The World's Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia - James Fergusson (2013)


Chapter 5. The failure of Somali politics

Villa Somalia presidential complex, March 2011

Mohamed Omaar, Somalia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, leaned back in his office chair. He was just explaining to me why he had returned from the safety of exile to take on this most challenging of jobs, his sense of national duty and the need he felt to form a bridge to the rest of the world, when he was interrupted by an ear-crushing BADOOOOOM from outside. The office’s single window was protected by sandbags piled up on its sill, but the blast was so near and so powerful that the glass briefly rippled, like the surface of the water in a bath when you bang the side of the tub. One of my eyelids slowly dipped of its own accord. It was a comedy twitch, worthy of Herbert Lom, the Inspector Dreyfus actor in the Pink Panther films.

‘Shelling?’ said the minister with a thin smile. ‘It is like water off a duck’s back to us . . . But don’t worry, I expect that one was outgoing.’

Before I could answer, a machinegun opened up, loud and near, and then, just as the noise stopped again, all the lights went out. From a chink in the sandbags the gloom was pierced by a hot needle of sunshine that fell across the desk between us, the beam filled with motes of crazily tumbling dust.

‘Don’t worry,’ he said again, his glasses glinting. ‘This is normal. All normal.’

When the lights came on again – the presidential complex was equipped with back-up generators, so we didn’t have to wait for long – he checked to see I was still listening before carrying on exactly where he had left off; although I was, frankly, having trouble concentrating. It was less than twenty minutes since a Casspir had dropped me off on the parade ground outside, and my shirt was still sticking to my back from the flak-jacketed, sweat-bathed drive through the centre of town. It had taken many days of difficult phone calls to secure an interview with any TFG minister, and more effort still to persuade AMISOM to give me a ride, despite the shortness of the journey here, a mere ten minutes from the airport. In any normal city, I would certainly have walked it. But now that I was here, the Villa Somalia complex, the seat of every president since independence in 1960 and the country’s most conspicuous symbol of political power, felt a lot more dangerous than I had expected. Set on high ground in the centre of the city, it commanded an excellent view of the port area and the ocean beyond. The walls facing inland, though, were disconcertingly peppered with bullet holes. It seemed an extraordinary place from which to try to govern a country. Omaar’s sangfroid was not put on: this really was his ordinary working environment.

His point, in the end, was a simple one: the keys to Somalia’s future lay in the hands of the country’s immense diaspora.

‘The speaker and the prime minister have put aside the vested interests of the warlords,’ he said, ‘and for the first time, they have reached out to the diaspora – to our skilled people, our trained people, our educated people – with the message that they are the ones we need to rebuild our country. There is no shortage of talent out there. The only question is: do we have enough carrots to lure them back?’

The civil war, he explained, had driven perhaps two million of his countrymen abroad, and they had gone to every corner of the globe. An entire generation had since grown up there, absorbing not just foreign educations but different languages, values, ideas. It was not just that the diaspora could, potentially, provide Somalia with all the petro-engineers or investment bankers it needed (although Omaar’s assertion that the London equities desk of Goldman Sachs was filled with Somalis, or that one in six managing directors at Morgan Stanley was Somali, was surely an exaggeration). What he meant was that, through their discovery of a viable alternative to the stultifying clan system that had perpetuated the violence here for so long, those exiles could have a civilizing, almost revolutionary influence on the home country. They represented the best chance of modernizing Somali society since Siad Barre’s experiments with socialism in the 1970s, if only they could be persuaded to come back and impart what they had learned.

Omaar and his ministerial colleagues were not hypocrites in this regard. Almost all of them were returnees from abroad, half of them from America, who had given up good jobs and safe, suburban homes in order to come here. The prime minister, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed but universally known as Farmaajo,* was entirely typical of the cabinet he appointed: he was from Buffalo, New York, where he had worked for years as a commissioner for equal employment in the state’s Department of Transport.

