Somalia Elections Conundrum: Beyond the Soundbites

“Nine men who are blood brothers like us – Eight of them being from the same mother like you;

And the other one has another mother like me – And the eight are deceiving the man like you;

And the man is figuring out the tricks like me…” — The Dervish.

The Impetus.

Speaking at a virtual cabinet meeting he chaired last week, the suave, dynamic and articulate Prime Minister of Somalia, Hassan Ali Kheyre announced that his government intends to hold elections on time and that “the modality of the elections will be agreeable to most if not all Somalia political stakeholders.” This came on the heels of the Parliament Speaker’s one-month postponement of the highly anticipated constitutional appearance of the Chair of National Independent Electoral Commission (NIEC) in front of the parliament. Essentially, the Chairperson of NIEC would testify on the parliament floor on whether or not the elections can be held on time, and what type of elections she has in mind. In another front, the one Parliamentary Committee on the Review and Recommendations of Electoral Rules has announced that they concluded their review and will share their findings and recommendations to the parliament – leadership or plenary not specified.

Noteworthy and prominently in the mix is the NIEC Chairperson Halima Ismail Ibrahim being adamant that one-person-one vote of sorts is not only doable but necessary. Add this to the fact that the majority of Somali traditional elders who would decide the future MPs are either on the payroll or in the realistic crosshairs of Al Shabaab. That amplifies the risk inherent in the temptation to brush NIEC aside and have elders pick the electorate (2016) or the parliament members themselves (2012.) NIEC being the constitutional body tasked to manage the national elections, Ibrahim’s stand is to be reckoned with. But is one-person one-vote really feasible? What is exactly happening beyond the soundbites?

Past Elections at a Glance

The elections in post-civil war Somalia followed more or less the same pattern in regard of clearly defined players in the electoral deliberations and management: Arta, Djibouti (2000) had the traditional elders, civil society and Somali eminent personalities playing a major role in the overall management of the process and in many instances assigned the membership of the parliament. Embakasi, Kenya (2004) had the warlords and elders work hand-in-hand in the preparation and adoption of the Transitional National Charter and co-signing off the members of the parliament.

Somalis once again gathered for Djibouti II (2009) with Alliance for Liberation of Somalia (Asmara Group) and the remnants of the decapitated Transitional Federal Government cobbling it back together. In Djibouti II, the leader of the then-defunct Islamic Courts Union was elected president. Towards the end of President Sharif Sheikh Sheikh Ahmed’s term (mid 2011) country woke up to The Kampala Accord which saw the prime minister ousted, parliament as a legislative body effectively suspended i.e. gates literally slammed shut, and Garowe Principles (Garowe 1 and Garowe 2) started to reign supreme.

The players in Garowe Principles were the President and Prime Minister of the TFG, the President of Puntland, the President of Galmudug city state (South Galka’yo) a sheikh from Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa and some civil society members. The Garowe Principles culminated into the election of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud president and the government jettisoning the transition status.

More than one year before election date, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, an academic with a notable civil society and social activism background, perhaps taking a cue from his predecessors, or possibly persuaded by advisors, rendered the entire Federal Parliament (with the exception of Speaker Jawari) useless and convened the National Leadership Forum (NLF.) The NLF comprised of the President of the Republic himself, Speaker of the Parliament, the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and the presidents of federal member states.

Warts and all, the NLF negotiated, designed and executed an adequately inclusive, acceptable and peaceful election with comfortable degree of clarity and predictability in terms of timelines and rules of the game. The NLF-conducted election in which three of the nine members of the NLF were presidential candidates themselves gave birth to Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo, the current president a former overachieving prime minister, and a major casualty of The Kampala Accord.

Different Landscape

In less than a year before constitutional election day, February 08, 2021, Somalia is in a totally different electoral and political landscape than it has ever been in the past.

The country has a bicameral parliament the upper of which has all members personally appointed by federal member state presidents and vetted by federal member state assemblies. Logically, many argue that the Upper House also referred to as the “Senate” should represent the federal member states in all matters federal legislation including electoral processes, and that inviting the FMS leaders to the electoral deliberation table will not only be unconstitutional but it will also defeat the whole purpose of laboring over the establishment of the Upper House itself.

Even if one manages to sidestep this constitutional and logical argument, there is the Jubaland State leadership crisis where the Federal Government insists that it does not recognize the August 2019 elections in that state. It is therefore going to be rather awkward if not scandalous for the Federal Government leadership to discuss national elections with the leadership of subnational entity the election and legitimacy of which they continue to reject. The inclusion of Jubaland in any meaningful electoral discussions during this season will therefore need a different and totally brand-new skill set.

Somalia also have political parties (political associations, in constitutional terminology) the head count of which stands between 80 and 90 at the time of this writing, according to The National Independent Electoral Commission. Although all of those associations are not created equal, constitutionally speaking, none of them has so far graduated into a full-fledged political party. That being the case, while it is impossible to have eighty something associations around the electoral discussions table, to fairly and objectively classify these associations will present an enormous challenge.

In all recent election years, prime ministers set up shop next to the men who picked them to head the government. Effectively, the heads of the Somali governments past spared no effort to unseat – with the intention to inherit – their immediate bosses, the presidents. This kind of pattern has given credence to the widespread notion that Somalis do not reelect presidents. Another plausible assessment is now emerging that all the incumbent Somali presidents who lost elections were vanquished because they were undermined, sabotaged or outright challenged by their prime ministers. Observably, all the prime ministers who ousted their bosses did so to also lose the contests and assign themselves in the footnotes of Somalia’s political history. However, within the current crew in The Villa Somalia, if there is the possibility of such cracks, they have been so efficient in hiding them.

Moving Forward

The historic value and necessity of an on-time elections can not be overstated. However, the conundrums above bring to mind the age-old debate of choosing between a compass and a clock – where one is going and how many miles an hour they are running. What Somalia really needs is credible and acceptable elections that will further enhance and cement the cohesion and stability the country is slowly but surely sensing. Whether that should mean opting for the compass over the clock and extending the time in office for the current crew, is a question to ponder.

On a peripheral view, clear workable and realistic electoral timelines with defined rules and procedures will give the opposition a significant shot at a level playing field as this will enable them to recalibrate fundraise re-strategize and regroup – if they need to. In this light, the earlier the when and the how of the elections are made public the better for the opposition, the credibility of the elections by extension and most importantly for the stability of the country.

The best course towards this goal is not to appease the wary and the gullible or pretend the election process is a cakewalk. It is to really get real, look the Somali people in the eye, map the constitutional electoral stakeholders in the open, gather them together somewhere in the country, produce workable timelines, rules and procedures for the upcoming election, and have it executed to the letter. The country needs no assurances; it needs and deserves realistic plan and tangible results.

Adam Aw Hirsi is the former Minister of Planning of Jubaland. He can be reached at ohirsia@hotmail.com. Tweets at @JustAwHirsi

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