Somalia’s prospects for holding an election based on universal suffrage remain a distant dream because of the fundamental flaws of its political system and a political class bent on retaining power at all costs.
Voting in elections is a civic duty that is vital to democracy. While elections have an intrinsic value (citizens’ choice of their leaders), they also have an instrumental value—building, nurturing, and consolidating democratic governance, transparency, peace, and political stability. In a free and fair election, each valid ballot cast registers a political position. Therefore, informed voters count. But elections are only part of the institutional fabric of a democracy, and a democracy is only as good as its institutions, collectively. Credible election abhors violence, which inhibits the voters’ right to freedom of choice in peace and in line with their conscience. It craves politicians and electoral umpires to ensure peaceful campaigns. Hence, hindering electorates from exercising their franchise negates popular government.
Somalia’s experience of leadership transitions between 1990 and 2022 is a mixed bag. The elections were warfare-like, often mired in widespread corruption, tension, violence, and delaying tactics. Somalia’s electoral calendar has been repeatedly shifted and elections delayed. The prospects for holding an election based on universal suffrage remain a distant dream. Delegates chosen by their respective clan elders vote in members of parliament on the basis of the 4.5 power-sharing formula by which they elect the 275 members of the Lower House (House of People) while the assemblies of the Federal Member States (FMS) elect the 54 Senators of the Upper House. The two houses jointly elect the president. As such, clan elders and FMSs retain considerable power under this system and have long resisted reforms to the electoral law.
Somalia is once again at a crossroads due to the ever-recurring political disagreement over the electoral process. Prime Minister Roble and President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo have long been at loggerheads over the long-delayed elections, raising fears that their squabbling could trigger violence.
Somalia’s general elections were to begin in late 2020 but were postponed due to disagreements between the Federal Government and the Federal Member States. While all parties agreed to the indirect election model in September 2020, they nonetheless disagreed on how the model would be implemented. Two Federal Member States, Puntland and Jubaland, have argued that indirect elections cannot be implemented until new conditions are met. These conditions include direct supervision by International partners, replacement of the key election officials, and formation of the national transitional committee that will organize the election. On the other hand, President Farmajo and the presidents of the FMSs of Hirshabelle, Galmudug, and South-West maintain that all parties should implement the September 2020 electoral model without conditions.
On 21 February 2020, President Farmajo signed the electoral bill into law. But the electoral bill has drawn criticism as some important provisions, such as the definition of constituencies, the allocation of seats to constituencies, and the modalities for electing the lawmakers for the breakaway region of Somaliland, were not included in the legislation. Suddenly, on 27 June 2020, the National Independent Electoral Commission of Somalia (NIEC) told parliament that it needed 13 more months to organise one person, one vote national elections. Many, including some of the FMSs and opposition groups saw this as an attempt to extend President Farmajo’s mandate. It was a recipe for political instability.
The political crisis flared up when the country missed a second deadline for the legislative and presidential elections planned before the end of the incumbent government’s term of office in February 2021. This was a significant setback for the agreement reached on 17 September 2020 between the Federal Government and FMSs.
Tensions escalated on 12 April 2021 when Somalia’s Lower House of Parliament voted a controversial law extending the president’s term for another two years and allowing the government to prepare for one person, one vote elections. The parliament’s move only added fuel to the already explosive political crisis. It triggered an armed confrontation in Mogadishu where the Somalia National Army attacked units supporting different political leaders. The fighting resulted in death, injury, and the displacement of populations.
The extension of the president’s mandate was short-lived however. In May 2021, the parliament reversed the decision to extend the presidential term limit, averting outright violence. The Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament retracted the extension under intense domestic and international pressure, paving the way for negotiations amongst the Somali leaders. On 27 May 2021, Somali political leaders agreed on the way forward and gave the responsibility of organising the indirect elections to the National Consultative Council (NCC) made up of the prime ministers and the FMS leaders.
In early January 2022, the prime minister convened a national consultative meeting, a forum established to bridge the electoral differences consisting of representatives from the Federal Government and the FMSs. The forum concluded with a 9 January statement announcing a revised electoral timetable under which the outstanding elections would be held between 15 January and 25 February 2022, with all parties agreeing to conclude all elections by 25 February 2022.
A tortoise’s journey towards elections
Somalia’s legislative body has two chambers: the Lower House (House of the People) and the Senate (Upper House). While members of the Lower House are supposed to be elected directly by the people, members of the Senate are elected by the regional parliaments. The ongoing 2021-2022 election mirrors the 2016 exercise but has expanded the number of delegates involved in electing members of the Lower House from 51 to 101 delegates.
The election of the 54 members of the Upper House had been completed By July 2021. Moreover, more than 150 of the 275 members of the Lower House have so far been elected. The election of the remaining members was expected to be completed by 25 February 2022.
