Somalia: President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud may use port deals to reset relations with Ethiopia

By Mohamed Sheikh Nor
Posted on Friday, 27 May 2022 14:26

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud takes office in Mogadishu
Somalia's newly elected President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and outgoing President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed shake hands during the handover ceremony at the palace in Mogadishu, Somalia May 23, 2022. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, the former president of Somalia (2012 – 2017), is back in the saddle after a prolonged electoral process that has left the country fractured. Can he pull his country together, and reset relations with Ethiopia?

After over a year of numerous delays, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud won the polls on 15 May.

He will be seeking a more balanced relationship with neighbouring Ethiopia and the reestablishment of Somalia’s reputation as a country back on the road to recovery, both politically and economically.

President Hassan Sheikh’s two major challenges are internal: the fight against Al Shabaab militants and reconciling with the breakaway northern region of Somaliland, says Ambassador Ahmed Isse Awad, a former foreign minister of Somalia. “Unless he provides a permanent solution, the problem [will] remain.”

Solving these problems will require renewing relations with Ethiopia. Addis Ababa invaded Somalia in 2006 and again in 2010 to fight Al-Shabaab militants. It has also been attempting to broker a port deal with Somaliland to diversify its current dependence on Djibouti for access to the sea.

Towards a new Ethiopian relationship

During Hassan Sheikh’s previous term, Mohamud was considered a friend of the Ethiopian government, which was – at the time – controlled by the Tigray elite.

However, when Abiy Ahmed came to power and the Tigray government was no longer in control, many assumed that previous distrust between the two countries would remerge. Instead, the new Somali president, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo, forged close relations with Abiy.

Our new president is committed to sustaining the good relationship with Abiy, but only in the hopes that these relationships will be mutually beneficial to both countries.

Hassan Sheikh (no relation to the president), a political analyst, doubts whether Farmaajo’s good relations with Abiy were based on reciprocal interests, but rather a convenient means to garner support for Farmaajo in exchange for easy access to Somalia’s strategic seaports. In 2018, a controversial joint investment agreement to develop four Somali seaports was signed.

The analyst suggests that Somalia’s new president ought to maintain good relations with Abiy, but in a way that is mutually considerate of the interests of the two countries.

“Our new president is committed to sustaining the good relationship with Abiy, but only in the hopes that these relationships will be mutually beneficial to both countries. If the relation[ship] is the same as Farmaajo’s, this will not be possible, and I hope that the new president will question the basis of the agreement in regards to the four seaports and how Somalia could best benefit,” he says.

TPLF sympathisers in Hassan’s team?

However, there are fears that certain members of President Hassan Sheikh’s government may derail earlier efforts to improve relations between Somalia and Ethiopia.

“On the issue of Ethiopia, there may be some concerns that many in his team are known TPLF sympathisers, but Hassan is a good diplomat, so I am confident he will maintain good relations with Ethiopia, and I doubt he will succumb to pressure from TPLF sympathisers in his team who may want the president to isolate Abiy,” says Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, director of the Horn of Africa Strategic Studies.

Regardless of the new president’s beliefs, he must find a way to work with Ethiopia, says Abdisamad.

“We must understand that Ethiopia is an essential partner in Somalia; they are part of ATMIS [African Transition Mission in Somalia], so they are not an aspect Hassan can just toss away; but again, if he chooses TPLF sympathisers as his advisors, this might spell disaster for Ethiopia, because Somalia will become another TPLF hub,” he says.

Undoing a bad reputation

During his previous term in office, Hassan Sheikh’s administration developed a bad reputation internationally, due to widespread allegations of corruption. It is thought that his lacklustre performance during that period led to his defeat by Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo in 2017.

His comeback, nonetheless, has been well received by the international community, but locally, it’s a mixed bag of reactions.

“The president must, above all, live up to the promise he made when he won the seat, that he would not retaliate against anyone, including the previous regime. This will enable him to swim safely in the shark-infested waters of Somali politics and live in peace with everybody by achieving his dream of including both supporters and opponents on his team,” says Osman Hassan Wehlie, also known as Hassan Barise, a political analyst and presidential candidate who recently stood against the new president.

He says: “In addition, he must not reverse every step taken by the previous administration, as this will cause many supporters of Farmaajo to lose faith in him. He needs to win the hearts and minds of all Somalis; this can be the president’s greatest contribution to reconciliation.”

Quick facts about President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud

  • The second time president was born 66 years ago in the central Hiran region and grew up in Mogadishu, where he completed his college education. He later studied at Barkatullah University, formerly Bhopal University, and obtained a master’s degree in technical education.
  • Unlike the majority of Somalia’s intellectual elite who sought refuge outside the country during the prolonged conflict, Hassan Sheikh remained at home, serving as an educational campaigner and peace activist.
  • He, along with others, founded the now prestigious Simad University in Mogadishu, earning him a distinguished place among the local population.
  • Prior to joining politics, Hassan Sheikh was dean at the university for 10 years and resigned to form the Peace and Development Party, which later propelled him to his first presidency in 2012.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options