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Why Garowe Talks Failed: Immediate and Structural Factors

By Faisal A. Roble

On May 11, 2019, at about 10 PM Garowe time, Somalis witnessed the last puff and pant of the talks between the Somali Federal Government and the federal member states, despite serious efforts by President Said Abdillahi Deni to bring the sides together. By about midnight, all screeching sounds came to a halt, lights were turned off, and hopes for any comprise were dashed at this time.  Delegates hastily packed and flew back to their bases, gave brief press conferences, and pundits started assessing the reasons why once again the failure-prone Somalia talks died without results.

This essay is not to present a comprehensive evaluation of Farmajo’s regime or the faults of other leaders. It is a narrow focus on the factors that led to the failure of the Garowe summit. Following are, therefore, several immediate as well as structural factors that participated in the failure of the Garowe talks.

Immediate Factors

Galmudug issues: 

The President of Galmudug, Ahmed Duale Geelle (Haaf), came to the talks with unresolved serious conflicts with Villa Somalia. The issue that tops his list pertains to when Galmudug would conduct a presidential election. Because President Haaf was officially inaugurated into office on May 29, 2017, he believes his four-year-term extends up to May 29, 2021. Villa Somalia, on the contrary, believes that Mr. Haaf was only given the mandate to finish the remainder of a four-year-term that started in 2015. With this legal entanglement between Villa Somalia and President Haaf, a deadlock was already in the offing prior to even meeting. On top of that, relations between the two had thawed for some time now.

There is another wrinkle to the Galmudug issue. President Haaf holds a profound suspicion of Villa Somalia using clan affiliates in Galmudug to sabotage his administration.  

President Haaf went, therefore, to Garowe to clear the term issue.  President Farmajo refused to even give an audience to Haaf on this matter, and the rest is a narrative of a political wedge that has gotten sour. This entanglement is nothing short of a constitutional crisis.

Reliable sources informed me that Haaf literally insulted Farmajo in a previous entanglement and, as a result, the two have had bad blood since. There is no indication to close the gap between these two whose clan constituents overlap. The tension between the two stunted progress, neglected the residents, and undermined any modicum of reconstruction of the state.

Hirshabelle and Southwest: 

Hirshabelle and Southwest had no issues on the table.  They are within the orbit of Villa Somalia. As a matter of fact, Hirshabelle has yet to recover from a previous ambush and a sort of political terrorism it received from Villa Somalia.  

President Lafta-Gareen and President Waare

On October 11, 2017, I was in a meeting with the President of Hirshabelle, along with other well-recognized professionals and Mogadishu political elites. It was one day after Mr. Mohammed Abdi Warre returned from his first summit in Kismayo with the federal state leaders.  As the new kid on the block, for he was in the office for about 30 days, he was seen at the time the voice of reason, neutral, and as such he was elected as the vice chair of the council of inter-state cooperation.

But Villa Somalia was not satisfied with his neutrality. While in the meeting with the chairman of AMISOM and other dignitaries, Mr. Ware received an unexpected call from the federal deputy Minister for Finance. That call almost gave Mr. Warre a heart attack. He dropped his cane, fidgeted for a moment, whipped out his face in an apparent agitated state of mind, and momentarily lost his whereabouts.  We insisted to know what had just so quickly upset him! Reluctantly, he shared with us that the deputy Minister informed him that the approval for a $400,000 fund that he was supposed to receive to jump-start his administration was rescinded. 

With his entire body shaking, he cut the meeting short, forfeited a follow-up meeting with UN officials, and abruptly took off.  In the words of a close associate of President Warre, “Villa Somalia broke him that day for good!” Since that time, Hirshabelle has been a vassal state of Villa Somalia.  

In the case of Southwest, Villa Somalia has engineered the installment of Abdiazis Mohamed Hassan, Laftagreen, and Farmajo’s political footprint is more pronounced in Baidoa than in any other regional capital.

Jubbaland Issues: 

The relationship between Villa Somalia and Jubbaland has never been easy.  Former President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud, for example, went to an extreme length to block the formation of Jubbaland. He openly fought against it militarily as well as politically. Once he failed to stop the momentum at which Jubbaland was moving forward, he changed tactics, cut his losses, and clutched in lessons learned, thereafter decidedly developed a practical collaborative strategy to work with Ahmed Madobe.  As of today, one of the legacies of Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud is ironically the completion of federal state formation. 

President Farmajo was supposed to build on that legacy.  However, he failed thus far and instead went at full length to war with Jubbaland; he tried not only to sabotage the state but tried to achieve regime change, at times undermining the precarious security structure of the region.  Alas, the Madobe factor proved to be much more resilient than what Villa Somalia initially thought. According to recent article by the France’s leading publication, the Le Monde, Ahmed Madobe is pragmatic, reliable, and nibble in his politics. Farmajo, on the other hand, is rigid, a political maverick, and short of vision.  