However, in both chambers the majority were elected to the seats through a voter suppression tactic known locally as Mallis: two candidates compete for a seat but one of them is a fake rival candidate who either garners few votes or withdraws from the race.
The Federal Government has been accused of meddling in state elections to swing the votes in its favour. Frequent skirmishes have broken out in several parts of Somalia between federal and local security forces and between clans with contrasting loyalties and interests.
Power struggle, intimidation and corruption
There is growing political tension between President Farmajo and Prime Minister Roble. The recent conflict between them has caused a gridlock in the Somali government’s operations. The strain between them was caused by Prime Minister Roble sacking the head of the National Security Intelligence Agency (NISA), the reshuffle of Cabinet Ministers who are close allies of the president, and the replacement of seven members of the Electoral Dispute Resolution Committee by the prime minister (who accused them of favouritism). The president, sensing a declaration of war by the premier, issued a decree rescinding the prime minister’s decisions. Farmajo attempted to suspend the powers of the prime minister, citing insubordination and making allegations of corruption and land-grabbing. The prime minister remains defiant and accuses Farmajo of carrying out “a coup against the government”. President Farmajo questioned the prime minister’s intransigence and tendency to act on his own.
Opposition leaders have also accused President Farmajo of coercion and gerrymandering elections. They claim that the deployment of special federal forces and paramilitary units in certain regions is aimed at hastening the election process using state violence and intimidation to install a handpicked individual. Jubaland MPs and officials in Kismayo hailing from the Gedo region expressed their frustration, citing interference by federal government security forces in their regional election.
All stakeholders, including the Federal Government and Federal Member States, endorsed candidates who are their allies. These include failed politicians linked to the plunder of public coffers, military and intelligence officials and ex-warlords implicated in human rights abuses, corruption, and murder. On the other hand, Federal Member States’ leaders have bypassed the process by orchestrating the illegal selection of dubious “MPs” to serve their political agenda.
The election process has involved widespread corruption, nepotism, and political violence. The NCC is accused of rigging the elections for the Upper House. Almost all FMS presidents have appointed most of their allies as senators without free and fair competition. Similarly, the NCC has installed its political allies in the Lower House.
The 4.5 power-sharing model
The 4.5 power-sharing formula may have provided some semblance of inclusivity. However, many Somalis believe that 4.5 does not meet their aspirations for greater democracy, inclusivity, and accountability, as it encourages appointment based on clan identity rather than competence. In addition, it does not guarantee that all clans and sub-clans within those clan families are represented in elective positions. The model has also served to further institutionalize the exclusion of women and the youth while wealthy elites continue to dominate the election process.
Role of external actors
A large injection of political finance by external actors may well influence the eventual choice of president, as has happened in the previous two presidential elections. While the most oversized purse does not automatically decide the presidential winner in Somalia, a strong anti-incumbency or tendency towards rotation of power might play a role.
Gulf rivalries have seen Qatar and the United Arab Emirates become increasingly involved in providing political elites with campaign support in order to secure access to oil, port, and airport development projects.
Kenya and Ethiopia have several reasons to take what is happening in Somalia seriously. Ethiopia has been one of the most influential actors in Somalia and, since the election of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018, has taken a much stronger position in support of President Farmajo, including supporting the Federal Government’s interventions in regional elections (Ethiopia intervened in both South-West and Jubaland).
Challenges persist in achieving substantive progress in Somalia’s democratic transition. Firstly, a fair electoral process and outcome are central to political power contestation and periodic change of government. Somalia’s electoral commission both at the federal and state level should be beyond reproach. Its credibility and independence depend on how it is constituted and appointed. The presidents and leaders of the Federal Member States should not have full control over the comings and goings at the electoral commission.
Secondly, the politicisation of the institutions of the state, especially those charged with the legal and exclusive use of force such as the military, NISA and the police, both at federal and state level, is detrimental to the health of Somalia’s political systems. These critical institutions need to serve the Somali state and not the political elite. The security forces should be apolitical; as discussed previously, Somalia’s security forces have been used as the ruling party’s attack dog to intimidate, arrest and harass the opposition, ultimately skewing the election in favour of the ruling party.
Thirdly, the critical barriers to resolving Somalia’s constitutional disputes are its fragile judiciary, the weak rule of law, and lack of a reliable mechanism of checks and balances. A potential transitional path lies in strengthening the judiciary by ensuring its independence and improving its competence. More specifically, a robust judiciary framework with a clear and transparent institution of judicial review in statutory law and practice is needed.
This 2020/22 electoral cycle has demonstrated a fundamental weakness of democratic politics in a flawed democracy—the superficial and instrumentalist practice of democracy without the intrinsic belief in the value system that democracy entails. As such, the elections in Somalia have not moved the country’s democratic needle forward. Instead, they have highlighted the fundamental flaws of a political system and a political class bent on retaining power at all costs.
Written by Harun Ibrahim, a Research Associate, Centre for Comparative Law, University of Cape Town.