Bism Allah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim
Ibrahim Moiz, Copyright 2022
Occupational Federalism and Somalia’s Big Cheese
After long delays, and against many predictions, Somalia’s controversial ruler Mohamed Farmaajo (2017-22) stepped down last month to perhaps end several years of constitutional and regional rumblings between and within the Somali periphery and his embattled, grudgingly foreign-propped government in Mogadishu. The election that ousted him, and brought back to power his predecessor Hassan Mohamud (formerly 2012-17) gave lie to the idea that Farmaajo, with his centralist preference for government and often underhanded efforts at enforcing it, was trying to install himself as an autocrat in Mogadishu. To be sure, Farmaajo’s government – propped up, much to its own discomfort, by an African Union force that its predecessors invited – was far from a spotless regime, and in trying to overturn what he rightly saw as a flawed governing structure he only fanned conflict. But the level of detraction that greeted his regime, not least from shady North American writers with questionable ties, were always ludicrous, hysterical, and indeed disingenuous; the fact that he eventually saw the writing on the wall is as much egg on their faces as it is an apparent success for transition in Somalia.
Two critics in particular stick out. Michael Rubin, a neoconservative American ideologue who has been hopskipping over the past twenty years over, and getting invariably wrong, every Muslim country from Turkey and Iraq to Pakistan and Azerbaijan, has accused Farmaajo of murder and treason. Matthew Bryden, a Kenya-based Canadian analyst-cum-propagandist, is by contrast a more grounded lobbyist, having written on the region and in particular Somalia for some thirty years. Yet his analysis on Somalia and in particular Farmaajo, which went from legitimate criticisms about Mogadishu’s stance with federalism to outright tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory with a dollop of Islamophobic stereotypes, was no less ridiculous than Rubin’s and seemed at least in part to justify a prickly Somali regime’s accusation that he was a bad-faith actor, if not necessarily the saboteur that government-friendly writers claimed.
There is certainly no denying that Farmaajo, a former prime minister (2010-11) whose nickname, in typically lively Somali fashion, means “cheese”, leapt into the 2010s Somali political cauldron like a bull in a china shop. Somali federalism is not without reason, coming on the back of decades of outright tyranny by the military dictator Siad Barre (1969-91). Belying boasts of revolutionizing Somalia along “scientific socialist” lines and his apparent fervour to reunite the Somalis of the region – split between the modern states of Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya – under Mogadishu’s leadership, Barre provided an ultimately destructive tyrant. When challenges emerged to his regime, he reacted invariably with brute force, limiting power increasingly to his own clan – the Marehan clan within the Darod confederation, one of Somalia’s four major confederations – and in particular to his own voracious family.
Tribalism has always been an unfortunate factor in Somali history; claiming to fight it, Barre actually weaponized it. In so doing he almost entirely alienated other clan confederations – the Isaq in the northwest Somaliland province were subjected to a horrifying mass slaughter in response to a largely peripheral insurgency, helping galvanize the breakaway of that province into what is effectively an independent state today; the Hawiye largely found around the capital were increasingly disaffected and ultimately played a major role in Barre’s downfall; while the Rahanweyn in the southwest suffered terribly in Barre’s attempt to recapture power. While he was far from the only sinner in the mix, Barre played a major role in the abuses, polarization, and mayhem that sent the Somali state into collapse during the 1990s.
This and the dramatic failure of an American-led United Nations campaign opened the door to Somalia’s neighbours to “resolve”, in not entirely disinterested ways, the dispute to their own liking. Ethiopia, which had undergone its own tumult since the 1970s, was the most destructive such actor. The Ethiopian monarchy, whose control of the Ogaden region had first triggered hostility between the two neighbours, had been overthrown by a communist military dictatorship in 1974; this in turn provoked various peripheral revolts of a largely ethnoregionalist nature, albeit often with a leftist rhetorical touch in the fashion of the day. The primary such group was the Woyane Front of Tigray Province, which captured Addis Ababa only months from its junta only months after Barre’s ouster and set up an ethnofederalist system in Ethiopia. The mayhem in Mogadishu gave the Woyane Front a prime opportunity to manipulate Somalia, the main supporter of Ogaden separatism, to its own liking.
