Somalia’s New President: Should Democracy Be His Priority?

Since its descent into civil war in 1991, Somalia has come to be known as the world’s prime example of a “failed state.” Between 1991 and 2012, it had no central government. The central government that exists today is wildly corrupt, and it struggles to administer its territory and provide basic services to its citizens. The Islamist militant group al-Shabaab controls portions of the country, and a large section of the country’s north is administered by a separatist government. As of Wednesday, Somalia’s new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, is now the man in charge of country’s slow healing process.

The location of Somalia in Africa

Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, nicknamed Farmaajo, became the president of Somalia after a long-awaited and much-delayed election. Considering the fact that Somalia does not have the resources to extend the vote to all of its citizens, Farmaajo was elected not by the people but by 275 Members of Parliament and 54 Senators. These, in turn, had been elected by a group of 14,000 elders within Somalia’s traditional clan system. According to the New York Times, the election was marred by characteristic Somali corruption, with bribes from numerous sources buying off clan elders and MPs. It is surprising, then, that the victor of this expensive election is widely seen as the toughest on corruption during his tenure as prime minister.

For eight months in 2010 and 2011, Farmaajo was appointed the prime minister of Somalia. The prime minister has considerably less power than the president, but is responsible for numerous administrative duties. Farmaajo became known for reducing the number of ministers, regularly issuing military salaries, and setting up an anti-corruption commission. As a result, he became widely recognized as having the interests of the population at heart. He was dismissed by the president and speaker of the Parliament in 2011 “as part of their deal to extend the transitional government,” and “although the president was reluctant to see Mr. Mohamed go, he agreed in order to keep his own job.” After Farmaajo’s dismissal, riots broke out in response to what the people saw as one of the country’s few selfless politicians being dismissed by in a selfish act by his superior.

Farmaajo’s reputation for selflessness is accentuated by the fact that, after he stepped down as prime minister, he returned to his previous job in Buffalo, New York. A dual citizen of Somalia and the United States, Farmaajo had worked for many years as a nondescript employee of the New York State Department of Transportation, and he returned to his old cubicle in 2011. Thus his humble background is promising in that he appears to be motivated by a desire to help Somalia rather than by the pursuit of wealth or power, but it also raises the question of whether he will be able to rein in those who are not as selfless as he is.

The Somali government only controls the areas colored red on this map.

While he was prime minister, his harsh criticism of corruption failed to translate into progress. According to the anti-corruption organization Transparency International, “more than $72 million in donor assistance was stolen between 2009 and 2010, and a further $250 million in revenues could not be accounted for.” Clearly, the Somali government is plagued by a deep-rooted culture of corruption. Furthermore, the fact that the government frequently recruits high-ranking officials from overseas as it did with Farmaajo is indicative of the fact that the political elite is made up of only a tiny sliver of the population. What this ultimately means is that, despite Farmaajo’s best efforts, political power will likely remain concentrated within this very small, very corrupt group until the country’s security and developmental situations have improved enough to allow for greater civic participation. That’s something that the international community does not seem to understand.

After Farmaajo’s election, the US State Department released a statement that said “We encourage Somalia’s new administration to take credible steps to stamp out corruption and to establish strong electoral institutions to enable a free and fair one person one vote poll in 2020.” The west’s primary aim is to facilitate the establishment of democratic processes. This is a noble aim because democracy in western countries has largely succeeded in increasing the government’s accountability to the people, but it has often failed to live up to its promises in countries with dire security situations, low levels of development, and tiny governing elites. The real priority in Somalia should be to discourage a selfish political culture and encourage an accountable one, and building easily abused institutions around those who may exploit them may not be the way to do so.

The most promising aspect of Farmaajo’s election is that his attitude toward government seems to indicate that he will not exploit Somalia’s governing institutions. What is less promising, however, is the fact that the international community continues to push the belief that democracy is the ultimate goal. Before reaching for this goal (and reach for it he should, eventually), Farmaajo should focus his honest governance on prioritizing the security and developmental issues that impede it. Much of the world believes that democracy is an end to strive for. In reality, it is a means to achieve the end of a more responsible government. While it is often the most effective means to achieve that end, we mustn’t forget to question whether there are times when it is not.

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