Farmaajo, nationalist hero and ‘defender of the republic’, fights for survival

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Protestors in Mogadishu waving placards bearing the image of Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmaajo” on April 25, 2021. Farmaajo has faced harsh criticism at home and from foreign allies after signing a law earlier this month extending his mandate by two years. PHOTO | AFP

When President Mohamed Farmaajo of Somalia appeared on TV on April 27 midnight to announce that he would be returning to the negotiations for indirect elections, it seemed like a sudden about-turn in reconciliation.

But observers say it formed a consistent pattern, where he passes the buck to Parliament to bridge his next step. On May 1, he was scheduled to address MPs whom he asked to cancel his two-year term extension.

The announcement was in response to growing pressure from donors and the international community as well as the local opposition over the decision that ultimately cancelled indirect elections for (an improbable) universal suffrage in two years.

It didn’t change his modus operandi, however.

The journey began in April 2018. Somalia’s then Speaker of the Lower House Mohamed Osman Jawari, a veteran lawyer, quit his job in the face of plots to impeach him. Mr Jawari had been in the seat for nearly six years but he was increasingly seen by the Farmaajo administration as being an ally of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, two of Somalia’s biggest contributors to aid and security support.

Consolidation

With one hurdle cleared, President Farmaajo would embark on a journey to consolidate his authority with a supportive legislature. With the veteran lawyer gone, Mursal Mohamed Abdurahman took over in Farmaajo’s second year in power.

Now, Mr Abdurahman is expected to steer the House to cancel the motion that granted them and the president a controversial mandate to stay around for an extra two years. Analysts say the decision amounted to yet another misstep that only went on to further polarise Somalia politically.

“Farmaajo’s government had every chance of succeeding on these tasks,” argued Dr Hassan Khannenje, Director of the Horn International Institute for Strategic Studies in Nairobi, referring to the fight against Islamist insurgency, a democratic tradition of regular elections and peaceful transfer of power, attracting foreign capital and instituting security sector reforms, which Farmaajo pledged at his election in February 2017.

“However, it is apparent that Farmaajo came to power haunted by the one-term presidency of the previous three administrations and immediately began to engineer his survival beyond his first term,” Dr Khannanje said.

His predecessors, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed and Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, sought re-election and failed. During their reign, they both grappled with delayed elections, forcing dialogue which rearranged polls to avoid a crisis.

In 2012, Farmaajo, then prime minister, was forced to resign under the Kampala Accord, which granted Sheikh Sharif Ahmed a few more months so as to allow a transition.

Farmaajo, analysts say, learnt from predecessors’ “mistakes”: They did not weaponise the security structure and gladly conceded defeat when voted out.

He saw this as a tool to use against opponents. With strained relations with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, he strengthened ties with their archrival Qatar and Turkey; both of whom say they are apolitical but have armed some of the units of the police and army that have recently been accused of bludgeoning opposition groups.

His eye, however, was on the ordinary folk, to whom he marketed himself as a hero defending the republic.

“He is a pragmatic nationalist with a visible touch of populism,” Adam Aw Hirsi, a Somali academic and former government minister told The EastAfrican. “In a country like Somalia, one can access power employing nationalist rhetoric and pronounced patriotism, as the masses have had more than their share of humiliation and desperation and therefore tend to adore demagogues.”

Farmaajo declared that he had renounced his US citizenship, although he did not provide proof he had taken an oath of renunciation as the US law demands. In his travels abroad, he started speaking to the diaspora about his vow to defend the country against foreign interference. At home, he told gatherings about Somalia’s readiness to cut ties with those who interfered in its sovereignty.

Guinea and Kenya were initial culprits.

“He created a different phenomenon,” Dr Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, a Kenyan academic and author told The EastAfrican.

“He speaks to the ordinary folk, not elites. He is a hero, nationalist. He divided the country into those who are for Somalia and those who are against,” said Dr Abdiwahab who consults on the Horn at Southlink Consultants.

Farmaajo managed to instil some sense of professionalism in the army by removing “ghost” soldiers, sought debt forgiveness and somewhat empowered the legislature.

But his leadership has faced tougher challenges than just wooing the people with populist speeches. His relationship with federal states has been poor. The three states that largely supported him – Hirshabelle, Galmudug and SouthWest – held elections marred by protests over rigging claims.

Jubbaland and Puntland have remained opposed to his rule. When Jubbaland held elections in 2019, President Farmaajo initially annulled the result, before branding Ahmed Sheikh Madobe its “transitional” leader.

Ultranationalists

“The relationship between these two is almost non-existent,” Dr Abdiwahab said. “He failed to tame al Shabaab as promised and failed to conduct elections on time, although this was also due to differences with stakeholders.”

“He galvanised the country based on nationalism. He reached out to the ultranationalists. That achieved a lot for his status as president,” he added.

