Somalia leadership switch could sweeten soured relationship with the AU

Since 2007, the African Union (AU) has played a central role in Somalia through its African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Among other things, AMISOM has led efforts to reduce the threat posed by al-Shabaab, capacitated the Somali national force and spearheaded key political engagements to restore the country to normality. These contributions have come at massive political, human and financial costs to the organisation.

In many ways, the story of Somalia’s gradual steps towards state consolidation cannot be told without including the efforts of the AU. However, the contribution has been challenged by successive Somali leaders, which has soured relations between the continental body and the country’s leaders. The relationship became more strained in the lead-up to Somalia’s 2022 elections. However, with the election of former president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, expectations are high that the relationship with the AU will improve.

Farmajo-AU tensions

During the presidency of Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, also known as Farmajo, the relationship between the AU and Somalia’s political leaders reached an all-time low. This was triggered by Farmajo’s complaints about the influence of troop-contributing countries on AMISOM and Somalia’s federal member states.

His claims were based on allegations about troop operations from Somalia’s neighbours and the implications on Somalia’s internal politics, particularly relations between its member states and the central government. His administration took the view that the states’ relationship with the centre was unbalanced due to the support of troop-contributing countries, particularly Kenya. The ensuing tensions affected AMISOM’s operations and shaped perceptions of it among sections of the Somali population.

During Farmajo’s presidency, the AU-Somalia relationship reached an all-time low

Many argue that while Farmajo courted several external allies, particularly the United States and the European Union, his administration failed to manage and use his relationship with the AU well. Farmajo’s desire for international alliances, it is said, was particularly evident in his first three and half years in office until tensions heightened with his former prime minister Hassen Ali Khaire, who was primarily responsible for international relations. His administration’s approach to handling disagreements on elections, including his unilateral presidential term extension, resulted in a 15-months delay.

Relations with Ethiopia and Eritrea countries traditionally considered adversaries improved, while relations with Kenya and Djibouti contributors of troops to the peacekeeping mission in Somalia thawed considerably.

His regional alliances won him security support, with which he distracted opposition and influenced domestic politics. The trilateral alliance with Eritrea and Ethiopia was, however, also viewed as competition to existing regional blocs, particularly the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

Towards the end of his term, relations with the AU and IGAD deteriorated considerably, affecting AMISOM’s operations. In December 2020, Somalia accused Kenya of interfering in its internal affairs and complained to IGAD, which established a fact-finding mission to investigate the complaint. The mission found insufficient evidence to support Somalia’s claims. Somalia rejected the findings and threatened to leave IGAD if it wasn’t reversed.

In May 2021, Somalia rejected the AU’s special envoy for Somalia appointed to resolve the political impasse that followed Farmajo’s unilateral presidential term extension. The Peace and Security Council condemned the term extension despite Farmajo’s attempts to persuade the then-AU Chairperson – President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo to support the parliamentary resolution. Further worsening relations were political differences particularly between Farmajo and Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble.

The re-election of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud brings some optimism and hope for a fresh start

In April 2022, Roble expelled the special representative of the chairperson of the AU Commission,  Ambassador Francisco Madeira. He accused Madeira of activities incompatible with AMISOM’s mandate and Somalia’s security strategy, days after AMISOM became the AU Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS). The representative remained after Farmajo immediately rejected the expulsion, calling it unauthorised. In November 2021, as crucial discussions were underway on the fate of AMISOM, the Somalia foreign affairs ministry had expelled the deputy special representative.

Hope for improved relations

The long-awaited Somalia election was completed in May 2022, installing a returning president and new bicameral parliaments. The re-election of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud (who served between 2012 and 2017) brings some optimism and hope for a fresh start amid the country’s domestic and international challenges. The president’s motto of ‘Somalia at peace with itself and the world’ is reassuring to many.

Achieving the desired peace to pave the way for improved external relations will be daunting. The trust deficit between federal and regional political leaders remains an enduring tension that will not dissipate with President Hassan’s return, save conscious efforts, beyond business as usual, to resolve it.

Some experts argue that the presidential election was more a matter of anyone-but-Farmajo and that political elites saw an opportunity to remove him from office. Prominent presidential candidates endorsed President Hassan just to rally against Farmajo without having a common interest. Their differences are likely to surface, challenging the journey to political stability. This will require careful management of the situation and expectations. It will certainly also affect Somalia’s regional and continental relations.

Bumpy road ahead

The al-Shabaab threat remains the primary insecurity in Somalia and the region. In recent months, the group committed many attacks, including in Mogadishu and Beledweyne, claiming more than 53 lives. Al-Shabaab also still controls large territories in south and central Somalia. The extremist group’s financial and warfare capacity is also growing. Some reports indicate that it collected about US$180 million in revenue and spent US$24 million on weapons in 2021.

The AU should remain an indispensable partner in protecting Somalia from unhelpful influences

The newly reconfigured mission, ATMIS, is expected to support Somalia’s security forces in degrading al-Shabaab and in building the capacity of Somalia’s security institutions. The mission is planned to end in December 2024, with its forces downsized in phases. This is unlikely to give ATMIS time to counter the persistent threat from al-Shabaab.

As with its predecessor, the new administration is expected to grapple with the multiplicity of regional interests in Somalia, including from the Gulf countries. Clear faultlines exist among these countries: While the United Arab Emirates supports the federal member states, Qatar is believed to be allied with the federal government following the split within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Despite signing an agreement to resolve the GCC crisis in 2021, the rifts need time to heal. These divides present major terrain within which the new administration will need to define and project Somalia’s national interest and consolidate external support in a coordinated way. The AU should remain an indispensable partner, protecting Somalia from unhelpful external influences, given its longstanding role in bringing stability to the country.

Revitalising political and security support

The new administration and the AU should learn from previous experiences and use the change in government to revitalise relations. Fostering good relations and greater coordination between the AU and the other international actors (notably the United Nations) could be a start in supporting outstanding political and security issues.

This includes helping the new administration manage its political crisis through genuine and inclusive dialogue, and supporting initiatives to build trust among the country’s political elites. A dialogue should be considered to finalise the constitutional review.

Coordination between the AU and the new administration is even more imperative as the operations of ATMIS depend on a smooth relationship between the two. The Somalia national forces should be equipped and capacitated to ensure they can take responsibility for the country’s security when ATMIS exits.

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