In spite of hosting several reconciliation conferences – conferences that, in fairness, did not require Ethiopian subterfuge to collapse, given the intense factionalism of 1990s Somalia – Ethiopia soon opted for sponsoring prominent militia commanders that would divide Somalia between them. First among these was Abdullahi Yusuf, a former Somali soldier who had attempted a coup against Barre in 1978 and since been a client of Addis Ababa, whom he had helped in a border war during 1982. By the early 1990s, Yusuf had established himself as the primary commander in the northeast Puntland region of Somalia; though he ruled it with an iron fist, ruthlessly crushing an electoral challenge by force in the early 2000s, he was also among the Ethiopian-backed commanders who regularly spoiled alternative peace deals by adopting the apparently progressive slogan of “federalism”.
Certainly federalism can have its merits; the memory of Barre’s misrule and the pandemonium in the capital rendered it an attractive proposition. Yet the federalism of the Ethiopian-backed commanders was plainly opportunistic, especially because they did not hesitate to scotch any alternative power-sharing agreements. The most notable such agreement, mediated at Arte by the Djibouti government in summer 2000, was quickly sabotaged by Yusuf and some of the other most notorious commanders. It wasn’t until an alternative formula had been mediated – under Ethiopian auspices at Baidoa near the border – that these commanders acquiesced, several getting major positions under this formula. The formula incorporated regional autonomy, with a neatly divided centre split between the presidency, a subservient prime minister, and a parliament that could remove but not appoint the prime minister. Somali history under this formula has been a constant power struggle between these three poles in the centre, as well as between the centre and periphery, and between different parts of the periphery. A cynic might say, and this writer counts himself among them, that it was designed for dysfunction; indeed Sharif Aden, a Rahanweyn merchant who served as speaker and Yusuf’s oft-rival, would charge bitterly that “wants a fiefdom government – multiple governments which are all weak.”
By that point, yet another and more effective formula was in the works – based on Islam, the one factor uniting Somalis, a Courts’ Union of Islamists led by Sharif Ahmed overran Mogadishu and ploughed south and west after beating several American-backed militia commanders. For Yusuf and his cohorts in Baidoa, this was a plain threat. It is unknowable whether the Islamists, who themselves proved far from a homogenous bloc, would have remained united. What was inarguable was that they had installed the most effective, responsible government for fifteen years in the capital, and that it was blatantly sabotaged by Addis Ababa. After heavily lobbying the United States on the basis of opposing Islamist militancy, Ethiopia invaded Somalia over the winter of 2006-07 and installed Yusuf in Mogadishu at gunpoint. Unsurprisingly, this provoked a major insurgency; even speaker Sharif Aden joined this insurgency, and had to be replaced in that role by the premier commander at the Ethiopian-backed faction’s stronghold in Baidoa, Adan Madobe. However, it was the most extreme but best-organized wing of the Islamists, Shabaab, that thrived and bolstered its credentials on fighting the invaders.
Also unsurprisingly given the unwieldy formula that Ethiopia had installed, its client government soon collapsed in on itself. Yusuf challenged and fell out with his prime minister Nur Adde, who wanted to negotiate with the insurgent Sharifs in a deal brokered by Djibouti; the Ethiopians, badly humiliated, were unable to protect him and he was ejected and passed away a satisfyingly bitter man. In a remarkable twist of fate, Sharif Ahmed – the man ousted by the American-backed invasion – returned and took over the rival government with apparently American acquiescence, though this irreparably fragmented the insurgency and ensured that Shabaab took the bulk of what remained. Sharif’s return was hinged on getting the Ethiopians out in favour of a regional, Ugandan-led African Union force; this force, however, would prove only slightly less unpopular, while the unwieldy formula of government saw multiple tussles between the ruler, speaker, and prime minister that consumed, among others, Sharif himself.