“Farmaajo’s politics is based on divisions. He was supposed to be a statesman and bring people together. He has failed,” said Dr Ahmed Hashi, a political analyst of the Horn of Africa. “And this is a warning that the only solution to the problems of security in East Africa is to unite Somalis for stability and good governance.”

Villa Somalia, Farmaajo’s official residence, has often fought off these accusations of polarising politics, accusing the federal states and political opponents of being puppets of foreign agents.

“Our efforts were hampered by individuals and foreign entities whose aim has been to destabilise the country and revert to the era of divisions and destruction in order to create a constitutional vacuum,” Farmaajo said, defending his plan to hold elections. “The Somali people will tell between those who are working to prevent elections and destroy national institutions from those who are championing peace, nationhood and unity.”

His intentions have been viewed with suspicion and his friends have not helped much. Eritrea, which has helped train Somalia soldiers, has never held an election and Ethiopia, which was once enemy number one, has been deemed reformist, until the ongoing Tigray crisis blotted this record.

His opponents wanted the president to transfer some powers to his prime minister once his term expired on February 8, 2021. When he didn’t, they branded him a dictator.

Omar Sharmarke, the prime minister during Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s presidency, said blending autocracy and democracy has created the current “precarious situation”.

“The dilemma confronting FGS [Federal Government of Somalia] now stems from the fact that it needs stability and participation of stakeholders for the legitimacy of the elections. Security sector reforms are key to both ends,” Mr Sharmarke said.

When he called for resumption of talks this week, President Farmaajo did not make it clear whether he was abandoning the two-year extension of his rule. Instead, he passed the buck to Parliament to cancel it. If MPs refuse, then it stays. After all, they are beneficiaries too.

“He’s still trying to plot with Mursal to derail the September 17 Agreement,” said Abdishakur Abdirahman, leader of Wadajir Party and one of the presidential hopefuls. “In order to reach an inclusive agreement, all the stakeholders have to take part in the talks to resolve the outstanding issues once and for all.”

Farmaajo came into Somalia’s political scene in 2011 when Sheikh Sharif Ahmed appointed him prime minister. But he was no stranger to politics, as he is a relative of Siad Barre, whose fall in 1991 created the chaos Somalia faces today.

He worked as a diplomat in the US and after the collapse of the Barre regime, Farmaajo continued to live in the US where he obtained his second citizenship.

His critics accuse him of divisive politics.

“Farmaajo is an absolutist but moonlights in constitutionalism supermarkets,” said Aw Hirsi. “He is not a fan of open debates on matters foreign relations, military and intelligence but generally designs those within his trusted inner circle.”

Mr Hirsi argued that unlike his predecessors, Farmaajo has appeared to delegate leadership by leaving government tasks to the prime minister. Yet that has only worked as long as the PM and those other arms play ball. In July last year, Hassan Khaire, his then prime minister, was impeached by Parliament. The president immediately signed the impeachment. The two had attended a conference on elections in Dhusamareb in the Galmudug state before Khaire met his sack.

The former PM is now one of Farmaajo’s harshest opponents.

In spite of his perceived missteps, Farmaajo is a smart politician trying to overcome a jinx: Somalia has never re-elected a sitting president.

But on Sunday, this took a different trajectory. Clashes broke out in Mogadishu with Somali media reporting that “mutineers” in the Somali National Army had taken control of various roads in the capital as they battled government forces and intelligence agents.

Division along clan lines

Ever since MPs extended their mandate, and with officials operating under transition clauses of the law, the debate has always been whether the Lower House, let alone the bicameral legislature as a whole, can pass a law extending their own term. The resultant tensions have fractured the army, leading to clashes between units of the same security agencies, divided along clan lines.

The United States has warned its citizens against travelling to Somalia. The US State Department issued a statement on Monday saying that Somalia remains “a dangerous” place for its citizens. It also noted rising incidents of improvised explosive device attacks and suicide missions.

With the army now divided along clan lines, how the Somali leader manoeuvres the crisis will depend on the decision Parliament makes.

The president on Wednesday struck a conciliatory tone, calling for elections and a return to dialogue, with Mogadishu on a knife’s edge as government troops and pro-opposition soldiers beefed up their positions and civilians fled their homes.

The president pledged to appear before parliament on Labour Day to “gain their endorsement for the electoral process,” calling on political actors to hold “urgent discussions” on how to conduct the vote.

“We have always been ready to implement timely and peaceful elections in the country,” he said.

Puntland and Jubbaland said they would attend negotiation meetings only if international guarantors ensure it.

“I don’t think anyone trusts anything that comes from Farmaajo anymore,” said Ahmed Hassan, Jubbaland’s minister for Constitutional Affairs. “It is that bad.”

By AGGREY MUTAMBO, The East African