforts will be able to sustainably reduce the capacity and influence of al-Shabaab; however, the resilience of al-Shabaab evidences the need for tangible political progress in addition to military might. Only through the consolidation of legitimate and functional governing institutions will the country ultimately be able to lay the groundwork for comprehensive rule of law.
As we look ahead to 2017, it is readily apparent that there will continue to be significant hurdles in Somalia’s political consolidation process. But while the ongoing political transition will create heightened vulnerability, it will also offer an opportunity for the federal and state governments to take pragmatic steps towards the establishment of popularly supported, functioning government institutions. Now that the initial, unrealistic enthusiasm has dissipated, the question is whether the government will be able to establish, communicate, and meet realistic expectations.
Grace Chesson is the Program Assistant for the Wilson Center Africa Program.
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