Saturday May 14, 2022
By Simon Valmary
A violent Islamist insurgency, looming famine, political chaos, and a threadbare economy in tatters — these major crises and more await whoever wins Sunday’s fraught and long-overdue presidential election in Somalia.
The troubled Horn of Africa country was supposed to choose a new leader in February 2021 but missed the deadline as Somalia’s political leaders squabbled over the election process.
The impasse turned violent when President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, better known by his nickname Farmajo, extended his term in what opponents decried as an unconstitutional power grab.
The president appointed his prime minister to arrange a fresh vote but the task drove a wedge between the two men, putting the vote even further out of reach.
The crisis paralysed the government at a time when stability was badly needed to confront the burning challenges at hand, analysts said.
“It’s really been a lost year for Somalia,” said Omar Mahmood, an analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank.
“This long-awaited election has been divisive. Reconciliation is the most immediate challenge.
“It’s hard to move forward with some of the technical work… that requires a level of cooperation if you don’t have that sort of healing and common vision from the start.”
Farmajo’s presidency has exacerbated tensions between the central government and some states, most notably Jubaland, and there have been violent clashes between their respective forces.
The president has been accused of using Somalia’s security forces to further his political ambitions.
Samira Gaid, executive director of the Mogadishu-based Hiraal Institute think tank, said divisions within their ranks would also need to be resolved.
The next president confronts a familiar threat that has dogged successive governments for over a decade — a deadly and persistent insurgency by the Al-Shabaab militant group.
In March, the United Nations renewed the mandate of a 20,000-strong African Union force that has been on the ground since 2007 to support the foreign-backed government in confronting the Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists.
The reconfigured mission, dubbed ATMIS, calls for a more offensive strategy than in recent years with the goal of gradually reducing troop numbers to zero by the close of 2024.
Gaid said a new president might consider renegotiating aspects of an agreement signed by Farmajo “at a time where the Somali leadership was not really focused on security imperatives”.
Somalia’s international backers have warned that prolonged infighting over the election has distracted from the threat of Al-Shabaab, which has consolidated its rural territory and in recent months stepped up attacks.
Mahmood said a new leader could also consider a more political approach to tackling the Islamists, and perhaps even set the mood for any possible dialogue with them.
“How a new administration signals about that, the tone it presents, is very important early on,” he said.
“Even if Al-Shabaab isn’t ready right now, it’s sort of opening up a channel… to lay the groundwork” for any dialogue.
“It’s a process, it’s a very long-term thing.”
Somalia is vulnerable to climate shocks, and currently suffering its worst drought in decades.
The United Nations says some 6.1 million people — roughly 40 percent of the entire population — have been affected and 760,000 people have fled their homes.
Humanitarian organisations have warned that without a significant increase in aid, Somalia could soon face a famine not seen since 2011 when 260,000 people perished from hunger.
The government has little capacity to tackle the problem on its own.
But observers say political stability in Mogadishu would help in coordinating the emergency response, and presenting a unified appeal for aid.
A poor, indebted country lacking critical infrastructure, Somalia is dependent on foreign aid to function.
According to the World Bank, nearly three-quarters of Somalia’s 15 million people live on less than $1.90 (1.80 euro) each day.
The election delays threaten a crucial assistance package from the International Monetary Fund, which expires automatically on May 17 if a new administration does not approve key reforms.
The government has asked for a three-month extension to this deadline, but it has not yet been considered.
The economy grew by 2.9 percent in 2019 and was tipped to expand further in 2020.
But it instead contracted as the coronavirus pandemic, a locust infestation and floods took their toll, the World Bank said.
The African Development Bank forecasts growth of 3.2 percent for 2022 — still below pre-Covid projections.
Mahmood said improving tax collection could also insulate the economy from future shocks.