Op-ed: Indirect elections in Somalia: Democracy in limbo

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A Member of Parliament from the Somalia Federal Parliament casts her ballot during the first round of the 2017 presidential election (file photo).

Somalia is slowly recovering from a brutal civil war and a semblance of political stability and a negotiated political arrangement have made it possible for the country to slowly emerge from the shackles and the anarchic state it was once.

There had been friction and a gruesome push-and-pull between the centre and the periphery since Federalism was adopted as Somalia's model of government in 2012.

The centre (Federal Government of Somalia) has been all along seeking to exert its influence on the periphery (Federal Member States) hence the unstable domestic politics that sometimes proved to be very hostile and leading to armed confrontations and soar relations.

This sad state of affairs and tension between the two tiers of the federal government is haunting Somalia and limiting prospects of it standing on its feet again.

Although universal suffrage is not the remedy to all of Somalia's numerous tribulations, delayed democracy spelt out and bargained by the minority elite at the expense of the majority Somali public has kept the country's future at ransom.

History of elections

The last direct multi-party election in Somalia was held in 1969, and it was immediately followed by Siad Bare's military coup in October of that year. The nation was turned into a single-party Marxist-Leninist state under Bare's Supreme Revolutionary Council who robbed off a young albeit imperfect but nurturing and promising democracy from the Somali people.

Although a public direct presidential election was held in December 1986, Somalia was still a one-party state; the Pan-Somalism oriented Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party (SRSP) was the only legal political party at the time, and incumbent Siad Barre was the only candidate hence an isomorphic election encapsulated in a cosmetic democracy.

He was elected with no challengers and only about 1,500 protest votes against him. After his ouster in 1991, Somalia's central government collapsed, igniting a brutal civil war that would last more than 25 years and plunged Somalia into a devastating state of anarchy.

The first elections held in Somalia since the end of the transitional period were scheduled in 2016. Parliamentary elections were held between October and November 2016. The 54-member Upper House (which was the first of its kind) was elected on the 10th of October by the state assemblies and the House of the People between 23 October and 10 November 2016.

The 275 members of the Lower House (House of the People) were elected by 14,025 delegates appointed by the clan elders from the five regions in the country- the Federal Member States. Each MP was elected by an electoral college of 51 people appointed by the certified 135 Traditional Elders. Among the 51 delegates, 25 members were supposed to be drawn from the civil society, 16 from women, and 10 from the youth of the said community but it didn't fully materialize.

In February 2017, members of the parliament elected Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed as the second president of the Federal Government of Somalia in a highly fortified hangar at Mogadishu's Aden Adde International Airport, marking a "significant milestone" in the country's history. The election was also dubbed a "milestone in corruption" because of widespread allegations of vote-buying and manipulation. According to the New York Times, politicians were "peeling off wads of hundred dollar bills to buy votes," and at least $20 million (conservative estimates) exchanged hands during the parliamentary elections and the presidential elections that followed.

With the incumbent's term expiring on February 8, 2021, in June 2020, Halima Ismail Ibrahim, the Chairperson of the National Independent Electoral Commission (NIEC), said that the election "could not take place on time." Because of a lack of funds and infrastructure for a nationwide vote, neither the parliamentary nor presidential election deadlines could be met. The Chairperson proposed two options: a biometric registration-based election slated for August 2021, or an election based on a manual registration in March 2021.

The now-defunct Forum for National Parties (FNP) was outraged by the delays and demanded that the NIEC resign. The proposal for the direct parliamentary elections by the NIEC was later scrapped in September 2020 after a massive protest and opposition from some of the federal member states and the political stakeholders who cited loss of trust, credibility, and capacity to held elections by the NIEC.

On September 17, 2020, after a series of meetings, President Mohamed and five leaders of the federal member states agreed on a revised electoral model based on the 2016 indirection election. In this procedure, elections will take place in two constituencies in every federal member state with a slightly higher number of voting delegates- 101.

Dangerous crossroads: Security compromise and military stand-off in Mogadishu

After a prolonged dispute over some contentious issues in the September 17 agreement, the ongoing talks collapsed as declared by the Federal Government of Somalia.

On 18 February 2021, there was an attack by government forces on the Ma'ida hotel in Mogadishu where opposition candidates including two former Presidents, Sheikh Sharif and Hassan Sheikh were staying. On the next day, 19 February 2021, opposition candidates were again targeted with live bullets by government forces, while taking part in a protest in Mogadishu over the election delay and rockets fired inside Mogadishu Airport.

Former Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire even claimed that he and several other presidential candidates and MPs survived an "assassination attempt" at the protest.

Hell broke loose when the president signed into law a unilateral resolution by the Lower House that extends his term and the parliament for two years. Somali opposition fighters largely drawn from the SNA have taken up positions in parts of Mogadishu after clashes with government troops broke out over the president's attempt to prolong his term.

