On May 15, Somali legislators selected former president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud to reprise the chief executive role he played from 2012-2017. The vote marks a critical transition for Somalia and in the Horn of Africa, particularly after the election was delayed by two years and marred by corruption and violence. President Hassan Sheikh will return to power in a country seemingly splitting at the seams, amid a devastating drought, a metastasizing terrorist threat and a fractious political scene. Meanwhile, President Biden has decided to redeploy U.S. troops to fight the terrorist group al-Shabab, reversing a move made by President Trump at the end of his term.

A newly constructed camp for people displaced by the country’s drought, in Doolow, Somalia, May 9, 2022. Somalia is facing its most severe drought in over three decades. (Malin Fezehai/The New York Times)
A camp for people displaced by the country’s drought, in Doolow, Somalia, May 9, 2022. Somalia is facing its most severe drought in over three decades as the country struggles with a severe hunger crisis. (Malin Fezehai/The New York Times)

USIP’s Susan Stigant discusses what will top Hassan Sheikh’s agenda, how the international community can help ameliorate the country’s dire humanitarian situation and why U.S. troops are returning to Somalia. 

Aside from the threat posed by al-Shabab, what are the major challenges President Hassan Sheikh will be facing in the aftermath of a contentious election? What is at the top of his agenda?

Hassan Sheikh has a complex set of leadership challenges to address. In preliminary interviews, he identified finalizing the constitution, reforming the economy, climate change, dialogue with Somaliland and reconciliation of the polarized nation as top priorities. 

Progress on any of these areas will first require consolidating and improving security. Over the past year, militias have proliferated, as have the number of guns, in Mogadishu. Some of these groups were trained, recruited and commanded in support of the previous government. However, they were not clearly integrated into the command structure or security architecture. President Hassan Sheikh needs to move quickly to pay the salaries of everyone under arms to ensure their allegiance and command loyalty to the new government. 

Improving security will also depend on countering the growing strength, reach and threats from al-Shabab. A consolidated, strengthened security sector is a necessary pillar of this approach. Fostering stability locally will be just as important. Al-Shabab has consistently gained footholds in locations where conflict continues among local authorities or between local authorities and the federal government. By contrast, in areas that are well-governed and where clans have built inclusive regional administrations, al-Shabab cannot sustain itself. 

Progress toward stabilization under Hassan Sheikh’s new government raises the need to accelerate the debt relief process. An injection of funds into the economy would create the best opportunity to grow the economy and demonstrate the new government’s ability to manage finances and fiscal policy. A growing economy will be the incentive for Somalia’s vibrant private sector to invest in the government, and, in turn, create job opportunities and improve the lives of its citizens.

With any new government, there is a limited window to make progress and demonstrate its effectiveness. International partners — namely, the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, as well as partners in the Gulf — need to move swiftly to support Hassan Sheikh with timely, relevant assistance. 

Somalia is facing its worst drought in 40 years, with more than half of its population of 16 million people experiencing food insecurity. How can the international community help? How does al-Shabab complicate these efforts?

Somalia and other parts of the Horn of Africa are facing a grave humanitarian crisis. The drought is indeed driving this crisis. Increased food prices, limited supplies and breakdown in supply chains as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are exacerbating the impact of the natural disaster.

Somalia will look to the international community to help to bridge food needs through financial and humanitarian assistance. Reaching populations in need will require access to areas controlled by the Somali government and areas controlled by al-Shabab. Humanitarian organizations operating in Somalia have deep experience in negotiating access to ensure that all Somalis, regardless of where they live, receive the assistance that they need. Hassan Sheikh’s government, together with international donor partners, could work with humanitarian organizations to explore ways to advance local stabilization while still upholding the fundamental principles of humanitarianism.

In the medium term, new leadership and additional investment will be needed to build on existing systems to anticipate and respond to drought in the region, including through the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. Somalia and the Horn of Africa have faced cycles of drought, locusts and other natural disasters over decades. Climate change will exacerbate and hasten these trends and requires urgent action, innovative local approaches and international partnerships.

President Biden has decided to redeploy U.S. special forces to combat al-Shabab. What’s behind this decision? Can it help stabilize Somalia? And how does al-Shabab threaten U.S. interests?

President Biden’s announcement that the U.S. would redeploy special forces has been understood as a signal of confidence in Hassan Sheikh’s new government and a commitment to renewed partnership between Somalia and the United States. U.S. special forces have been training and strengthening the operational capacity of Somali forces for several years. However, since December 2020, these U.S. forces were based in countries neighboring Somalia following a decision by the Trump administration. The redeployment into the country will allow for more consistent engagement and a stronger first-hand understanding of security priorities and dynamics.

The Biden administration announcement also follows a unanimous decision by the United Nations Security Council to endorse the African Union’s new transitional mission in Somalia. The AU Transitional Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) was mandated to take action against al-Qaida and armed groups allied to the Islamic State group. ATMIS will handover security responsibilities to Somalia’s government and forces in a phased and incremental manner.

Al-Shabab’s resurgence is a threat to the peace and stability of Somalia, as well as neighbors in the broader Horn of Africa region. Hassan Sheikh’s election marks an opportunity for Somalia to partner with neighboring countries to improve regional security. U.S. partnership toward this goal will be important. Kenya, which is the region’s strongest democracy, economy, and technology hub, has experienced significant attacks by al-Shabab, including incidents at a university in northern Kenya, a prominent shopping mall in the capital city and military bases. Ongoing crises in Ethiopia and Sudan raise the concern that al-Shabab could spread its recruitment, influence and threat to other strategic U.S. partners.

Strengthening Somalia’s security capabilities is a critical component to addressing al-Shabab. U.S. special forces will continue to be focused on their counterparts in Somali special forces units. Expanding U.S. support to strengthen inclusive, credible civilian security, such as police, will be needed to address Somalia’s broader security needs. Most importantly, a capable security sector must be nested within consistent political leadership by Hassan Sheikh’s government. Political dialogue at a local level is required to expand the number of Somalis living under effective, inclusive administrations, rather than al-Shabab. Hassan Sheikh then needs to demonstrate that the federal government can deliver services, govern and respond to citizens’ priorities. This will require timely financial support from international partners and engagement with Somalia’s entrepreneurial private sector.

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