October 18, 2010 | World Defense Review

Somalia’s New Prime Minister: Not Quite What the Doctor Ordered

Just when it seems things can get no worse for Somalia's dubiously legitimate, utterly ineffective, and wholly self-serving “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG), the embattled clique pulls a surprise by sinking even deeper into the mire and, in the process, prolonging the agony of the Somali people and threatening the security and stability of both neighboring countries and the international community as a whole. Such was the case last week with the announcement of the nomination of Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” as prime minister of the phantom “government” that, even backed by more than 7,000 foreign troops, cannot even show its face in more than half of the sixteen districts of its putative capital city. If his record is anything to go by, the only people the new prime minister will hearten—other than members of the Islamist insurgency fighting the TFG—will be invincibly delusional outsiders who still stubbornly cling to the fantasy of restoring a united Somalia under the interim regime.

If the fact that TFG head Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed took more than three weeks to find a new prime minister after forcing out the previous incumbent, Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, was not sufficient indication that something was amiss, the fact that his eventual nominee is a mediocrity with little experience in national politics—to say nothing of international relations—should have set off alarms. Certainly a closer examination of the new appointee's background raises some serious concerns for those who cared to look beyond the positive spin fed to media outlets that ran off with headlines like “New Somali Prime Minister's 'Experience' Praised by Analyst” (Voice of America) and gushed about the alleged “conflict resolution and leadership skills” of the “former diplomat” (Associated Press).

Farmajo was born in Mogadishu in 1962. His family, members of the Marehan clan of the Darod clan-family, was originally from Gedo. That lineage was to prove decisive, both for his career to date and, as will be evident, his geopolitical Weltanschauung.

In 1969, less than a decade after the independence of the British Protectorate of Somaliland and the former Italian colony of Somalia and their union, the democratically-elected head of state, President Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, father of the man Farmajo replaces, was assassinated and Prime Minister Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal, later president of the restored Republic of Somaliland, imprisoned. A military junta under Muhammad Siyad Barre assumed power. A year after taking over, Siyad Barre proclaimed the “Somali Democratic Republic,” an officially Marxist state which was initially aligned with the Soviet Union. While, Siyad Barre adopted “Scientific Socialism” with the professed goal of uniting the nation by eliminating its ancient clan-based divisions, in order to maintain power, the dictator soon fell back to calling on the very same kinship ties. With the exception of his defense chief, Mohamed Ali Samantar, whose humble Sab family background made it unthinkable that he could ever threaten his patron, Siyad Barre's most trusted ministers came from within the Darod clan-family: the dictator's own patrilineal Marehan clan, members of the Dhulbahante clan of his son-in-law Ahmed Suleiman Abdulle, who headed the notorious National Security Service, or the Ogaden clan of his maternal kin.

The two-decade long rule of the Siyad Barre regime was rooted in brutality, with the ever-increasingly use of arrests, detentions, and executions of dissidents to suppress political opposition, as annual U.S. State Department reports on Somalia country conditions regularly noted. After 1975, critical ministries and security posts were almost exclusively entrusted to relatives or in-laws of Siyad Barre. The regime targeted clans that it viewed as subversive. To cite on example that several colleagues and I noted earlier this in our brief as amici curiae before the U.S. Supreme Court in the human rights case involving Mohamed Ali Samantar:

The Somali Armed Forces in June and July 1988 retaliated in a massive campaign of aerial and ground assaults on cities and towns in northwest Somalia. The aerial bombing of Hargeisa were one of the most bizarre war crimes in the annals of armed conflict: taking off from that city's own airport, the aircraft destroyed public buildings, the marketplace, and several residential areas, with no effort to distinguish between civilians and armed combatants. Livestock was confiscated and wells were poisoned. Africa Watch estimated that fifty to sixty thousand civilians were killed between May 1988 and March 1989, and some 400,000 civilians (predominantly Isaaq) fled to Ethiopia as refugees. In the early 1990s, land erosion revealed the existence of mass graves on the outskirts of Hargeisa, suggesting the systematic execution of local Isaaq residents by government forces.