This is where Farmaajo entered the scene. An obscure Darod bureaucrat in the United States, he was apparently handpicked from obscurity by Sharif in September 2010 but proved himself an honest, diligent prime minister. Such was his popularity in Mogadishu that a Ugandan attempt to have him removed in summer 2011 – at the same point as Shabaab were finally being driven from a capital they had threatened for four years – met with major protests. Farmaajo did step down, but apparently seems to have procured a dislike for the wildly ineffective system of clientelist federalism in Somalia. When he took the presidency, surprisingly beating the favoured incumbent Hassan Mohamud in the February 2017 election, he seems to have resolved to reform the system. Unfortunately, he would go about it with a jackhammer rather than the requisite scalpel.
It is important to note that not every one of Farmaajo’s problems was of his own doing. The Ethiopians still lurked on and occasionally within western Somalia, while just months after his ouster fr Kenya invaded, against Sharif’s feeble protests, the southeast in league with a former Islamist commander, Ahmed Madobe, who has made Jubaland his fiefdom since. There were frequent tussles between the federal regions – what I call “emirates” – and tension with a still defiantly independent Somaliland, as well as the appearance of a major, and in Somalia influential, polarization between the Gulf states: Qatar on one side, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the other. In this tussle Riyadh and Abu Dhabi began to support opposition to Farmaajo, who in turn leant heavily on support from Qatar and Turkey. Shabaab remained a major if somewhat diminished threat in southern Somalia, the lethality of which was reinforced in October 2017 when a suicide attack in the capital killed nearly six hundred people. Finally, this threat prompted the regime to rely on a foreign occupation, by frequently transgressing African Union forces, that Farmaajo had not invited in. To this extent, Farmaajo was reacting to rather than instigating crises.
Nonetheless, it must be admitted that Farmaajo’s resolutions tended to inflame the situation. His push for centralism tended to lean on a rather contrived Somali hypernationalism – the idea that in order to rebuild Somalia needed to focus on its national interests against assorted enemies, which were occasionally conflated with the regime’s rivals. There was some truth to this, as Kenya’s presence in Jubaland showed; nonetheless it was a highly hypocritical stance given the regime’s own reliance on foreign forces, and the cynical usage of counterterrorism language to crack down on its rivals. This is not something unique to either Farmaajo or Somalia – nearly every Muslim regime and many non-Muslim ones have done so against Muslim rivals in the last twenty years – but it nonetheless stank, and the regime’s many critics inside and outside the country pointed it out. This nationalistic centralism, which tended to accuse its critics in throwaway terms as tribalists, was especially troubling because Farmaajo appears to have struck a chord with Ethiopia, where the Woyane Front was replaced – and would soon be violently attacked – by a similar centralist, nationalist, would-be reformist Abiy Ahmed.
In December 2018, the government disqualified former Shabaab second-in-command Mukhtar Robow, a popular leader inside the Rahanweyn southwest, from running in the regional election; he was instead abducted by subterfuge, and when the United Nations’ envoy Nicholas Haysom protested he was expelled. Robow, as it happened, would only be released after Farmaajo left office last month. In August 2019 the regime tried strenuously to circumvent Ahmed Madobe’s reelection in Jubaland, nearly triggering clashes between its Ethiopian backers and the Kenyans on Madobe’s side. In summer 2020, prime minister Hassan Khaire was disqualified after crossing Farmaajo. As the election was postponed, in early 2021 there was unrest at Mogadishu that was only narrowly averted by diplomacy with prime minister Hussein Roble, with whom Farmaajo had significant tensions. In autumn 2021, the regime waded into the Galgudud region to fight a longstanding Sufi militia that had once tendered support against Shabaab. And at the year’s end tension between Puntland emir Said Deni and his militia command was rumoured to be linked to Deni’s rivalry with Farmaajo.
There is therefore much to criticize about Farmaajo’s term in power, his attempt to reshape the Somali political scene nearly always escalating matters. But it should also be noted that much of the criticism around him, painting him as a budding dictator bent on corrupt self-enrichment, was wrong. A case in point is Bryden’s raving attack on the regime, published in a Kenyan outlet a month after he was convicted in absentia of espionage. The espionage charge might be wrong, but there was little in Bryden’s progressively hyperbolic article to suggest that he was in any way a fair or impartial observer.
