Somalia’s Mohamed Farmaajo defends shock term limit extension.

President Mohamed Farmaajo of Somalia has gone on a charm offensive to blunt opposition to his controversial term extension on last Monday, even as he seeks more allies to negate a possibility of international isolation.

He sees the move as a mere delay to enable the country hold better elections, rather than extending his mandate, according to a translated transcript of an interview he held on Friday with a Somali television station.

It came as Mr Mikhail A Golovanov, the Russian Ambassador to Djibouti who is also accredited to Somalia, appeared in Mogadishu for a meeting with the country’s Foreign Affairs PS Bilal Osman. The meeting, Osman said, was to “strengthen bilateral relations.”

Russians haven’t been active in Somalia since then-leader Siad Barre switched camps to the US in 1977, at the height of the Cold War, to gain support against the Ethiopian Marxist regime during the Ogaden War.

With Moscow only showing interest in Africa recently, observers quickly related the visit to the earlier extension of the term of Parliament and President.

Was the decision of Parliament a new “pivot to Russia?”, posed Abdi Aynte, a former Somalia Planning minister and co-founder of the Heritage Institute in Mogadishu.

“The Russians have little interest in Africa and the Cold War ended,” added Dr Ahmed Hashi, who analyses Horn of Africa affairs in Nairobi.

“Farmaajo has isolated Somalia and made it an international broke house as he fights his neighbours and the opposition. The international community must deny him the legitimacy he needs until he does the right thing.”

No interference

On Friday, Farmaajo told Shabelle Radio, a local television station, that he understands his country needs external support to prosper, as long as it doesn’t amount to interfering.

The Lower House of Parliament on Monday voted to delay elections by two years, shutting down talks that had collapsed last week on how to hold an indirect election, based on a deal known as the September 17 Agreement.

“Parliament has taken the Republic to the initial election model of taking power to the people. Its action does not amount to extension of any mandate,” Farmaajo said in a pre-recorded interview. “It freed our citizens from the shackles of doom.”

At the heart of the controversy is the concerted rejection of the extension by the UK, US and the European Union; Somalia’s biggest humanitarian and security donors in the last decade. They warned of possible sanctions and a “change” in the relations, according to a statement from the EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell.

The UK said it will work with its international partners on a common approach “to re-evaluate our relationship and the nature of our assistance to Somalia”.

“I have always sought to enhance relations with all bilateral and multilateral partners. This is the only way to deliver on the common interests of all nations and people,” Farmaajo, said, defending his ties with Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Some observers argue Farmaajo’s perceived missteps will not force the West to quit the country, especially since he may be, to some, the devil they know.

“With security and geopolitical stakes as high as they are, it is imprudent for Western partners to turn their back on Somalia. Add that to the fact that they do not have a realistic shoo-in alternative to President Farmaajo whose term in office has been technically prolonged for two more years by the House of the People,” Adam Aw Hirsi, a political analyst and former senior government official in Somalia told the Nation.

“On the other hand, the notion that Somalia under a US citizen president and with the biggest number of Western educated cabinet is mulling to join the Eastern bloc is improbable if not impossible.” Aw Hirsi argued the claim of ‘Looking East’ was peddled by Farmaajo’s opponents keen to get a chink in his armour.

What critics say

Farmaajo’s critics say he is sticking to the ‘interference’ card to ensure his plan works. The Opposition National Salvation Forum declared the Parliamentary move “null and void.”

It counts among its members two ex-Presidents, current presidents of Jubbaland and Puntland, ex-Prime Minister Hassan Khaire and some ten other presidential contenders. They all worry that Farmaajo’s move could make it harder for the country to retain international partners.

“Everybody is telling him to go back to the ‘tent’ and resume election talks before it is too late,” said Ilyas Ali Hassan, a Somali Senator and Secretary of Foreign Affairs for Himilo-Qaran Party, which is led by former President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed.

He was referring to a shelter inside the Adden Adde Airport where talks between Farmaajo and federal member states collapsed last week.

“We have managed this sort of crisis before but even in the past, no one stayed on illegally. There were solutions made through consensus, not by burning bridges with ties that matter. We will not go back to the old days.”

Qatar and Turkey

Depending on how Farmaajo digs in, a concert of sanctions or even restriction of aid to Somalia could heavily drag its plan to stabilise.

Even the planned universal suffrage that President Farmaajo has promised will need lots of money and the attendant security.

The indirect elections that leaders have disagreed on holding had a flat budget of $50 million, yet the polls were to only involve nominated delegates in secured venues across the country.

This week, the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) announced it was beginning a gradual transfer of security duties to the local army.

On Friday, the International Crisis Group said Farmaajo may be banking on Qatar and Turkey; two of his biggest supporters, but who have showed in public that they are apolitical.

“All external actors should unambiguously signal readiness to impose sanctions on parties who obstruct a new initiative to find a consensual path forward,” the ICG said in a bulletin.

“To improve the chances of Farmaajo shifting his position, the US could engage directly with his key backers in Qatar and Turkey and urge them to prevail on the president to show greater flexibility, given the risk the crisis poses to Somalia’s stability.”

amutambo@ke.nationmedia.com