There have been no elections in Somalia since 1967 and there won’t be any this year either. But the country has a new parliament which has elected a new president, and the new government now actually controls the capital, Mogadishu. The world’s only fully “failed state” may finally be starting to return to normality.
A failed state is a horrendous thing: no government, no army, no police, no courts, no law, just bands of armed men taking what they want. Somalia has been like that for more than 20 years, but now there is hope. The new government replaces the “Transitional Federal Government”, another unelected body that had enjoyed the support of the UN and the African Union for eight pointless years. Then last year, a World Bank report demonstrated the sheer scale of its corruption: seven out of every ten dollars of foreign aid vanished into the pockets of TFG officials before reaching the state’s coffers.
Fully a quarter of the “national budget” was being absorbed by the offices of the president, the vice-president and the speaker of parliament. The fact that after all that the TFG still only controlled about one square kilometre of Mogadishu, while the rest of the shattered city was run by the Islamist al-Shabaab militia, an affiliate of al Qaida, also contributed to the international disillusionment.
That tiny patch of ground, moreover, was being defended not by Somali troops but by thousands of Ugandan and Burundian soldiers of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Unisom). More than 500 of them had lost their lives defending the useless TFG, and the foreign donors were losing faith in the mission. But the Unisom soldiers did achieve one major thing: they fought al-Shabaab to a standstill in Mogadishu.
In 2011, the Islamist militia pulled its troops out of the capital. That created an opening, and the international community seized it. It ruthlessly initiated a process designed to push the TFG aside: Somali clan elders were asked to nominate members for a new 250-seat parliament, which was then asked to vote for a new president and government. It was obviously impossible to hold a free election in a country much of which was still under the al-Shabaab, but this process also allowed the foreigners to shape the result. The corrupt officials who had run the old TFG all re-applied for their jobs, but none of them succeeded.
The new president who emerged from this process, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, is a former academic and human rights worker who only entered politics in 2011. No whiff of corruption clings to him, and he has worked tirelessly to bring about national reconciliation. And he has the wind at his back: just after he was chosen last September, a Kenyan force evicted al-Shebaab from Somalia’s second city, Kismayo. The worst problem facing President Mohamud is the venal and cunning politicians who have exploited the clan loyalties that pervade every aspect of Somali life to carve out their own little empires.
They have not gone away, nor have the clan rivalries that kept the fighting going for 21 years. Drawing up the rules and sharing out the power for a new federal Somalia will give them plenty of opportunities to make trouble for the new president and regain their former power. Mohamud definitely has his work cut out for him.
Nevertheless, he has strong UN and African Union support, and he now has a chance to create a spreading zone of peace in the country and start rebuilding national institutions. So last week, the US declared that it was now willing to provide military aid, including arms exports, to the Somali government. Weirdly, that actually means that things are looking up in the world’s only failed state.