Somalia: Why Puntland donors must understand local political context
EDITORIAL- Puntland’s ongoing political reform process has had its supporters say it will help bring universal suffrage. But we have witnessed that the way the process is going could weaken institutions that are meant to stabilize the Federal state and Somalia as a whole.
A case in point is the disputed municipal elections in Eyl, Ufeyn, and Qardho districts on 25th October 2021, which proved a failure in the pivotal popular vote in Puntland after being marred largely by vote-buying, irregularities, and malpractice.
The result was boycotted by the majority of the political associations in Puntland, citing the fraud. The argument is that the elections need to be free and fair so the districts can eventually have officials elected directly by the people.
Some rich countries in the West have heavily financed the project toward universal suffrage. It may sound like a noble idea, but the steps already taken show that Puntland is risking isolating a large chunk of its population from political participation. Do donors want to be part of a reform process that eventually serves the elites? It would be dangerous to spend taxpayers’ money on a project that ends up undercutting democracy.
Here is how: Since last year, when Puntland attempted universal suffrage in three districts, it has received accolades for finally holding an election in which people have a more significant say. What the donors have refused to say is that those trial elections in Puntland reflected the gaps that authorities have ignored. The low participation and the isolation of women in general shows that Puntland’s desire to have universal suffrage will need more work in civic education.
Unfortunately, the expanded reform, which donors are still funding, has ignored that. Puntland has nine political associations, several civil society organizations, and other stakeholders. We see very little participation in these organizations. The process is just fueled and led by the ruling party of President Said Abdullahi Deni. If the reforms were intended to open up multiparty democracy in the state, all these groups must be involved.
Political parties and civil organizations are crucial because they are always in touch with the ground, and people listen to them more. In a Federal state where illiteracy is still a problem, the current reform program is merely a bid by the elite for the elite. And it can be dangerous.
For 24 years, Puntland was Somalia’s strongest Federal state, helping others follow suit. But if we do this wrongly this time, we risk fracturing the country to the olden days.
President Deni’s term expires next year and we would think he wants a legacy that will be punctuated by improved participation of the public, better political spaces for all kinds of political players, and improved quality of life. That, of course, assumes that he will not attempt to extend his term under the guise of these democratic reforms. That will also have its risks, as we saw in Mogadishu when Farmaajo tried to delay elections on a false argument that reforms should come first.
We understand there are teething problems, as usual, with any country trying to establish its democratic credentials. But there are warning signs that Puntland should never take this model that will only build mistrust among the people. Deni will do better to advise his political party to endear the people to the process. Otherwise, it will either be self-defeating or just meant to preserve the political future of Deni and his Kaah party.