Unusually in this cabinet, Omaar was from Britain: the brother of Rageh, the well-known television presenter who made his name covering the Iraq invasion for the BBC in 2003. There was only a faint resemblance to the ‘Scud Stud’, as the Washington Post once dubbed Rageh. Mohamed’s build was broader and he was considerably older, with a neatly trimmed moustache and hair that had receded to a corona of grey. Their father, a Somaliland businessman and property magnate, moved his children to London in the 1960s in order to educate them. Mohamed duly attended a smart boarding school in Dorset, and went on to graduate from Trinity College, Oxford. I found him an eloquent, civilized, thoughtful man, the complete opposite of the Western warlord stereotype. He spoke fluent English but with a slightly patrician accent that somehow added to his gravitas and plausibility. You could see at once why Farmaajo had chosen him as foreign minister.

‘Somalia’s problems can easily be solved, but only if the West has the political will,’ he said. ‘Sierra Leone is the proof of what direct intervention can achieve. If it worked there, why not in Somalia?’

I thought perhaps he had a point. For almost a decade now, the international community’s strategy had been focused on ‘containing’ Somalia’s problems rather than on helping to solve them. The TFG, formed in 2004 with the backing of the UN, was the country’s fifteenth attempt in twenty years to form a functioning central government. It was by definition a temporary institution, intended to be replaced as soon as possible by an elected government rather than an appointed one.* Yet the transition to a proper federal democracy had been dragging on for seven years now. There had been two presidents since 2004, and Farmaajo was the fourth prime minister. No doubt the international community did need to apply more pressure, although that was never going to solve the country’s problems by itself. Somalis also had to want to help themselves. Sadly, though, not all of them did.

The most pressing political problem was that the TFG’s mandate was due to expire in four months’ time, by when the parliament was supposed to have ratified the new federal constitution necessary for a general election. It was looking highly unlikely, however, that the deadline would be met, because parliament had been paralysed for months by a bitter power struggle between ‘the two Sharifs’, the president, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, and the powerful speaker of parliament, Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden.

Their animosity was exacerbated by the politics of the clumsy 4.5 power-sharing formula, according to which the position of president had always been reserved for a member of the Hawiye clan, and that of speaker for the Rahanweyn. Later that year, at the fortified entrance to the Villa Somalia, four men were killed when a gun battle broke out between the president’s guards and the speaker’s Rahanweyn entourage, who objected to surrendering their weapons as they came in. Political reformers were appalled, although to ordinary Somalis, the shoot-out was no more than a reversion to the national norm – for was not violence the traditional way of resolving a dispute between clans? The TFG’s problems were certainly huge, and in Mohamed Omaar’s view, unless the UN started knocking heads together, then the TFG’s mandate would run out and the country would soon arrive at yet another morale-sapping, war-prolonging political impasse.

The parliament was singled out by many as the greatest block to progress. I saw the debating chamber for myself, later that summer: a small, hot, low-ceilinged basement, safe from al-Shabaab mortar fire beneath the post-apocalyptic remains of the old Italian-built Parliament House in Wardhiigley. It was empty when I visited, save for a sleepy janitor and several tall piles of blue plastic chairs, and seemed to exude bureaucratic lassitude. An extraordinary 550 MPs were supposed to work here: more, even, than to be found in democracies the size of Nigeria or India.* Furthermore, on the rare occasions that it met, this bloated body frequently struggled to reach the quorum necessary to legislate.

Efforts to reform the institution had so far been resisted by the speaker, who effectively controlled it through his large faction of MPs. He treated parliament as his private fiefdom. A former international qat trader, as well as a former finance minister, he was reputed to be a very wealthy man, with a stake in every large government contract going. His nickname was Sheikh Sakiin – Sheikh Razorblade – because you never noticed the pain of the cut he inflicted until afterwards. Nothing got in the way of his business interests. He was even rumoured to have links to fellow Rahanweyn clansmen within the high leadership of al-Shabaab.

Sheikh Razorblade was naturally suspicious of the reform-minded new prime minister, and tried to block his appointment from the start. Parliamentary business was halted for a fortnight while he and Sheikh Sharif squabbled over whether a parliamentary vote to confirm Farmaajo’s nomination should be done by a show of hands or, as the speaker wanted, by secret ballot. The speaker’s position was absurd: MPs had voted with their hands on this matter for over fifty years. Yet it took the intervention of the Supreme Court to resolve the impasse, along with delegations from the UN, the AU and IGAD, the region’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development. Afterwards, the head of the UN, Ban Ki-Moon himself, was moved to write the Somali leadership a letter of congratulation. It was outrageous, but it seemed that Somalia’s speaker of parliament could hold the world to ransom if he chose.