Many civilians had to flee and the city was thrown into disarray and gloomy moments. This sad state of affairs ushered in great fear and anxiety for the civilians and reignited the possibility of the already weak government skeleton crumbling down on its feet and the Horn of Africa nation disintegrating.

The genesis of the conflict: when did the wheels come off?

In February 2021, the political crisis in Somalia largely emanating from electoral politics has almost slipped into the deadly violence that has seen former leaders attacked following clashes between the security forces and opposition supporters. This violence and developments that preceded it have plunged Somalia into one of the worst political crises for years.

The standoff in Mogadishu in April 2021 was not just about President Farmajo and his bid to either chart down the electoral model or stay in power. It also had roots in the old disagreements about federalism and a section of the political elite led by President Farmajo seeking to weaken the peripheries or at least putting them under their tight grip, plus decisive member states who pushed back and seek political independence.

In addition to that, many vital government institutions including the judicial sector are weak and the constitution is still under review hence the lack of clarity on issues of prominence for the elections and the relations between the two tiers of the Somali federal government.

Although one can argue that the political standoff was an amalgamation of, inter alia, elite compact and soar relations between the Federal Government of Somalia and the Federal Member States, it is an open fact and in no doubt that the rather unsuccessful unilateral extension of the mandate for the current government by the Lower House opened a pandora box and burned bridges.

Despite many voices of reason raising a red flag and warning against attempts by the incumbent to engineer a term extension through the Lower House, President Farmajo went ahead with his plan and inked a controversial resolution that could see him stay in office for two more years or even more. The rationale behind this resolution was summed as “returning power to the people". This was a laughable proposition if we have to be honest with ourselves and with the largely gullible and downtrodden masses.

It was nothing more than a charade and a political facade. Amid deep divisions and political disagreements, coupled with objections from some of the member states, one of the chambers of the Somali parliament- the Lower House- who itself faces questions around legitimacy and legality of the decisions they reach, have claimed that the talks around elections have collapsed hence previous agreements are null and void.

This was a dangerous move and a culmination of several attempts to extend the government’s made. It added more fuel to the fire leave about doing any favour for the Somali masses who the political elite often use as a scapegoat and smokescreen for their selfish political ambitions.

Ironically, there were attempts to romanticize the armed confrontation in Mogadishu and downplay the grievances of the opposition and their supporters. The highly polarised discourse around politics, legitimacy of the current government, misuse, and the politicization of the army is reminiscent of the bloody and unfortunate periods that led to the brutal civil in 1991 and the subsequent collapse of the Somali republic.

International Community: indifferent or toothless?

The International Community has supported the Somali government on almost every institution-building effort and invested heavily in the present-day Somalia government. To be fair enough, much of what Somalia can boast of today is courtesy of the help of its International Partners. Somalia risked disintegration for the umpteenth time were it not for the efforts of the international community and the regional bodies that Somalia is a member of. They have offered mediation and support for the political process through their so-called "good offices".

The electoral impasse has even drawn the attention of the U.N. Security Council who for several times called on Somalia's leaders to meet and reach a political settlement that could pave the way for inclusive elections.

Most notable groups within the international community –EU, USA, and the UK- have registered discontent and objection with the term extension for the government in April. Strong statements from the EU, U.S, and UK governments have followed the controversial decision by the Lower House of the Somali Parliament and President Farmajo who signed it into "law" with Somalia's partners threatening to take concrete measures that include sanctions and travel bans.

Despite the positive role of international partners of Somalia, they had been under a storm with some of the opposition leaders accusing (some of) the international community of emboldening the electoral impasse that has ensued since July 2020, being “soft” on the current administration, and indecisiveness. On a different scale, entities within the international community have been severally accused of being directly involved and taking sides in the push-and-pull between the government and the opposition.

AMISOM which is the chief security and peacekeeping agent for the international community has faced this sort of accusation; an allegation that keeps coming from some of the opposition leaders which AMISOM offered no official rebuttal so far.

Somalia’s elite-centric politics and the failure to put the interest of the country forward have brought forth the necessity for an urgent external mediation prompting the African Union to appoint John Mahama as its High Representative to Somalia on 8 May 2021. However, these efforts by the AU couldn't materialize due to a boycott from Villa Somalia.

However, the guiding international norms, the propensity to keep off domestic politics, and the hostile nature of the current government have perhaps limited the relevance of the international community more so after the controversial expulsion of the UN SRSG Nicholas Haysom 2019.

What is at stake?

Somalia is struggling with pressing and acute security needs. Al Shabab still controls a considerable junk of Somalia's landmass besides posing an imminent and direct threat to the capital- Mogadishu. Without proper and serious leadership and investment in the security sector, Somalia's armed forces will face a very familiar future: fragmented with easy triggers, localized, clan-based, and often antagonistic to each other.

