By Farah Adan
Last Wednesday Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo did the implausible and won Somalia’s presidential election. An honest technocrat with a track record of delivering good governance and maintaining cross-clan support, many Somalis hope that Farmaajo will succeed and revive an effective Somali state. But while we should hope for the best, and prepare to support our new president, Somalis should also be aware that their is an entrenched network of corrupt elites who have profited from Somalia’s misery— and they feel very threatened right now. If Farmaajo moves against their interests, which he will have to if he is to fulfill the promises he made to the Somali people, they will strike out against him and there’s no telling if he’ll survive politically. Last time Farmaajo was in government, elements within this group derailed his premiership and forced him out within six months.
The corrupt Somali elites come from every clan and are geographically dispersed, but perhaps the most well-entrenched, powerful, and most likely to strike out against Farmaajo are the Hawiye elites in Mogadishu and Southern Somalia. Ever since they led their kinsmen in ethnically cleansing Daroods and other Somali clans from the capital and the lush real estate surrounding it early in the 1990s, these Hawiye elites have grown wealthy by looting the houses, cars, and lands of the people they killed or drove away. Additionally, because of their location inside the capital, which they claim as their exclusive tribal settlement, these Hawiye elites have been able to colonize Somalia’s dysfunctional central government, where they have dominated the presidency and a disproportionate share of high-rank positions since 1991. The writ of the Somali government doesn’t extend far beyond Villa Somalia in Mogadishu, and thus in that regard it may seem perplexing why it’s such a valuable prize, but the answer becomes clearer when one understands the billions of dollars that have been poured into the government by various foreign governments, businesses, and organizations, for myriad reasons from development to securing licenses to exploit natural resources. Because of their privileged position in the government, the Hawiye elites have been well positioned to divert a large share of this windfall for their own personal or political purposes. Funds captured from the state have been diverted to fund flourishing businesses, well-etrenched patronage networks, and offshore bank accounts controlled by a small but very powerful Hawiye elite—most being of the Habar Gidir or Abgaal sub-clans. Although the civil war has been terrible for the average Hawiye person in the region, with their clan areas being the most violent and disorderly in Somalia, the small Hawiye elite have flourished in the context of corruption and state domination— and if “Darood” Farmaajo threatens this satus quo, expect them to lash out, as some are already doing.
Another group that will threaten Farmaajo are Somali business elites. One would think that business leaders would want an effective state, and that’s true of normal business leaders, but the most powerful currently active Somali business elites have made their fortunes in the context of state failure, and it is this context that they are familiar with and have profited from. These business elites generate large illicit cash flows from weapons smuggling, illegal cross-border trading, the import of fake medicines and goods, drugs, the export of charcoal, and many other illegal business activities. Leaders in these “industries” benefit from state collapse because their is no government to prevent them from engaging in these practices. Some who have made their fortunes in this manner have since migrated to more respectful businesses such as telecommunications and money transfer networks, but even this group benefits from state collapse because they pay no tax and face no government regulation.
Another set of entrenched interests all but certain to undermine Farmaajo are the periphery elites in Puntland and Somaliland. The latter have of course led their region in declaring independence from the rest of Somalia and thus their dealings with Mogadishu are limited, but if Farmaajo choses to challenge the Somaliland elites who have recently leased the strategic national asset of Berbera to the U.A.E to become both a U.A.E-run port and military base, tensions are likely to boil over. Because the deal is seen by many Somalis as undermining Somalia’s sovereignty and bolstering Somaliland’s quest for outside recognition, Farmaajo will be under pressure to act against it but it’s unclear if he’ll choose to do so or whether he’ll strike an under-the-table agreement with Somaliland as his predecessor was rumored to have done . In Puntland, Farmaajo should theoretically receive support from his Darood kinsmen, but since Puntland is dominated by the Majeerteen sub-clan and Farmaajo is from the Marehan sub-clan, he’ll likely be seen as an opponent by the elites there (as distinct from the people….Farmaajo is unusually popular among average people across all Somali regions). Because Farmaajo is technically representing the Darood in the 4.5 clan power-sharing formula under effect in Somalia, Majerteen elites are shut away from the premiership and presidency as long as he’s there and some may thus have an incentive to have him removed, so one of them can replace him. Last time Farmaajo was removed from power, he was replaced by Mohamed Abdiweli Gaas, the current Puntland president, and they are now allegedly no longer speaking, despite having been good friends in Buffalo, New York.
These are only but some of the forces that may strike out against Farmaajo, and although these forces represent very narrow interests and a tiny elite class, they have a lot of power in Somalia. Somali elites have gotten used to and prospered in the context of state failure and if Farmaajo moves to revive a state which threatens their interests—which he’ll have to do because their interests contradict the interests of the wider Somali society—they will strike out. These elites are skilled at manipulating Somalia’s tribal culture to undermine political opponents, and they can also sabotage Farmaajo from within his own government as many of them are likely to pressure their way to positions within his administration. There’s also all the outside powers who regularly interfere in Somali politics, most notably Ethiopia which has had a decades long policy of undermining Somali governments, and any spoiler seeking to oppose Farmaajo is likely to find a great friend and benefactor in Addis Ababa.
Does Farmaajo have the political cunning and acumen to outwit and outmaneuver these forces, co-opting some and destroying others? Does he have the resources or international support? The answers to these questions remains unclear at this time. What we know so far is that Farmaajo has the popular support and love of the Somali people, but whether that’ll be enough or if it will last beyond the initial honeymoon phase is something we don’t know and we’ll find out.