Power Play Shifts in Horn of Africa as Somalia Elects New Leader

Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s return as Somalia’s president is set to reshape the war-torn nation’s relationship with neighboring Eritrea and Ethiopia, with far-reaching repercussions across the Horn of Africa region.

Mohamud, 66, who governed Somalia from 2012 to 2017, beat incumbent Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known locally as Farmajo, in a final round of voting to reclaim the post on May 15. While Farmajo forged close relations with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, Mohamud has long-standing ties with the rulers of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, who fought a war with Abiy’s forces and its Eritrean allies from late 2020 until a truce was agreed in March.

The power shift has emboldened the Tigrayans, who are considering attacking the Eritrean capital of Asmara, according to three diplomats in the region who spoke on condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to comment. That would open a new chapter in the Ethiopian conflict, which has already claimed thousands of lives.

Tigray President Debretsion Gebremichael wrote to Mohamud on Monday congratulating him on his victory and expressing his “readiness to cooperate in the overall stability of the region, building upon excellent pre-existing relations.” And Getachew Reda, a senior Tigrayan leader, said in a Twitter posting on the Somali elections that Isaias’s “pharaonic ambition in the Horn of Africa is decidedly unraveling.”

Mohamud, who attended the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s 40th anniversary in Addis Ababa in 2015, has yet to pronounce on Somalia’s relations with its neighbors and whether there will be a shift in approach, although the diplomats said he’d already been in contact with Tigrayan officials about how to stabilize the region.

Somalia’s government has been battling an insurgency by al-Qaeda-linked Islamist group al-Shabaab since 2006, and in 2009 the United Nations Security Council sanctioned Eritrea for supporting the militants. The signing of a tripartite security agreement between the two nations and Ethiopia in 2018 helped ease tensions, and enabled Isaias’s administration to deploy Eritrean intelligence officers in Somalia and Ethiopia, giving it an important foothold in the region.

Mohamud’s election probably signals an end to the detente and a curtailing of Isaias’s influence, according to Omar Mahmood, a Somalia expert for the International Crisis Group. The security pact is now “bipartite at best,” he said.

Abiy said on Twitter that he was looking forward to working closely with Somalia’s new leadership “on common bilateral and regional interests.” Yemane Gebremeskel, Eritrea’s information minister, didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment. Bloomberg was unable to reach spokespeople for Mohamud, who has yet to set up his communications team following his election.

While Mohamud wouldn’t want to alienate Eritrea, “overall I would agree that Isaias lost a friend in Mogadishu,” said Tobias Hagmann, an associate professor in international development at Roskilde University in Denmark.

“Eritrea‘s alliances are always opportunistic and short-lived,” with Isaias already forging new ties with Amhara nationalists who have been fighting the Tigrayans over disputed land since November 2020, Hagmann said.

Farmajo’s defeat has been welcomed in Kenya, which clashed with his administration over the rights to oil blocks and its approach toward tackling al-Shabaab.

Mehari Taddele Maru, an analyst at the European University Institute in Florence, sees Mohamud’s election as “a great win” for Somalia and the Horn of Africa, which he said had been subjected to the whims of the signatories to the security pact.

Mohamud’s fight against al-Shabaab will be bolstered by a decision by US President Joe Biden to send Special Operations troops back to Somalia to revive a counterterrorism mission that was ended by Donald Trump’s administration. Fewer than 500 troops are expected to be deployed, mostly from postings elsewhere in East Africa, according to the White House.

The “small but persistent presence” was deemed necessary “to maximize the safety and effectiveness of our force,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Monday.

The U.S. had about 700 troops in Somalia before Trump ordered them out of the country in an effort to make good on his own pledge to bring soldiers home.