America should be supporting democracy and not any one leader, especially if that leader displays an interest in dictatorship.

by Michael Rubin

It has now been six weeks since Somalia had a legitimate government. While the breakaway region of Somaliland has, with just a few million dollars, laid the groundwork for contested one-man, one-vote elections at the end of May, the Somali government, with several orders of magnitude more money at its disposal, first abandoned the one-man, one-vote principle and then failed even to assemble a few hundred electors to select its new leadership.

At issue is widespread distrust in Mohammad Abdullah Farmaajo and his intelligence chief, Fahad Yasin, whose ties to al-Shabaab increasingly worry Western intelligence services. Many Somalis believe that Farmaajo and Yasin deliberately scuttled election preparations first with attempts to stack the deck by imposing their own electors and, when that failed in Puntland and Jubaland, by failing to abide by the agreements which Farmaajo himself had negotiated.

U.S. Ambassador Donald Yamamoto, who seldom gets out of the Mogadishu airport Green Zone because of his and the State Department’s security concerns, apparently prefers to work through Farmaajo for three reasons. First, the Somali president is a creature largely of Yamamoto’s making. Second, Yamamoto has directed several billion dollars to Farmaajo’s administration and is loath to acknowledge the failure of his U.S. taxpayer-financed investment. Third, Yamamoto may be of the school of diplomacy that believes it easier to work through a dictator than deal with the complexities of democracy. In every African country in which or to which he has served—Ethiopia, Guinea, Djibouti, and Eritrea—he has sought to ingratiate himself to the local dictator. Somalia is not a dictatorship, however, and Yamamoto’s efforts to build a similar relationship with Farmaajo has engendered the distrust of almost every other Somali politician. For Farmaajo to fall now would mean a complete hemorrhaging of Yamamoto’s influence.

This is the origin of the U.S. Embassy in Somalia’s March 21 tweet, “The people of #Somalia want elections now. @SaidAbdullahiDe @PresidentMadobe @MrQoorqoor @AliGuudlaawe @Laftagareen must stay in Mogadishu until an election agreement is reached. Failure is not an option.” Yamamoto has it backwards, however, for three reasons.

First, it is true Somalis want elections, but they must be legitimate. This is why, with Farmaajo’s term expired, legitimacy in Somalia should pass to an interim council. To do otherwise would set a precedent for every future Somali leader that the way to continue in power is not to hold themselves accountable in elections, but rather to avoid them entirely. The U.S. State Department should embrace the National Salvation Council proposal.

Second, Yamamoto must not be blind to symbolism. Puntland President Said Deni, Jubaland President Madobe, and the others are not supplicants to Farmaajo. It is not they who need to come to Mogadishu. Rather Yamamoto and Farmaajo should go to Somalia’s various states and regions. Constitutionally, the federal government serves the regions, not the other way around. Then again, if Yamamoto was conscious of symbolism, he would not cower in the embassy. If I can walk the streets of Garowe, Puntland’s capital, without security certainly, Yamamoto can do so with basic security. Simply put, Deni and Madobe are right to leave Mogadishu now lest security concerns be used to trap them (or worse) at the Mogaidshu airport. Indeed, Deni has already weathered an attack on his residence.

Third, regional leaders are not stupid. The series of Al-Shabaab attacks in Mogadishu and other cities seem timed to allow Farmaajo to change the subject whenever his back is to the electoral wall or to undermine the political threats posed by his opponents. The pattern negates the idea that each attack is a coincidence.

The United States embassy in Mogadishu should not be in the business of coercing Somalis to subordinate themselves to a would-be dictator, especially against the backdrop of what similar dictators have done to Ethiopia and Eritrea. Yamamoto erred badly by prioritizing his personal relationship with Farmaajo above democracy. Neither has the standing or legitimacy to broker an end to the Somali crisis. It is time for both to retire gracefully, let the National Salvation Council proceed, and return Somalia to its democratic course.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East. He also regularly teaches classes at sea about Middle East conflicts, culture, terrorism, and the Horn of Africa to deployed U.S. Navy and Marine units.