By Faisal Roble @faisalroble19
Addis Abeba – If the late professor Mesfin Woldemarian penned “Somalia: The Problem child of Africa” to defend Derg policies in 1977, it is fitting for a rejoinder to write “Somalia: The Emerging Light of Electoral Democracy.” After the election of Hassan Sheikh Mohmoud, many people in the region saw a glimmer of hope in Somalia’s electoral system. Many, including Ethiopians, took their appreciations of said change to social media and to the airwaves.
This article will focus on the probable implications of the election of Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud for the Horn of Africa region. First, I will make a general overview of the Horn of Africa condition, followed by the electoral politics that brought Hassan Sheikh to office. I will conclude with some tangible and intangible implications it could have for the region.
The Horn: A Turbulent Region
The Horn of Africa region (the region) means different things to different people. Somalia is the lone Horn of Africa country to some. To others, the region includes Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan and South Sudan, Kenya and Uganda. For the purpose of this article, however, I will limit my discussion to Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, precisely because of the tripartite alliance (the alliance) these three countries forged under Prime Minister Abiy, former President Mohamed Farmajo, and Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki . The alliance and its war in Tigray has worsened an already difficult condition characterized by a man-made famine.
Wars have been perennial in the region. For example, Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 1964; again in 1977, the two countries fought another bloody war. In 2006, Ethiopia invaded Somalia under the rubric of “war on terror.” Up in the north, Ethiopia and Eritrea also have waged one of the most devastating wars in Sub-saharan Africa that prompted one commentator to call the conflict “a war over a comb.” Tigray and Eritrea also fought their own fratricidal wars.
For a moment Prime Minister Abiy seemed to have broken the Iron Curtain of Eritrea. However, the purported joint action for peace and stability turned into a war plan against Tigray first and Oromia next
Many thought Abiy Ahmed Ali’s ascendance to power in Ethiopia in 2018 will bring a wind of change towards a democratic transition and regional stability. In the months of June to October 2018, Prime Minister Abiy shuttled between these three countries culminating in the issuance of a highly publicized communique on November 10, 2018. In it the vision for the HOA integration comprising Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea was formalized. For a moment Prime Minister Abiy seemed to have broken the Iron Curtain of Eritrea. However, the purported joint action for peace and stability turned into a war plan against Tigray first and Oromia next.
To President Isaias Afwerki, the war against Tigray, for whom he holds grudges, represented a means to get even with the TPLF leadership. For Abiy, the alliance was an opportunity to vanquish TPLF and consolidate power. Besides Tigray, an equally intense war is being waged in the Oromia region. Given the Oromia region’s location, it is feasible that it could easily spill over to Kenya and Somalia with far more serious implications. Left unchecked, wars in Tigray and Oromia regions could be a recipe for a potential disintegration of Ethiopia.
Why did Prime Minister Abiy invite smaller neighboring countries to fight his civil war remains a mystery to many. What is not a mystery is that this war eroded Ethiopia’s already weak cohesion. Imagine Nigeria inviting Cameron, Chad, and Benin to fight Igbo, or Rwanda inviting Congo, Kenya, and Uganda against the Hutu community. The damage to the national psyche and the unity of Ethiopia is so damaged that holding this country together may require a miracle.
Somalia: A Democratic Outlier
On May 15, 2022, the Somali parliament elected Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud by a 214 against 110 votes. Often credited as the first African democratic country, power in Somalia changed hands peacefully as far back as the early 1960s. Electoral politics has roots in Somalia making the current election more possible despite its fragile state. So far with the exception of the late Mohamed Siyyad Barre, who usurped power by a military coup in 1969, nine presidents have taken/lost office through the electoral process. Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud became the 10th and the only president elected twice in Somali history since independence in 1960.
Following a comprehensive national reconciliation at the Arta village (Djibouti) in 2000, a road map and a draft federal constitution (2012) made peaceful power transfer possible in post conflict Somalia. Hassan Sheik promises to continue reconciliation even after 20 years of preliminary work on this issue. Since the Arta reconciliation convention in 2000, six elections with often surprising results – replacing the incumbent – took place.
