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US congratulation for Somali politician draws fierce criticism from many quarters

Somalia

MOGADISHU — A wave of criticism, much of it directed at the US Ambassador to Somalia, has greeted Washington’s decision to congratulate a government-backed candidate’s election victory in a key northern region, raising fears of the return of anti-Americanism that swept this Horn of Africa nation in the early 1990s.

After years of delivering its diplomatic messages behind closed doors or through the so-called Somalia’s international partners, an amorphous grouping best known for its tawdry and holier-than-thou statements, the US Embassy in Mogadishu on Sunday took a rare step that was largely the preserve of Kenya and Ethiopia, Somalia’s age-old arch-rivals: To throw its weight behind a controversial regional administrator. Somalis swiftly said Washington’s backing is certain to harm the fragile political stability in the country, which is already grappling with terrorists and defective, ambiguous and foreign-imposed interim constitution.

The US’s approbation of Ahmed Abdi Kariye, a.k.a. “Qoor-qoor” was variously called “hasty,” “unwise,” “unfortunate” and “missed a golden opportunity.”

Qoor-qoor, a former minister, was on Sunday declared the winner of the position of chief administrator in Gal-Gadud and Mudug regions, a coveted title that was just days earlier also claimed by two other candidates: Ahmed Duale Haaf, the incumbent, and Sheikh Mohamed Shakir, a Sufi cleric. Qoor-qoor’s election, which was boycotted by other candidates, was marred by voter bribery and open interference by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed Farmajo and Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire, who appeared to have pulled out all the stops to get Qoor-qoor elected to the post so as he possibly helps them – separately or jointly — in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections.

In a statement, six major political parties, including the parties of two former presidents, “categorically” rejected the US Ambassador’s statement and underlined “that, in doing so, he surrendered his privilege as an honest and impartial diplomat who leverages his weigh to foster dialogue among Somalis.”

“Moreover, the position was taken by Amb. Yamamoto contradicts the core principles of good governance and promotion of democracy that are pillars of US foreign policy,” said the parties, known as the Forum for National Parties, in its statement on Monday.

The political parties’ objection to the US’s endorsement of Qoor-qoor’s win, which was also backed by China, the African Union mission in Somalia and the East African regional bloc of Intergovernmental Authority on Development, or IGAD, lays bare the level of discontent among Somalis toward foreign nations’ mostly unhelpful role in the ticklish internal affairs of their country.

Already, at least 1500 Somalis have by Feb. 5 signed an online petition calling for the removal of Yamamoto for “consistently misrepresenting the United State of America to the rest of the world” and “blindly supporting corruption of Farmaajo Government.” This dramatic move is an extraordinary reversal of fortune for a diplomat whose arrival on Nov 15, 2018 — despite his history of anti-Somalism. (He was the US ambassador to Addis Ababa when in 2006 Washington supported Ethiopia’s invasion and subsequent occupation of Somalia.) — was enthusiastically welcomed by many Somalis out of a desire to make up with the US after it reopened its Embassy in Mogadishu that was closed on Jan. 5, 1991. Washington only re-established its permanent diplomatic presence in Somalia on Dec. 2, 2018.

Judging by the blistering criticism and steadily rising tide of anti-Yamamoto, critics say, it is most likely that the overall US policy will suffer a major setback as the career diplomat —  who before coming to Mogadishu served as Washington’s acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs — will find hard to earn the trust of opposition groups at a time when the US’s political and security engagements are most needed.

Last year, Somali nationalists panned the ambassador for pushing the merger of irreconcilable ethnicities in the Horn of Africa region, an initiative condemned by many as both naive and impractical.

The African peacekeepers, whose decades-old ineffective presence irk many Somalis who consider them as no more than hired guns brought to the country to protect Western nations’ interests, are scheduled to transfer security responsibilities to Somali forces next year when also the country is expected to hold for the first time in decades a popular vote to elect a president and lawmakers.

Opposition groups and Somali elites inside and outside the country seem to have been shocked by the US’s endorsement of a governmentally in an election that was far from being free and fair.

“The US government has missed a golden opportunity to support Somalia’s reconciliation efforts and the push to hold the free and fair election in Galmudug ” Ahmed Basto, a Somali-American and critic of President Farmajo, told The Somalia Star by phone from Virginia, US. ”I am afraid we are not going in the right direction. In fact, we’re now more than at any time in the recent past headed in the wrong direction, for division, and even for civil war.

“It’s unfortunate to see the USA siding with just one candidate when there’re two other candidates claiming to be the leaders of Galmudug,” he said. “The US should have been neutral about the election in Galmudug.”

The national government’s desperation to have more say in running the affairs of regional administrations, some of which are accused of serving the interests of foreign nations, has turned local elections into a battle of nerves between opposition groups and the ruling class, with each side jockeying to install its ally as the chief administrator in key regions whose support will be crucial in determining the outcome of next year’s elections.

“The U.S. Embassy’s hasty statement supporting the illegitimate election in Galmudug will definitely undermine the supremacy of the Constitution and rules of the game,” said Hassan Sheikh Ali Nur, an international relations professor at the National University of Somalia in Mogadishu. “The US position will likely encourage illegitimate elections in the future, which in turn will produce more violence and political instability across the country.”

Last year, the national government, with the backing of Ethiopian forces under the African Union peacekeeping mission successfully — and with little resistance from the international community — anointed an ally in Baidoa, a gambit many said at the time was a part of the Farmajo administration’s strategy to deck the cards ahead of the presidential elections. 

Mogadishu expelled the then the United Nations’ envoy to Somalia, Nicholas Haysom, for writing a letter questioning the circumstances that led to the killing of 17 people in the western Somali city of Baidoa and the arrest of Mukhtar Robow, a former al- Shabab leader, who was a candidate for the post of Baidoa’s Chief Administrator.

The US Embassy said Qoor-qoor’s victory was the “beginning to a broad-based political reconciliation process,” and called on “everyone to commit to participating in a peaceful dialogue that jointly addresses the challenges facing the region and the country.”

“It is the responsibility of everyone to avoid the threat and/or use of violence,” it added.

It is not immediately clear why the US, which said it provided more than $3 billion in humanitarian assistance for Somalia since the fiscal year 2006, in fact, lent its support to a controversial figure, Qoor-qoor, who was the country’s state minister of public works until his resignation mid-last month.

According to the State Department, the “U.S. foreign policy objectives in Somalia are to promote political and economic stability, prevent the use of Somalia as a safe haven for international terrorism, and alleviate the humanitarian crisis caused by years of conflict, drought, flooding, and poor governance.”

“The United States is committed to helping Somalia’s government strengthen democratic institutions, improve stability and security, and deliver services for the Somali people,” said the department.

But Mohamed Haji Ingiriis, a fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, read unhealthy bias into Yamamoto’s congratulation.

“Yamamoto’s eyebrow-raising partiality does raise a valid question as to whether the man is indeed in bed with the failed, corrupt Farmajo administration,” said Ingiriis.

“I don’t know,” he added, “when the US will learn from its disastrous, past mistakes in Somalia and come up with positive policies that help Somalis peacefully rebuild their country.

“The good news, however, is Somalis are now more alert to the dangers posed by Yamamoto and his ilk to their nation’s recovery,” Ingiriis said.

In 1993, militiamen allied with late Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, beat back a US raid that was aimed at capturing Aideed, shooting down two US Black Hawk helicopters and killing 18 soldiers and two UN soldiers. Hundreds of Somalis were also killed during what’s popularly known as the Battle of Mogadishu. After that debacle, the US pulled its forces out of Somalia.

In the early 2000s, though, the US-funded predatory warlords who terrorized Mogadishu residents for almost 15 years.

When angry citizens ousted those criminals to restore peace to the capital, Washington snuffed out that peace by aiding Ethiopia’s bloody invasion and two-year occupation that killed tens of thousands of civilians and plunged the country once again into its present-day insecurity.

The political parties’ concern seems to be a part of the broader supremacy battle between President Farmajo and at least three chief administrators, who erroneously call themselves presidents and want to be more independent of the national government in running their region’s affairs.

The administrators accuse the national government of starving their regions of necessary resources to set them up to fail or at least keep them under the heel.

The provisional constitution, which many faults for the governance chaos wracking the nation, offers scanty clarity on how the two tiers of the Somali government can work together.

In their statement, the political parties, which are led by former President Sheik Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, blasted the US. Ambassador, Yamamoto, for “unwisely” legitimizing “ a fraudulent and manifestly corrupt electoral process bereft of inclusivity.” The parties said that they had “repeatedly” warned about a “fiasco” if the local officials are not allowed to hold a free, fair and inclusive election that can produce a legitimate administrator for the two northern regions, collectively referred to as “Galmudug”.

The parties also claimed that the national government’s “dismal record” on nation-building and interference in regional administrations’ internal affairs are a pointer to an intention to pre-determine the outcome of the upcoming presidential election.

Many seem to agree with that viewpoint.

“The US Ambassador’s congratulation for Qoor-qoor is worrying and a bad signal for the incoming election in 2021,” said Sadik Abdullahi, a Somali businessman based in Nairobi, Kenya.

He said many Somali citizens believe that the occupants of Villa, the seat of the Somali government, had “misused their authority and cruelly and unjustly hijacked the political process in Galmudug.”

Abdullahi said the US’s nod to Qoor-qoor’s controversial win will have long-term negative repercussions for the US’s Somali policy, which many argue is almost nonexistent given US ambassadors' bumbling since the early 1990s.

“The yardstick of accepting election results shouldn’t be Villa’s approval,” Abdullahi said, referring to US’s and Villa’s rejections of the election victory claimed last August by Kismayo chief administrator Ahmed Mohamed Islam, popularly known as Ahmed Madobe.

Although Former Presidents Hassan Sheik Mohamud and Ahmed, whose parties are a part of the Forum, enjoy name recognition, yet their real influence beyond the capital and financial muscle without the support of foreign countries — mainly the UAE, which doesn’t shy away from undermining Somalia’s territorial integrity — is open to question. The Mogadishu-based national government isn’t very powerful either. Its 17,000-strong army is so ill-equipped, demoralized and clannish that it depends for its survival on the much-loathed African Union peacekeepers.

The parties expressed its readiness to “contribute to a broad-based dialogue among key stakeholders in Galmudug with the view toward establishing an inclusive and viable” administration built on compromise and reconciliation.

“Any dispensation that lacks these characteristics will undoubtedly lead to further fragmentation (of the nation) and could create a vacuum that can be exploited by terrorist groups who are lurking on the sidelines,” the political parties said.