Somalia: State-building as the elite’s perverse incentive

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Prompting widespread ridicule across the world and anger in Somalia, Abukar Ali, 20, came dead last at the World University Games in Chengdu, China, taking almost twice as long to finish as the winner, Brazil’s Gabriela Mourão. Reports indicated that Nasra’s aunt served as the chairwoman of Somalia’s athletic federation.

Yet, the story of the 100m sprint encapsulates years of unabashed nepotism and corruption in the country, cementing Somalia’s place as the world’s most corrupt country over the past decade. Unsurprisingly, the Corruption Perceptions Index’s 2022 report, which ranked 180 countries, has once again placed Somalia at the bottom of its list.

Despite an international effort to strengthen Somalia’s institutions, the country’s ruling elite have struggled to move past short-term profiteering and into serious state-building. Meanwhile, Al-Shabaab remains a serious threat to the Federal Government of Somalia. The group see themselves not as an oppositional figure, but as a “government in waiting”, echoing similarities to the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan two years ago.

Under President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud, brazen admissions of nepotism and the perception of corruption undermines the government’s efforts to hinder Al-Shabaab recruitment amidst a brutal war against the group.

Somali 100m sprinter, Nasra Abukar Ali, at the World University Games in Chengdu, China. Courtesy: FISU (via Storyful).

Normalising nepotism

In March 2023, the President appointed his daughter, Jehan Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud, as his international affairs advisor. Naturally, given the unprecedented nature of the appointment in post-1991 Somalia, it triggered a storm of reactions on social media.

The appointment was tested recently as it led to a rare resignation in Somali high office when, immediately following the 32nd Arab League Summit which saw the reinstatement of Syria after a decade of suspension, Somalia’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia resigned. Ambassador Salim Ma’ow Haji tendered his resignation accusing the President’s entourage, led by the President’s cousin, Hinda Culusow, of insults and violating diplomatic norms by blocking him from attending the high level summit in Saudi Arabia. Whilst the ambassador remained outside the hall, Jehan appeared right behind her father.

When President Hassan Sheikh was asked about his daughter’s high government position and relative youth and inexperience, he responded by saying his children and relatives are “citizens just like everyone else.”

In October 2022, the president dissolved two anti-corruption bodies, leading to more concerns about corruption in Somalia. In office a second time despite the lingering stench of previous allegations of corruption, Hassan Sheikh appears unconcerned about any potential damage to his reputation.

With institutional culture trickling down, several high-ranking officials in the Federal Government have also been accused of corruption and nepotism. The Federal Minister for Commerce publicly boasted about an allegation that nine of his relatives were employed by the ministry, stating that so long as he has the budget for it, he’d employ more of his relatives. In this case, the “budget” is Western money used to prop up the Somali government; “employ” doesn’t necessarily mean actual work but remaining on the government’s payroll.

Unfortunately for Somalia, it is issues such as these that generate the kinds of grievances that weaken the very foundation of the Somali state-building project, especially amidst the Somali government’s current war with the most powerful non-state actor in the country, the terrorist group Al-Shabaab.

A Struggling War on Terror

In May 2014, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, in his then first term as Somalia’s president, ordered media houses to start using the acronym UGUS(literal translation: ‘the people who massacre the Somali people’) in place of Al-Shabab. Like much of what the Somali federal government tried at the time, the name did not stick. Fast forward to November 2022, mere months into President Mohamud’s second stint as Head of State, he once again ordered a different name change: start calling Al-Shabab ‘the Khawarij’, or ‘secessionists’. This time, however, the President did not stop at a name change, but made the remarkable decision to wage a ‘total war’ against al-Shabaab.

With almost no public or parliamentary input and strict government directives muzzling the media, the Somali Government helped mobilise clan militias, known as Macaawisley, to free their territories from Al-Shabaab control.

The president then went on a media tour, proclaiming that Al-Shabaab’s days were over, and that we need to start talking about Al-Shabaab in the past tense. Almost a year later, Al-Shabaab, or the Khawarij, are very much present-active.

Despite losing some territories near Mogadishu, the group maintains their stronghold in the Juba region, and has carried out devastating attacks on hotelsand African Union bases in Somalia.

Most importantly, however, public disagreements, accusations of betrayal, and the removal of the de-facto leader of the Macaawisley militias in Hiiran region, former governor Ali Jayte Osman, has all but effectively paused the government’s total war.

The Link Between Corruption and Al-Shabaab recruitment

The social media storm over Nasro’s disastrous run:

At some point, one has to ask how ‘Al-Shabaab’ has essentially been its own state in many parts of Somalia for almost 17 years. Much of its success can be attributed to its early roots as the ICU, several religious groups that coalesced to fight against the warlords. They had popular support. Today, Al-Shabab has the governance infrastructure and complex non-tribal hierarchy to offer a strong alternative to a deeply ineffective and divisive federal government.

The UN and almost all international partners recognise the need for inclusive and fair politics as necessary counter-narratives to Al-Shabaab recruiting and capitalising on grievances.

Al-Shabaab’s shadow operations are almost always more effective than those conducted by the Somali government. The group collects tax from a wider geographical area than the federal government. Their sharia courts are also preferred in settling civil disputes because of al-Shabaab’s perceived lack of corruption and effective techniques in enforcing rulings.

On the other hand, their main fighting opponent, the Somali National Army (SNA), is notoriously unreliable and clannish. Reports have indicated how entire battalions are simply clan militias, obeying certain generals and politicians. If these battalions are deployed in a rival clan’s territory, the locals are more likely to support Al-Shabab and the SNA soldiers are more likely to abuse their power in pushing for their clan’s ambitions, including land grabs.

In June 2023, a week after the SNA fought against South-West State troops in Baraawe in what was a thinly-concealed clan battle, President Hassan Sheikh travelled to New York to advocate for the lifting of the arms embargo on Somalia.

Irony aside, how can the Somali government wage a ‘total war’ on a terrorist group when that same group is perceived to be less corrupt, less tribal, and does not need an international lifeline to exist? How can the President advocate for lifting of the arms embargo on Somalia a week after federal and state police have fought over control of Baraawe?

Unfortunately, the only way Somalia’s actions — be it sending non-athletes to compete in elite competitions or campaigning for an arms-embargo to be lifted whilst the clan-based national army fights another clan-based state army — can be understood is when we recognise that it is in the interest of  the Somali elite to permanently extend the state-building project, precisely because this elite lives off the international rents from perpetual instability. A steady trickle of international aid money, sprinkles of fighting and annual famine sustain the kind of environment necessary for yet more money, and an unabashed frenzy of corruption and nepotism. It’s a great way to gamble Somalia’s fragile peace.

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