Considering the obstacles, Farmaajo’s cabinet of technocrats weren’t doing at all badly. They had only been in power for four months but had already instigated some significant reforms. The regulations governing loans from the notoriously leaky central bank had been tightened. A report had been published on the profit and expenditure details of the government’s numerous foreign contracts, an exercise in transparency previously unheard of in Mogadishu. Farmaajo had halved the number of ministerial portfolios, and put a stop to the private jet travel that the previous government enjoyed. In short he was behaving like a public servant rather than a kleptocrat, and that was unusual in Somalia, a country widely considered the most corrupt in the world.*

Farmaajo’s stand had made him popular in many circles, but it had also created some dangerous enemies in certain others. Omaar was too much of a diplomat to say whether or not he thought the speaker was corrupt. We talked instead about the role of Islam in Somalia’s future. Surprisingly, considering his Westernized background, Omaar envisaged a very substantial one. He had no wish to reverse the process of Islamification that had swept his country since the early 1990s. On the contrary, he regarded Sharia law, properly applied, as an important part of the solution to Somalia’s problems.

‘Sharia only becomes a danger when it is not properly codified through the central intellectual and judicial institutions,’ he said. ‘The Council of Ulema [religious scholars] in this country is a reasonably broad church. Unfortunately, the extremists got a head start when the ICU collapsed. But there was a period of about six months when the ICU successfully imposed law and order – which is what Somalis want and need more than anything.’

He went on to describe how, in his native Hargeisa, female money changers were able to operate in perfect safety on the street, even after midnight.

‘And when they go home, they simply lock their money in a metal mesh box, which they leave right there on the street. No one ever steals it!’

Islam, he was convinced, was more than merely popular among Somalis. Over the years, it had become the very basis of civil society.

‘When I am in Hargeisa I like to go for walks in the very early morning. There are mosques everywhere – three of them within five minutes of my house – and each morning, for the fajr prayer at 5 a.m., they are always completely full.’

It was far too late, he said, to turn back the clock. Islamification had happened by a process of what he called ‘force majeure’. The Italian civil code applied by the judiciary in the 1960s had been ‘unpicked’ by the years of socialism in the 1970s and 1980s, before being smashed altogether in the chaos of the 1990s; and only the imams had proved able to fill the void. The West had therefore better learn to work with the grain of Islamic tradition instead of always struggling against it, a message which he had put at the heart of his mission as Minister of Foreign Affairs.

‘The president is regarded with suspicion when he speaks up for Islam, but I am perceived a little differently . . . I spoke on this subject at the UN Security Council in 2009. I think I have sold the idea to the US. We have to be practical.’

His notion of practicality did not extend to negotiating with al-Shabaab.

‘The leadership is hard core, and I think there is no cure for them. The educated ulema in America and elsewhere have declared their jihad illegitimate. When they declare every member of the government, from the president down to the humblest cleaning lady, to be an apostate or a kafir – how can anyone take that seriously?’

His question was answered by another burst of machinegun fire from outside. As before, Omaar simply ignored it.

‘The threat here is not al-Qaida,’ he went on. ‘Somalis by character are too independent-minded to follow any foreign ideology for long. That is part of the reason for the chaos. Everyone is a prima donna. You can’t get them to agree on bloody anything.’

There was nothing new about this characteristic. Their innate belligerence was not so much described as celebrated in this well-worn Somali proverb:

I against my brother.

I and my brother against the family.

I and my family against the clan.

I and my clan against Somalia.

I and Somalia against the world.

The parliament, although characterized most of the time by inertia, was also the occasional scene of spectacular drama, as arguments between MPs got out of hand. In January 2012, a dispute led to a fist-fight so intense that it had to be broken up by AMISOM troops, and four MPs were taken to hospital with serious head injuries.

Omaar thought that the greatest danger was not Islamism but the country’s ‘statelessness’, which made it susceptible to hijack by warlords and, particularly, pirates.

‘Al-Qaida is a poor, miserable thing, but the piracy is El Dorado. There are 20,000 vessels passing through Somali waters every year, and millions – billions – to be made. The young here are already at great risk. They have never even seen a functioning state. And when you add in the temptation of that waterway to a fierce fighting tradition . . . if the West doesn’t get serious about this place, we could end up with a variation of the Columbian narco-state.’

