New Somali cabinet offers glimmer of hope

A new cabinet of 25 ministers has been given the task of leading Somalia out of chaos and strife. But the power struggle at the top rages on and insurgents still hold sway over the country’s future.

How does one govern one of the most dangerous countries on the planet? This is a question to which the 25 members of the new Somali cabinet will have to find some convincing answers as soon as possible. Parliament approved the new cabinet at the beginning of the week.

“They are technocrats rather than professional politicians,” said Andrews Atta-Asamoah, who follows developments in Somalia for the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria. “There are new faces; people who do not have much experience in politics,” he said. “The reason for this was the need to introduce people who do not have a negative history in terms of the recent political narrative in Somalia, but also people who would be committed to delivering for the needs and aspirations of the Somali people.”

A protracted row preceded the formation of the new cabinet. The first list of 25 ministers from Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmake was turned down by parliament because ten of them were members of the previous administration. Agreement on a cabinet line-up was only possible on a third attempt, but it was then sealed by a comfortable majority in parliament.

The hope is that the new faces will finally enable the crisis-ridden state to turn the corner and put its problems behind it. Time is running out. The government has to complete a new draft constitution on which Somalis will vote in a referendum in March 2016. Six months later the country goes to the polls and those elections need to be prepared as well.

Al-Shabab not a spent force

Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for this bomb attack on a Mogadishu hotel in January 2015

Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for this bomb attack on a Mogadishu hotel in January 2015

Security is an overriding concern. Somalia has been mired in armed conflict for two decades. The al-Shabab militia spreads misery and terror. Attacks and bomb explosions are almost daily occurrences. A parliamentarian was recently shot dead in his car in the center of Mogadishu. And yet many Somalis tell DW that the security situation has improved enormously. “We stay indoors after sundown. But police and troops patrol the streets at nighttime, which would have been unthinkable ten years ago,” one resident said.

The Somali government is being supported in its efforts to contain the insurgency by AMISOM – the African Union’s mission in Somalia – and by the United States, which launches drone attacks on al-Shabab positions. Last week a drone attack killed al-Shabab commander Yusuf Dheeq. Atta-Assamoah said this was a blow for al-Shabab. “Al-Shabab has lost a lot of ground, both in terms of physical territory, but also in terms of agility. But they are not entirely out of the race and the battle has not ended. Al-Shabab is still able to influence the course of events in the country. They are capable of dictating the security situation in Somalia and will be very influential in determining whether elections do actually happen in Somalia in 2016.”

Power struggle at the top

Observers say the Somali government still isn’t strong enough to defeat the insurgents. That is partly the fault of the president and prime minister. A power struggle between the two has turned into an obstacle to political decision-making. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has been in office since September 2012. Premier Sharmake was only appointed two months ago and is the country’s third prime minister in just over a year. Friction is unlikely to be absent even with a new cabinet. “Even though the president names the prime minister, it is the prime minister who is really in charge,” said Atta-Asamoah. “The key thing is that any time you find a fairly strong prime minister, who is very active, he will end up overshadowing the president, and if the president tries to step in in any way, you end up with clashes.”

East Africa analyst Tres Thomas, writing for the website “Somalia Newsroom,” chose the following analogy. “The cabinet is the offspring of prime minister and president. When divorce is imminent, the president gets custody.”

AMISOM headquarters in Mogadishu has also been targeted by insurgents

AMISOM headquarters in Mogadishu has also been targeted by insurgents

The new intake of cabinet ministers is under pressure to adhere to Somalia’s obligations to the international community. Somali depends on aid from foreign donors. Without this aid, the country would go bankrupt and the population would starve. The European Union’s mission in Somalia welcomed the appointment of a new cabinet but said that all players must now pull together and tackle the country’s security and development challenges. The ministers face immense pressure, said Atta-Asamoah. “If this government fails, it will be very difficult to persuade foreign donors to stay in the country.”

The new Somali government must also act immediately to prevent a valuable financial lifeline from being cut. The news agency AFP reported on Monday that the US-based Merchants Bank of California had said it will halt services to money transfer companies. Aid groups say this decision would stop up to 80 percent of the $200 million (177 million euros) sent annually to Somalia by relatives in the United States from reaching its destination. With no formal banking system in the impoverished Horn of Africa nation, diaspora Somalis across the world turn to money transfer services to send money back home to support their families. They send some $1.3 billion each year, dwarfing foreign aid.

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