from Africa in Transition

Somalia: A New Prime Minister?

January 14, 2014

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This is a guest post by Alex Dick-Godfrey, program coordinator, Studies administration for the Council on Foreign Relations Studies program. 

Last month, with little fanfare, the Somali federal government voted to approve the appointment of a new prime minister, Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed, just a little over a year after his predecessor was sworn in. The change came after a constitutional struggle between President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and then-prime minister Abdi Farah Shirdon. The president demanded the prime minister resign because of his incompetence as illustrated, in part, by his choice of cabinet ministers. The prime minister refused to go, and the president thereupon promptly organized a vote of no confidence in parliament to force the prime minister out of office.

On its face, the change seems to be merely constitutional governance at work. Indeed, it is refreshing to see a change of leadership come from a vote rather than a coup in a country that has been plagued by anarchy for over twenty years. But, the reality is that the president simply removed a political obstacle by evicting the prime minister from office. Now, the question must be whether this new prime minister will be any stronger than his predecessor—or if he too will only have a year or so in office before falling afoul of President Mohamud.

Looking at the backgrounds of the former and current prime ministers is not encouraging. Prime Minister Ahmed’s resume is eerily similar to that of Shirdon. Both are technocrats who were schooled abroad and have spent a significant portion of their lives outside Somalia. They both hail from the Marehan clan, a sub-clan of the Darod, which is one of the dominant clans in Somalia. Under a clan-based power-sharing formula, the Somali prime minister usually comes from the Darod clan to balance the Hawiye, the clan of the current president and the dominant clan in the Mogadishu area. But, perhaps the single most important similarity between Ahmed and Shirdon is that they are political newcomers. This point may be critical: without experience in Somali politics, the new prime minister is likely to be just as reliant as his predecessor on the president for political support.

Why did the president appoint another expatriate technocrat seemingly destined to repeat the same mistakes of his predecessor? Perhaps by this appointment the president is trying to consolidate his power in the parliament, honor his clan commitments, appease international spectators, and maintain Hawiye clan dominance in government. Such an agenda would be credible for a president with little control over his country’s territory and with little ability to control political and clan bickering.