As a result of his belonging to what the doyen of Somali studies, Professor Ioan M. Lewis, dubbed the “M.O.D. constellation,” Farmajo prospered under the dictatorship. Despite only holding what he acknowledges in an autobiographical essay published the day after his prime ministerial nomination to be a secondary qualification from a technical school, the twenty-year-old Farmajo was appointed an archivist and, subsequently, auditor of the Somali foreign ministry in 1982. Three years later, that same cronyism saw him posted to the embassy in Washington as first secretary despite the lack of any postsecondary education, much less training in diplomacy. As his tour in America's capital was winding down, Farmajo was smart enough to realize that the days of his kinsman's regime were numbered, so he refused to return home. Instead he stayed on in the United States and earned a bachelor's degree from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo.

By the time he had his degree in hand in 1993, the Siyad Barre regime had ignominiously fled Mogadishu—the old despot riding out of town in the last functional tank he possessed—and the erstwhile Somali Democratic Republic had descended into chaos with the exception of Somaliland in the northwest, which seceded, proclaimed the restoration of its former sovereignty, and has since developed a stable polity which earlier this year, as I reported here at the time, held multiparty elections which met international standards and led to a peaceful, democratic transition. Thus Farmajo extended his stay in America, eventually obtaining U.S. citizenship and landing himself a job working with public housing in upstate New York.

Farmajo then began climbing the ladder of a twisted version of the American dream with a succession of public sector jobs, including stints as Minority Business Enterprises Coordinator for Erie County, New York, and Regional Civil Rights Manager for the New York State Department of Transportation where, by his own account, he was responsible for managing $80 million per year in “affirmative action” set-asides for minorities and other “diversity-enhancing” measures (no wonder the Empire State ran a $21 billion deficit last year and is expected to run up another $8.5 billion in debt during the current fiscal year). Farmajo's duties as a civil servant were evidently not especially onerous as he had time to supplement his taxpayer-funded salary with another taxpayer-funded gig teaching courses like “The Art of Thinking,” “Leadership Skills,” and “Conflict Resolution” to students at Erie Community College.

A few years ago, perhaps realizing that even in New York the fiscal profligacy that permits his position to exist cannot go on much longer, Farmajo decided to branch out and enrolled in the graduate program at SUNY-Buffalo where, in June 2009, he was awarded a Master of Arts in American Studies for an 84-page thesis entitled “U.S. Strategic Interest in Somalia: From Cold War Era to War on Terror.” This document, written just one year ago, gives more than a bit of insight into the mind of the new TFG prime minister.

Understandably given how he benefited from it, even if nonetheless appallingly, Farmajo is apparently nostalgic for the Siyad Barre dictatorship. In his thesis, he incredibly declares that “a majority of Somali people welcomed the new military regime” and “popular acceptance helped facilitate Barre's initiatives like 'Scientific Socialism.'” In Farmajo's revisionist historiography, the dictatorship actually “won the hearts and minds of the people by promoting a new self-reliance and self-supporting mentality.” No wonder he openly mourns the collapse of the despot as “another unfortunate page in an unfortunate epoch.”

The aspiring academic had difficulty keeping his clan biases in check. While he had not a word to say about the Siyad Barre regime's genocidal repression of the Isaq and other clans, he dedicates several pages in his thesis to lamenting the “revenge and ethnic cleansing against the innocent Darood clan family” which came in the wake of the dictator's fall. In particular he seems to have a bone to pick with the Hawiye clan-family which, in his view, “lacked discipline and a sense of purpose” and whose leaders “were confused as to what their priorities should be.” In fact, he asserts “one thing that they did not care so much about was protecting the weak and vulnerable people of the capital.” (With opinions like these, one wonders what kind of welcome Farmajo expects from the Mogadishu's well-armed Hawiye clansmen if his nomination is approved and he ever moves into the prime ministerial suite in the city's besieged Villa Somalia presidential compound.)