In October 2017, on my last visit to Mogadishu, one of the most influential political operatives during Hassan Sheikh’s presidency shared with several of us a sobering assessment of tell-tell signs of the impending failure of the Farmajo project.  He told us that “Villa Somalia already bogged down in its first six months with state issues; with Hassan it took us three years to get where Farmajo is in only six months.”

This keen observer predicted that Farmajo will probably finish his term without ever orchestrating a clear strategy to work with the states.  Another close associate of Farmajo recently told me that “the President is a tactician and not a strategist.” By this, he meant that Farmajo tries to fight small futile political battles and tries to win them without having a long-term strategy to bring the country together.

Were President Farmajo a savvy politician and a man with a discernable strategy, Jubbaland would have been his stalwart political base.  So are Puntland and partly Galmudug. Per the 4.5 clan formula, Farmajo should have had a recognizable political base in Jubbaland, Puntland, Galmudug.  

Moreover, he had already brought into his orbit Hirshabelle through coercion and Southwest through intimidation and money to local legislators.  Puntland received him royally following his election. Unfortunately, not only did he fail to capitalize on all these potential political capitals and facts on the ground, but he unceremoniously failed to put together a comprehensive strategy to capitalize on these assets.  

In a sense, President Farmajo is a president without a core constituency.  Instead of building a large political base, he depends on tactics hastily catapulted by less seasoned handlers for short term sensational gains, often relying on buying loyalty from ministers, corrupt legislators that are often cash-strapped in Mogadishu, and an unsuspecting underemployed/unemployed youth groups around the capital city. A scrutiny of the patronage created by Farmajo resembles that of Maputo Sissako of Zaire as described by Crawford Young. Craft, cash, nepotism and political clientelism are the tools used to earn the loyalty of ministers, parliamentarian and elite individuals, including religious clerics.

It is within this context that one reads Ahmed Madobe’s stern press conference following the botched Garowe summit (May 11, 2019). President Madobe criticized Villa Somalia for sabotaging his administration, failing to equitably distribute international aid, avoiding always to work amicably with all stakeholders to review and finish the draft constitution, and always deferring national decision-making on serious matters to a “phantom personality that no one knows who they are or where that body resides in the structure of Somalia’s governance.” Moreover, Ahmed Madobe drew a line on the sand in terms of his unwavering objection to any form of term extension either for Villa Somalia or for any state, including to his term. He objects to the use of the recently announced electoral law which is different from the promised one-man-one vote model.

Puntland Issues: 

As the first state formed in the federal structure (it predates Villa Somalia), Puntland had intermittent disagreements with Villa Somalia. The two sides disagreed for some time now on power-sharing, the formula by which new states should be formed, resource-sharing, and the constitutional review process. In his last speech to the nation (April 27, 2019), President Said A. Deni soberly mapped his administration’s concerns vis-a-vis Villa Somalia.

President Deni’s list of grievances was echoed approvingly by all residents of Puntland.  In my recent visit to Garowe, Qardho, and Bossasso (April 23-May 1, 2019), I have heard an earful of complaints by all sectors of the society about Villa Somalia’s irresponsible way to handle federalism.

To the approval of the majority of his constituency, President Deni presented a long-standing list of grievances Puntland have had with Villa Somalia, including but not limited to international aid distribution, power-sharing, the constitutional review process that shut off his state’s participation, and the lackluster way of running the federal institutions. He also warned of Villa Somalia to not enter unilateral agreements on resources without the participation of respective stakeholder.

President Deni’s expectations from this summit were pragmatic and limited in scope.  First and foremost, he worked hard to create an environment where all sides openly vent their issues and all key stakeholders are present; that is why President Deni insisted that both the President and the Prime Minister attend the talks.  He also wanted to focus more on the framework to conduct current and future meetings without first jumping on substantive issues. He wanted to be methodical and start with modalities of talks then move on to vexing issues. However, those expectations were dashed after Villa Somalia without consultation passed electoral laws only days before the meeting. Also, Villa Somalia right away refused any form of compromise on any of the issues on the table.  Sources close the summit told that Farmajo had more “no” to utter and literally no “yes” in his negotiations with the federal states.

Whereas Villa Somalia wanted a summit that would rubber stamp resolutions that it already had cooked in the narrow confines of federal institutions, President Deni wanted more than that: he wanted to have a summit where a comprehensive framework for how to conduct talks will be mapped; once a road map was mutually agreed, all stakeholders would have placed their issues for discussion. Villa Somalia failed to capitalize on President Deni’s good intentions and the talks died a natural death.

