Will President Mohamud be able to tame Somalia?

  • 11 September 2012
  • From the section Africa
An election poster for Hassan Sheikh Mohamud

Once the excitement, and perhaps surprise, of being elected president wears off, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud could be forgiven for feeling slightly ill at the prospect of governing Somalia.

After all, the country has for the past five years come top of the list of the world's failed states.

The fact that Mr Mohamud is a relative newcomer to politics - he only set up his Peace and Development Party in 2010 - is both a strength and a weakness.

It means that he is not associated with the violence and corruption of the past.

He is seen by many as a breath of fresh air, not just for the complex, double-dealing world of Somali politics, but for the country as a whole.

However, his lack of political experience may make it difficult for him to cope successfully with his most immediate challenge, which is to deal with the wily and powerful politicians who lost out in the election.

Some, such as outgoing President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and former parliamentary speaker Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden have big and potentially violent power bases, and a lot of experience in manipulative politics.

In his victory speech, Mr Mohamud asked the Somali people to collaborate with him to rebuild the country.

Even though he was elected by the country's members of parliament, not its people, Mr Mohamud appears to have significant popular support.

This is perhaps because of his work in Somalia as an academic and civil society activist.

As one Somali told the BBC: "He has been teaching people, not killing them."

Harness the hope

Mr Mohamud has come to power at a time of relative optimism in Somalia, at least in the capital, Mogadishu, where last year the al-Qaeda-aligned militia al-Shabab was largely driven out of the city by African Union forces and Somali government troops.

On a recent trip to Mogadishu, I was struck not only by the feverish rebuilding of shattered properties, but by the spirit of hope amongst the people, as if by will alone they could bring back peace and stability to their country.

If the new president can harness this spirit, and bring the people along with him, he will have won a significant part of the giant battle he has to fight to make Somalia a viable nation state.

Mr Mohamud is currently president of Somalia in name only.

He cannot even claim control of the capital, Mogadishu, without the military support of thousands of African Union troops and financial, humanitarian and other assistance from the United Nations and other foreign powers.

Somalia is currently divided into a constantly shifting patchwork of territories, some controlled by foreign troops, including Ugandans, Burundians, Kenyans (under the AU banner) and Ethiopians, others by clan militias, fully functioning regional administrations, pirate gangs and religious groups.

Two of the most difficult challenges for Mr Mohamud are the large parts of southern and central Somalia controlled by al-Shabab, and the north-western territory of Somaliland which declared itself independent in 1991, and to all intents and purposes functions as a completely separate country.

Under its new constitution, Somalia will have a federal system, although the allocation of power and resources between the centre and the regions has yet to be decided.

Mr Mohamud will have to perform a delicate balancing act if he is to keep Somalia's powerful clans and regions even remotely satisfied.

Business acumen

Another area of difficulty is the involvement in Somalia of multiple foreign powers.

For more than 20 years, the UN, the United States, Ethiopia and others have been deeply involved in trying to solve what they see as the Somali problem, which has included drought, famine, piracy, violence, corruption and Islamist extremism.

Some of these problems have caused immense human suffering for the Somali people, others, especially piracy and al-Qaeda linked extremism, have threatened not only Somalia's immediate neighbours but the wider world.

Some outside powers will, in a sense, feel that they partially "own" Somalia's new president.

The UN, the US, the European Union, Gulf states, Turkey and others have invested so much money, time and manpower in Somalia that they may try to direct the country's political and economic future.

Image caption Cement is being imported to Mogadishu for the city's building boom

Mr Mohamud and his team may be pulled in many different directions by these sometimes conflicting foreign interests, and they are likely to find it difficult to act independently.

As a successful entrepreneur himself, Mr Mohamud will know that despite and sometimes because of the long years without effective government, some sectors of the economy have flourished.

More than two decades of conflict have scattered Somalis to all corners of the world.

They have combined traditional networks with high-tech savviness to develop into a truly globalised people, able to transfer money, communicate and strike deals within a matter of seconds, wherever they are in the world.

The new president could do a lot worse than trying to introduce into politics some of the dynamism, creativity and resilience of Somalia's business community, which has thrived against the odds.

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