This tendency to be gratuitously divisive will undoubtedly give no little comfort to the various Islamist insurgent factions fighting the TFG and its Ugandan and Burundian protectors from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), including the al-Qaeda-linked Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (“Movement of Warrior Youth,” al-Shabaab) and their Hizbul Islam (“Islamic party”). While the insurgency is certainly riddled with internal divisions, none of its leaders, not even Hizbul Islam's notoriously cantankerous Sheikh Hassan Dahir 'Aweys, has gone about publicly picking fights with potential allies in the manner of Farmajo. In fact 'Aweys was recently reported to be in talks with Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, a.k.a. Abu Mansoor, the Islamist leader of Kismayo, over the formation of a new group unifying their followers.

Also jaundiced is Farmajo's view of the Cold War. In contrast to the “opportunism [that was] a fixture of American foreign policy,” Siyad Barre's pact with the Soviet Union was, according to him, “a prestigious treaty of friendship” which enabled “the ambition of a greater, stronger Somalia [to] come to fruition when Siad Barre invaded Ethiopia to liberate the ethnic-Somali Ogaden region in 1977.”

In any event, Farmajo has clearly imbibed deeply from the fever swamps of leftist American academia. His thesis is sprinkled with references to “George W. Bush's Christian ideology” (which he describes as “extremist” and regards as the moral equivalent to Islamic radicalism), “U.S. supporting ruthless dictators who commit atrocities,” and an alleged “genocide neither mentioned in the American media nor addressed by U.S. policy makers in the George H.W. administration.” Although he occasionally references well-regarded subject matter experts like I.M. Lewis and my colleagues Lee Cassanelli, Ken Menkhaus, and André LeSage, Farmajo relies on various “alternative news sources” like the Green Left Weekly for his information on the U.S. war against terrorism. (The Australian publication described its mission thus: “By printing the news and ideas the mainstream media won't, Green Left Weekly exposes the lies and distortions of the power brokers and helps us to better understand the world around us” by presenting “the views excluded by big business media” and “strengthening the anti-capitalist movements.” Kool-Aid anyone?)

As for Somalia's neighbors, Farmajo is likewise suspicious of their role: “The Kenyan and Ethiopian governments had vested interests and influence in Somalia.” Given the Ethiopian government's consistent support for the TFG and its combative response to any suggestion of dropping the interim regime, officials in Addis Ababa will undoubtedly bristle that the new TFG prime minister discourses so easily about “Ethiopian aggression in Somalia” and has an understanding attitude concerning “Islamic radicals and Muslim moderates [who] were fighting on the same side, for they had to drive out Ethiopia at any cost.” He clearly doesn't like Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi who, according to him, “facilitated the instability in Somalia in order to reduce its threat which may spill over to Somali-inhabitant region in Ogaden.” Moreover, Farmajo asserts, “It must be understood that Ethiopia is fragile and its survival depends on the political situation in its neighboring countries including Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya, and Sudan. Somalia has been the primary threat for Ethiopia in centuries and Meles Zenawi always will look out [sic] any political outcome of Somalia.”

Clearly Farmajo had been harboring ambitions to move beyond his job in state government for some time and was preparing the ground for his ascent in Sharif Ahmed's crumbling edifice when he waxed eloquent last year about the TFG head's supposed virtues: “Ahmed is very popular in Somalia and abroad, and many political analysts conclude that he is the best person for today's Somalia because of his communication ability as well and knowledge of Islam which draws the respect of radicals. He promotes peace and an end to violence.” Unfortunately no one other than his new prime minister has seen any evidence of these thaumaturgical qualities. In fact, the president's popularity is such that of the 9,000 troops which the United States and the European Union have trained at not inconsiderable expense to support the TFG, no more than 1,000 have resisted the temptation to desert. What Sharif Ahmed desperately needs is a truth-teller, not another praise singer in his over-bloated peripatetic entourage.

