Everything You Need to Know About the Bickering Between Somali President, Prime Minister

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud attends the opening of a conference for the Interim South West Administration in Baidoa on 28 October 2014. Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud attending the opening of a conference for the Interim South West Administration in Baidoa on 28 October 2014. Ilyas A. Abukar/UN Photo.

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud attends the opening of a conference for the Interim South West Administration in Baidoa on 28 October 2014. Ilyas A. Abukar/UN Photo.

It all starts with a rumor on Somali media. The president is at odds with his prime minister over a cabinet reshuffle. And before you know it, the political honeymoon is over and the prime minister is ousted.

That is what happened to former Somali Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon last year. Now, barely a year later, his successor, Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed, is facing off with President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud – yet again.

However, the genesis of the political feud between Somalia’s leaders lies in the pages of the provisional constitution, which was approved in August 2012 by 600 delegates from various Somali tribes, who formed the Somali National Constituent Assembly.

The United Nations, which brokered, funded and led the constitutional-making process, called the ratification of the constitution a “historic” moment for Somalia. The adoption of the new constitution effectively ended the era of transitional governments, which lasted for over 10 years.

The constitution was intended to be a temporary one until the Somali public gets the opportunity to vote on a final constitution through a referendum when the country becomes more politically stable. But the ambiguities in the provisional document and the persistent divisions between the country’s top leaders, analysts say, is set to create a political crisis that can challenge the country’s path towards recovery.

“Unlike new constitutions that are crafted to solve existing problems and prevent potential ones — here South Africa’s comes to mind — this one seems to have been crafted to replace an existing one in order to create future problems that are far beyond its capacity to deal with or defuse them,” writes Abukar Arman, former Somalia special envoy to the United States and a foreign policy analyst.

Chief among these problems include lack of a clear political system: the country does not follow either a parliamentary system, like Ethiopia’s government, or a presidential system, like the one in neighboring Kenya. Instead, in Somalia, the president appoints his prime minister but does not have the power to dismiss him. The prime minister is the head of the national government, appoints the cabinet ministers and has the authority to reshuffle the cabinet without the consultation of the president.

However, the president also has the power to “dissolve the federal government if it does not get the required vote of confidence” from the parliament. The reference to the “federal government” here in article 90 of the constitution includes the prime minister, his cabinet ministers, their deputies besides the state ministers.

Nonetheless, the system of infusing the roles of the president and prime minister is intended to divide the balance of power among Somalia’s major clans. In recent years, the president was either from Hawiye or Darod clans.

“Under the current arrangement the political culture far outweighs the constitution,” wrote Afyare Elmi, a professor of international affairs at Qatar University, along with Arman.

“The prime minister is a political paradox — an unelected official, who, upon being appointed by the president, becomes more powerful than the head of state.”

A great example of this paradox was the ouster of former Prime Minister Shirdon in December 2013, just over a year after he was appointed by President Mohamud in October 2012. Shirdon and Mohamud had disagreed over the appointment of ministers during a cabinet reshuffle. The matter was resolved by the parliament who ousted Shirdon after he refused calls from the president to resign.

Many Somalis have also questioned the legitimacy of the provisional constitution as “having been developed outside Somalia with too much foreign influence,” thus “provoking controversy over issues of ownership, transparency, representation and accountability,” according to Abdihakim Ainte, a Somali political analyst.

Two years into his government’s term, the administration of President Mohamud, which had the support of the Somali public when he was elected by lawmakers in Mogadishu in September 2012, is becoming increasingly polarizing and struggling to execute the basic functions of government.

Allegations of corruption, political infighting among the top leaders and federalism crisis have tainted the legitimacy of this government.

The latest crisis between Mohamud and Prime Minister Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed came to light on Oct. 25 after they publicly disagreed over reshuffling of the cabinet, a replay of what happened less than a year ago when Shirdon was voted out of office.

As part of the reshuffle, Ahmed has reassigned Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Farah Abdiqadir to minister of livestock. It’s good to point out that Farah, a close ally of Mohamud, was the only minister affected by the reshuffle. The rest of the changes targeted state ministers and deputy ministers.

If the dispute between Mohamud and Ahmed goes to parliament, it will likely bring to fore cases of corruption amongst parliamentarians, who were alleged to have been bribed in order to influence their decision to ouster Shirdon.

“The [prime minister] is always in a highly vulnerable position in today’s Somalia,” writes Tres Thomas, a Horn of Africa analyst who focuses on federalism in Somalia. “The officeholder is selected by the president, and there is little reason for the president to appoint someone who could pose a serious challenge to his inherent (as opposed to constitutional) power.”

“This means that the president is essentially choosing his rival — not his partner — within the government leadership,” he added. “In addition, the [prime minister’s] position is always under threat from a no-confidence motion tabled in the parliament, or like now, the potential mass resignation of his cabinet as organized by his political rivals.”

The collapse of the prime minister’s government could also affect the nascent government institutions, given that it could be months before a new cabinet is formed.

“If the [prime minister] is inevitably forced out of his position, it would mean Somalia would fall further behind in its bid to finish the formation of federal member states, prepare for democratic elections in 2016, and complete work on the provisional constitution,” Thomas writes.

What’s the solution?

According to professor Elmi and political analyst Arman, the country should adopt the presidential system by revising the current provisional constitution. They argue that “creating the political culture necessary to sustain a parliamentary system will take a long time.”

Some stakeholders who advocate for less power for the president may not accept this structure of governance. However, it would also be impossible for this country’s young government to assemble a new cabinet every one or two years, and parachute a new prime minister from the diaspora into the country.

“The fear of the president becoming a dictator is legitimate. We think such a fear can be mitigated by empowering the parliament, the judiciary branches, civil society and the media,” Elmi and Arman argue. “In doing so, Somalia would be able to steer away from the systemic political volatility that has been crippling the government for at least 13 years, and it would help promote civic-based competitive politics.”

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