Jason Mosley
Associate Fellow, Africa Programme
Political infighting in Somalia is threatening to set back the implementation of the country’s timetable towards elections in 2016. The latest dispute is a contest over institution-building, and may represent something of a turning point in the federal project.
Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud addresses a press conference at the High Level Partnership Forum in Copenhagen on 19 November 2014. Photo by Getty Images.

Somalia’s leaders and international donors are gathered in Copenhagen for the High Level Partnership Forum meeting on 19-20 November, where they are intending to trumpet security achievements made in the last year and reinforce momentum for the federal government of Somalia’s Vision 2016 agenda – which includes the formation of member states, reform and adoption of the 2012 draft constitution, and establishment of electoral institutions ahead of the polls.

However, political wrangling in Mogadishu is overshadowing the Copenhagen meeting, with the looming prospect of Prime Minister Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed, in place only since February, becoming the second premier to lose a no-confidence motion in parliament since President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud took office two years ago.

Such an outcome would likely usher in a period of weeks – perhaps months – of negotiations over his replacement and the formation of a new cabinet.

Nicholas Kay, the UN secretary-general’s special representative, drew the ire of a variety of parties to the conflict with a statement on 2 November, in which he called for political unity and commitment to the Vision 2016 agenda, but also raised concerns about reports that vote-buying could be involved in any no-confidence motion.

The United States signalled its concern by suggesting it would curtail its participation in the Copenhagen meeting. Donors are rightly anxious that valuable time will be lost with infighting, threatening progress on institution-building and meeting the electoral agenda.

On 17 November more than half of cabinet members signed a letter calling for Abdiweli to resign. Barring a major external intervention, it would appear that the prime minister’s dismissal is imminent.

Much attention has focused on the structural dimensions of the current stand-off. The provisional constitution vests executive authority with the prime minister, with the president intended to play a balancing role between the cabinet and parliament. Following eight years of dysfunction and infighting under the transitional federal government (TFG), the new constitutional dispensation was intended to limit the power of the presidency.

However, President Hassan Sheikh has taken a robust interpretation of his mandate, which donors have tended to countenance – seeing in his civil society background a potential partner with whom they could work, and who would mark a significant departure from the domination of politics by former warlords under the TFG.

Moreover, the constitutional mandate of the premier quickly brought Abdiweli (like his predecessor Abdi Farah Shirdon) into conflict with the presidency, and with the Damul Jadid faction of al-Islah (Somalia’s Muslim Brotherhood), which backed Hassan Sheikh’s presidential bid.

That said, this contest is about more than structural issues related to the rents available to those who control key government offices, processes and aid flows.

There are signs that the motivation for the present infighting is linked to the question of building the judiciary. Competition is fierce between different conservative Islamist visions over how sharia will form the base of Somalia’s constitutional order, and how the country's nascent judicial apparatus will evolve to interpret and implement such an order.

The conflict began around mid-2014, as a row emerged between Attorney General Ahmed Ali Dahir and Chief Justice Aidid Abdullahi Ilka-Xanaf.

The chief justice has accused the Ministry of Justice of interference in the independence of the judiciary. The president approved Dahir’s appointment in late July, after his predecessor Abdikadir Mohamed Muse was dismissed. But the chief justice questioned the legality of Muse’s dismissal, and promised an investigation. In turn, the attorney general’s office has claimed that dozens of judges are operating without having been properly appointed, with the president dismissing 21 judges in October.

Matters came to head when Abdiweli attempted to sideline Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Farah Sheikh Abdulqadir, who has been driving the judicial reform process (and who nominated Dahir), in a cabinet reshuffle on 25 October.

The prime minister was attempting to weaken the presidency’s influence in the judiciary, and by extension to counter the influence of Damul Jadid (of which Farah is a prominent member) on the delivery of justice and the constitutional debate.

The intensity of the conflict is an indication that a range of stakeholders see the process of building Somalia’s judiciary as more than window-dressing for donors; this is a genuine political and ideological battle over one of the country’s most important institutions. Although this indicates that the federal project has gained traction in some important ways, it remains likely that the current infighting will significantly undermine the 2016 timetable.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback