By Isaac Muhammad
President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo was the most promising president elect in the nation’s recent history when he won the presidency of Somalia in February 2017. Celebratory gunfire erupted across Mogadishu shortly after Farmaajo was declared the winner. Outgoing president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud conceded defeat as it became clear he could not win the third round. “History was made, we have taken this path to democracy, and now I want to congratulate President-elect Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo,” said the former president. Every Somali citizen’s emotions ran high as Farmaajo’s ascent to the presidency set off ecstatic celebrations, both in Somalia and the Somali diaspora worldwide.
The story of Farmaajo’s victory was breathtaking, and the reception was prevalent in Somalis and non-Somalis who follow Somali politics alike. The famous American magazine “Politico,” celebrating Farmaajo’s victory, described him as someone who absorbed the lessons of civil society and the basics of American mid-management that he wanted to bring back to Somalia one day. The writer said Farmaajo had become, in some ways, “an export-ready product. Not soybeans or computer chips but democratic values. With his decades of experience in American governance, Mohamed could be the very partner the United States needs to fight international terrorism originating in the Horn of Africa.” Reading this editor’s note, one wonders if this author still believes these words true today!
President Farmaajo came to power with Federal member states all in place. The Somali National Army training in full force. Though limited in capacity, most national institutions in place, and international partners eager to lend a supportive hand to Somalia’s return. More importantly, waves of the Somali diaspora were returning to bring their skills and investments home. With all these opportunities at his disposal, let’s look back on how Farmaajo’s presidency tumbled, what mistakes he made, what opportunities he missed, and what we can learn from his presidency, so those fighting to replace him can avoid repeating these same mishaps.
In his victory speech, Farmaajo said after taking the oath, “This victory represents the interest of the Somali people. This victory belongs to the Somali people, and this is the beginning of the era of unity, the democracy of Somalia, and the beginning of the fight against corruption. I will be a statesman, a peacemaker, and one who brings the nation together.”
What Were Farmaajo’s Platform and Policies?
Farmaajo brought a nationalistic agenda but no real concrete policy for the nation. He played the emotions of the ordinary citizens who were starving for pride and national development. Since Farmaajo had no actionable policies and national strategy, his approach was based on trial and error. This process was led by a desire to perfect the status quo or perpetuate power, which created internally and externally unstable politics. The attack on presidential candidate Abdirahman Abdishakur Warsame, the rendition of Abdikarim Sheikh Muse (Qalbi-Dhagax) to Ethiopia, and the designation of the Ogaden National Liberation Front(ONLF) as a terrorist group are among the stains of Farmaajo’s presidency. The rendition of Qalbi-Dhagax, above anything else, was the most difficult act for Somalis to accept. Qalbi-Dhagax was regarded as a decorated hero of the Ethiopian–Somali war of 1977 and a patriot willing to die for national self-determination and the right of Somalis in the Horn of Africa to form their own united Somalia. Additionally, and even more importantly, Farmaajo himself had campaigned as a patriot against foreign actors in Somali politics, particularly Ethiopia’s continued interference in Somalia’s internal affairs. The public viewed him as a national symbol, never expecting a betrayal of that magnitude from him.
Farmaajo also engaged in endless political fights with all federal member states, in which he gained no substantial political or personal success. From the outset, Farmaajo pursued a desire to dethrone all sitting state presidents and replace them with his handpicked allies to ensure his reelection plan remained intact. This had nothing to do with national strategy or national interests as portrayed. These endless political clashes have consumed all his resources and efforts and masked him from other national plans and the fight against Al-Shabaab. To make matters even worse, Farmaajo obscured his foreign policy to the point where it became difficult to predict his next move or understand the difference between a foe or a friend. Notable examples include the expulsion of the UN’s top envoy, Nicholas Haysom, and deteriorated relations with Kenya, Djibouti, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and many Western allies. In a nutshell, if Farmaajo’s presidency proved anything, it revealed that presidents might get elected because of their ability to inspire, but they indeed succeed by their actual ability to deliver and do good for the people.
