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Somalia 2020/21 Elections: Context, Challenges, and Prospects for Timely Elections

Abdimalik Abdullahi
Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The political trajectory has not been a walk in the park for Somalia- a nation recovering from a brutal and devastating civil war and facing the threat of the most lethal terrorist group in Africa. Since the reconciliation conference of Arte in 2000, it’d been two decades marred with political challenges for Somalia. On top of the numerous security challenges, the country had to endure political disagreements and gridlocks which was sometimes sharp and detrimental to the nascent democracy of the country.

From the Alliance for Re-liberation of Somalia who was based in Asmara, the unity government of Sharif Sheikh that saw the largest parliament in the Somali history, the controversial 2011 Kampala accord that relinquished the current president of his prime minister position, the Garowe 1 and 2 accords that ushered in federalisation, the end of the TFG era that saw the election of Hassan Sheikh, the indirect elections of 2016 which was an important milestone, and the subsequent peaceful transfers of power, Somalia had its ups and downs, failures and best practices to reflect upon. Little but invaluable gains were made, and a walk down the memory lane and the rough terrain gives no other option to the Somali people but to soldier ahead and pursue a stable, just, and democratic state.

There is a consensus that the most crucial tenet of democracy that Somalia upheld in the last decade is the inclusive (indirect) elections followed by a peaceful transfer of power.

The push and pull between the federal government and member states were one of the worst political setbacks that the country faced for the better part of 2018 and 2019. The political scene was occupied by a chaotic political power play that was characterised by, inter alia, aviation restrictions, some states like Puntland halting relations with FGS and skirmishes motivated by politics in Galmudug, South West and Jubaland. Jubaland state was also plunged into a gloomy state of affairs that saw the FGS and the Jubaland administration engaging in a long but self-defeating and embarrassing tussle in Gedo region that sometimes, by extension, involved Kenya and Ethiopia. This political stalemate between the two levels of the government has crippled the country's potential to address matters of national interest. Apart from a few areas of technical cooperation mostly pushed by the international community, there was almost nil cooperation on many areas in the sectors of development, democratization, national contentious issues, and security.

It’s now almost one and a half years since the last time leadership of the federal government and the member states met to deliberate on national issues that range from security, constitution review to political progress and elections. Forums such as the leadership forum were a good platform that provided opportunities for close cooperation, compromise on contentious issues, and reconfiguring the evolving national priorities. The (physical) hostility between the center and the periphery has also costed many lives, and embarrassed the country in the eyes of the international community. It has also once again invited a large scale interference of the neighbouring frontline countries who had the “privilege” of dictating upon the domestic affairs of Somalia; courtesy of poor leadership, lack of vision, and ego of the political class.

The country is now at crossroads and is walking on a political tightrope. The bone of contention is the pursuit of a feasible electoral model that can beat the short time but also got the backing of the political divide. For a better understanding, it is paramount to bring into perspective and put into context the key issues and the main stakeholders whose accommodation in the decision-making process is crucial or rather mandatory.

The Somali Federal Parliament

Somalia is a bicameral legislature and so all legislations and national issues must get the approvals of both chambers- House of the People and the Upper House. According to article 63(b) of the draft constitution, one of the key roles of the parliament is to pass, amend, or reject legislations tabled before it.

The biggest responsibility and heaviest burden vis-à-vis election issues now rests on the shoulders of the parliament. The election law which was initially a creation of the Ministry of Interior and Federal Affairs went under a review by an ad-hoc committee of the House of the People. Surprisingly, what came out of this process was farfetched and even sparked a series of hot debates in as much as the feasibility of the proposed electoral was concerned. Despite the electoral law having disparities, it sailed through both houses and the president accented to.

As has been the absolute prediction, it was inevitable for the election law to be referred back to the parliament. It was not wise, in the first place, for the parliament to jump the gun and pass a law that in a sense contradicts itself and has fundamental discrepancies.

In a bid to address some of the contentious issues pertaining the election law and roll out an implementable electoral law, a joint parliamentary ad-hoc committee has been tasked with preparing proposals and recommendations on pending issues including, inter alia, the definition of constituencies, women representation quota, voting arrangements for Somaliland, allocation of the Upper House seats and the representation for Benadir region among other outstanding issues.