Yarisow, Farmaajo’s head of communications, entered the room then, calling Omaar ‘Excellency’ and whispering in his ear. Omaar politely excused himself – he was deputizing for Farmaajo, who was abroad, and he had to attend to some state business – but asked Yarisow to show me downstairs to wait in the cabinet room. This nerve centre of Somali government turned out to be a large, gloomy, T-shaped space that smelled of damp and dust, and which appeared not to have been decorated since the 1970s. A low-voltage flicker emanated from a backlit red glass waterfall. Fat, brown leather sofas and armchairs were arranged around the edges of the room, interspersed with shiny reproduction side tables and swirly-patterned rugs. In the centre, beneath a pair of faux-art-deco chandeliers the colour of crème-de-menthe, was an over-varnished, English-style dining table set with eighteen chairs, all empty except at one end where two men sat nattering with their feet up. From the way they scurried out when they saw Yarisow, I suspected they were cleaners on a break.

If the cabinet room felt under-used, that was partly because the government did much of its real business elsewhere, in Nairobi or Kampala or Addis Ababa. Indeed, it was quite rare to find all eighteen members of the cabinet together in Mogadishu at the same time. The city’s dangers simply made it impractical for regular meetings. UN officials complained that it was difficult to engage with the political process when the country’s top politicians were away all the time. Somalis, however, retorted that UNPOS, the UN’s Political Office for Somalia, had been based in Nairobi for more than sixteen years. The UN’s Special Representative for Somalia, the Tanzanian diplomat Augustine Mahiga, routinely flew into Mogadishu for important meetings – purely to shake hands in front of the cameras, according to his detractors – before returning to the safety of Nairobi the same day.* Mogadishu, it seemed, was not a place that anyone lingered in longer than they had to.

It was probably significant that the cabinet room hadn’t been decorated since the 1970s, for that was the decade when the dream of pan-Somali nationalism really died – killed off, perhaps, by Siad Barre’s overweening regional ambitions that culminated in his disastrous invasion of Ethiopia in 1977. In the centre of the conference table was a papier-mâché flowerpot painted in the colours of the national flag – blue, with a white star in the centre – and even this bespoke the sad narrative of Somalia’s failure as a state.

The flag was designed in the 1950s in preparation for independence, an era of hope and optimism and nationalistic fervour – the last time, perhaps, that Somalis could genuinely look forward to the future. The star was a ‘star of unity’, the points of which symbolized the five Somali-inhabited regions that nationalists dreamed would one day come together to form Somaliweyn, a Greater Somalia: French, British and Italian Somaliland, plus the Ogaden in Ethiopia and the North Eastern Province of Kenya. The blue background, meanwhile, copied and honoured the flag of the United Nations, under whose ten-year ‘trusteeship’ the colonies were then governed.

But the UN failed in its role of midwife; the infant country it delivered was an unhappy, misshapen thing. British Somaliland – which simply dropped the word ‘British’ to become ‘Somaliland’ – immediately regretted unifying with the former Italian colony to the south, and has been trying to separate from them again almost ever since. French Somaliland went its own way and became Djibouti in 1977. The claim on the Ogaden led to a disastrous war with Ethiopia, which destroyed any appetite there might have been to test Kenya’s commitment to its North Eastern Province.

The UN, guiltily determined to help its malformed progeny, returned for three years as peacekeepers in 1992. ‘UNOSOM’ became the largest UN operation in the world, with 30,000 staff and a cost of $1.5bn a year, but it was still powerless to prevent Somalia from spinning even further apart. Now, in the twenty-first century, the UN had returned once more, this time as sponsors – some would say puppet-masters – of the African Union and the TFG. The flag, though, is unchanged: an unhappy symbiosis of nationalist white and international blue, and the only one in the world to depict a nation state that has never existed and that almost certainly never will.

The gunfire outside had stopped for a while but now began to pick up again. Yarisow left the room, his fingers jabbing at a mobile phone, then reappeared with the reassuring news that it was all suppressive, outgoing fire. But he also mentioned that the ear-splitting explosion we had heard earlier was caused not by an outgoing shell, as Minister Omaar had suggested, but by a large, incoming one. An 82mm mortar round had exploded in the parade ground right in front of the building’s entrace, a spot that I had crossed less than an hour previously. I wondered if Omaar had known all along. Yarisow didn’t answer when I asked if anyone had been hurt, but remarked mildly it might be best for me to wait until the exchange of fire had calmed down before leaving.

