OPINION: Rethinking electoral process in Somalia7 min read
Somalia was the first African country to have direct universal suffrage. Multiparty elections were held in the country in 1964 and 1967. Since then, the country’s political systems and structure quickly moved toward a winner-takes-all system. From 1969 to 1976, Somalia was under the rule of a military oligarchy. From 1976 to 1991, it was a one-party system dictatorship under the guise of a socialist progressive society. Today, Somalia has a parliamentary federal system of government. The Parliament representatives and the president are elected through indirect elections – a complex clan-based model that privileges so-called majority clans and is susceptible to voting manipulation.
In 2013, the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) launched “Vision 2016,” which aims for the adoption of a permanent constitution and reforming the electoral system to allow direct national elections. All efforts at achieving this vision have come to naught. The adoption of constitutional amendments has yet to be implemented, and the hopes of many were dashed when the FGS once again failed to hold direct multiparty legislative elections for the first time since the late 1960s.
Moreover, recent elections have been marked by a protracted political paralysis that has caused the postponement of elections. This year’s parliamentary elections were due to start on Oct. 10, 2020. After a long-running stalemate, the indirect presidential and parliamentary elections began in July 2021. But the election process is taking longer than usual and only 84 out of the 329 parliamentary seats have so far been elected. There are also claims of mass electoral fraud.
Why does Somalia’s recurring election crisis appear to be getting worse? And what can be done now?
2016-17 election debacle
The 2016-17 elections in Somalia were marred by violence and corruption. According to Freedom House, “The indirect electoral process in 2016–17 was reportedly distorted by vote-buying, intimidation and violence.” Nur Farah, the former auditor general of the FGS, said, “Electoral College delegates, who are electing members of Parliament, are voting for the highest bidder. Some votes were bought with $20,000, some with $30,000.”
A United Nations report found human rights violations carried out by state security forces and nonstate armed groups, such as al-Shabab, during the 2016-17 indirect elections in Somalia. “Thirteen clan elders and two electoral delegates were killed between August 2016 and the presidential election held on Feb. 8, 2017,” according to the report.
The widespread outcry against the indirect electoral process in 2016–17 made no difference. Despite the strong evidence of electoral malpractice, the international partners of Somalia welcomed the outcome of the presidential election. The international observers’ tolerance of political corruption in Somalia’s elections and the dysfunctional institutions of the FGS compromise the integrity and the legitimacy of the democratic process. This undoubtedly enables the costs of corruption to thrive. So how is this year’s election different from 2016-17?
2021-22 election crisis
In a last-ditch attempt to propitiate the public, on Feb. 21, 2020, President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, widely known as Farmaajo, signed into law the electoral bill. But the electoral law has drawn criticism as some important provisions were not included in the legislation such as the definition of constituencies, the allocation of seats to constituencies and modalities for electing the lawmakers for the breakaway region of Somaliland.
Suddenly, on June 27, 2020, the National Independent Electoral Commission of Somalia (NIEC) told Parliament that they need 13 more months to hold one-person-one-vote national elections. It was a recipe for political instability. Many, including some of the Federal Member States (FMSs), and opposition groups, saw this as an attempt to extend the president’s mandate.
In the ensuing months, a chain of turbulent events swept the country – creating instability and uncertainty. In July 2020, Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khayre resigned after a vote of no confidence by Somalia’s Parliament. On Sept. 17, 2020, Mohamed and the leaders of the FMSs agreed on a revised indirect electoral model called the Electoral Constituency Caucuses. A few days later, both houses of the Somali Parliament unanimously approved the agreement. But critics accused the president of doing a U-turn on his promise to hold one-person-one-vote elections. The tribulations of the election don’t end there, though.
The leaders of Jubaland and Puntland regional states opposed the Sept. 17 agreement that they had previously signed, demanding changes to the electoral commission and how to conduct the election process in the Gedo region and modalities for electing Somaliland lawmakers. According to the regional leaders, the agreement works to the advantage of the president. On the other hand, the president accused the leaders of Jubaland and Puntland of derailing the elections based on the Sept. 17 agreement.
To end the deadlock, on April 12, 2021, Somalia’s lower house of Parliament voted on a controversial law extending the president’s term for another two years and allowing the government to prepare for one-person-one-vote direct elections. A day later, the president signed into law the Special Electoral Law for Federal Elections. Rather than offering a panacea for the electoral impasse, Parliament’s move only added fuel to the already combustible political crisis. It has led to armed clashes between security forces and armed groups loyal to the opposition in Mogadishu. The fighting has resulted in death, injury and population displacement.
However, the mandate extension was short-lived. In May 2021 the Somali Parliament reversed the decision to extend the presidential term limit, averting outright violence. The president handed the preparation, implementation and security of elections to Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble.
Unfortunately, the prime minister’s new role has not brought the electoral crisis to a close. Analysts say the election fell short of meeting acceptable standards of fairness. Since July 2021, 54 senators in the Upper House and 30 lawmakers in the Lower House have so far been elected. The majority of these seats were elected through a voter suppression tactic locally known as malhiis – two candidates competing for a seat whereby one of them is a fake rival candidate who either gets few votes or withdraws from the race.
There is another twist in the tale. Today, there is political tension between Mohamed and Roble. The strain between the former allies grew after the prime minister sacked seven members of the Electoral Dispute Resolution Committee accused of favoritism. Then, on Dec. 27, 2021, the president suspended the powers of the prime minister over allegations of corruption and a land-grabbing case. But Roble remains defiant and accuses Mohamed of carrying out “a coup against the government, the constitution and the rules of the country.”
Clan politics, incessant infighting at the top and weak political institutions are real enough. These are important reasons to urgently change the status quo. But how?
Establishing collective sense of urgency
Unless there is a fundamental change to the political order of Somalia, the political stagnation will continue unabated, risking a backsliding in the state building.
As there are no accountability links between politicians and the public, the politicians across the spectrum are very much in favor of indirect elections – a process marked by malpractice and distrust. As a result, the country is experiencing a protracted systemic crisis.
The FGS’s failure to learn lessons from the 2016-17 election crisis is squarely its own responsibility. Indeed, the government has made great strides in some areas such as financial sector reforms and rebuilding the national army. But considering the depth of past election crisis, holding free and fair direct elections should take precedence over everything else. As stated in Article 21(3) in the Declaration of Human Rights (1948), “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
Political inequality is arguably the biggest source of conflict in Somalia. Hence, authorities should set out a clear road map to hold elections based on direct universal suffrage that includes all sectors of society.
But there can be no genuine universal suffrage without robust political institutions that can create stability. The Somalis have little trust in government institutions, especially in the legislature. The political elite is often accused of perpetuating weak government institutions for their own private interest. Somalia ranked 179 among 180 countries in the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) in 2020. Thus, there is a strong need to create an effective system of checks and balances between institutions and at the same time repair the low levels of trust in government institutions.
Moreover, the absence of a constitutional court and a ratified constitution allowed the political crisis to persist. The constitutional court could play a role in helping to resolve constitutional disputes between Somali leaders. For example, why does the constitutional body – the National Independent Election Commission (NIEC) – play no role in the current electoral process?
And a permanent constitution could resolve contentious issues, such as power and resources sharing and constitutional ambiguity, that are preventing national unity. Therefore, a constitutional court and judicial service commission should be established. And the constitutional review process must be completed without further delay.
Finally, the crux of the matter is the lack of political will which is the main obstacle to political consensus in Somalia. With a sense of collective responsibility, our leaders should explore pragmatic steps to find new approaches to stable governance. Good governance and accountability will determine Somalia’s future.