Why the US Embassy’s botched Somalia policy makes matters worse
Somalia has now had a legitimate government for six weeks. While the breakaway region of Somaliland has, with a few million dollars, laid the groundwork for contested one-man, one-vote elections at the end of May, the Somali government, with several orders of magnitude more money at its disposal, first abandoned the one-man, one-vote principle vote, then failed even to gather a few hundred voters to choose his new leadership.
The problem is widespread mistrust of Mohammad Abdullah Farmaajo and his intelligence chief Fahad Yasin, whose links with al-Shabaab Western intelligence services are increasingly worried. Many Somalis believe that Farmaajo and Yasin deliberately scuttled election preparations by first trying to stack the package by imposing their own voters and, when that failed in Puntland and Jubaland, by breaking the agreements they Farmaajo himself had negotiated.
US Ambassador Donald Yamamoto, who rarely leaves the green zone at Mogadishu airport due to his security concerns and those of the State Department, apparently prefers to go through Farmaajo for three reasons. First, the Somali president is largely a creation of Yamamoto. Second, Yamamoto has poured billions of dollars into the administration of Farmaajo and is loath to acknowledge the failure of his US taxpayer-funded investment. Third, Yamamoto may be part of the school of diplomacy who thinks it’s easier to go through a dictator than to deal with the intricacies of democracy. In each African country in which or to which he served– Ethiopia, Guinea, Djibouti and Eritrea – he sought to curry favor with the local dictator. Somalia is not a dictatorship, however, and Yamamoto’s efforts to establish a similar relationship with Farmaajo have engendered suspicion from nearly every other Somali politician. For Farmaajo to fall now would mean a complete hemorrhage from Yamamoto’s influence.
This is the origin of the American Embassy in Somalia on March 21 Tweeter, “The people of #Somalia want an election now. @SaidAbdullahiDe @ PresidentMadobe @MrQoorqoor @AliGuudlaawe @Laftagareen must remain in Mogadishu until an electoral agreement is reached. Failure is not an option. ”Yamamoto did it backwards, however, for three reasons.
First, it is true that Somalis want elections, but they must be legitimate. Therefore, with Farmaajo’s term expired, legitimacy in Somalia should shift to an interim council. To do otherwise would set a precedent for every future Somali leader that the way to stay in power is not to hold oneself accountable in elections, but rather to avoid them altogether. The US State Department should adopt the Proposal of the National Salvation Council.
Second, Yamamoto should not be blind to symbolism. Puntland President Said Deni, Jubaland President Madobe and the others are not Farmaajo supplicants. They are not the ones who have to come to Mogadishu. Instead, Yamamoto and Farmaajo should travel to the various states and regions of Somalia. Constitutionally, the federal government serves the regions, and not the other way around. Then again, if Yamamoto was aware of the symbolism, he wouldn’t curl up in the embassy. If I can walk the streets of Garowe, the capital of Puntland, certainly without security, Yamamoto can do it with basic security. Put simply, Deni and Madobe are right to leave Mogadishu now lest security concerns be used to trap them (Where worse) at Mogaidshu Airport. Indeed, Deni has already resisted a attack on his residence.
Third, regional leaders are not stupid. Al-Shabaab’s spate of attacks in Mogadishu and other cities appear to be timed to allow Farmaajo to change the subject whenever he turns his back on the electoral wall or to undermine political threats posed by his opponents. The model denies the idea that every attack is a coincidence.
The US embassy in Mogadishu should not have the task of forcing Somalis into submission to a potential dictator, especially in the context of what similar dictators have done in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Yamamoto made a serious mistake in prioritizing his personal relationship with Farmaajo above democracy. Neither has the status or legitimacy to negotiate an end to the Somali crisis. It’s time for the two to gracefully step aside, let the National Salvation Council proceed, and return Somalia to its democratic course.
Michel rubin is a resident researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey and the wider Middle East. He also regularly teaches at sea courses on Middle Eastern conflicts, culture, terrorism and the Horn of Africa to deployed units of the US Navy and Marines.