I wasn’t the only one forced to shelter from the metal storm. First came the Minister of Information, Abdulkareem Jama, a clean-cut, bespectacled man with a strong American accent. He turned out to be from Falls Church, Virginia, and used to work as an IT manager for a small commercial publishing firm in Washington. Next to arrive was Mohamed Nur, the speckle-bearded mayor of Mogadishu, a returnee from north London.

I had read about ‘Tarzan’, as he was nicknamed, because his extraordinary career path had attracted the attention of several British journalists recently. From 1993 until his appointment in 2010, he had lived a quiet life in London with his wife and six children. A local business advisor, he had once run an internet café called Easyreach on the Seven Sisters Road. One of the high points of his previous professional life came when he contested the Camden Council seat of Fortune Green on behalf of the Labour Party in 2006, even though he lost.

He had greater success in Mogadishu, where he was admired by many for his efforts to restore some sense of normality to municipal government.

‘My first objectives here were very basic: to improve security, to clean up the markets, to put some lighting on the main streets. But I didn’t inherit a single tool from my predecessor. Not even a wheelbarrow.’

His budget came entirely from levies on goods arriving at the seaport, money that for years had been paid in cash straight into the pockets of the city’s administrators. Nur made his first, dangerous enemies when he ordered that in future this money should be paid into a traceable bank account. Among the first officials to object was his own deputy. Nur quickly suspended him, but was unable to permanently fire him because he had been appointed, for clan-political reasons, by the president.

‘I told my family when I took this job that death was a real possibility,’ he said. ‘But if I die with my principles intact, that’s OK by me.’

There was no mistaking his sincerity. Nur defined his mission in Mogadishu in almost messianic terms.

‘Ninety per cent of the people here are traumatized without even knowing it,’ he said. ‘They have tremendous mental problems. They have been living for years in a dark cage, with no windows, no toilets, with nothing but the awful sound of fighting in their ears, so afraid that they soil themselves . . . and they think this is a normal life. Our job is to break the window, to let in the light and show them, that is normality.’

Soon after his appointment, and with this light-disseminating mission in mind, Nur decided to hold a cultural festival.

‘I wanted it to be like the market at Camden Lock,’ he told me. ‘My dream was to have the streets filled with people walking around, enjoying themselves.’

Fairs and festivals were once common in Mogadishu, for Somalia’s musical and literary heritage is a particularly rich one, although as Nur pointed out, ‘No one has congregated for pleasure in Mogadishu for over twenty years – only for politics.’ Armed with $15,000 provided by the UN, he set about hiring troupes of folk dancers, musicians, caterers. Poets were specially commissioned to write, and recite, new works for the occasion. Singers from Waaberi, a famous Somali supergroup, were invited to take part: the first time anyone had heard of them since the late 1990s. Word quickly spread among the public. It was the best and most exciting thing to happen in the city for years.

The crowds were dense from the moment the festival opened, at 8.30 a.m. one February morning. Exactly one hour and ten minutes later, the party came to a sudden end when men loyal to one of Nur’s predecessors as mayor, a notorious warlord called Mohamed Dheere, arrived in two armed trucks and opened fire. Four people were killed and sixteen wounded.

‘Dheere is just a thug – a cold man,’ Nur said bitterly. ‘He wants chaos – and he might even get away with it yet.’

Dheere, he explained, had been arrested and imprisoned, and was supposed to be tried by a military court for the attack, but the trial had been deferred following pressure through his Hawiye Abgaal clan.

‘My impression is that when someone invokes clan loyalty, they are very often working not in that clan’s interests but in their own . . . Dheere has been given special treatment in his cell. He even hired the chief prosecutor’s office to defend him! How is that possible? Don’t talk to me about an independent judiciary. There is none here.’

Warlordism was evidently still a force to be reckoned with in Mogadishu. The warlords used the clan system against the government, and so did the business community, for whom the restoration of civic order meant the reimposition of taxes they had evaded for years.

‘This government is trying to restore a culture of honesty, but it is like trying to swim against the waves of the Indian Ocean.’