Although the worst didn’t happen, the most visible and perhaps critical fault line during the security standoff in Mogadishu in April 2021 was the fragmentation of the Somali National Army (SNA) which has been slowly emerging and gaining momentum. The scale of the fragmentation might have been deemed to be very low but it had the potential to skyrocket any time due to the shaky underbelly of Somalia and the clan inclination which often overpowers other factors.

This development detracted the SNA from fighting the Al Shabaab and providing security hence a bonus for the militants, particularly in the adjacent Middle Shabelle region. The politicization of the army across the political divide sets a bad precedent and puts a dent in the security reform efforts. The politicization of the Somali forces perhaps gained momentum in December 2018 when the government and AMISOM forces arrested Mukhtar Robow who was seeking the presidency of the South West state.

This conflict left at least 11 people including civilians dead. The Federal Government of Somalia is also on record of misusing paramilitary forces and particularly for domestic politics and settling political scores. In the first quarter of 2020, it had dispatched troops to the Jubaland’s Gedo region and again used the paramilitary forces against opposition groups who were staging demonstrations on February 19, 2019. Haram’ad and Gorgor commandos were reportedly dispatched on many occasions to provide military muscle for “friendly” member states and to quell possible political uprisings and movements in Galmudug and Hirshabelle.

The politicization of the security agencies and its outcome perhaps reached its climax after General Saadaq Omar Hassan 'Saadaq John' who was then the head of Police in the Benadir region asked the Lower House not to debate the extension motion and going further to announce that he has called off the parliament. He was immediately sacked and demoted leading him to form a base in one of the neighbourhoods in Mogadishu with a sizable army loyal to him. Gen Saadaq was previously famous and alleged to handle and undertake controversial security operations for the government including attacking opposition figures.

A large number of Somalia’s security forces have been more a disparate collection of militias than a united force. Pulling such forces into politics was a self-defeating approach that risked total disintegration. Much work awaits the Somali government in terms of building disciplined and well-trained forces who can carry the aspirations and security needs of the Somali nation.

However, the best approach to building an efficient Somali national army and exiting AMISOM is forging an elite consensus on the politics of security sector reform and, in part, revitalizing and implementing the comprehensive security architecture which was endorsed in London Somalia Conference in May 2017.

Somalia’s image and reputation in the region and the global scene are also at stake. The Horn of Africa nation's image which received a boost over the years has been jeopardized by the crazy politicking, renewed conflicts, and uncalculated and sometimes hostile foreign policy.

National priorities are also at a great stake. The federalism project and constitution review process which has not been prioritized for the past 4 years faces more uncertainty and further delays, and will only complicate the work that awaits the next government.

In a region where elections and political transitions are often under the mercy of the government of the day, Somalia has for the past two elections, surprisingly, set a good example for the rest. A peaceful transfer of power and open competition marked the hallmark of its electoral process.

However, the culture of democracy, timely elections, peaceful transfer of power, and compromise for the common good seems to have been thrown into the trash of history by the current government.

The honourable thing to do

Time and again, the political elite particularly the top leaders have failed to recognize the gravity and fragility of Somalia’s state of affairs, the bitter fact of Somalia’s restricted autonomy and sovereignty, and the inevitability of consensus-based politics.

The recurring bleak political situation and scary security developments in Somalia besides the numerous humanitarian challenges should be a clarion call and a ticking bomb to all Somali leaders. The lives and properties of the people should not be an avenue to score political goals and advance selfish ambitions in the face of challenges posed by a politically troubled region, insecurity, poverty, and climate change.

Countries emerging from conflicts like Somalia need political accommodation and consensus the same way human species need oxygen. The little but crucial gains that Somalia achieved on the political and governance fronts in the past two centuries are undoubtedly a product of collaboration, dialogue, and compromise.

It's incumbent upon Somali leaders from the political divide to carry themselves with decorum, exercise restraint, and reach consensus for the national interest. For that matter, Somalia’s next leader will have to shoulder the task of pacifying and cooling the political temperatures and putting efforts into uniting a deeply divided country that he will probably inherit.

In the meantime, Somali PM, the Federal Member States and the election implementation teams who are mandated to hold, lead and oversee the indirect elections should expedite and deliver the elections within the confines of the May 27 agreement. Any further and unnecessary delays will be a setback to the process and kill the already depleted political goodwill.

Going forward, Somali leaders must adopt a viable and comprehensive roadmap to universal suffrage in the next election year or at least in the near foreseeable future since it's crystal clear that the current electoral model is never sustainable nor serves the interest of the Somali people. All politically contested issues should be settled once and for all before every other thing.

A critical part of this roadmap -which is incumbent upon the next government- should also include how to fast track and wind up the constitution review process, finding a common ground on the security architecture and/or renegotiating within its premises, and total unity of purpose for addressing national priorities.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Garowe Online's editorial stance.


Abdimalik Abdullahi is a freelance journalist, researcher, and analyst. He writes and comments on current political developments, governance issues, democratization, and elections of Somalia and the region. He tweets at @Abdimaleik.

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