28 June 2011
Sally Healy OBE
(Former Chatham House Expert)


Dr Abdiweli Mohamed Ali was named on 23 June to lead the latest incarnation of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG). These days, Somalia's changes of government are like the shuffling of an old deck of cards, a product of opaque political calculations rather than public participation.

Dr Abdiweli Ali is the third American returnee to attempt to lead the transitional government since 2009. Like his two predecessors, he was plucked from the pool of professionals found within Somalia's Diaspora. He leaves behind him a position as Professor of Economics in Buffalo, New York to grapple with the challenge of government in a country that shows a very strong tendency to remain ungovernable.

His predecessors have been defeated not so much by the magnitude of the task that confronted them as by the machinations of two other Somali politicians who are locked in a battle for supremacy. These are 'the two Sharifs', namely the President, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, and the Speaker of the Transitional Federal Parliament, Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan.

Internal politics

Somalia's TFG is already on borrowed time. The transition to a new constitutional order and an elected government was supposed to be completed in August 2009. A two year extension was secured under the terms of the Djibouti Agreement that also brought Sheikh Sharif to the Presidency. It was clear by the start of this year that none of the 'transitional tasks' with which the TFG had been entrusted were going to be completed before their extended mandate expired on 20 August. Instead of applying themselves more energetically to the tasks - admittedly difficult ones - the leaders of Somalia's Transitional Federal Institutions set about ensuring their own futures.

The Parliament, 550 strong and supported on foreign stipends, promptly voted itself a 3-year extension. The President and the Speaker locked themselves down in a contest over which of them could extend their own remit and under what terms. This political charade raged across neighbouring capitals. It left the donors who sponsor and fund the TFG as on-lookers, furious and powerless. The regional neighbours were equally exasperated, particularly Uganda and Burundi, whose troops are in the frontline protecting the TFG against the Al Shabaab militants.

In the end, Sheikh Sharif and Sharif Hassan reached agreement: they would both stay on for another one year. President Museveni of Uganda underwrote the agreement, which was reached in Kampala. Somalia's former Prime Minister, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed Formajo, was sacrificed in the deal, prompting popular protests in the streets of Mogadishu. Formajo had gained some local support and could count some small gains such as getting the street lighting going again. But it was the high-handed manner in which he was dismissed that caused most resentment, a stark illustration of the extent to which Somalia's affairs are governed from outside.

Can Abdiweli Ali succeed?

Having served in Formajo's cabinet Prime Minister Abdiweli Ali knows well the precarious nature of his position. He can carry on the efforts to improve the administration even if the top leadership continues to squabble. He can improve relations with regions beyond the capital. The African Union Mission in Somalia is making gains against Al Shabab and creating opportunities for the transitional government to build up their support in Mogadishu. Neither Sheikh Sharif nor Sharif Hassan are capable of doing this. There is a small chance that the new prime minister could succeed where they have failed.