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Pitfalls of the Proposed Presidential System
by Dr. Abdinur Sheikh Mohamed
Tuesday June 6, 2023

This is an attempt to shed light on the complexities of the recent constitutional review proposal made on 27/05/2023 by the National Consultative Council (NCC) composed of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and three regional presidents namely, President Ahmed Mohamed Islam (Ahmed Madobe), President Ali Abdullahi Hussein (Guudlawe) of Hirshabelle, President Ahmed Abdi Kaariye (Qorqoor) of Galmudug, President Abdicasis Hassan Mohamed (Laftagaren) of Southwest and Governor of Benadir Region and Mayor of Mogadishu Mr Yusuf Husein Jimale (Madale). Absent from this consequential gathering is the President of Puntland Mr. Said Abdullahi Deni who later rejected the proposal. His absence is said to be related to unresolved policy differences with the presidency.

Of particular concern to the statement is the proposal to change the country from a parliamentary system to a presidential system. Semantically, the two systems sound easily interchangeable, however, their difference is nothing short of a desire for power grab and authoritarian rule.

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Notwithstanding the confusion regarding the constitutionality of the NCC to even make such a proposal, this response attempts to analyze the suitability of the proposed change to Somalia at this critical time while looking back at how earlier Somali governments addressed the same issue considering the current tumultuous socio-political environment. Before delving into the appropriateness of each system of governance, let us revisit the critical importance of constitutions to a society.  Before establishing unity of purpose among various groups establishing a government, a shared system of values is identified addressing societal norms, cultures and customs by which a social contract is developed from.  The social contract, also known as a constitution, contains fundamental principles, laws and customs of a society.  As such, this document becomes a guide, a roadmap, and a framework upon which policies, programs and activities are based upon. Consequently, national leaders and public officials are expected to hold the Constitution in high regard and affirm their commitment to safeguard the constitution.

Unfortunately, contemporary Somali politicians with ulterior motives of their own erroneously claim that the Constitution is a man-made document that is neither sacred nor indispensable. They claim it can be changed if it does not meet the needs of society. May be so, but trivializing or tampering with a constitution without a legal process may lead to distrust, discord and the breakup of the social contract between clans, communities, and regions that make up today’s Federal Government of Somalia. Given that Somalia’s constitution is provisional, the tendency for this and previous governments has been to propose electoral changes that give them advantage instead of seriously establishing constitutional commissions to finalize the constitution and putting it out for a national referendum.  

Some supporters of the proposed change contend that progress in Somalia is hampered by a federal system which ties the president’s hands, requiring parliamentary approval of all matters and creates unnecessary rivals such as the PM or regional presidents. What is seldom understood is that the federal system is constitutional and is here to stay until replaced through a national referendum. In the meantime, what is really missing from the governance landscape is political maturity, temperament and the acknowledgement of the supremacy of the rule of law.

Regarding the suitability of the two systems, the presidential form of government is based on the principles of separation of powers between the executive and the legislature. Under this system, the president is the head of government, and the head of state, controls the power of the purse and is independent of the legislature. In fact, since the executive office controls budgetary matters, the legislature is technically controlled by the executive office. In this system, the president exercises unlimited powers and if the confines of the constitution are not adhered to may lead to dictatorship, public resentment and political instability.

On the other hand, the parliamentary system is where the executive derives its legitimacy from Parliament and is held to account.  The president appoints the PM and by extension the cabinet. The president promulgates into law proposals submitted by the government and sanctioned by parliament.  It would require 2/3 majority of the Parliament to override presidential veto. There are checks and balances in the system and Parliament not only makes laws but acts as an equal branch of government to the executive and judiciary. The president as the head of state is guardian of the constitution, reassures the public and maintains peace and stability.

 Currently, Somalia is under a modified parliamentary system where the “elected” president is the head of state and his handpicked Prime Minister is the head of government, with a legislature that is largely composed of members bankrolled to office by the current or previous governments. Despite Somalia’s fledgling parliamentarian system, the government’s desire to tamper with the same system that catapulted it to power in the first place, indicates that the current government may have a desire to usurp and consolidate more powers currently held by other branches of government.  Ostensibly, sidestepping the Parliament and proposing a constitutional review through NCC is itself an indication of the ulterior motives behind the proposal.   

Furthermore, revisiting Somalia’s pre-and post-independence history, we find that national leaders coalesced around the parliamentarian system and found it most suitable for previous governments considering the socio-political context of the country. This was clearly the case during the formation of the first republic in 1960 and later at the Arta, Djibouti and Mbagathi, Kenya reconciliation conferences in the years 2000 and 2004 respectively. Disregarding Somalia’s clan rivalry, civil-war history and three decades of statelessness indicates utter ignorance of the ugly recent past and trivialization of core fundamental redlines. 

In retrospect, paramount importance was given to citizenship, national cohesion, and unity which led to the selection of a modified parliamentary system, giving the first president Mr. Aden Abdulle Osman extra powers deemed necessary at the time. These were the power to appoint and disband the government and the power to dissolve Parliament.  The firs president was known for his statesmanship and often showed presidential temperament necessary for holding the nation together, often restraining himself from using these added constitutional powers for the sake of political stability and national cohesion.

To illustrate the point, let us revisit the appointment of Prime Minister Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke.  After the election of the first president to office in 1960, the Somali Youth League (SYL) which was the ruling political party proposed a slate of three candidates for the premiership as the first president was consulting with various elected officials and interest groups. Leading the candidate list was former Prime Minister Abdullahi Isse Mohamud, the head of the previous caretaker government (1956-1960), whose popularity and favorability were unmatched, and the other influential candidate was Mr. Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke who was a member of Parliament with strong ties in the SYL and has the backing of delegates from his constituency.

Like President Aden, PM Abdullahi Ciise is a clan associate and hails from Beledweyn, where many SYL leaders including the first president and the formidable Sheikh Ali Jumcale among others hailed from.  Mr. Sharmarke was from a rival clan among the five major clan groups in the country. Despite former PM Abdullahi Isse’s impeccable profile, clan association and political standing, the first president instead selected Mr. Sharmarke for the premiership to reassure the public of the democratic principles of inclusivity, national cohesion and political stability. Even though the first president had the law on his side to choose any candidate from the list or outside the list, and even though the former PM Mr. isse was a shoo-in for the post as many anticipated, he exercised political maturity and averted unnecessary public debate over the president’s choice and possible accusations of nepotism and clan domination which may lead to distrust and disunity among the public.  What we learn from this landmark decision is that presidents must weigh in the best interests of the country more than securing a temporary political advantage that may tarnish their legacy and have a lasting repercussion for the country.

Moreover, we see again a similar case during the same administration in early 1960s when Somalia was engaged in supporting Somali liberation movements in the region at which time the first president dispatched the famed General Da’ud Abdulle Hirsi, first Commander of the Somali Armed Forces to Moscow to engage the leadership of the then Soviet Union on developing a bilateral defense pact with Somalia. While the mission to Moscow was underway, the first president simultaneously led a similar expedition to Italy seeking the same purpose from the West.  The Italians conveyed the message to a gathering of Western leaders convening in West Germany, where they welcomed the request and agreed to keep conversation going.

Unbeknownst to the travelling president, General Da’ud informed the PM that Moscow is willing to fully engage with Somalia and proposed a draft bilateral agreement to be signed by both parties immediately. For reasons unknown, the PM realizing the urgency of the matter did not inform the president but instead sought a quick signature from the acting president who at the time was Mr. Abdullahi Mohamud Qalib, the speaker of Parliament.  At this time, there was a legal confusion and disagreement over whether the acting president has full powers of the presidency when the president is merely travelling, or he assumes full presidential authority only when the president is fully incapacitated.

Nevertheless, the action of the PM and the speed of its execution had the hallmark of conspiracy, as the president appears to have been sidestepped even though he was in constant communication with the PM and the Speaker on other state business. Unfortunately, his Italian hosts equipped with Western intelligence informed the first president the new bilateral agreement signed with Moscow. To say this was a national embarrassment is an understatement and the first president kindly asked the hosts to continue their conversations despite the new development and returned to Mogadishu.  Dismayed and distraught over the actions of his executive team, the first president summoned those responsible to his office, read the agreement in their presence, tearing the document apart in anger and throwing it to the wastebasket.  He later cooled down and asked the PM and team to follow up with the West on their promises and compare it with the Soviet proposal.  

The team later concluded that the Soviet agreement was more attractive and useful for Somalia than the one offered by the West and upon hearing their objective recommendation approved it immediately. However, the manner the PM handled the issue left much to be desired as the first president seems to have lost confidence in him. Even though the first president had the prerogative to sack his PM for insubordination, he decided against instinctive decision-making.  Firing the PM and disbanding the Cabinet he thought would have created more division and distrust in Parliament and had the potential to destabilize the country. Moreover, the first president continued to work with the PM as if nothing happened until his reelection to the presidency where he instead selected a new PM, namely Mr Abdirizak Haji Hussein. Even though the president was profusely angered by the conspiratorial action, he withheld judgement to maintain political stability until it was appropriate to do so with little repercussions for the country.

Furthermore, we learn from these two historical events that the first president keenly acted with the welfare of the state and the Constitution in mind and showed impeccable presidential temperament, care and concern for maintaining the republic together before acting impulsively on consequential matters.

Moving forward, delegates at the Somali national reconciliation conferences held in Arta, Djibouti and Mbgathi, Kenya both selected modified parliamentary systems realizing the extra presidential powers to disband the government or dissolve Parliament in the 1960 constitution were not deemed necessary. These added powers of the presidency were rescinded to ensure inclusive politics, power sharing and political stability.

Contemporary supporters of the presidential system argue that our national progress is hindered by an endless conflict between the President and the PM and empowering the elected president will make decision-making easier and faster, taking cues from countries such as Rwanda, Kenya, Djibouti and the like.  However, conflicts usually arise when national leaders overstep the constitution and engage in activities beyond their mandate. Unfortunately, Somali politicians seldom follow and adhere the rule of law and are not accountable when they violate the constitution. Clearly, the country lacks an independent constitutional court to address consequential issues facing the nation and unfortunately successive presidents refused to establish such court for fear of establishing a legal authority that may overrule them.   

Furthermore, it is no secret that Somalia today is run like a de-facto presidential system disregarding parliamentary checks and balances, usurping powers of the PM, cabinet, and some powers of regional governments.  As such, the executive office of the presidency currently handles most, if not all, of the duties of the executive cabinet in clear violation of the constitution and the utter silence of parliament, making a mockery out of this proposal seeking to legalize current practices. 

Somalia is on a journey to regain its sovereignty and statehood and cannot afford new conflicts stemming from real or perceived clan domination by a current or future president, and instead needs the current parliamentary system to work, politicians to follow the constitution that brought them to office in the first place and allow the system to work. Detesting weaknesses in the system does not give one the right to decide on their own changes that are not mandated by the Constitution. The Parliament is the sole branch of government that has the power to propose constitutional reviews and amendments.


Dr. Abdinur Sheikh Mohamed
www.dowladwanaag.org

References

Interview with Engineer Abdulkadir Aden Abdulle, son of the first president and former Minister of Public Works (1969-1970).

Mohamud, A. (2012). The State of Somali Union. Foreign Policy in Focus. Washington Dc.

Samatar, A., Samatar A,. (2022). Bereft of Trust: Reflections on the Causes of the Somali Catastrophe. Bildhaan, An International Journal of Somali Studies

___________ (2016). Africa’s Frist Democrats: Somalia’s Aden A. Osman and Abdirizak H. Hussein. Indiana University Press.



 





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