By Michelle Gavin
Thursday - September 16, 2021
As the foreign policy community continues to reflect on United
States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and grapple with the failure of
decades-long efforts to support political stability in the country,
broad areas of consensus have emerged from the diversity of perspectives
on what went wrong. Nearly universally, policymakers and analysts agree
that part of the problem was the delusion that the deeply corrupt
government in Kabul was a viable authority or an attractive alternative
to the Taliban.
In Somalia, where another internationally backed nation-building
exercise has been underway for many years, recent developments have
increased the urgency of questions about the nature of the federal
government that is supposed to represent an accountable, legitimate
alternative to al-Shabab. The term of the current President Mohamed
Abdullahi Mohamed, known as Farmaajo, expired in February, but his
machinations to stay in office have delayed the electoral process and
nearly led to a total breakdown of order in Mogadishu this past spring.
The tenuous situation was temporarily salvaged when Farmaajo, under
domestic and international pressure, ceded control of the electoral process and associated security arrangements to Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble.
Now the fragile government is on the brink again, consumed by the president and prime minister’s tussle for control
of the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA)—a power
struggle sharpened by the murder of Ikran Tahlil. Tahlil, who worked for
NISA, disappeared this summer. While Farmaajo’s camp claimed she was
killed by al-Shabab, al-Shabab itself denies involvement,
which is uncharacteristic for an organization eager to emphasize its
ability to strike government targets at will. Rumors abound that Tahlil
was killed by her superiors, and Roble is insisting on a full accounting
for her death and new leadership at NISA; Farmaajo is attempting to
shield NISA’s former leadership, keep the organization involved in any investigation of Tahlil’s death, and retain control of the organization.
Imagining what all this looks like from a Somali perspective is a
depressing exercise. Somalia remains desperately poor, and its
overwhelmingly young population has tremendous difficulty accessing
education, employment, and health care. Insecurity is pervasive. The
political spectacle in Mogadishu does not hold much promise for
improving these conditions. Clearly, Somalis have good reasons to doubt
the integrity of security institutions that are supposed to keep them
safe, and the lack of clarity about where authority resides only further
erodes confidence in government. All of these developments cast a pall over an electoral process which should, in theory, bind Somalia’s leadership to the desires of its citizens.
Afghanistan and Somalia are, of course, countries with distinct and
complex social structures, different histories, and complicated
relationships with their neighbors and foreign powers. But in both
cases, the United States has been clear about the forces it opposes
while remaining ambivalent about those it ostensibly supports. American
leaders have lashed policy goals to governments that engender neither
loyalty nor optimism for the future and that concern themselves more
with maintaining power and access to spoils than with improving the
lives of their citizens. Many capable Somalis work hard every day to
improve the situation of the country, and the demands for truth and
justice in the case of Ikran Tahlil—which have come not just from the
prime minister’s camp but from ordinary citizens—signal a real desire
for accountability. Outside actors need to grapple with the reality that
these people of goodwill have yet to be presented with worthy political
leadership around which to coalesce.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.