As Somalia’s President and PM Battle, the Constitution Gives Way Again to Realpolitik

Official announcement of PM's cabinet re-shuffle. Credit: Radio Muqdisho

Official announcement of PM’s cabinet re-shuffle. Credit: Radio Muqdisho

The ongoing power struggle between Somalia’s President and Prime Minister has intensified as PM Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed announced a re-shuffle of key ministers in his cabinet.

In a 25 October 2014 statement, the PM removed the Farah Sheikh Abdulkadir — President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s right-hand man — from the position of Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs and re-assigned him as Minister of Veterinary and Animal Husbandry, among other changes.

The man seen as the incubator of the President’s administration and controversial federalism process is set to familiarize himself with the scientific equivalent of his political exploits.

Lucky (or unlucky) for Farah Sheikh, many ministries exist solely for the purpose of representing the allocation of clan representation rather than competent policymaking bodies.

The conflict between Hassan Sheikh and Abdiweli Sheikh is the most recent iteration of a perennial crisis last seen when ex-PM Abdi Farah Shirdon was dismissed in a no-confidence motion from parliament in December 2013.

Current tensions were elevated significantly this past September after PM Abdiweli sacked intelligence chief Abdullahi Mohamed “Sanbaloshe” — who was close to the President and had only been in power for two months.

In response to the reshuffle, President Hassan Sheikh reportedly claimed that the PM’s move was “null and void,” stating, “the so-called cabinet reshuffle made today by the Prime Minister is null and void and will not impact the work of the ministers.

However, a closer look at the provisional constitution reveals the president’s claim as a flimsy — if not false — argument.

As can be seen in the PM’s statement, he justifies this move by referring to his powers under Article 100(a) and (b):
The responsibilities of the Prime Minister are to:
(a) Be the Head of the Federal Government;
(b) Appoint and dismiss members of the Council of Ministers.
In this article, there is no mention of the PM needing to consult with the President.
The PM also refers to Article 97(3), which states:
The Prime Minister shall appoint deputy prime ministers, ministers, state ministers, and deputy ministers. Those eligible for membership of the Council of Ministers may be, but shall not be limited to, members of the House of the People of the Federal Parliament.
Again, there is no mention of the President being required to be involved in the process.

President Hassan Sheikh may feel like he has some constitutional leverage over the PM’s right to dismiss cabinet ministers through Article 90(e), which says:

The potentially legally ambiguous aspect of this case is that Article 90(e) says the President has the right to “dismiss ministers, state ministers and deputy ministers on the recommendation of the Prime Minister (emphasis added).
However, the President cannot claim any constitutional wrongdoing because Article 90(e) in no way prevents the PM from invoking the unilateral right to dismiss or reshuffle ministers.

So why all the fuss?

The provisional constitution is a sufficiently ambiguous and weakly followed document that when coupled with already weak institutions like the federal parliament, it creates an environment where RealPolitik is a more dominant factor than it would be otherwise.

Political resources, social/clan mobilization, and money are important in any country’s political context — but in the absence of strong institutions they are allowed to rule virtually uncontested.

Born Weak, Born Strong

The PM is always in a highly vulnerable position in today’s Somalia.

The officeholder is selected by the President, and there is little reason for the President to appoint someone who could pose a serious challenge to his inherent (as opposed to constitutional) power.

This means that the President is essentially choosing his rival — not his partner — within the government leadership.

In addition, the PM’s position is always under threat from a no-confidence motion tabled in the Parliament, or like now, the potential mass resignation of his cabinet as organized by his political rivals.

The gauntlet is never far from falling.

In comparison, the president’s position is far more protected from dismissal — bar attempted attacks on his life.

Even when some MPs threatened to impeach President Hassan Sheikh in May 2014, it became clear that the absence of key institutions like the constitutional court would prevent such a process from being able to legally occur.

A politically invincible president, it seems.

The other reality is that the Prime Minister’s cabinet formation is led not by the PM, but by a carefully orchestrated negotiation with the President where clan affiliation and personal/political influence are more important than competency.

The cabinet of ministers in effect is the offspring of the PM and President — and the President always gets custody in the case of a divorce.

There are increasing rumors that the PM is set to face a no-confidence motion tabled by the parliament, or alternatively, witness ministers allied to the President resign en masse.

Some sources have indicated that the parliament route is more “expensive” (due to vote-buying) or that sufficient support for the PM remains among MPs — leaving the exodus of ministers as the likely weapon of choice.

And it makes sense.

All indications show that Farah Sheikh Abdulkadir — who previously had one of the most important government portfolios in his hands — will not stay in the cabinet to serve under a position that effectively puts in the political basement.

The mass resignation of key ministers itself would not bring down the government but would put immense political pressure on the PM to resign. The exodus would serve as a strong symbol of his weakness as head of government.

Another key question is whether key ministers such as Goodax Barre — Minister of the Interior and Federalism — will side with the President or PM as this crisis moves forward. If Goodax resigns, it would mean losing a very influential position and would be a costly move if PM Abdiweli survives the crisis.

But history is not a kind indicator of this possibility.

Instead, jumping from the PM’s proverbial sinking ship and siding with the President could improve the chances (but far from guarantee) that he and perhaps other ministers in a similar position could receive equitable or better positions either at the federal or regional level — if not financial compensation — in the future.

Unless PM Abdiweli defies history, it is a question of “when” not “if” his government will fall.

Political Progress Delayed

Lifespan of Somali PMs. Credit: @Mukhtaryare
Lifespan of Somali PMs. Credit: @Mukhtaryare

If the PM is inevitably forced out of his position, it would mean Somalia would fall further behind in its bid to finish the formation of Federal Member States, prepare for democratic elections in 2016, and complete work on the provisional constitution.

With time increasingly becoming a luxury good to accomplish these key tasks, the process to select a new Prime Minister would take several months. The President would be allowed 30 days to nominate a replacement, the parliament would have 30 more days to confirm the new head of government, and the PM would have his or her own period of 30 days to form a new cabinet.

How long would it be then before a new crisis emerges?

Inevitably, strengthened institutions such as a more independent and competent federal parliament, as well as a constitutional court, can better address the continued crises between the President and PM.

The federal parliament must become a body that can make legitimate decisions on the competency of the PM’s performance rather than merely represent a set of stakeholders that can be paid off in order for a preferred political conclusion to be reached.

Likewise, the non-existence of the constitutional court means that the mis-interpretation of constitutionally-defined powers will continue to play out in the political discourse. It also means that the President will remain virtually invincible and less politically accountable due to the fact that the impeachment process hinges upon the establishment of a constitutional court.

The tension between the President and PM will likely be a permanent presence as long as the two positions exist simultaneously, but its potential negative impact could be reduced once other political stakeholders pull their own counter-weight.

Categories: Somali Government

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