Somalia’s high-stakes power play

Will it pay off?

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President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo
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By Fuad Abdirahman

For the first time, the government of Somalia has admitted that neighbouring Ethiopia violated its independence rights. President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo disclosed that the country has been under “naked direct and indirect interference” from Ethiopia, and revealed that in his first meeting with Hailemariam Desalegn, the former Ethiopian premier, he demanded an end to “their intrusive behaviour” in the internal affairs of Somalia.

A buoyant Farmajo in December said he had worked out things with Prime Minister Mohamed Abiy and expressed confidence that “things have significantly improved” and that there would no longer be “meddling” from Ethiopia.

“There is massive business potential beckoning,” said Farmajo after the meeting.

Somalia had accused the Desalegn government of interfering with its internal affairs by, among others, arming warlords to further escalate the troubled country’s civil unrest, which has been ongoing for close to 30 years.

Abiy’s revolutionary mettle has been hailed by the Horn of Africa region countries for its potential to bring an end to enduring civil unrest, even as observers say his reform agenda – he initiated a crackdown on corruption which saw the arrest of security chiefs, and toppled a regional warlord – have had some unintended consequences, such as an escalation of violent crime. In a political first, Abiy is the first ethnic Oromo to be prime minister. The Oromo are the largest ethnic group, accounting for up to 34 percent of the country’s population, with the Amhara and Somali following in that order. Amongst his first orders of business was to engage Somali leaders to depose the Somali region president Abdi Iley, who was aligned to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

A close cooperation between the Oromo and Somali has since ensued, which has resulted in the emergence of an Oromo-Somali alliance that is viewed as a powerful alliance of Cushitic groups that is slowly undoing the dominance of the Tigray that dominated Ethiopia’s politics.

This newfound alliance has also enticed Eritrea, a country formerly isolated by Ethiopia – President Ahmed changed the Ethiopian policy on Eritrea, bringing peace between the two nations. Encouraged by the turn of events, the United Nations soon after lifted trade embargoes it had previously imposed on Eritrea for its “hostile intents.”

Banking on this – and perhaps acknowledging its own precarious position in the Horn region – the Somali government is spearheading the creation of what he terms a “powerful regional bloc” that includes Ethiopia, Somali and Eritrea, and possibly Djibouti. This, he says, will help the region to “swiftly progress towards partnership and economic cooperation.”

The last meeting of the partners to the alliance was held in Gondar, norther Ethiopia – the first was in Asmara – and the next is to be in Mogadishu.

“This is testimony… for everyone that the history of the Horn of Africa has changed,” Farmajo said in his address at the Gondar meeting. “Now we are moving for regional collaboration in economic development to fight for the progress of our people.”

The fledgling alliance experienced a can-of-worms moment mid this year when Somaliland entered into a multimillion dollar deal with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for the Berbera Port, in which Ethiopia too had a stake. The Farmajo administration threw a tantrum about it, and entreated Ethiopia not to endorse the deal; like Mogadishu, Addis Ababa seems to have seen the “bigger picture”, and refrained from sending a representatives, even passing up all opportunities to meet with Somaliland leadership since.

While federal member states have been the main the hindrance for the Farmajo administration’s efforts at alliance-building and reconciliation, the biggest threat has always been in foreign interference, and his fruitful efforts at building coalitions have buoyed his image both at home and abroad.

The most brazen manifestation of this external influence came to the fore when the United Arab Emirates suspended its financial support to the Somali armed forces and instead tried to ferry millions of dollars “to fuel political tension.” In April 2018, the authorities in Mogadishu seized about $9.6 million in cash from a civilian plane that had landed from the UAE, sparking a diplomatic row.

In another sign of “unprecedented diplomatic maturity”, in an incident before the cash seizure, UAE had demanded that Mogadishu cut ties with Qatar, Mogadishu adopted a neutral stance, a decision that was soon rewarded when Saudi Arabia, long acknowledged as the enduring heavyweight in Middle East affairs – out of spite for the Emirati – sided with the Qataris, even as several other African Muslim nations acquiesced to Dubai’s demands.

Kenya, long an ally of the Somalis, expressed solidarity with its troubled neighbour and asked the UAE to refrain from meddling in the country’s internal affairs.

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