Any lack of progress, he added, was not the fault of the government, but of the president: a remark that caused Yarisow, who was listening in to our conversation, to look up sharply. Nur, appointed mayor directly by Sheikh Sharif, was now overtly biting the hand that had fed him. I recalled that the president was a member of the same Hawiye Abgaal clan as Nur’s nemesis, Mohamed Dheere.

‘The leadership is the problem,’ he persisted. ‘Sheikh Sharif has not fulfilled our expectations, or those of the Somali people. He is too indecisive. It takes an age to move a bottle from here to here.’

This diatribe was interrupted by the arrival of a stern-looking man in an unusually tall white kufi cap and a heavily embroidered robe. Yarisow coughed and introduced the Minister for Presidential Affairs, Abdulkadir Moallin Noor.

‘He is also from London,’ Yarisow added, conversationally. ‘He is the head of Ahlu Sunna. He is a very important man.’

This was naked flattery, dressed up as an explanation to a clueless gaalo. There were political undercurrents at work here, internal rivalries to do with clan and religion that I, as an outsider, was in no way equipped to detect. As the presidential gatekeeper and the leader of the ASWJ, the government’s most important local military ally, the new arrival obviously was an important man. At the same time, he was patently not a member of Farmaajo’s club of technocrats. He didn’t just dress differently, but spoke differently too. The atmosphere in the room had perceptibly cooled.

‘You are British,’ he observed, through narrowed eyes.

‘Yes. Where did you live in London?’

‘Battersea,’ he said, in a tone that did not invite further inquiry.

He took me by an elbow then and, leading me to one side, launched into a low, fast monologue, a kind of justificatory introduction to himself that he must have delivered often before.

‘I am the Khalifa,’ he began. ‘It means “the Successor”. My father was a big spiritual leader of Ahlu Sunna and I took over from him when he died two years ago. Ahlu Sunna is a peace-loving organization: a 100 per cent Sufi organization, with followers all over the world. When I fly to London, two hundred people turn out to meet me at Heathrow. With flags. My father started over a thousand madrassahs, and built forty-six mosques in Mogadishu alone. We used to be a simple aid organization: we ran food camps that fed five hundred or six hundred people at a time. But when al-Shabaab began to desecrate our graves, we were forced to fight. See?’

I saw; although, privately, I was wondering about the Khalifa’s relationship with the enigmatic president. Who was really in charge here?

Earlier that day at AMISOM headquarters, I had heard a rumour that Sheikh Sharif had recently sold a truckload of weapons to one of the clan militias fighting for the TFG army – which was supposed to be the nucleus of an essential institution of the state. This was the sort of behaviour Somalis had come to expect of warlords, not of the God-fearing former leader of the Islamic Courts Union. Was Sheikh Sharif merely monetarily corrupt? Or was he, as I thought more likely, another kind of victim, a leader somehow ensnared by the competing vested interests of clan and creed that seemed to dominate all political discourse in this country? If the stories about him were even half true, Sheikh Sharif had surely lost sight of what was best for Somalia.

The gunfire outside had subsided. Yarisow materialized again, a mobile phone still clamped to his ear, informing me that an AMISOM convoy was waiting outside, and that I needed to move fast if I wanted to get back to the base before nightfall. I humped on my soggy flak jacket again, while extracting business cards and promises of another invitation to the Villa Somalia. And then I was running through the gates to the back of a Casspir, which lurched away in a cloud of diesel smoke before the rear doors were fully closed, the top-gunner in his turret crouched and unusually alert.

I didn’t know it then, but Farmaajo’s promising new administration was already doomed, with less than four more months in office before them. They were the sacrificial victims of the power struggle between the president and the speaker. In June 2011, in Kampala, the two Sharifs agreed to extend their own mandates and postpone a general election for another year. The parliament had earlier unilaterally extended its mandate by three years; the speaker’s price for getting parliament to agree to an earlier election date was the dismissal of Farmaajo.

The public was outraged by the so-called Kampala Accord. Sheikh Sharif was clearly taken aback by the strength of public feeling it generated. Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets not just in towns across Somalia but in nine capitals around the world.

‘What they have a problem with,’ Mayor Nur told the Toronto Star, ‘is that two people go and decide the fate of this government without considering the feelings of this population.’