Rightly noting Farmaajo’s frequent tussles with the Somali periphery – though often with unsubstantiated claims, like “Galmudug’s election was stolen” – Bryden then proceeds to dither into the cuckoo clouds. Citing Farmaajo’s sinister advisor and spymaster Fahad Yasin, a Salafi former reporter for Qatari state media whose stepfather had been killed for the Itihaad militant group fighting the Ethiopians in the 1990s, he comes to the bizarre conclusion that Yasin is trying to set up Farmaajo as an “Islamist kingpin”. His evidence to this end is Yasin’s Qatari link – true enough, but many if not most of Somalia’s political heavyweights have links to some foreign power or other – and his Salafi background. Bryden claims that Mogadishu has purposely neglected its fight with Shabaab and focused on fighting the periphery instead; rather than an inadvertent policy, he claims that this is a purposeful attempt to strengthen Shabaab through the back door. Elaborately delving into the world of Islamophobic conspiracy theory, Bryden concludes that Yasin, “practiced in the arts of deceit and dissimulation – taqqiya [sic]”, is attempting an absolutist theocratic takeover of Somalia, which he likens to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
This is absurd for several reasons – not least that the Taliban emirate, for its many faults, is far from an absolutist government, but also because the Taliban did not take over Afghan intelligence in order to take over the country; they conquered their way to power. But an even more pressing reason is that Yasin is far from the only Islamist in Somalia’s elite; at least since Sharif Ahmed’s return to power in 2009, a significant chunk of Somalia’s elite have comprised Islamists of some shape. Sharif himself installed as defence minister Yusuf Indhaadde and as interior minister Abdulqadir Omar, both veterans of the Islamic Courts Union that Ethiopia had driven out of power. Other Islamist veterans in cabinet included Abdirahman Janaqow, formerly Courts Union secretary-general, and Abdirahman Abdishakur – incidentally one of Farmaajo’s first victims, who was imprisoned on charges of collusion with the typically very Islamist-hostile United Arab Emirates in 2017. Farmaajo’s rival Hassan Mohamud himself had an Islamist background.
Moreover three of Farmaajo’s major targets in the Somali periphery – Ahmed Madobe, Mukhtar Robow, and Said Deni – had been Islamists, the first two major Islamist commanders and the second, indeed, a top-ranked Shabaab leader. Nowhere, however, does Bryden claim that their administrations were Islamist coups; on the contrary, he fumes at Farmaajo’s attempts to undermine them. Using his own illogic, it can as easily be said that Bryden is a card-carrying “Islamist” saboteur. It is equally ridiculous to claim that Mogadishu has neglected the fight against Shabaab; Bryden’s own article provides examples of the contrary, including 2019-20 and 2021 campaigns in the Shabelle, except that he belittles and ridicules these campaigns with little elaboration. If a military campaign does not impress Bryden, it appears, it must have never happened.
The fact is that, apart from a brief period in 2012-14 when Shabaab was undergoing its own internal crisis, no Somali regime has effectively fought it. A bigger fact is that Somali politics is not divided into ideological lines; there are Islamists on different sides, whether with Farmaajo, Hassan Mohamud, Sharif Ahmed, or Shabaab. And the even bigger fact is that in a Muslim country it does not and should not be an automatic cause for alarm so that (usually) foreign journalists can scaremonger, using bits of truth and plenty of lies to concoct an absurd narrative.
This is not to defend Farmaajo; as I have said, his attempt to “reform” an abjectly flawed system was itself heavy-handed, divisive, and ultimately unsuccessful. But criticisms of any Somali leader, or any leader anywhere for that matter, should take into account the context, and be focused on the facts and not on paranoid rhetoric and hyperbole meant to appeal more to the baser instincts of uninformed readers than the actual record. Such an approach does no credit to its author and active harm to Somalia.