Is the poster child of failed states finally getting its act together?
After the twin suicide attacks that killed 14 people in Mogadishu last week and an assassination attempt on the president a little more than a week before that, predictions of a Somali Spring would seem to be, at the very least, premature. But buried beneath the grisly headlines of the last few weeks was some unexpectedly good news: The newly appointed Somali parliament elected Hassan Sheikh Mohamud to serve as the first post-transition head of state. This is a seismic event in Somalia -- but not for the reasons many observers presume.
Mohamud's election does not signal an end to Somalia's 21 years of state collapse. Nor will it bring a quick end to the country's systemic political violence. The new president is taking the reins of a failed government that exercises only nominal control over the capital, Mogadishu, and faces a real, if diminished, threat from the al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab. Even in a best-case outcome, it will take years for the government to extend and deepen its authority. And though it brings to a conclusion Somalia's deeply flawed, eight-year political transition, Mohamud's new administration must still take on a host of difficult, unfinished transitional tasks.
The real significance of Mohamud's election -- as well as the election two weeks earlier of Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Osman Jawari -- is that it demonstrates that Somalia's civil society is alive and well, after years of political violence that forced many of Somalia's best and brightest to flee the country or withdraw from public life. The election constituted a well-executed civic mobilization against the corrupt, illegitimate government of transitional President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and the mafia that surrounded him. According to U.N. investigations, 70 percent of foreign aid and other revenues flowing to Sheikh Sharif's transitional government in 2009 and 2010 went unaccounted for, earning Somalia the top spot on Transparency International's 2011 ranking of the world's most corrupt governments.
This may be the start of a Somali version of an Arab Spring, with all the uncertainties that entails. It has involved no street protests and no bullets, just ballots -- and a lot of commitment, savvy, and collective action by a coalition of professionals and civic leaders who jumped into what looked like a fixed game and beat the incumbent.
Practically no one saw this coming. The last year of the Transitional Federal Government was grim. Key transitional tasks -- like the drafting of a constitution -- were rammed through, circumvented, or only partially completed; the transitional government was paralyzed by infighting and corruption; and the country was emerging from a serious famine. Desperate to produce a sitting parliament, U.N. diplomats engineered what became known as an "appointocracy" -- appointees appointing appointees. Understandably, the process had little legitimacy in the eyes of Somalis.
Most observers were convinced that appointed members of parliament would be in the pockets of Somalia's "moneylords" -- a quarreling, dysfunctional coalition of political entrepreneurs who have used control over transitional-government finances to rent allegiances and enrich themselves since 2009. Instead, a combination of nationalists, moderate Islamists, business people, and cross-clan interests outmaneuvered Sheikh Sharif and his supporters. Mohamud, a civil society leader, educator, and peace-builder, emerged as a finalist in a runoff vote against Sheikh Sharif and won resoundingly.
Critics of the vote argue that money was passed around by both sides, and they are probably right. But what matters is this: In a power struggle between two rival coalitions, the "constructive elite" -- the group known and admired for having built universities, hospitals, charities, and businesses in the country during the long civil war -- defeated a parasitic elite coalition that had devoted all its energies to diverting public funds.
Mohamud's victory electrified Somalis and both surprised and relieved the international community. Only two groups emerged as losers: the moneylords and warlords who sought to maintain the status quo, and al-Shabab.
Al-Shabab has taken a big hit with this election. For years, the corruption and misbehavior of the transitional government was one of the jihadi group's biggest recruiting tools. Many angry and disaffected Somalis passively supported al-Shabab, in part because the alternative was so uninspiring. Now that support could evaporate as Somalis rally behind the new government. Mohamud's government thus poses an existential threat to al-Shabab, which, though weakened, is still capable of carrying out devastating terrorist attacks. As a result, we should expect al-Shabab to take desperate actions to attack and discredit the government, including widening its terrorist campaign into neighboring countries.
But Mohamud's government must also wage a rear-guard battle against the mafia of marginalized warlords and moneylords. They have demonstrated a willingness to resort to intimidation and political violence, and they could end up being as great a danger to the new government as al-Shabab.
Yet for all the challenges, this is a critical window of opportunity -- and the international community must approach it with the right policies. These cannot be the usual gift box of good-governance and rule-of-law foreign aid. More than anything else, Mohamud's administration will need political space. Somalis want to own their government and its policies. They want an end to warlordism and jihadism, but they also want an end to foreign domination. Mohamud will be under domestic pressure to reduce the influence of the United Nations and donor states, and gradually to exert more say in the operations of the African Union peacekeeping forces in Somalia. Outsiders need to respect Somalis' desire to reclaim their sovereignty and need to let the new government take the lead in proposing mechanisms to improve accountability and good governance.
The international community should also anticipate the possibility that Mohamud's government will reach out to "redeemable" wings of al-Shabab with an eye for reaching a negotiated settlement. Now that a post-transition government is in place and al-Shabab is sufficiently weakened, this may be a good moment to attempt that strategy. Mohamud may also have to cut deals with some of the moneylords and warlords to keep the peace.
These and other policies may create anxiety in neighboring states and Western donor countries, but foreigners need to understand and accommodate the complex negotiations among Somalis that will come next. Mohamud is a decent and experienced man who has the respect of Somalis at home and in the diaspora. If ever the stars were aligned for Somalia to emerge from its 20-year crisis of war and state collapse, this is it. Let's try not to get in the way.
ABDURASHID ABDULLE ABIKAR/AFP/Getty Images