Despite intense campaigning and last minute horse trading prior to Election Day, a new political culture emerged in Somalia; every four years, friends and families gather together to watch as the voting and subsequent counting of votes are televised by the National Somali TV. Once the final results are tallied, the loser congratulates the victor; in a unison voice, they raise their clenched fists to promise to the nation and the world to collectively work for Somalia. Within weeks, the new president moves into Villa Somalia. This is something even the last US presidential election could not achieve. In the case of this last election, on May 23, 2022, only a week after the election took place, a peaceful power transfer was completed!
Unlike his predecessor, Hassan Sheikh declared that he will ensure stability by fostering a “Somalia that is at peace with itself and lives peacefully with its neighbors.” This is of course a daunting task in the Horn of Africa which is plagued by climate change, famine and war? As this piece goes to print, Hassan Sheikh taps on and appoints a technocrat, Hamze Abdi Barre, as his premier to tackle real political and economic challenges that haunted Somalia, a failed state that is slowly but certainly recovering.
Somalia: Implications for the Horn
Can Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud, a 68 year-old man, be a peacemaker in the region? So far, leaders from Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopian, Egypt, South Sudan, Uganda, and Turkey attended his inauguration party. The Tigray administration, the Ogaden Liberation Front, and the Oromo Liberation Front, as well as the presidents of the Somali and Oromo regions sent their respective congratulatory messages. Missing in these inter-regional gestures is the president of the region’s Iron Curtain, Isaias Afwerki. It is plausible to see Somalia’s leadership de-emphasize the culture of war and advise to move towards a more peaceful region.
If and when Ethiopia puts its house in order, however, perhaps a limited but meaningful discussion of economic cooperation can start.
Somalia has enough burden of its own that would make peace an indispensable domestic and regional policy. As such, President Hassan Sheikh is likely to end the tripartite alliance. At the conclusion of his coronation at Villa Somalia on May 23, 2022, Hassan Sheikh ordered 5000 Somali troops trained in Eritrea return home. Whether that marks the beginning of the end of the tripartite alliance remains to be seen.
Abiy’s premature pronouncement of integration between Somalia and Ethiopia will be placed on the back burner, if not dead. Standing on the steps of Villa Somalia with Farmajo, Abiy Ahmed declared in June 2018 the potential unification of the two countries. That was certainly a premature clarion call. If and when Ethiopia puts its house in order, however, perhaps a limited but meaningful discussion of economic cooperation can start. Somalis and Oromo could particularly benefit from a more realistic regional economic cooperation. That, however, depends on how much peace is in the region.
An intangible implication is whether Somalia’s televised and relatively transparent elections would make Ethiopians more resolved to pursue change through a peaceful means. It is too early to make a definitive assessment of whether this would lead to an Arab Spring version of the Horn of Africa region.
Somalia has enough burden of its own that would make peace an indispensable domestic and regional policy. As such, President Hassan Sheikh is likely to end the tripartite alliance
What would come out of the thousands of Ethiopians and Eritreans who have noticed and taken their appreciation to the airwaves regarding Somalia’s peaceful power transfer and its electoral exercise? Somalia’s recovery and electoral process is a testimony to the adage that “politics is the art of the possible.” It is therefore plausible to argue that democratization is possible in the Horn of Africa. The question is whether Somalia’s electoral experience will reverberate in the rest of the region. More importantly, will it have positive impacts on the youth, activists, and political groups all of whom long for a meaningful change in the Horn of Africa region?
During his victory speech as well as in past speeches, the new president considers taking Somalia out of its neighbors’ business. As he put it, he wants Somalia to “live in peace with itself and with its neighbors.” The implications of this could mean that Somalia will not be part of the war inside Ethiopia. In the horizon are the following implications the Somalia election may have:
- Hassan Sheikh has already decided to pull out Somali soldiers from Eritrea and nullify any future collaboration with Eritrea until further evaluation. He will also investigate if any Somali soldier took part in the Tigray war.
- He will immediately pull out Somalia from the Tripartite alliance and instead strengthen Somalia’s role in IGAD. Djibouti and Somalia’s relationship will be rekindled while that with Eritrea will be most likely downgraded. Somalia will recommit itself to IGAD in lieu of the current exclusive tripartite pact crafted in 2020 leading to the war in Tigray.
- Regional and bilateral economic cooperation with a democratic lens will be encouraged. AS
Editor’s Note: Faisal Roble is Principal City Planner and CEO for Racial Justice & Equity for the Planning Department, Los Angeles City. This article is first published on the June 2022 Edition of Addis Standard, Horn of Africa Column.