Farce and Façade: Somalia’s Government Acts Without Legitimacy

by Markus Virgil Höhne. Markus is a social anthropologist at the University of Leipzig researching conflict, identity, state-building, and dealing with the violent past in Somalia and Peru. First published in German in IZ3W 390, May/June 2022, p.6-7. Please finde the German version here.


While Islamic and other militias control parts of Somalia, the international community is seeking to establish a federal system of government. However, external political intervention is increasing corruption and conflict in the country. The currently faltering electoral process highlights the legitimacy problems of all parties involved.

Somalia should have had a new parliament and a new president long ago. For years, the international community has been pushing for free elections. Nevertheless, the security situation and the low capacity of the government, which is supported by external actors, do not allow it. Finally, the government, the opposition and international actors agreed on „indirect elections“ until early 2021.

This election process is complicated: At the local level, family elders nominate a total of almost 30,000 electoral women and men. These then determine the 275 members of the lower house of parliament, whose seats are not distributed according to party-membership, but by belonging to patrilineal descent groups. The 54 members of the upper house are nominated by electorial committees of the Somali federal member states. Together, the two houses then elect the president. Due to inadequate preparation and mistrust among the political actors, important deadlines have passed until today (May 2022). Since the end of 2020, the election process has also been overshadowed by massive allegations of corruption.

President Mohamed A. Farmajo, who has been in office since 2017, prefers indirect elections because they are strongly controlled by the presidents of the federal member states, some of whom are his supporters. On February 8, 2021, the official end of his term, Farmajo extended his mandate by decree for two years. This led to violent reactions. Temporarily, armed opposition supporters occupied parts of Mogadishu.

Moreover, the government has strong foothold only in a few urban centers of southern Somalia. Large parts of the southern Somali hinterlands are controlled by the Islamist militia Al-Shabaab. ln northern Somalia, the autonomous regional states Somaliland and Puntland exist. They are not accountable to the government in Mogadishu. The crisis related to the extension of Farmajo’s term finally calmed down until mid 2021 and subsequently, Somali elites and external supporters agreed on indirect elections to be conducted by the end of February 2022.
However, at the editorial deadline (April 2022) not all members of parliament had been selected, and even after finishing the elections, the chances of a fundamental improvement are slim.

A Cold and a Hot War

Violence in Somalia escalated from the end of the1970s. ln the context of the Cold War, first the Soviet Union and then the US and their respective allies (such as East Germany and West Germany) supplied arms to the dictatorship under Siyad Barre (1969-91) – even when it was clear that human rights violations would be committed with them.

In 1991, rebels overthrew the dictatorial regime, but they were unable to agree on a new government. The state arsenals were broken open, and the population armed itself. Chaos and violence led to a famine that claimed hundreds of thousands of victims by the end of 1992. As a result, the US and the UN intervened with up to 30,000 blue helmets to guarantee the supply of the civilian population with humanitarian aid and to restore political order. It was the first time in the history of the UN that blue helmets were deployed in a country without the government’s consent. The operation failed: the famine was alleviated admittedly, but the armed intervention intensified the fighting. The USA and the UN cooperated with some warlords and attempted to capture others, such as Mohamed Farah Aideed.

This led to the solidarity of many Somalis with Aideed, who, as a former army officer, was involved in the overthrow of dictator Barre. When American special forces tried to seize him in October 1993, fighting broke out in Mogadishu. Hundreds Somalis and 18 American soldiers were killed in the house-to-house fight. Subsequently, all intervention troops withdrew from Somalia by May 1995. The weapons and the warlords remained. The latter made „dirty“ deals with foreign companies, for instance dumping toxic waste off the Somali coast.

Elections in the battlefield

Only after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Muslim Somalia returned to the attention of Western governments. The US and its allies – in the Horn of Africa especially Ethiopia – cooperated with several warlords to capture and eliminate Islamist terrorist suspects in southern Somalia. At the same time, the international community initiated a peace conference for Somalia in Kenya, at which, in mid-2004, former militia leader Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed was elected president by a Somali interim parliament.

However, he and his government could not enter the capital, because the local population rejected him. Most Somalis were now aligned with the lslamic Courts, which promised an alternative political and economic order for Somalia, based on Sharia law. The lslamists were the only ones to ensure peace in the neighborhoods under their control and offered effective jurisdiction.

From early 2006, tensions erupted into fighting between the Islamists on one side and the government and the warlords on the other. The militias that fought for the Islamic Courts finally gained the upper hand. They soon controlled large parts of southern Somalia. The Ethiopian army intervened in December and dispersed all but a small core of Islamist forces. This was the nucleus from which Al-Shabaab (The Youth) emerged in 2007. In the following years, Al-Shabaab evolved into the strongest Somali force, which to this day must be kept in check by massive military countermeasures, especially by African Union troops. In parallel, international actors are trying to establish a government in Mogadishu. German international law experts were highly engaged in drafting a federal constitution.

Based on that constitution, indirect elections were held for the first time in 2012, and Hassan Sheikh Mahamoud became president. He sought to implement the federal constitution and establish federal states. The idea was to achieve some division of power in the state and between (patrilinear descent) groups through federalization. Traditionally, in Somali society, affiliation is regulated less by territory than by descent in the paternal line. Mahamoud’s government succeeded in establishing some federal states, at least nominally. Nonetheless, Al-Shabaab still controlled the hinterland of southern Somalia.

Also Mahamoud’s government was extremely corrupt. Approximately 70 % of the funds given from outside disappeared into the private pockets of government actors, as documented by the World Bank. The term of office of the following president, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo was accompanied by massive accusations of corruption as well. Farmajo negated the federal model of government and worked toward the centralization of power.

No one is legitimate

Given the limited function and low legitimacy of Farmajo’s government and the state in Somalia as a whole, the question arises why elections are nevertheless organized at great expense. It is common knowledge how corrupt the political actors are and that they have little support among the population. One explanation is that Somali elites and external aid workers benefit from elections. Somali elites make sure that they get well paid for their participation in the farce. In order to continue to carry out projects in the crisis-ridden country, Western aid organizations need administrative partners to sign off on projects – which is obviously an end in itself, because the aid often does not benefit the population, but the external actors and their Somali elite partners. Moreover, the elections formally support the narrative of Western governments that things are „getting better“ in Somalia. In the end, even Al-Shabaab benefits from the election disaster. Although the militant extremists do not have a broad basis of legitimacy either, they only need to do things a little better than the government, and they can gain some support from the conflict-weary population.

A leading UN representative said in a briefing end of 2021 that „no matter how the election process turns out, it will not contribute to any improvement“. A German NGO worker told an expert panel in January 2022 that his biggest concern was how the losing side would react after the corrupt election. Some fear a new escalation of violence.

What is certain is that the government has virtually nothing to offer to the population. So far, none of the Somali governments, co-installed from the outside since the early 2000s, has significantly provided for the security of the population, not to mention services in the areas of public transport, education or health care. What Somali people create, they create through their own initiative and with the help of relatives in the diaspora.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Nach oben scrollen