Elections in Somalia hit another roadblock

The opposition presidential candidates have rejected the new framework weakening the authority of clans and empowering the heads of state governments to determine candidates who will elect MPs to the lower house

August 26, 2021 by Pavan Kulkarni
Photo credit: Flickr/Ilyas Ahmed, UN

The months-long process of Somali elections — which began after much delay, bloodshed, and a betrayal of the promise of universal suffrage — once again hit a roadblock on Monday, August 23, as a group of opposition candidates refused to accept the new rules. 

Announced on Sunday, August 22, by the prime minister and chair of the National Consultative Forum, Hussein Roble, and the heads of five federal states, the new rules allow the latter to vet the list of delegates who will vote for the members of the lower house in this indirect election.

The Council of Presidential Candidates (CPC) released a statement on August 23 rejecting the election protocols arguing that they give disproportional power to the heads of the federal states. The CPC was formed in November last year as a grouping of 14 opposition presidential candidates, including the former president, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who heads this organization. 

Before these rules, in the election in 2009, 2012, and 2017, when the current president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed came to power, about 135 registered clan elders picked 14,000 delegates to vote for the parliamentarians in the lower house. These MPs, in turn, elected the president. 

This allowed the five dominant clans’ heads to control Somali politics by working out a power-sharing arrangement amongst themselves while denying the ordinary citizens in this country of about 15.9 million people all rights to elect their political representatives. 

While President Mohamed had promised in his 2017 campaign to break the clan leaders’ stranglehold on Somali politics by empowering ordinary citizens with a vote, it was only in February 2020 when he signed universal adult suffrage into law

Too late for universal adult suffrage

However, the suffrage law came into effect too late to build up the infrastructure and make the logistical arrangements necessary to conduct elections in time before Mohamed’s government’s tenure was to end in February 2021. Eventually, in September 2020, the hope of having an election based on universal suffrage for the first time since 1969 was dashed. 

An agreement was reached between the federal government, the federal member states, and the mayor of Mogadishu to conduct an indirect election based on votes by clan-leadership approved delegates.    

“[I]t was always our clear ambition to transition Somalia from indirect elections to full universal suffrage within my four-year term, and it seemed possible after we reached an agreement with the federal member states in June 2018,” President Mohamed explained in an article in Foreign Policy in May 2021.

“This was not immediately possible, however, because all five federal member states reneged on the agreement. Instead, they opted for a renegotiated election model because they opposed the multiparty system based on proportional representation that returned power to the people and excluded the established monopoly of clan elders,” he added, in a justification for reneging on the promise of universal suffrage and striking a compromise.

Some analysts have refused to give the President the clean chit he has sought with this explanation. “At the outset of electoral talks, the president knew his position was not rigid enough, and he was in no way able to hold one-person-one-vote elections within four months [from September, in time before his tenure expired],” argued an editorial in the Somali Guardian.

“His best friends and advisors, his intelligence Chief Fahad Yasing and the Acting Prime Minister Mahdi Guled all advised him to wear down federal states’ leaders by attrition but finally agree to an indirect election model,” it added.

The newspaper argued that the pace at which the federal government moved to facilitate an election based on one-person-one-vote was so slow that the plan from the beginning was to eventually “tell the public that the federal state leaders forced him to break his promise.”

The September agreement was decided to begin with the indirect elections of MPs by the votes of clan-approved delegates to the two houses of the parliament in December 2020 and conclude with a presidential election in February 2021, in which only the MPs will cast their votes. 

Government’s tenure expires without election

However, disagreements with opposition parties over the implementation of the September agreement, infrastructural unpreparedness, and security threats posed by Al- Shabab meant the last-minute preparation proved insufficient.

On February 8, 2021, Mohamed’s term expired without an election. Protests against the delays, which had already begun over the previous months, escalated as the CPC announced that it did not recognize the authority of Mohamed after his tenure expired. The federal government responded by orchestrating a crackdown targeting protesters, opposition leaders, and journalists reporting on the unrest. 

Amidst this escalating violence, the lower house passed Special Electoral Law on April 12, extending the president’s term by two years. President Mohamed signed the law into force without the upper house’s approval, which was deemed unconstitutional. 

As opposition mounted, hundreds of soldiers, rebelling against the term extension, entered Mogadishu city on April 25 and clashed with pro-government soldiers. When the country seemed to be on what the UN Special Representative for Somalia, James Swan, described as “the brink of.. worst-case scenario“, the lower house reversed the special law on May 1. Following which negotiation between the government and opposition leaders began, concluding with an agreement on May 27 to start the electoral process within 60 days. 

By the end of June, the federal government, federal member states, and the opposition leaders had agreed to begin the process on July 25 with the election for the upper house, followed by the election for the lower house between August 10 and September 10. The MPs of the houses would then be convened to vote and elect the new president on October 10.  

“With Upper House of Parliament elections having begun in four of Somalia’s federal member states and broader electoral plans back on track following a political crisis earlier in 2021,” the UN welcomed the move earlier this month, despite a delay in keeping up with the schedule. 

International bodies, including the African Union, have been pressuring the government not to delay the elections any further. A stable government is a high international priority for containing Al-Shabab, which controls large rural swaths of land. The Al-Qaeda-backed terrorist group has threatened candidates and delegates participating in the election.

In this delicate situation, when the election of lower house members was about to begin, the new framework for electing them was issued, in what appeared to be the government’s attempt to weaken the power of the clan leaders in determining the list of delegates who will choose the MPs through voting. However, this is not being done by granting ordinary citizens the right to vote but by vesting greater power in the heads of federal states in determining the delegate list.

CPC’s rejection of these rules and demand the election must be held under the previous arrangement where clan-leaders decide the list of delegates has once again cast a shadow of uncertainty on the prospects of completing the presidential election on schedule by October 10.