President Farmaajo and federalism in Somalia

A map of Somali federal regions

By Farah Adan

Federalism is an indispensable political institution in Somalia. As he takes power in the long war-torn country, President Farmaajo must act to strengthen federalism, which is enshrined in the constitution and enjoys broad-base support among the Somali people.

After living through a devastating civil war that shattered social trust, and before that living under the thumb of a brutal military strong-man who ruled the entire country from his palace in Mogadishu, the Somali people will not accept anything except a decentralized, federal government that empowers local communities and regions while limiting the powers of the central government.

A federal Somalia is one where local officials, elected by their local constituencies, are given the power to creatively solve the problems impacting their regions without waiting on the grace and favor of Mogadishu. It is one where power is not dependent on the will of Mogadishu power brokers, who have proven themselves hopelessly tone-deaf, but the will and consent of the people in the country’s federal regions, who, through the franchise, will have the power of democratic accountability over their local federal officials. This is a welcome departure from the previous centralized Somali government that usurped all power, appointing even local  teachers from Mogadishu.

As the new president of the Federal Republic of Somalia, Farmaajo’s legitimacy lies within his commitment to honor and respect the federal constitution and the country’s established and emerging federal regions. If Farmaajo attempts the folly of governing by decree from Mogadishu like his predecessors, he will fail. Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, the man Farmaajo defeated last Wednesday, dried up  his political capital and became alienated early in his administration after attempting (and failing) to obstruct the emergence of the Jubbaland federal state for clannish and parochial reasons. Farmaajo should learn from Mohamud’s mistakes and realize that Villa Somalia does not confer the same power as it did during the reign of Siad Barre, the foul dictator whose power-hungry ways Somali leaders often try to mimic.

Perhaps the most important aspect of federalism is the fair distribution of resources. President Farmaajo must ensure that the federal regions receive their fair and proportionate allocation of development aid given to Somalia. Somalis cannot afford to repeat the mistake of concentrating all development in Mogadishu. Nearly every development dollar Somalia received before the civil war was invested in the city and its environs, and all that went up into smoke after marauding clan militias leveled the city as they fought for control over the country. As they say, don’t keep all your eggs in one basket! Sadly, the weak transitional governments that have taken power in Somalia since 1991 have continued on with this foolish practice, mostly because they have been dominated by people from Mogadishu.

Although I am optimistic about Farmaajo, there is a real danger that the new president may find his nationalist sentiments manipulated by pseudo-intellectuals and sophists who are Federal-diid—anti-federalists. These people claim to oppose federalism for nationalist reasons, but in truth they are often Mogadishu people who are angry that federalism will reduce the city’s disproportionate political power and share of resources, which they want to keep for themselves. Despite their often flowery and emotional nationalist rhetoric, their opposition is clannish and parochial and the president would be well advised to not be charmed into a foolish stance by them.

Of course all of this is not to say that federalism in Somalia is perfect, far from it. Somali federalism is relatively new and there are many quarks in the system that the president must help fix. Realistically speaking Farmaajo has very little coercive powers, but nevertheless he is exceptionally personally popular and has the ‘bully pulpit’ power of the presidency, which magnifies his voice. Farmaajo can use this to educate the Somali people about what a federal system means and doesn’t mean. There appears to be a perception in some parts of the country that federalism means large tribal groups carving out a piece of land for their exclusive political and economic domination, and obviously this practice is improper and also has empowered Al Shabaab, which thrives on the grievances of smaller clans marginalized during the establishment of clan-dominated federal states. It will be up to Farmaajo, using his limited powers and the power of his rhetoric, to help correct these misperceptions and slowly but surely help strengthen the federal system in Somalia.