The ball is now in the court of the joint ad hoc committee whose recommendations to the parliament would be a yardstick for the direction the country will take. As the Somali people look forward to the recommendations of this committee, it is to the best interest of the country that the committee presents a feasible and bipartisan model but more importantly, avoid to lead the country into an unwarranted term extension- a move that will potentially lead to a new wave of political instability and confusion.

The Somali parliament should stay true to its call of duty and redeem its image. The simplest way to do so is to aggressively pursue an implementable electoral model. The parliament should never sugarcoat any excuses for term extension. The leadership of the parliament should for the remaining short time be nonpartisan and execute its mandate honorably or else they are at the risk of going down into history as the worst parliament.

The Federal Government of Somalia

The current government has faced a lot of criticisms on its unilateral approach to the upcoming elections. It has in the eyes of many failed to prioritise the elections- in terms of engaging the stakeholders and not building election frameworks on time. The position of the president is anchored firmly on a one-person-one-vote. This is an outlandish position when compared to the unwillingness or rather lack of strong commitment from the government to fulfill the prerequisites for such an election model. This position by the government seems to be motivated by a propensity for term extension.

It is an open fact that President Mohamed Farmajo who the buck stops at is not happy and confident with the traditional election models which put the legislators at the centre of the election of the president. The president presumably prefers other options including the rather controversial OPOV model that is included in the election law.

The government should commit itself to a free election and avoid influencing the electoral process in her favour since that amounts to a blatant breach of the constitution and the right to a level playing field for all the stakeholders. The most honorable thing the government can do is to uphold and continue the legacy of the previous administrations – timely, free and fair elections.

Opposition groups

The opposition groups in Somalia seem to be more organized and focused than ever before in the second republic. They comprise of interim political parties and associations and some of the federal member states.

Word has it that they largely endorse an enhanced model of the 2016 indirect elections. This means that each MP will be voted in by, for example, 102, 150, or even more electorates (it was 51 in 2016) and a few other adjustments on technicalities. The details and specifications of this proposal may vary from one group to the other but they are all rooting for this model because it is feasible in consideration with the short time and the lack of preparedness on many crucial fronts.

In principle, the core position of the opposition groups is that for inclusive elections to be conducted in Somalia the electoral model must come out of a multilateral consensus-based process. The opposition has been regularly calling for broad-based talks on elections- something that didn’t go well with the government and/or never got the attention it deserves.

In as much as the role of the opposition groups are very much appreciated and good for Somalia, they should also on the other hand provide alternative leadership by proposing solutions to some of the daunting challenges the country faces. They also need to avoid divisive remarks that have the potential to incite or spark conflict. This doesn’t mean that they should not talk tough and take a hard stance on some of the current issues.

Moreover, the opposition should not be oblivious of the weak capacity of the government and be cognizant of the institutional and contextual challenges that Somalia faces. Nevertheless, the opposition should continue standing up for inclusive and timely elections and not be party to any unconstitutional term extensions.

The National Independent Electoral Commission

The National Independent Electoral Commission (NIEC) is the principal body in charge of organizing and conducting elections in Somalia. The commission was established in 2015 and its term is expiring on July 2021 with a possibility of extension. The commission has so far registered over 80 political parties who got interim registration status.

The commission has been engaged in consultations and briefings with stakeholders including the government, interim political parties, civil societies, and international partners. In terms of preparedness, they have consistently said they are fully prepared notwithstanding the technicalities, financial, and legal constraints that any electoral model might come with. Concerning the proposed first past the post electoral model, the commission is closely working with the National Electoral Security Task Force (NESTF) on voter registration and education and mapping of polling centres.

However, sections of the political actors’ hint at impartiality in the part of NIEC. Some allege that the commission is under the heavy influence of the government and they have no faith in their judgement and work.

More importantly, the commission currently has no working relations with some of the member states; Puntland and Jubaland. This is a major setback to the work of the commission since for elections to be conducted the cooperation of all member states is a threshold to be met. Puntland closed the commission's office in Garowe and suspended its activities for an indefinite period. Jubaland followed suit.

For the short remaining time, the commission needs to put effort into winning over the confidence of all stakeholders by upholding its independence, resisting influence, and avoiding to make inclinations to any party or group. This also includes but is not limited to addressing the concerns and frustrations of some of the member states.

