Publication date: 
Feb 2013

Somalia: Ready to move on?

H.E. Mr Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, President of the Federal Republic of Somalia speaking to the media in London, 4 February 2013. © UK Foreign Office

Sally Healy was co-editor with Mark Bradbury of Accord 21 (2010), Whose peace is it anyway? Connecting Somali and international peacemaking. Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was an Accord 21 author.

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Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was an unexpected choice for the job of taking Somalia out of its long and self-perpetuating period of ‘transitional’ government.

His election to president in September 2012 came as a surprise because he had not formed part of earlier administrations and was not tainted with corruption or incompetence.

Far from being a Somali warlord, Hassan Sheikh had spent most of the last 20 years living in Mogadishu where he played a leading role in civil society conflict resolution.  

‘In a better position than the previous leadership’

Speaking in London recently, President Hassan observed this was "the first time in recent Somali history that a leadership that has not practiced violence has come to power".

He says the years he spent working with civil society gave him a deep insight into the root causes of Somali conflict. He believes his experience of community-level peacebuilding has equipped him with tools not available to his predecessors. He stresses the need for people "to address the bitter memories of the past", the need for rule of law and human rights protection, the need for dialogue and "listening to the other voice".

President Hassan does not condemn all that happened in the 30 years of statehood from 1960–90, but he acknowledges one of the key short-comings: 

All the rules and the regulations we have in place today only served a highly centralised system. We don’t have any rule or any law that facilitates the devolution of power or regulates the relationship between the centre and the peripheries.

Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, in conversation with Sally Healy

So there is much to do to build the new federal system to which the government is committed.

He says the Somali nation owes its continued existence in the decades without government or any rule of law to the strength of Somali culture. "There was nothing but the traditions, cultures and the customary law. These are what the people used in these decades and there is a great deal of relevance in Somali traditions even today".

Public order is what we are targeting now

Hassan admits that security is still a serious problem and that Somali security institutions are very weak, its forces untrained and ill-equipped. Problems of discipline and issues of identity and loyalty exist, for which there is no quick fix.

He says his short-term goal is ‘the security of ordinary citizens in their daily lives.’ The challenge he defines is:

how can we make the roads, markets and communities 'safe enough' so that a Somali woman can go to the market and buy and sell the things she needs?

Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, in conversation with Sally Healy

The concept of the whole country – land, sea and air – under the control of Somali security forces, what he terms ‘ultimate security’, is a longer-term target.

‘Any Somali citizen who denounces violence – we can talk’

The immediate security challenge facing Somalia’s government comes from Al Shabab, the militant Islamist group still controlling significant parts of the south.

President Hassan himself narrowly avoided an assassination attempt in September 2012. Last week suicide bombers again penetrated Villa Somalia – the presidential palace in Mogadishu – but were thwarted in an attempt to kill the Prime Minister.

President Hassan’s earlier commitment to dialogue has become more circumspect. Today, he stresses that the phenomenon of Al Shabab is not only a Somali problem but also a regional, a continental and an international problem, which brings its own constraints.

He emphatically wants nothing to do with the "core, hard extremist team that leads Al Shabab, who say that Somalia is a country that belongs to all Moslems. We are totally against that."

However the government will keep an open door "to any Somali citizen wanting to get back to the mainstream of society, who denounces violence and recognises Somalia as an independent country."

‘I will be working to make Somalia a federal state’

Looking ahead, President Hassan speaks of his plans to extend government beyond the capital.

For the first time in post-conflict Somalia, we have a plan where the governance system will be taken outside Mogadishu.

Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, in conversation with Sally Healy

In the south of the country, around Kismayo, Baidoa and Belet Weyn, discussions with stakeholders are already in progress, starting from the bottom-up, to form district and regional-level administrations.

This process can be expected to become more complex if and when the government’s reach starts to touch on the established political entities in the north, Somaliland (which claims independence) and Puntland.

For now, the process is gradual. President Hassan will not be drawn on whether a Jubaland entity would be formed in the hinterland of Kismayo, as Kenya and its allies in that region appear to expect.

He refers instead to the constitutional requirement that two or more regions could agree to form a federal state, subject to the authority of parliament. Therefore the formation of district and regional administrations, even on a temporary basis, has to come first.

President Hassan defends federalism, which has been criticised in some Somali circles as divisive and liable to create clan enclaves. He emphasises that his government was created on the basis of a political understanding on federalism, backed up by a draft constitution. "I am here to defend and make the country a federal system", he declares.

Foreign intervention: ‘Not a sustainable project’

The new government has inherited a situation in which neighbouring countries are heavily involved, with military forces inside the country and international forces patrolling Somalia’s seas to contain piracy. ‘This cannot continue’, Hassan says.

What we stand for is to make Somalia handle its security on its own. The world cannot bring peace to Somalia, but it can support.

Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, in conversation with Sally Healy

On his visits to those neighbouring countries, as well as the US and Europe, President Hassan has asked for help to continue but is also asking for a ‘paradigm shift’ in how that help is delivered. The ‘old practices’, as he calls them, will not deliver as they did not deliver in the past.

The different way requires acceptance of Somali ownership, to let the government itself decide on the type of help is required "to assist us to manage our own affairs in the short-term."

‘It’s not easy, but it’s promising’

President Hassan often repeats that "change is not easy or fast", whether in relation to establishing government or persuading the international community to behave differently.

But he is convinced that the amount of recovery Somalia can make depends critically on the international community shifting from existing patterns of engagement.

Meanwhile, business is booming in Mogadishu and after nearly six months in office, President Hassan is still optimistic.  

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Sally Healy is a Fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. This article is based on extracts from her conversation with President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud on 2 February 2013. A podcast of the interview can be heard via the Rift Valley Institute website: www.riftvalleyinstitute.com

Further reading

  • Accord 21 (2010), Whose peace is it anyway? Connecting Somali and international peacemaking
  • Building structures for peace: how to administer Mogadishu? article by Hassan Sheikh Mohamud for Accord 21