A re-run of a paper published by Life & Peace on 3 March 2017 and written by Najum Mushtaq, a political analyst focusing on the Horn of Africa and South Asia

When the US ambassador to Somalia, Stephen Schwartz, met the new president of Somalia, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, better known as ‘Farmaajo’, a US citizen, he presented him with a Trump cap with the slogan “Make Somalia Great Again.”[1]

The ambassador’s gesture echoed the widespread celebrations in Somali communities across the world—from Mogadishu to Nairobi to Buffalo and Minneapolis—and an unprecedented level of optimism and expectations in the new administration.

But what inspires so much hope and jubilation, given the fact that Somalia is far from attaining a semblance of political stability and setting up governance structures? The presidential election on 8 February had to be held inside an airport hangar and Mogadishu was under a security lockdown when Farmaajo emerged as the surprise winner of the contest. Other than the unfinished war on al-Shabab and multiple lingering clan conflicts, Somalia remains fragmented administratively and along clan lines and is yet again facing a severe humanitarian crisis as another famine looms in several drought-hit regions.

An unlikely victory: ‘take the money, but vote with your conscience’somaliamap2

Somalia’s southern interim federal states and regions. Source: Crisis Group

In order to understand the upbeat response to Farmaajo’s election and his popularity, the context of his electoral victory must be taken into account. The odds were heavily stacked against Abdullahi Farmaajo. All five regional state presidents, whose MPs voted in the election, were backing Farmaajo’s rivals: Jubbaland President Ahmed Madobe campaigned for Sheikh Sharif Ahmed; Southwest President Sharif Hasan Aden backed the incumbent Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, as did the president of Galmudug, Abdikarim Hussein Guled, while Puntland President Abdiwali Gaas supported his fellow clansman incumbent Prime Minister Omar Sharmake. HirShabelle President Ali Osoble was reported to be ambivalent supporting at times both Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Sharmake.[2] That Farmaajo bagged 184 of the 328 votes shows that the parliamentarians did not toe the line of their regional leaders and made a decision independent of the political and clan pressure.

The election was also marked by widespread corruption and votes were being openly bought—investigators estimated that about $20 million changed hands during the campaign with Somalia’s auditor general reporting bribes of up to 1.3 million dollar.[3] Farmaajo, on the other hand, had done his fundraising for the mandatory $30,000 candidate registration fee in the diaspora communities and, having spent little time in Somali politics and government, was not tainted by allegations of corruption.

Whilst corruption marred the electoral process and was partly the reason for several postponements, it clearly did not decide the final outcome. Mogadishu residents say that mosque sheikhs as well as people on the street were urging the members of parliament to ‘take the money—it is halaal if you vote with your conscience’.[4] The MPs were also banned from carrying their mobile phones in the voting hall to prevent the ballots being photographed or MPs receiving last-minute bribes.

Equally daunting for Farmaajo was the role of regional and Middle Eastern countries backing one or the other of his rivals. Ethiopia, for instance, was believed to have been backing the incumbent for the sake of continuity and stability. The Addis Ababa-based Center for Dialogue Research and Cooperation, a think-tank run by former Ethiopian diplomats and believed to reflect the official policy, had warned that Somalia would be destabilized further if a non-Hawiye took over Villa Somalia (Farmaajo is from the Darood clan’s Marehan branch whilst the defeated Hasan Sheikh an Abgal-Hawiye). “Based on historic and current realities allowing the Hawiye to keep the Presidency might be a wise move,” the report said, adding: “It appears practically impossible for a Darood in Mogadishu to offer leadership particularly to the security institutions constituted of endogenous clans and sub clans engaged in the fight against [al-Shabab]”.[5] Meetings of the Somali regional presidents with Ethiopian authorities in Addis Ababa also sparked a reaction in Somalia to what was widely seen as an attempt to influence the outcome of the presidential election.[6]

Islamist candidates such as the outgoing president Hasan Sheikh and another former president, Sheikh Sahrif Ahmed, also had the diplomatic and financial support of their patrons in Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Turkey.[7]

Yet, despite so many hurdles, how did President Farmaajo beat the odds? From all accounts, this was the first Somali election where the Social media played a major role in determining the election result.[8]

As Radio Dalsan reports, “Unlike the previous parliaments [this] Parliament is made up of mainly new faces with 45% of the lawmakers being youth…more exposed and tech savvy compared to the elderly MPs in the past, and have been using social media platforms to monitor and gauge the [mood of the] people they represent.”

Several MPs conducted polls on social media before making a decision on who to vote for. For example, Muna Kay, a young Somali fashion designer from the US and an MP, asked her followers for their opinion and later posted on her Facebook the results of her polling backing Farmaajo. MP Abdi Shire Jama also went on social media to ask his followers who they wanted as president. When he got 7000 plus comments backing a Farmaajo presidency he announced to his followers that he had made a decision to vote for Farmaajo.[9] In brief, social media campaigns built pressure on the MPs

What does Farmaajo stand for? policies and challenges

Judging from his previous 8-month stint as prime minister in 2010-11 and his post-election policy pronouncements, Farmaajo’s vision for Somalia seems to run counter to the prevalent narratives and conventional wisdom on Somali politics.