Or, for that matter, the feelings of Farmaajo’s cabinet – for it was no small risk these officials had taken when they came back to serve their country. In June 2011, just days before the government fell, the Interior Minister, Abdishakur Sheikh Hassan Farah, was killed in his home by a suicide bomber. He was the sixth TFG minister to be murdered by the militants.

What made Farah’s death particularly chilling was that the suicide bomber was his own niece, a bright university student called Haboon Qaaf, whose tuition fees he had been paying. According to a family friend I later interviewed,* Haboon had complained about being frisked each time she came to see her uncle, who ordered his guards to make an exception for her. She took advantage of this soft-heartedness on her very next visit. No one had any idea when or how she had been recruited by al-Shabaab, and could only guess at what had driven her to an act of such nihilism. Just weeks before the attack, according to the friend, Haboon had spoken cheerfully about qualifying one day as a doctor; her studies suggested an investment in the future that did not begin to fit with the mindset necessary to commit suicide.

The president appeared as unmoved by this tragedy as he was by the Kampala Accord protests, which he declared ‘illegal’. Soon afterwards he appointed the Minister of Planning, the economist Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, as his fifth prime minister, a move that sparked further protests from Somalis fearful that he was little more than a placeman. Farmaajo could have joined the protests. He was popular enough, probably, to take to the desert and start a small revolution. But he was not a man of violence, and instead appealed for calm. And then he quietly returned to New York, where his old job with the Department of Transport in Buffalo had sagely been kept open for him.*

The Sharifs were expected to maintain at least some governmental continuity by agreeing to keep on the key ministers, but they were unable to compromise even on this, and in the end the whole cabinet was fired. The exasperation among the international officials whose job it was to mentor the process was palpable.

‘It is reptile politics,’ said Richard Rouget, AMISOM’s French military adviser, who had wasted months building up a relationship with the Minister of Defence. ‘Somalis think: “If I kill my enemy, even if killing him kills me too, then I’ve still won.” It is blinkered and destructive: the politics of the playground.’

As before, many of the new cabinet ministers were incomers from the diaspora who would have to learn their jobs from scratch. The calibre of some of them was questionable too. The worldly Mohamed Omaar, for instance, was replaced by Mohamed Mohamud Hajji Ibrahim, a learning support teacher at the Newman Catholic College in Brent, north London. Although Ibraham held a degree in international relations, his main qualification appeared to be that he belonged to a sub-clan of the Rahanweyn, like the speaker. Ibrahim’s former employer, Newman College’s headmaster Richard Kolka, was as surprised as anyone by the news. ‘I was amazed and awestruck,’ he told journalists. ‘He was always such a humble guy. I’d no idea he was involved in the political life of his country, let alone at such an important level.’2

The disadvantages of the crude 4.5 formula were made plain once more. The urgent business of producing a constitution and reforming parliament, Richard Rouget reckoned, was set back by at least another three months and perhaps by as many as six. The self-defeating cycle of Somali politics had begun all over again.

* The nickname means ‘Cheese’, a word lifted directly from the Italian colonists who popularized the commodity.

* Government positions were divvied up among the clans according to the notorious ‘4.5 formula’, which is to say, equally among the four main clans, with the remaining ethnic minorities swept up into that ‘0.5’.

* When the TFG was established in 2004, there were 275 MPs. That number doubled when the TFG reconciled with ARS, Sheikh Sharif’s Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia, following the Djibouti Accord of 2008.

* Somalia has come bottom of Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index every year since 2007. In June 2012, the World Bank reported a $130m (£85m) discrepancy in the TFG’s accounts over two years. In July 2012, the UN Monitoring Group alleged that $7 in every $10 of international aid received by the TFG from 2009 to 2010 never made it into the state’s coffers. President Sheikh Sharif dismissed both charges as ‘baseless and unfounded propaganda’.

* Mahiga at last took the symbolically vital step of relocating his office to Mogadishu in January 2012.

* This was Abdihakim Mohamoud Haji Faqi, the Minister of Defence.

* Farmaajo’s return to the US was not quite the end of his political career in Somalia. To everyone’s surprise, in July 2012 he announced he was quitting his job in Buffalo in order to run against Sheikh Sharif in the presidential election. ‘I’m giving Somali politics another shot because I believe in serving the common cause for the motherland,’ he said.1