Villa Somalia Issues: 

President Farmajo came to Garowe on the insistence of donor community who had persuaded him to attend the summit.  Outside window dressing, he refused to negotiate and compromise on any issue. He categorically rejected all requests coming from the federal state leaders. He shut the doors on the electoral model, how to equitably distribute international aid, the constitutional review process, or any talks on a comprehensive but mutual resource-sharing.

President Farmajo

He showed at the outset that he does not respect the stakeholders that gathered at the invitation of President Deni of Puntland. Farmajo believes that his mandate resides mainly with about120 members of the national parliament, 70 of whom are either ministers, deputy or state ministers. Not that these legislators love Farmajo or the country more, but they love more the cash they collect from Villa Somalia. In the eyes of many Somalis the fence that separates the executive from the legislative has been shattered by Famajo’s political tactics to control both venues of power.

Worse, President Farmajo does not make a secret in his staunch opposition to federalism and he believes that Somalia should go back to a unitary mode of government. As such, he does not see any rational to refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of federal states, much so in political matters.  

So far, he succeeded in regime change in two states – Hirshabelle and Southwest.  If all things go his way, he will have Haaf out of office soon.  Additionally, his team is working overtime to overthrow Ahmed Madobe. The question is whether his effort in Jubbaland will be as disappointing as that of Puntland.

As we recall, he vainly tried to install a Villa Somalia vassal leadership during last December’s presidential election in Puntland.  According to reliable sources, Villa Somalia spent a fortune, in the millions, to bring a loyalist to the throne. Alas, the coming of Said A. Dani with a five-year-term was not a favorable result for Villa Somalia. It was a dagger into its heart. On the Jubbaland front, all indications are that Farmajo may once again be disappointed the August elections come.

Structural Problems of Governance

Aside from issues which were on the table in the Garowe summit, there are inherent structural problems that are impeding a forward motion of Somalia’s governance. Somalia is facing challenges in its ability to building a federal structure. One main challenge is the opposition to federalism by powerful groups, ranging from religious fundamentalists to secular elites. Villa Somalia is teeming with members of these two forces. The combined muscle of these opposition groups and their implicit and explicit advocacy for reinstituting the past unitary system is debilitating to federalism. And, it is more so when the president of the country himself and his top brass don’t believe in moving ahead with federalism.

Why the President opposed federalism one may ask? There is a disconcerting reality that Villa Somalia wants to grab power at the expense of periphery regions.  With federalism, the autocratic rule is impossible, whereas the unitary model is a good gateway to a one-man or one-group rule in that power can easily be centralized.

Destroying the federal structure is an easy way to establish a Mogadishu-center autocratic rule that could be a conduit to bringing back yesteryear’s unitary state. Mr. Farmajo does not hide this attribute of his. And that is at the crux of the structural problem so far impeding a functionally federated system of governance to take place.

In his quest to establish an autocratic rule, President Farmajo is employing three potent political tools. First, he is trying to impose a militating heavy hand on opposition groups so that they are rendered dysfunctional in Mogadishu. In the tradition that is contrary to Samuel Huntington’s “The Third Wave: democratization in the late twentieth century,” Farmajo is quick to expose and squash opposition leaders fast and furiously. He has intimidated, jailed, and physically attached some of the leaders.  

His second tool is an irreverent tactic of illegal regime change by using millions of dollars at the expense of social services which the country desperately cries for. The third tool is to giving material and political concessions to neighboring countries in exchange for rebuking and curtailing the movement of federal-state leaders. 

Concluding Remarks

Rather than incessantly searching for the establishment of an autocratic rule, it would have been more rewarding for President Farmajo and for the nation as a whole to strategically focus on upholding the law, finishing the constitutional review process and ready it for ratification, and unite federal states with the center so as to achieve a national unity that thrives on a robust diversity.

The issues on the table that led to the failure of the Garowe talks of May 5-11, 2019 were only manifestations of more serious structural problems.  The elephant in the room is the center does not want to move forward with federalism and the periphery regions are desperately seeking authority as guaranteed by federalism – a classical struggle identified by students of the center/periphery paradigm.  

Farmajo spent so much capital fighting member states. One wonders how much he could have benefited had he collaborated and accommodated them. It remains to be seen whether President Farmajo will come up with a broader strategy that views federal states as stakeholders rather than an appendix to his Villa Somalia-centered authority.

As a lame duck president, with only 18 months left for his term, his ability to do much is limited. He has, therefore, everything to gain by reconciling with the member state leaders than fighting them.

Faisal A. Roble
Email: [email protected]
Faisal Roble, a writer, political analyst and a former Editor-in-Chief of WardheerNews, is mainly interested in the Horn of Africa region. He is currently the Principal Planner for the City of Los Angeles in charge of Master Planning, Economic Development and Project Implementation Division.

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