Federal Member States

The member states, being the second level of government, have a high stake in how the country is run. Initially there was the now-defunct National Leadership Forum (NLF) where key national issues were discussed and deliberated upon. The forum usually provided solutions and way forward to some of the contentious issues. regardless of the majority, Puntland and Jubaland. The federal government reportedly didn't like that idea and so it slowly died.

The administrations of Galmudug, South West, and Hirshabelle are on the same page with the federal government although that is not the case for a large number of politicians and leaders from the same states. Hirshabelle state braces for the state election any time from October 2020. This state will be a battlefront for the government and the opposition groups with each trying to put in power one of their own.

On the other hand, Puntland and Jubaland administrations are not in good terms with the federal government. There is barely any cooperation between the government and the two states. Jubaland in particular is in a state of confusion and disarray. The relations between the Jubaland administration and the government are in a bad taste due to the military intervention by the federal government through local forces and contingents from the SNA which they have deployed in the Gedo region. The government (with all other priorities) flexing its muscles in Gedo was not a forward-thinking approach and sets a bad precedence for future governments. It is now in the best interest of the state and the locals for Jubaland and the government to talk and put Jubaland in order. The current trend is simply self-defeating and might derail the progress made over the years. It will also be wise enough for some of the member states who are friendly with the federal government to take the challenge and bring the sides together.

The FGS should under no conditions reach out to Jubaland and Puntland. Its deafening silence and downplaying the critical state of affairs is not bearing any fruits. It’s the sole responsibility of the FGS to solve domestic affairs with civility and wisdom. It’s also outrightly embarrassing to wait for the international community to do that on her behalf. Member states should also compromise on some of the hardline stances on national issues. The centre and periphery should accommodate each other, put aside short term political interests, and work together. Failure to do so would brand them the worst administration(s) in recent times.

International Partners

The position of the international partners on elections has been clear all along. They are rooting for timely elections the electoral model notwithstanding. This is in the spirit of a peaceful transition. They also endorsed the universal suffrage but more importantly they will support any model that the stakeholders settle for.

The role of the international partners revolves around two pivotal issues. The first being offering technical support to the NIEC and the different actors as they continue to engage and deliberate on the outstanding and contentious election issues. The international partners are also the principal financiers of the election process. They help the NIEC in matters logistics. Secondly, international partners play the role of a pressure group. This role is very paramount and so instrumental in persuading and pushing the political elite into making compromises and bridging their gap.

Although, there have been criticisms by some of the political stakeholders towards the conduct and policies of some of the international partners (alleging they are in bed with the government) but the highest political office- UNSOM- seems to have stayed true to its mandate.

Possible scenarios

Although universal suffrage deeply resonates with the Somali people and it is a constitutional right but it is impractical currently since election prerequisites like national registration, the constitutional court for potential election disputes that may arise and most importantly security have not been met. However, the practicality of this model would depend on whether there will be term extensions or not.

As the nation looks forward to the report by NIEC on the 6th June, 2020 and the recommendations of the ad-hoc committee, some of the possible scenarios include:

Scenario 1: A technical delay in the range of 3 - 6 months or slightly more. The same happened in the 2016 election. This approach will likely go well with most of the stakeholders. This technical delay will be motivated by the model the political actors agree upon. It is particularly compatible with the 2016 (or enhanced) model.

Scenario 2: Stakeholders insisting on and/or settling for the universal suffrage. This decision would usher in an extension of more than one year.  It will also most likely pave the way for a caretaker unity government that accommodates the opposition. On this note, the president will become a lame-duck with some of his powers scrapped off. Other arrangements include the replacement of Prime Minister Hassan Khaire or the cabinet reconstituted and shared between the government and opposition. According to sources, President Mohamed Farmajo is not a fan of this idea and it is the last thing he would settle for but there is nothing impossible in politics. If a caretaker government comes into the scene, it will have clear and straightforward milestones to achieve. The international partners would therefore be the guarantors of the agreement and they will oversee its implementation.

Scenario 3: A brand new arrangement subject to a political agreement. This can be a small projected universal suffrage that targets a section of the people. The number of people who will vote from every member state and Mogadishu will be mapped and predetermined. This scenario would also call for a technical delay of approximately not more than 6 months.

However, the threat of COVID-19 and how political differences and election ambiguities are addressed would influence the decisions that would be made in the next weeks and months.

Abdimalik Abdullahi is a researcher and analyst of Somali politics. He can be reached at [email protected]


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