The Uphill Climb: New Somali President Faced With Al-Shabaab

On Monday, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud will formally assume his role as Somalia’s leader after winning last week’s presidential election. Co-founder of Somalia’s largest university and former aid worker, Mohamud is the leader of the socially conservative Head of Union for Peace and Development Party and was chosen through three rounds of indirect voting. The elections come in the midst of a drought, political divides, and the fight against terrorism. In his victory speech, Mohamud promised to work towards progress and unity. “Our country needs to go forward, not to go back,” the new president stated. “I will work on a brilliant tomorrow and a beautiful future for the sake of my people to live with dignity in the world. I will implement my motto: Somalia at peace with itself and with the world.” With the former president’s promises of reform left unfulfilled, hopeful eyes are turned to the new administration- though many are uncertain of its ability to shake decades of corruption, provide much-needed assistance to its people, and control the Islamist militant group, al-Shabaab

Governance and the presence of terrorism are deeply linked in Somalia. Worsening political instability and divisions have left a void that allowed al-Shabaab’s influence to increase. Omar Mahmood, senior analyst on Somalia at the International Crisis Group, describes al-Shabaab as “a symptom of political dysfunction in Somalia” and told TIME that “as long as the elites remain divided, as long as there are grievances on the ground, it will remain a very pertinent actor.”  

To help mend the issue of governance, experts such as Hodan Ali, a senior advisor to the mayor of Mogadishu, point to national reconciliation as a primary concern for the new president. “[Mohamud] has got immediate tasks of dealing with a security apparatus that has been politicized over the past five years. The military and our national security have been used to advance political agendas and drive really toxic culture within key government institutions,” she stated in Foreign Policy’s recent Africa Brief, written by journalist Nosmot Gbadamosi.  

On Monday, the president will officially inherit the myriad of political, social, humanitarian and security challenges Somalia faces today. The ongoing drought, one of the worst in decades, has displaced nearly 760,000 people and left 3.5 million at-risk of serious famine, according to the United Nations. This issue is further exacerbated by inflation and an impending food crisis caused by Somalia’s dependence on 90% of its wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine. While economic insecurity, famine and drought have all been connected to terrorist recruitment, youth unemployment has also been linked to terrorism when in the presence of factors such as corruption and ineffective governance. In a nation where 41% of children ages 14 to 19 are unemployed, poor governance is a major cause for concern. The new president’s vows to address corruption and fractured politics must come to fruition if the nation has a shot at controlling the incredibly dangerous al-Shabaab and their expansion throughout the region.

Al-Shabaab is an Islamist militant group, and is one of the world’s richest Al-Qaeda affiliates. Since Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006, the group has expanded to include their own mafia-esque taxation and court systems. According to the New York Times, many of those living in the nation’s government-controlled regions will travel miles north to have their cases tried at Shabaab-controlled courts and turn to the group’s services in times of great need. The militants use violent tactics such as recruiting child soldiers, harming civilians and attacking those they accuse of working for the government or foreign forces. In the weeks preceding the election, the group launched a massive offensive against an African Union peacekeeping base which killed at least 30 Burundian soldiers, though they claim to have killed 173. 

While there is much work to be done on Somalia’s election process, a presidential inauguration could be an opportunity for political progress through reconciliation and a  focus on institutionalizing honest, people-centric governance. If corrupt governance continues and the government fails to serve those who are suffering, it could allow Somalia to become a fertile breeding ground for terrorism which would threaten the security of both Somalia and the region.