Somalia gears up for its most ambitious General Election in decades

Somalia is a country recovering from conflict and civil war, and is preparing for its third General Election in 60 years. It last held countrywide elections in March 1960. In October of that year, the legitimate civil government was toppled in a bloodless military coup. Parliamentary and presidential elections were held in late 2016 and early 2017 respectively through an indirect electoral arrangement. The upcoming election is fraught with uncertainty and clear domestic challenges.

The Somali government led by President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo has made it clear that it is preparing the country for a one person, one vote poll. The president has already signed the electoral bill into law, under which citizens will participate in direct elections and vote for parties, rather than individual candidates, with parliamentary seats awarded as per the final tallies. Members of parliament will then choose the President and Prime Minister.

The National Independent Electoral Commission (NIEC), which was tasked with overseeing the elections six years ago, has insisted many times that Somalia is ready for universal suffrage. However, on 27 June it ruled out holding the scheduled election on time, and informed lawmakers that the earliest it could be held is March next year, or after August 2021, based on biometric and manual registrations. The chairperson of the NIEC, Halima Ismail Ibrahim, also stated that “The Covid-19 pandemic, flooding, insecurity and political differences have hampered the Commission’s work schedule.”

These proposed options were opposed immediately by some of the Federal Member States and the country’s main opposition umbrella, the Forum for National Parties (FNP), made up of six political parties, all stressing their unequivocal disapproval of the electoral models proposed by the NIEC. The Forum argues that it is not feasible to hold a one person, one vote election in the current climate, citing an inadequate amount of time for such a huge political event with the current government’s mandate nearly finished. Instead, it endorses an indirect election. This situation is compounded by the recent rift between some of the Federal Member States who have demonstrated that they have differences over monumental issues including politics and the economy, as well as the path to take towards an inclusive national election.

In response to concerns from political stakeholders, the Somali Federal government called for a consultative meeting last month in an attempt to iron out their principle disagreements, but some Federal Member States declined to take up the offer and instead convened in Dhusamareeb, a city in south-central Somalia. After their preliminary meeting, they all agreed that there could not be a one person, one vote election in Somalia, and also backed calls for an election to be held on time. They stressed that, “An all-inclusive electoral process which commands the support of Somalia’s political entities must take place in the remaining term, without extension.”

The decision was preceded by support for a timely election from the Prime Minister and President. According to Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khayre: “It’s a fundamental duty to plan to conduct credible fair, free and timely elections to further strengthen the gains we made so far. An extension to the current government’s term is unthinkable as it has the potential to lead to a political, security and constitutional crisis.”

President Farmajo spoke of the importance of strengthening the country’s democracy and advancing its electoral process, while also stating that bringing power closer to the Somali people is a priority for his administration. “Any process to hold elections must be in accordance with the Constitution and the Electoral Law as well as in line with the spirit of unity, consultation and compromise.”

After the end of the first phase of the Federal Member States’ meeting, they extended their invitation to the leadership of the Federal Government for a consultation to discuss bones of contention, including Somalia’s upcoming elections. Kheyre responded to the invitation and went for the talks to see if a consensus could be reached which would provide some sense of direction for the path which Somalia will be taking in the years ahead.

It now seems that the role of the parliamentary Ad Hoc Committee to make recommendations on outstanding electoral issues, and the remit of the NIEC to plan for a national vote within a constitutional timeframe, might be in doubt if the federal government and its member states take over the process as part of a political compromise.

Somalia’s last General Election in 1960 was held when Somalia gained independence, since when the country has been ruled by a number of governments. The military regime of Siad Barre was the longest in power, ruling for 21 years before it was ousted by armed rebel groups in 1991. The country has been engulfed in a civil war since then that has claimed many lives, with many Somalis displaced around the world. Since the establishment of an internationally-backed government in Somalia in 2009 with the backing of the African Union peacekeeping Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), the security, economic and political situation has improved. The last two elections took place inside Somalia, while previous polls were held in neighbouring countries due to security concerns.

The international community has invested vast resources and political capital in assisting Somalia. On the path to a vote for all Somali citizens, James Swan, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and the Head of the United Nations Somalia Office (UNSOM) said that, “These Somali institutions will determine the pathway to elections.” He urged Somalia’s partners to be ready to mobilise the technical support and financial resources needed to make the landmark polls a success. Despite international support, political stability and elections will be vital aspects of the revival of Somalia’s statehood. In the face of the established norm of holding mutually agreed upon elections, there are still some challenges ahead, though.

Independent think thanks have echoed the doubts about the feasibility of universal suffrage and have begun proposing alternatives for the 2020-2021 polls. Among the mooted alternatives include a return to Somalia’s 2016 Indirect Election or a model based on Enhanced Legitimacy. These suggestions vary from those advocating for improved participation for the electorate to other notions favouring semi-direct elections. All agree, however, on “the unavoidable reality” of returning to the tribal formula; it is almost inevitable.

Even though Somalia has made significant progress in recapturing areas previously held by Al-Shabaab, producing a secure environment conducive to a national election remains an uphill task, given the extremists’ continued attacks and presence in key towns across Somalia. Residents would struggle to turn out for elections if a countrywide poll is held. Nevertheless, a historic direct election for Somalia later this year will be a critical test of its progress in state-building. With all these challenges in mind, what remains to be seen is whether direct universal suffrage could take place on schedule which commands the support of Somalia’s political stakeholders.

Zakariya Hussein is a researcher and analyst. He can be reached via the below means: Email: [email protected] & @Iamzakariye (twitter).