Unlike the previous two presidents, he is not an overtly Islamist politician in a political landscape dominated by religious figures and movements. His predecessors exemplify this trend. Hassan Sheikh belongs to the Dam-ul-Jadid arm of Al-Islah, the Somali equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Sheikh Sharif is the leaders of Ala Sheikh, a Salafi-leaning revivalist group of Muslim clerics. Then, Farmaajo opposes clan-based politics and wants to do away with the 4.5 power-sharing formula that discriminates against the minor clans and ensures the dominance of the four major ones.

The new president seems to be carrying forward his agenda from his days as prime minister under President Sheikh Sharif.

“No budget! There was no budget!” he told New Republic about his previous term. “Nobody got paid!” Mohamed cut down the cabinet to 18 members and tried to ensure that soldiers were paid and long-closed roads were repaired.[10] He also put in place for the first time the practice of drawing an annual government budget.

More important, it was also during his days as prime minister that al-Shabab was driven out of Mogadishu and Gedo.

Based on his recent interviews, his three policy priorities can be identified as the following:[11]

  • Ending political bickering and ensuring unity within the government. The new president laments the fact that every previous president had at least three prime ministers during their tenures which caused uncertainty and created instability within the government. He aims to put in place a team to work for a longer period of three or four years and rebuild the civil service.
  • Defeating al-Shabab: Farmaajo says he has a “very sound strategic plan” to do so. Whilst he acknowledges and appreciates the efforts of the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), the core element of his plan is to build a strong professional Somali National Army, paying soldiers on time and providing for their material needs, including medical care and assistance to soldiers’ families. Winning the hearts and minds of the people, he believes, is critical to defeating al-Shabab.
  • In order to achieve these two goals, he identifies combatting corruption as a top priority: soldiers and civil servants don’t get salaries because of corruption which undermines good governance and props up al-Shabab. Also, given the degree of corruption in elections, he intends to lay foundations for a free and fair election in 2020.

Given the ambitious nature and scope of his vision, the Farmajo administration will be facing an uphill task. Oliver Chevreau and Ali Aden Abdi of Saferworld pose “4 questions the new president must confront in deciding what kind of democracy Somalia should be.”[12] Here’s a summary of the domestic political challenges they foresee Farmaajo confronting in reforming the state-building process according to his vision of a unified Somalia:

  • Which model will future elections use?
  • What about elections for the federal member states?
  • Can technical and political preparations be completed in time?
  • Can Somalia hold peaceful elections amid continued conflict with al-Shabaab?

Chevreau and Abdi argue that “although unpopular among the minority clans who are only allocated a ‘0.5’ share of representation, the model has arguably been successful in achieving a level of stability in Somalia otherwise absent for many decades.” They fear that one-person-one-vote elections that no longer pre-allocate seats on a clan basis will lead to the largest clan to achieve the greatest representation in parliament which “would upset the balance that has underpinned recent promising, albeit uneven, state-building efforts.”

Kenneth Menkhaus of Davidson College has similar reservations about Farmaajo’s policy agenda. “People were equally excited for [Hassan Sheikh] Mohamud when he was elected,” said “But as a matter of political survival, he was co-opted by a system that relies on deal-making and corruption. Progress in Somalia is contingent on reducing that corruption.”[13]

The Washington Post opines that Formaajo “will face the mammoth task of uniting a country composed of disparate so-called ‘federal member states,’ each of which has a distinct clan composition. In several of those states, strongmen have emerged who are seen locally as more important and more powerful than the president. Formaajo’s success may rely on building a broad alliance of clans without succumbing to horse-trading of government funds.”[14]

Silencing the guns: the future of AMISOM

Farmaajo’s biggest problem, nonetheless, lie in the security sector. The al-Shabab question goes hand in hand with the future of AMISOM. One of Farmaajo’s first symbolic policy moves was to use US-trained Somali elite guards for his security during his first public appearance rather than AMISOM troops mandated to protect the Somali government officials and institutions.[15] His assertion that ultimately it is up to the Somali army to overcome al-Shabab enhances his popularity with the Somalis but he has a delicate balancing act to follow if the objective of ridding Somalia of al-Shabab is to be achieved.

The president wants the AMISOM to stay on until the Somali National Army has been rebuilt and ready to replace AMISOM troops. In his first meeting with African Union leaders and envoys of the troops contributing countries in Mogadishu, Farmaajo enunciated his policy objective with a clear objective and limited timeline. “My vision is to defeat al-Shabab in two years,” he said.”[16]The Special Representative of the African Union Commission for Somalia, Ambassador Francisco Madeira, said after his meeting with Farmaajo: “The president has set up his priorities. He wants Al-Shabaab defeated as quickly as possible. We assured the president that we are with him in that endeavour.”

