Thursday August 11, 2022
By Aman Obsiye
President Barack Obama drops by a meeting with President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud of Somalia and Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Jan. 17, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Somalia's president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, should be afforded an official invitation to the White House. In an era of contemporary ideological competition, the United States should court African nations that advance democracy. The Horn of Africa (HOA) is one of the main theaters of modern great power competition, and Somalia is the only democratic country in the HOA; albeit its democracy is fragile yet has produced peaceful transfers of power for the past decade. The other three countries that make up the HOA are: Djibouti, an autocratic city-state that hosts American and Chinese naval bases within eight miles of each other; Eritrea, a totalitarian dictatorship nicknamed Africa's North Korea; and Ethiopia, an autocratic country engulfed in a brutal ethnic civil war. Somalia is democracy's only hope in the HOA, it is a democratic island in a sea of autocrats.
To be precise, Somalia is the only democratic country to have ever existed in the HOA region. In 1960, Somalia gained independence and chose democracy as its political system. Somalia was considered a highly strategic nation during the Cold War because it is situated at the nexus between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. In November 1962, President John F. Kennedy invited Somalia's Prime Minister to the White House and said: "we are glad to have you here Prime Minister, because your country occupies a most important strategic area on the Horn of Africa." In 1967, Somalia's founding father, Aden Adde, lost the presidential election and handed over power peacefully to his successor. This act gave Somalia the title of Africa's First Democrats. Somalia's democratic experiment abruptly ended in 1969 when General Siad Barre executed a coup. He declared Somalia a Marxist-Leninist state and aligned it with the Soviet bloc. Barre was eventually overthrown, and Somalia's civil war ensued.
Electoral democracy was reintroduced to Somalia in 2012 when the parliamentarians elected Hassan Sheikh Mohamud president.
This was the first election in the country's capital, Mogadishu, since the fall of the state. Mohamud's first term was marked by institutionalization; the Upper House of Somalia's Parliament was established, and four federal-member-states emerged. Mohamud lost the 2017 presidential election and handed over power peacefully to his successor. He was reelected as Somalia's president on May 15, 2022, becoming the first person to hold the presidency twice. This speaks volumes about the confidence Somalis have afforded Mohamud, and he has promised to organize Somalia's first one-person-one-vote election since 1967. Somalia is no longer a failed state but rather a fragile state that is reemerging as the Horn of Africa's only democratic country, once again.
The importance of the HOA region cannot be understated. It is where the United States set up its first military base in Africa, and is the only region where China has a foreign military base in the world. China is not only a near-peer competitor; it is an official Superpower. There are three elements a nation-state must possess for it to be a Superpower: industrial power, military power, and ideological power. During the Cold War, the United States and USSR were the two-global industrial and military powers, but their real great power competition was ideological.
China is an industrial power with a modern military and navy to match, it too now possesses ideological power. While Communism is China's official state ideology, the ideological power it projects to the world is broader. China's ideological power is authoritarianism, and its closest allies are not communists but are all autocratic (i.e. Russia and Iran). China furtively propagates authoritarianism as an alternative system for nation-states, with its own success story being China's greatest marketing tool. The current rules-based international system has not seen such a challenge since the fall of the USSR.
In addition to China's military base in Djibouti, Russia is building a naval base in Port Sudan on the Red Sea and has recently signed a military cooperation agreement with Ethiopia. If the South China Sea is the modern Berlin Wall, then the Horn of Africa is the new 38th parallel. The thirty-year democratic honeymoon the international community enjoyed is over. There is an ideological competitor in the global market for ideas, and the HOA is one of the main theaters of modern great power competition.
It would be wise for the United States to build strategic relations with the only democratic country in the Horn of Africa.
It is a natural alliance, the world's oldest democracy and Africa's first democrats. An official invitation to the White House for Somalia's President will significantly assist in this pertinent endeavor.
Aman Obsiye is an attorney based in Minneapolis, MN. He received his Juris Doctor and Master of Public Policy degrees from the University of Minnesota.