I must argue that successful presidential leadership occurs when a president can put together and balance three sets of skills: policy, implementation, and communication. When there is no balance among the three, or the components of leadership are out of whack, failure follows. There is nothing new about this leadership theory. As far back as the 1920s, Mary Parker Follett, one of the seminal figures in leadership studies, argued that the talent of a leader was the ability to think holistically.
When presidents fail, they often have trouble getting all three elements right at the same time. As Dr. Otto Scharmer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) puts it, the failure of leadership comes from two critical factors. First, leaders are often unable to “access their ignorance.” Second, leaders are unaware of the need and often lack the skills to engage in meaningful dialogue with those around them. Lance Secretan, one of the world’s leading thinkers about leadership and a best-selling author of numerous books, says, “The higher you go, the less truth reaches you.” Martin Kalungu-Banda, author of the bestseller Leading Like Madiba: Leadership Lessons from Nelson Mandela, says former President of Zambia Levy Patrick Mwanawasa once told him that “it is tough to have honest adult conversations when you are president.” He said the president could not count more than five people who engaged him as equals. People around presidents tend to second-guess what would please the boss instead of engaging in tough conversations so that leaders are informed and well-positioned to make critical decisions.
The essential point here is, who did Farmaajo surround himself with to help lead the country? President Farmaajo had various policy experts at his disposal, people who could design modern foreign policy, crunch numbers, build mathematical models, write memorable lines for his speeches, and stage perfect backdrops for the television cameras. Yet, despite having all this expertise at his disposal, he couldn’t manage to put everything together to move the needle and take the country further. Simply put, he failed the leadership test.
The truth is, Farmaajo is the “lucky–unlucky man” who won the hearts and the minds of millions of Somalis across the globe. However, he ended his term with no accomplishments and a disappointed nation. Farmaajo bowed out of electoral command after wasting time and resources on an unrealistic one-person-one-vote effort that never materialized; endless political clashes, especially with Jubbaland and Puntland leaders; and an unsuccessful bloody attempt to extend his term. After being pressured to hand over the election process and the nation’s day-to-day decision-making leadership to his prime minister, he is now a spectator, fighting for his political life.
My advice to those vying to replace him—learn from his mistakes and use them to your advantage. Remember, the presidential campaign is ultimately a record and promise between you and the people. Develop and announce plans and policy positions that not only reflect your philosophical underpinnings and, presumably, your deep thinking but also will be your guiding blueprints as you enter the Villa. Most candidates assume they have unique wisdom and can determine what the government should do if elected. That may be, but the public also has collective wisdom and on-the-ground qualifications to figure out what the government should be doing and when their president is inept. Your actions will be intrinsically connected to your policies, and you will run in circles if you don’t have guiding platforms!
You’re vying to lead a nation at a critical junction, yearning for a statesman that can heal its wounds and bridge its differences. Being able to compromise is a core skill for governing in a democracy. Compromise is not easy, especially on consequential issues and especially when the country is deeply divided and polarized. Any president would want to set out their ideological vision for the nation. Still, in a nation as fragile as Somalia, the President must provide space for dialogue and understand that cooperation for the country’s good must prevail.
A country’s foreign policy should be led by national-interested strategies to safeguard national interests and achieve national goals through relations that prioritize cooperation over confrontation. Ensure you have a well-thought-out foreign policy plan and a competent team to execute it.
You have probably heard some variation of the saying “surround yourself with people better than you” or “good leaders surround themselves with good people, but GREAT leaders surround themselves with even better people than they are.” In a well-known book on business leadership, Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan put it this way: “When companies fail to deliver on their promises, the most frequent explanation is that the CEO’s strategy was wrong. But the strategy by itself is not often the case. Strategies most often fail because they aren’t executed well.” Therefore, do not ever think you have the best ideas or answers. Remember, the best leaders surround themselves with individuals who are better than they are and can execute their strategy. Look for people who know more than you do, remembering not to feel threatened or defensive. Find those who can help you develop your competencies and influence others to help you make a significant and positive impact.
Isaac Muhammad is a writer and political analyst based in the United States.