Relations with Ethiopia and Kenya will hold the key for progress on this issue. Messages of goodwill and support from the Kenyan government and the African Union are early encouraging signs that Farmaajo could negotiate deals with Somalia’s neighbours on the issue of both strengthening AMISOM’s role, focused on training the Somali army, as well as creating conditions for putting in place an exit strategy for AMISOM. The phased withdrawal of the Ethiopian forces from many parts of Somalia in 2016 and the increasing domestic pressure on the Kenyan government to pull out its troops from Somalia may strengthen Farmaajo’s stance of simultaneously strengthening the role of AMISOM over the next two years as well as initiating the process of Somali army taking over from AMISOM.

Another indicator that his agenda may converge with that of the African Union is the six-month Peace and Security Council (PSC) report presented at the 28th African Union summit in Addis Ababa in January 2017, outlining its ‘Roadmap for silencing the guns by 2020’. As the ‘locomotive’ for ridding Africa of conflicts over the next three years, the PSC complains that when it comes to AMISOM, despite retaking large swathes of territory previously controlled by al-Shabab, the events of the past six months indicate that Somalia is still far from being safe. In its report the PSC asks the UN to authorise an additional AMISOM troop total of 4 500 and laments the fact that it still does not have adequate military hardware to carry out its mission. [17] Working together with the PSC to help achieve its goal of creating condition that do not require the presence of African Union troops, Farmaajo has an opportunity to pressure donor countries for a better-equipped and more efficient AMISOM that can train and build a professional Somali army within his first term.


The euphoria caused in Somalia by Farmaajo’s election is a testimony to the resilience and optimism of a people battered by three decades of warfare, destruction and displacement. It represents a break from the past, both in terms of individuals who’ll be running the administration—likely to be specialist technocrats–and changes in policy and practice it envisages. But the expectations must be tempered with ground realities inside Somalia as well as the regional milieu. Even if under the guise of AMISOM, direct and prolonged military intervention by regional powers is unsustainable and counterproductive after ten years of operations without achieving the overall objective of defeating al-Shabab. Somalia has voted for change; its neighbours should also review their Somalia policy to facilitate the process of building an indigenous Somali security and other state institutions whilst cooperating with the new administration in combatting al-Shabab.

If, by 2020, the Farmaajo administration is able to hold the next election in a more secure Somalia under the security cover provided by the Somali army itself, much of the rest of its agenda—stable and functional state institutions and national reconciliation-may also become a reality in the long run.

Najum Mushtaq is a political analyst focusing on the Horn of Africa and South Asia. He can be reached at najummushtaq@gmail.com


[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/us-ambassador-give-cap-make-somalia-great-again-somalia-president-farmajo-a7588716.html

[2] “How regional presidents are used in campaign machinery by presidents candidates” Radio Dalsan, 7 February 2017, seen at http://radiodalsan.com/en/how-regional-state-presidents-are-used-in-campaign-machinery-by-presidential-candidates/

[3] Jeffery Gettleman, “Fuelled by bribes, Somalia’s election seen as milestone of corruption” The New York Times, 7 February 2017, seen at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/07/world/africa/somalia-election-corruption.html

[4] Interviews by the author in Nairobi, February 2017

[5] https://www.allshacabka.com/2017/01/18/cdrc-digest-a-monthly-publication-of-the-centre-for-dialogue-research-and-cooperation-cdrc/

[6] http://www.garoweonline.com/en/news/puntland/somalia-puntland-president-meets-ethiopian-officials-before-heading-to-mogadishu

[7] http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/09/20/allegations-of-abuse-corruption-cloud-election-in-somalia/ and https://www.alleastafrica.com/2016/10/05/diplomats-uae-pushes-incumbent-somali-presidents-re-election/

[8] Information gathered by Radio Dalsan, reported at http://allafrica.com/stories/201702140240.html accessed on 18 February 2017

[9] ibid

[10] https://newrepublic.com/article/95474/somali-prime-minister-mohamed

[11] Information extracted from Farmaajo’s TV nterview with Africa Live, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cjgs0b3RV_A

[12] Oliver Chevreau and Ali Aden Abdi, 4-questions-the-new-president-must-confront-in-deciding-what-kind-of-democracy-somalia-wants-to-be/, African Arguments, 9 February 2017 available at http://africanarguments.org/2017/02/09/4-questions-the-new-president-must-confront-in-deciding-what-kind-of-democracy-somalia-wants-to-be/

[13] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/02/08/expectations-run-high-for-somalias-new-president/?utm_term=.f4cd1fb2ca19

[14] ibid

[15] Source: http://radiodalsan.com/en/farmaajo-replaces-amisom-bodyguards-with-somalia-special-forces-as-army-chief-orders-all-sna-soliders-out-of-mogadishu/ accessed on 12 February 2017

[16] http://amisom-au.org/2017/02/somali-president-pledges-to-work-with-amisom-to-defeat-al-shabaab/

[17] https://issafrica.org/pscreport/on-the-agenda/28th-au-summit-the-pscundefineds-roadmap-to-peace-still-sketchy?utm_source=BenchmarkEmail&utm_campaign=PSC+Report&utm_medium=email