Somalia’s Failure: A Broken System or Lousy Leaders?


(Albany Associates / Flickr)

In most of the world’s parliamentary democracies, it’s rare to see presidents and prime ministers bickering, since their roles and responsibilities are more or less distinct and rarely overlap. However, in many African governments, power struggles between presidents and prime ministers are quite common, even when the offices have clearly defined constitutional roles.

In Somalia, the president is the head of state. His powers include appointing a prime minister and serving as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, which includes the power to declare of a state of emergency or war. The prime minister is the chief of the cabinet, guiding and overseeing the work of the other ministers. However, despite these neatly separated roles and responsibilities, Somalia is once again having great difficulty in governing itself under a power sharing system.

Although it’s designed to encourage collaboration between clans, the arrangement has yet to produce sustainable political stability, with a rift widening between President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon. The real issue between them is unclear, but according to media reports, the president recently asked the prime minister to resign due to incompetence, while the prime minister claims that the president has no constitutional power to request his resignation. The prime minister has complained that the government cannot achieve its goals because of the slim cabinet that the president had imposed on him, which has resulted in each minister being in charge of three to four ministries.

After its independence, Somalia had a parliamentary system based on political parties. But a coup d’état in 1969 installed the Siad Barre military regime, disrupting the democratic process and eventually plunging the country into civil war. Since then, a number of power-sharing agreements aimed at resolving the crisis have crumbled.

In 2000, a Transitional National Government was established in Djibouti that ended up disintegrating due to a power struggle that began with President Abdiqasim Salad Hassan and Prime Minister Ali Khalif Galaydh. Similarly, in 2002, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development organized a reconciliation conference in Kenya that gave birth to a Transitional Federal Government and a parliamentary system without any political party presence. The party system was replaced with a clan-based power-sharing formula called the 4.5 system, which awarded an equal share of parliamentary seats to Somalia’s four major clans, with a fifth retaining a half-share.

But something’s not working. Somalia’s three most recent presidents have each appointed three prime ministers, a rapid turnover rate indicating ongoing infighting between representatives of competing clans who are loathe to cede power to each other. As a result, Somalia has been plagued by a political process that is based on competition rather than cooperation and compromise. The current fallout between the president and the prime minister is a continuation of the political stalemate that has hampered Somalia’s progress for decades.

Meanwhile, precious time is being wasted on political brinkmanship rather than dealing with the innumerable challenges facing the country. Security, reconciliation, the economy, education, infrastructure, and healthcare are a few of the many issues that do not get addressed so long as the president and prime minister are locked in a power struggle. Consequently, many Somalis have lost faith in their leaders’ ability to unite the nation, which may lead the country towards another civil war and away from economic prosperity.

Therefore, the time has come for Somalia to try a different system of governance. Somali constitutional experts should review and amend the constitution from a power sharing system back to political party system in which a president and vice president from the same party are elected on the same platform.

The clan-based system has had its chance. Only through a party system, overseen by an electoral commission, can Somalia put together a government with the capacity to solve the country’s unique challenges—and bring about the political stability that has eluded it for the last two decades.

Nafisa G. Santur is a political researcher and conflict analyst based in Nairobi.

  • TimG

    I strongly disagree. Clan-based power sharing has indeed failed because it is too easily manipulated. I.e. just because the president is Hawiye, doesn’t mean all Hawiye feel represented by him. In fact, Hawiye are strongly represented in the Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama and the Al-Shabaab. Just because the Prime Minister is a Darood doesn’t mean that Puntland nor Jubaland (both Darood dominated) feel their PM represents them. (Not even speaking of Somaliland’s Isaaq being completely left out)

    Creating a party system at this stage, in which one party takes all – meaning a majoritarian system – would only make matters worse! It would create fewer winners with more power, and more losers feeling left out and thus contesting the state (even violently).

    What Somalia needs is a power-sharing system that includes Somali actors not by clan but by political groupings (i.e. ASWJ, Puntland, Al-Shabaab, etc.), that allows regional self-government, and, most importantly, indigenous conflict resolution.
    To put it bluntly, it needs a system, in which Somalis can decide what Somalia needs, with as little opportunities for internal manipulation or external interference as possible.

    What do you think?

  • bashir farah

    Bashir Farah, master in Political

    The Somali president doesn’t have
    constitutionally executive power, he is only cerimonial that’s what
    causes the conflict between the President Mohamuud and Prime Minister
    Shirdoon; Somalia, Ethiopia, Italy, and Turkey have presidents with
    little power;

    The countries that have president with
    full (executive) power are: France, Kenya, Djibuti, Eritrea, Yemen,
    Tanzania, South Africa.

    The Somali Parliament, now, should
    change the constitution into “Executive President”, or powerful Executive PM Shirdoon”.

    Click down here to countries that have
    week or strong President:

  • 1nycdem1

    Nafisa Santur has summed up the failure of the TFG, but from the start, the TFG has never actually controlled a great deal of territory, has it? Everything I’ve read on Somalia emphasizes the strength of the clans and sub-clans, many of whom seem to view political power in zero-sum terms. If that’s the case, isn’t it an argument for greater decentralization? Somaliland seems to be the best functioning region; why not recognize its independence, strengthen it as much as possible, and try to transfer what works in Somaliland to the other regions, granting them all as much autonomy as possible, even if it means granting political autonomy to areas that are quite small? This would lessen the issue of ethnicity in political debates within the different self-governing regions and might help politicians focus on improving the lots of their constituents, since their constituents would all belong to their clan (more or less). I don’t mean to say this type of partition would be easy, but what’s the alternative? What incentive does Somaliland have, for example, ever to cede any political authority to the TFG? Why not partition the country along lines that already exist, aiming for an eventual confederation or EU-like area for free trade and free movement of labor? I’ve hardly seen anyone suggest that dividing Somalia into smaller self-governing units might be a solution to its problems, but I don’t understand why not. I’d love to hear what others think about this.

    • 1nycdem1

      And to be clear: I think I’m going further than TimG when he mentions regional self-government, which sounds like a Catalonia-in-Spain type of solution. I’m suggesting that the regions be divided up as autonomous nations with the right to enforce border controls–the EU-like freedom of trade and labor movement being deferred until political stability has taken root.