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Somalia’s New President: A Rare Opportunity to Improve US-Somali Relations

3 March, 2017

Somalia’s New President: A Rare Opportunity to Improve US-Somali Relations

Written by : Anna Blue

Somalia has been in the news often lately, but for all the wrong reasons. The US media has myopically focused on President Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban—
which aimed to sharply restrict immigration and travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia—while neglecting Somalia’s historic presidential election. On February 8, Somalia’s parliament elected a new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo. In a rare show of unity in a country racked by divisive clan politics, the Somali people rallied behind Farmajo, a famously fair and competent politician. Farmajo’s election not only represents a massive step in the right direction for the war-torn country, but also offers an exceptional opportunity for the Trump administration to capitalize on former US President Barack Obama’s work on the burgeoning democracy in Somalia.

During his presidency, Obama expanded the War on Terrorism to Somalia, identifying the Islamist terrorist group al-Shabaab as a part of the American campaign against al-Qaeda. Under Obama’s watch, the United States increased the number of US troops on the ground in Somalia to about 200 or 300 Special Operations troops, the largest amount since the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. In addition to the increase in ground raids and air strikes, the Pentagon backed the 22,000 strong African Union Mission in Somalia. Obama’s concern that US national security was at stake in Somalia was palpable, but his lack of attention to the faltering government infrastructure in Mogadishu left the country crumbling. Now, the Trump administration should not forget one of the cardinal rules of international relations – that it is almost impossible to fight a violent insurgency like Somalia’s al-Shabaab without a robust government, such as the democracy Farmajo promises, in place to prevent instability. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis should adopt the former administration’s military strategy in Somalia, while the White House should carve out an unprecedented plan to ensure that the newest government in the Horn of Africa does not fail.

Although the Trump administration’s dismissal of Obama’s political appointees at the Department of State created uncertainty about the foreign policy intentions of the White House, the Department of State’s encouraging press release after the announcement of the new Somali president is a sign that Washington is willing to build vigorous diplomatic relations with Mogadishu. The next steps for US foreign policy are complex, but the Trump administration should not shy away from tackling corruption, humanitarian disarray, and rural insecurity in Somalia.

The best thing that the United States can do right now is lend its absolute backing, especially through the media, to Farmajo, who faces the difficult task of uniting several discordant federal member states. The United States can advise Farmajo, a member of the Darod clan, on how to best work with the dominant Hawiye clan, whether by encouraging Farmajo to appoint Hawiye government officials or by facilitating compromises at the negotiating table. Farmajo could then begin dismantling the strongman system that viciously syphons off foreign aid funding from fair and just government spending. Although the United States has already spent an estimated two billion dollars in Somalia over the last two decades, continued financial assistance will be essential in order to develop the trust of Farmajo and alleviate the poverty that racks the Somali people. Greater humanitarian assistance focused in rural areas and distributed by local Somali organizations will be a departure from Obama’s policy, but will enable Farmajo to strengthen the country for better democratic participation. Additionally, the United States can help Farmajo to create an inclusive set of internal security forces, not defined by clan loyalty, to sustain any progress made in routing out al-Shabaab. Somalia’s economy has extremely underappreciated potential: a little over 60 percent of the population is under 24 years old, providing an up-and-coming workforce. The Central Bank of Somalia recently introduced new chapters, which opened in the administrative capitals of several Somali regions, to spur citizen investment in the bank. President Trump should consider encouraging the Merchants Bank of California NA, the only bank that previously serviced companies transferring money between Somalia and the United States, to reopen fair and non-corrupt Somalia accounts in order to strengthen economic growth in the country. Furthermore, the White House could introduce commerce partnerships with the new international Premier Bank in Mogadishu to build the credibility of the Somali banking system, and consider supporting the country’s very small private sector.With the right coaxing from a democratic government and the end of oppressive violence in the country, Somalia could become a ready and willing trading partner. Somalia has untapped reserves of numerous natural resources, including uranium, iron ore, tin, copper, salt, and natural gas, all of which could help Somalia become self-sustainable. By encouraging democracy in Somalia, the United States may reap the economic benefits in the long-term.

Somalia is at a pivotal turning point; the popular and honorable Farmajo has momentum, but the country’s weak institutions and history of crooked politics could derail the anti-corruption campaign. Farmajo has a little over 18 months to implement the new party system that the Somali parliament embraced last summer in order to move away from clan politics. There is limited time to cement the peaceful transition of power, and hopefully with the support of the United States he can fulfill many of his election promises. With terrorist attacks and car bombs threatening the new Somali president every week, the United States needs to move forward quickly and aggressively to support democracy development in Somalia.

About the author :

Anna Blue is the US Foreign Policy Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She earned her BA in International Relations from Stanford University in 2016.

Photo by :

AMISOM Public Information: Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo listens keenly as members of the Presidential Elections Committee count ballots cast during the presidential election at the Mogadishu Airport hangar on February 8, 2017. Farmajo was declared the president of Somalia after incumbent Hasan Sheikh Mohamud conceded defeat. AMISOM Photo/ Ilyas Ahmed.

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