By Max Bearak
Feb. 26, 2021 at 11:44 a.m. EST
NAIROBI — In a late-night meeting Thursday, Somalia’s prime minister persuaded opposition leaders to postpone their plan for mass anti-government protests and apologized for violence last Friday targeting candidates running in an election that was meant to take place this month but has been delayed indefinitely.
Somalia is now in a protracted constitutional crisis, with opposition leaders claiming that President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed — commonly known by his nickname “Farmajo” — has overstayed his mandate. Tensions spiked last Friday, leading to exchanges of gunfire on the streets of the capital, Mogadishu, and heightening fears that the election dispute could spiral into civil conflict.
Thursday’s meeting did not yield a new date for the election, and Farmajo, who has become an increasingly controversial figure, was not directly involved in the agreement.
While Somalia’s Western backers heralded the deal as a step in the right direction, security officials said the potential for conflict remains high. Security forces are under increasing pressure to take sides amid deepening political
“As long as there’s no political agreement, we’re in a phase where we have no idea what will happen regarding how the different armed forces will react if there is sudden violence,” said Jihan Abdullahi Hassan, a former senior adviser to Somalia’s defense minister.
Somalia has an array of military units, some of which are professionalized, federally controlled and trained by foreign advisers, while others are more closely aligned with regional governments that have been at odds with the administration in Mogadishu over how elections should be held.
Efforts to bring all armed forces under federal control have succeeded in streamlining payrolls, instituting codes of conduct and restructuring military leadership, but they have not erased underlying divisions within them, Hassan said.
“It’s a predicament,” she said. “The forces are not nationally integrated yet — they are close, but they are not there yet. We cannot allow them to slide back into political or clan rivalries.”
In Mogadishu, the mood Thursday was tense. The city was choked with traffic as roads were closed ahead of the planned protests, and residents stocked up on essentials, fearing that the next day’s protests would be met with bullets.
Earlier this week, the president of one of Somalia’s regions, Puntland, recounted in a widely viewed speech how Farmajo had boasted to him about having enough armed forces behind him to stay in power as long as he wanted.
While a new Constitution introduced in 2012 set out guidelines for the creation of a constitutional court that would adjudicate disputes between Somalia’s member states as well as potential presidential impeachment proceedings, neither Farmajo nor his predecessor took the necessary procedural steps to create the court.
Some within the security establishment have begun to speak out about what they perceive as Farmajo’s inclination to use various branches of the security forces to quell any opposition to him.
“No opposition has said, you have to shoot the president. But on the president’s side, we have been asked to act strongly against the opposition,” said an aide to Somalia’s police commissioner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
A former top army commander, Mohamed Ali Barise, was more blunt in his assessment.
“Farmajo sees the armed forces and intelligence services and even police as a personal instrument to achieve his own ends,” he said. “Since he came to power, he has been trying to install like-minded officers, even his extended family and clan members, in higher-ranking positions. Our hopes are with wise officers who will refuse — but no doubt they will be chased away, fired, isolated, may even risk their life to do that.”
A current official in the special forces unit widely considered Somalia’s most effective, known as Danab, which is trained by U.S. Special Operations forces, said its top commander had been asked by Farmajo to relocate some of its troops to Mogadishu ahead of last Friday’s protests, but the request was turned down. The official requested that his name and rank be withheld to enable him to speak frankly about a politically sensitive issue.
Other special forces units, known as Gorgor and Haramaad, both trained by the Turkish military, were deployed last Friday in Mogadishu, he said.
Last month, the U.S. military completed the withdrawal of about 700 personnel who had been based in Somalia largely as part of a training mission but who occasionally participated in ground raids on suspected targets belonging to al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-affiliated militancy that controls much of rural southern Somalia and has contributed to the country’s persistent instability.
The political crisis would only distract the country’s security apparatus from its efforts against al-Shabab, analysts said, potentially creating an environment in which the group could operate more freely and regain territory it lost to the government over the past decade.
If a political agreement remains elusive, “the unity of effort in the war on terror will be lost, and we will continue to witness the strengthening of al-Shabab,” said Mohamed Mubarak, executive director at the Hiraal Institute, a Somali think tank.