One could even overlook all these defects if Farmajo actually brought something to the TFG, but he doesn't. Having lived outside Somalia for nearly half his life and visited the country only once in the last quarter-century, it is highly doubtful that he brings much to the regime by way of actual political constituency or military strength. His ancestral region of Gedo—where he has never lived—lies outside the control of the TFG, although expect the regime's propagandists to make a great deal of the fact that forces aligned with it took the deserted border village of Bulo Hawo there from al-Shabaab over the weekend. President Abdirahman Mohamed Mohamud “Farole” of autonomous Puntland in northeastern Somalia, where the bulk of the Darod clan-family is based, has let it be known widely that he was not consulted by Sharif Ahmed on the appointment, a fact which, when coupled with the fact that the new prime minister replaces a native son of the territory, will make it all the more difficult to restrain the region's growing secessionist impulses. In fact, Farole's minister of state planning and international cooperation, Abdulkadir Abdi Hashi, complained on the BBC's Somali Service that far from forming a government of national unity, Sharif Ahmed had consolidated control of the three highest offices—president, prime minister, and parliamentary speaker—within the former Islamic Courts Union and among southerners in violation of the traditional national consensus. As for Somaliland, given his unabashed admiration for its citizens' erstwhile chief persecutor, Siyad Barre, Farmajo is unlikely to make much headway conciliating with them even if they were predisposed to reenter the Somali charnel house—and they are not.

Abroad, what positive impact the appointment might have is likewise questionable. Certainly the “former diplomat” will need to be much more diplomatic in his choice of words if he is not to alienate the principal regional and international backers of the TFG. To be successful, any aspiring Somali leader had best be on good terms—or, at the very least, have a decent working relationship—with his Ethiopian and Kenyan counterparts. Someone who describes Soviet arms shipments to Siyad Barre as “military hardware to protect the Somali population in Kenya and Ethiopia” and asserts that “the main dream” of Somalis is “to be unified, including those living under Ethiopian and Kenyan rule”is unlikely to reassure Somalia's neighbors that he has moved beyond the sort of Somali irredentism that has historically proven so poisonous to regional integration.

Apart from the dubious personal merits of the new prime minister, there remain questions about his legal qualification for the job (article 47 of the Transitional Federal Charter requires that he be a member of parliament), whether the requisite quorum of the 550-member parliament can even be mustered to approve Farmajo's appointment as prime minister as well as ministers of his cabinet (on any given day, more TFG parliamentarians are wandering the globe than anywhere near Somalia, although one can certainly understand why they would not want to be there), and the prospective length of his tenure (the most generous reading of the constitutional document says that the mandate of the entire “transitional” structure expires by August 2011 at the latest). More importantly, however, there is or ought to be a serious reexamination of the entire approach of constantly trying to impose a Somali government from the top down. I have repeatedly argued, most recently in this column space three weeks ago:

The most realistic strategy for dealing with the many challenges arising from the spectacular collapse of the Somali state will likely be the one that eschews any ambition to rebuild a centralized state from the top down like the current TFG has repeatedly tried and failed to do. Instead, adapting to the decentralized nature Somali social reality and privileging “bottom-up” approaches are likelier to achieve the desired outcomes: buying Somalis the time and political space within which to make their own determinations about their future political arrangements, while at the same time still being flexible enough to allow their neighbors and the rest of the international community the ability to achieve their legitimate security objectives, including the curtailment of maritime piracy and the containment and eventual eradication of terrorist and other extremists elements.

Last month, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson announced a subtle, but significant, shift in U.S. Somali policy that would include not just more active engagement of the governments of Somaliland and Puntland, but also outreached to “groups in south central Somalia, groups in local governments, clans, and sub-clans that are opposed to Al-Shabaab, the radical extremist group in the south, but are not allied formally or directly with the TFG.” This week he is expected to deliver a major policy speech further detailing the “dual-track” approach. The rearranging-of-the-chairs-on-the-decks-of-the-Titanic nature of the new TFG prime minister's appointment underscores the need to strengthen the second track of U.S. policy in order to secure viable pathways for achieving America's strategic objectives and those of its allies. While, for the sake of security in Somalia, stability in the Horn of Africa, and overall international order, one hopes that Farmajo may actually accomplish more than his hapless predecessors in the fifteen interim Somali regimes that have existed since 1991, in statecraft it is generally not prudent to count on miracles happening. And, given the enormous challenges the new prime minister faces—to say nothing about his rather flawed record to date—a backup plan is definitely called for.

— J. Peter Pham is Senior Vice President of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. He also holds academic appointments as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and African Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.