The neighbourhood of Eastleigh in Kenya’s capital Nairobi is English only in name. In its crammed concrete apartment blocks lives much of the city’s considerable ethnic Somali population.
Every day, they descend from their apartments to ground-floor shops or neighbourhood malls, or commute to larger malls in the city centre, from where they sell most of the clothes worn in Nairobi. Half of the computers in the city’s offices probably came from the shelves of Somali shops as well. As do its phones, tablets, shoes. City centre mosques overflow with Somalis when the time for namaz comes.
Most of these Somalis became Kenyans when part of their extensive Horn of Africa native homeland, the Northern Frontier District, was ceded to Kenya by Britain when Somalia became independent in 1960. This cession was the cause of the secessionist Shifta war between Kenyan Somalis and the Kenyan government which raged for four years after Kenya’s independence in 1963. The war was the cause of a curious commitment by Britain to defend Kenya that has only recently been discovered from declassified files. The Northern Frontier District is now three Kenyan counties, Garissa, Wajir and Mandera.
In this tiny snippet of history, perhaps, is captured the quandary in which, for over a generation, Somalia has found itself. In the heart of many a Somali can be descried a romantic wish for the extensive Somali homeland to be one glorious nation, ruled by Somalis for Somalis. The 1960s Shifta War with Kenya, and the 1970s Ogaden War with Ethiopia were unsuccessful attempts to achieve this dream.
The irony is that disunity, the direct opposite of the much-longed-for ideal, has come to so define Somalia that Somalis in the “annexed” territories are much better off than those who live in Somalia proper. Kenyan and Ethiopian Somalis, apart from being exposed to more diversity, get to enjoy the same freedoms and opportunities as their countrymen, which tend to be more than what they would ordinarily get in Somalia. For instance, Kenya recently fielded Amina Mohamed, a Somali woman who is the country’s Foreign Secretary, as a candidate for the chair of the African Union Commission.
The reason for this rambling introduction is that it is a fitting canvas on which to paint the nature of Somalia as it is now, and it provides a poignant backdrop for the euphoric scenes of jubilation that erupted on the streets of Eastleigh on 8th February, accompanied by even more jubilant scenes in Mogadishu and other towns in Somalia itself. For, meeting at the international airport, the most secure place in Mogadishu, Somali members of parliament had elected former Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, as Somalia’s new president.
The victory of Farmajo, as he is popularly known, was both a surprise and expected. On the one hand, during his eight-month stint as Prime Minister in 2010/2011, Farmajo made sure government employees, and soldiers, were paid well and on time. This, the alleged disappearance of 80% of government funds under his watch notwithstanding, gained him enough popularity to trigger protests when he was summarily dismissed. Most importantly, his popularity runs across Somalia’s complex clan loyalties.
This is the kind of support no modern leader of Somalia has had. It is also the reason why, going into the election, he was tipped to be one of the favourites to win. Nevertheless, his victory still came as a surprise. Corruption was rife in the electoral process, as it has been in every sector of Somali government and commerce for a long while. It has been said that millions of dollars exchanged hands as candidates bought loyalties and, hopefully, victory. If the money had had its way, the incumbent Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, would probably have won. But it seems some decency held out in the end. Farmajo won, and Mohamud promptly conceded.
But the jubilant scenes that greeted Farmajo’s win mask a much darker reality he has to confront in his new office. If ever there was a quintessential failed state, Somalia would be it. The national government is so weak and broke, it has barely a grip on the capital. Over the rest of the country, it holds little more than nominal control. After the fall of Dictator Siad Barre’s government in 1991, Somalis retreated ever more into the relative safety of their clans, becoming defined more by their differences than their similarities in the process.
The inability of these clans to work together has been the fuel behind a 23-year civil conflict. A recent experiment with federalism bequeathed the country with a patchwork of states controlled by these rival clans. They have found it hard to cede power to the national government. Added to this already sordid cocktail of instability is the insurgency of the radical Islamic group Al-Shaabab.
Like a fine thread of scarlet, violence sews together the country’s modern experience. To a distant observer, the entire country seems like an orgy of violence. Of course, there is more to it than that, but to this perennial conflict can be credited the loss of thousands of lives and the displacement of millions. The Somali refugee camp of Daadab, in North-Eastern Kenya, is, for all intents and purposes, one of Kenya’s largest cities.
In a sad twist, Somalia has gone from being the land of the shrewd men who carefully tricked the ancient Greeks and Romans into buying cheap Indian cinnamon for obscenely excessive prices, getting unimaginably rich in the process, to being a land of constant death, starvation, and disease, the domain of NGOs and international organisations whose stated aims are more frequently fronts for massive corruption, cronyism and the wholesale misappropriation of funds meant for the rebuilding of Somalia. One would think the world gave up on the country a long time ago.
It is into this dark void that Farmajo is stepping. He has to establish institutions, stamp the government’s authority, and work out a transition into full self-rule when AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) troops withdraw in 2020, in his current term. His only allies in this are his multipartite popularity and his disarming smile. Perhaps a third ally lurks in the shadows. The aforementioned Somali entrepreneurial streak, industry and shrewdness lingers yet. It gives a foundation to the hope Somalis have in their new president. To succeed, he will do well to harness this potential.
He comes in at a time when Al-Shabaab, which was thought to be on the retreat, continues to outmanoeuvre AMISOM and Somali government troops with well-staged ambushes and bloody skirmishes. At the same time, a ravaging drought has struck the Horn of Africa, giving rise to a looming humanitarian crisis. If Farmajo manages to steer the rickety ship that is Somalia safely back to dock, he may well be worth more than the Italian cheese (formaggio) from which his moniker comes.
Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya.