Somalia: a long, winding route to universal suffrage

Somalia: a long, winding route to universal suffrage

By Mohamed F. Ahmed

Somalia is expected to go to the polls to elect its president through direct universal suffrage in early 2023, its first in more than 50 years. If fairly run, that election is touted to usher in a new period of democracy and stability for a nation that has endured one of the world’s most arduous, costly, and bloody political journeys of the 21st Century — an election in 2023 will come six years after the historic Baidoa Consultative Conference of 2017, during which the Federal Government of Somalia and regional administrations laid the groundwork for a one-man, one-vote election, culminating in an electoral bill approved by both houses of parliament and ratified by President Mohamed Farmaajo.

The proposed model is a shift away from the 4.5 Election Model — a system that gives equal representation to the country’s four major clans and a smaller number of posts to so-called minor clans — which has been fraught with corruption and bribery and determined by electoral delegates made up of a few hundred traditional elders. The old model, while beneficial to a few dominant clans, has been practised to the exclusion of others, and the 2023 poll will mean wider participation of the Somali people, which has been touted as a major achievement in the Somalia state-building process.

This election was initially scheduled to take place in 2021 but was opposed by a segment of Somalia’s political stakeholders, especially regional leaders, and a section of the international community. For regional politicians, universal elections mean losing control over who gets a parliamentary seat, a role they currently hold, and for which they earn millions of dollars throughout their terms.

Other forces that have been a hindrance to universal suffrage in Somalia include part of the international community, a section of which has enjoyed close relations with Hassan Ali Kheyre, Farmaajo’s former prime minister whom Parliament voted out in July 2020. Kheyre, a dual Norwegian citizen and former oil executive, was impeached by Parliament for “working against the interests of Somalia”. 

Mr Kheyre, who nurses presidential ambitions, was one of the biggest opposers of the one-man-one-vote model and has long preferred the indirect election which he saw as an easy route to the presidency. He held the bill in the cabinet for almost one year before it could be approved, and when it was finally taken to the parliament, the agreed-upon model had been changed. The new law removed the option of a single constituency election and instead proposed a multiple constituencies election, based on existing federal member states. 

The law also removed the option for a Proportional Representation, PR – Closed list election system, in which the electorate votes for parties in a simple majority contest. The parties would then decide on the list of candidates and how they are elected, and proposed the First Past the Post (FPTP) system, which is decided by a simple majority in a local seat contest and open list, where it does not matter even if the person is in the starting numbers of the list. It also removed a provision in which the president must come from the party that garners 50+1 percent votes in parliament, which is against Article 89 of the Constitution.

After these events, the National Independent Electoral Commission (NIEC), in an address to Parliament, presented two elections scenarios: to hold a one-person-one-vote manual election in March 2021 or a biometric one five months later in August – in effect a technical expansion of President Farmaajo’s terms by five or six months. Taken to ask, NIEC argued that the logistics involved which made the time extension necessary. It also cited the delay of the elections bill at the Cabinet level, a heightened security risk ahead of the polls, and the Covid-19 pandemic.

At this point, the anti-term extension narrative kicked in full swing, describing Farmaajo as a tyrant “who wants to return to power by the barrel of the gun”. Propagandists spewed clan politics with nepotism undertones. The EU commissioned Sahan Research which painted the picture of a looming ‘full blown’ civil war and the idea of rival governments forming in Mogadishu.

In hindsight, the six-month period that NIEC sought and which regional leaders and opposition groups rejected, now seems reasonable. And when they called for it, the Federal Government of Somalia agreed to an indirect election. Surprised that the FGS had given in so quickly, the ‘opposing coalition’, with the support of local politicians, sought to impede the very election they had championed, first by constantly revising their demands at subsequent meetings. 

The opposition’s objective was to drag the situation out until the FGS lost its mandate. But the government’s mandate was secure under the Constitution. Under Law No. 30, if elections are delayed, as they were in 2016, and 2012, they must be rescheduled. No election in the last decade has been held in time in Somalia; to avert an institutional vacuum, Article 30 mandates constitutional institutions to continue to discharge their functions until replacements are chosen. It was by dint of this provision that the federal government’s mandate remained in place in compliance with the rule.

The opposition’s other strategy was to compel President Farmaajo to resign. Former leaders and members of the opposition openly called for an army mutiny and ordered their clansmen to desert the army and defy federal government orders. 

On February 19th 2021, the opposition orchestrated another attempt to derail election talks by declaring that there was no government and placing roadblocks on some roads and bringing militia within blocks of the presidential palace, which the FGS removed at night. The next morning the same militias shelled the airport with mortars, according to several reports.

The final attempt to rescue the indirect election agreement was a meeting in early April 2021, but this again flopped after two regional leaders demanded that the International Community be guarantor, and demanded parliament’s dissolution and the removal of some military commanders. These decidedly hard-to-meet demands only compelled Parliament to break the eight-month period of political uncertainty that threatened Somalia’s nascent democratization process and fragile peace by signing a special resolution to guide the country into elections by early 2023. 

The question remains, will Somalis finally get to elect their leaders in two years?

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