Seeking stability in Somalia’s election season

By Fadhi Kudireff in Mogadishu
Posted on Thursday, 9 June 2016 13:47

As election season approaches, Mogadishu is a hot, fortified city, subject to frequent Al-Shabaab attacks and clan and business disputes that end violently. Armoured trucks carrying African Union (AU) troops roll around town as squads of heavily armed men escort bomb-proof SUVs.

Mogadishu is mostly a divided town, where donor representatives, embassy officials, the United Nations (UN) diplomats and contractors live bunkered inside the heavily protected airport compound. Outside, life continues beyond the wire. There are the famous fish market, cafés and restaurants on Lido Beach.

Critics says the larger electoral college just means more people to buy off

Meanwhile, villages of bullet-riddled buildings are left decaying after years of intense street fighting.

Somalia has not had a popularly elected government since 1969, and this year is set to be no different. After two decades of civil war following the 1991 collapse of Siad Barre’s government, a transitional government and numerous twists and turns, Somalia is experiencing yet another test of whether it is moving in the right direction, not just in who it chooses but in how it chooses.

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud – who has fended off impeachment attempts – faces one of the continent’s fiercest and most fragile elections.

So far, publicly at least, the fights around the upcoming vote have had more to do with the electoral process than any policy platform or development issue. Winning public support is the least of President Hassan’s concerns, as the election model under debate relies on clan elders and community representatives rather than a popular vote. It also relies on a healthy dose of cash.

Apart from finalising the electoral model, government and business decisions have been unofficially stopped as electioneering ramps up. Parliament is set to endorse the election scheme agreed to by Somalia’s National Leadership Forum in early April. It includes new developments towards a more democratic model, including the establishment of an upper house of parliament. But progress has been marred by months of deadlock over the proposed return to the ‘4.5 quota’ system that would have representatives chosen via the country’s four main clan groups: the Darod, Dir, Hawiye and Digil-Mirifle.

Election countdown

In 2012, President Hassan won the election through a complicated process. A group of 135 clan elders selected 275 members of parliament (MPs) and those MPs then voted for a presidential candidate. Parliament has yet to approve the electoral law for the vote planned for August, but in its current form, the franchise would be extended to 50 elders who would choose an MP for each parliamentary post.

This is seen as a step towards one-man, one-vote elections in 2020. That election in four years’ time will require a national census and a voters’ registration process, both of which will take large amounts of money and serious logistical and security arrangements.

With three months to the election and the MPs and the president’s terms set to come to an end at the end of August, observers are stressing that such a time frame is going to be extremely difficult considering a number of outstanding issues. The Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, a local think tank, says that the larger electoral college is not enough to ensure a fair vote.

In an April report, it said: “Some aspects of the proposed roadmap significantly stifle the prospects of a legitimate and inclusive election process.” Critics suggest that the 50 representatives, whose selection is going to be subject to fierce competition, is merely increasing the number of people parliamentary hopefuls will have to buy off in a cash-fuelled campaign.

The UN and other international partners urged the government to speed up the decisions on this year’s elections or risk throwing political progress off track. President Hassan, a member of the Abgaal sub-clan of the Hawiye, last year unsuccessfully tried to extend his term on the grounds of the herculean tasks ahead to deliver any type of vote.

He is running for re-election and said at an event at the United States Institute of Peace in April that he would stick to his six-pillar agenda: stability, economic recovery, peace-building, service delivery, improved international relations and fostering unity.

Considered a moderate Islamist and despite links to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan represented a safe option at a time when more hardline personalities and groups were vying for the top spot and working in the government. His critics say that not much has been done on any of those fronts and that Somalia is in much the same position that it was four years ago.

Over the coming weeks and months, talk of who is also putting their name forward will emerge in what is considered a costly and ruthless series of negotiations with clan elders and business leaders. Backroom deals and counter deals will be made as alliances shift from clan to aligned group interest.

Crowded field

Word in Mogadishu’s cafés and khat-chewing sessions is that President Hassan faces opposition from several competitors within his own Abgaal sub-clan. Former president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a businessman with deep pockets, is one of his main rivals. Jibril Ibrahim Abdulle, the head of the Centre for Research and Dialogue, also has shown some interest, according to local media in Mogadishu. Jibril would not confirm his candidacy when contacted in Mogadishu by The Africa Report. “It is not official. All I am saying is it is an idea I am exploring,” he says.

Somalia’s only female presidential hopeful, Finnish citizen Fadumo Dayib, has also expressed her intention to run for the top job. As an outspoken critic of President Hassan and Somalia’s systemic corruption, Dayib’s diaspora distance has allowed her to say what a lot of Somalis think.

There are a lot of frustrations. The country’s poor security, in particular in remote parts of the country where a majority of the population lives, helps to perpetuate desperately poor social indicators. Late last year, the UN reported a 17% increase in Somalis facing food shortages. These number up to 855,000 people, two-thirds of whom remain internally displaced, while 67% of youth are unemployed.

Somalia has been among the top 10 recipients of humanitarian assistance for most of the past 10 years. It is trying to rebuild a functioning state after more than two decades of civil war. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, and the IMF argues that it is unlikely that the government will be able to repay its creditors the $5.3bn it now owes. The UN plans to help facilitate the vote through one of its longest-running missions.

The topics likely to feature heavily in political debates ahead of the vote include the region’s devastating drought, the inability of the AU and Somali forces to defeat Al Qaeda-aligned Al-Shabaab Islamist militants, the illegal plundering of fish stocks and outstanding constitutional issues.
Election time also raises regional tensions.

After much disagreement, the semi-autonomous region of Puntland agreed to participate in the 50-representative system after initially rejecting the proposal.

Peace first, justice second

One area where President Hassan can claim success, however, has been in promoting – and supporting to an extent – the federal member states that are seen as the building blocks to a greater federal Somalia. The Jubaland Administration and Interim South West Administration are emerging slowly with a semblance of cohesion.

Jubaland’s president, Ahmed Madobe – a former Al-Shabaab commander turned Ras Kamboni militia leader who helped the Kenya Defence Forces capture Kismayo port – is now a leader whose influence looms large.

These sorts of developments are serious concerns for Mogadishu’s elites. Increasing responsibility and international focus on the emerging regional states is an ongoing tension with the federal parliament. The new provisions for the establishment of an upper house of parliament where representatives are chosen from the regions could spark further disputes. Most of the regional states are still not developed enough to be considered stable.

International factors are just as likely to shape the lead-up to this year’s vote. Despite growing grumbles about President Hassan, who is backed by Western donors in part for continuity’s sake, he has managed to steady the ship over turbulent waters that included parliament attempting to impeach him in August 2015 for abuse of office.

Parliament dropped the charge and instead opted for dialogue. He now has a significant war chest and allies in the Gulf States and wider Middle East.

When The Africa Report contacted the president’s office to discuss foreign influence and financial support, an adviser declined to comment as it was “not such a lovely conversation during an election period”. Various Gulf State embassies declined interview requests. “We want peace,” was the answer from one Gulf ambassador before hanging up.

Corruption and buying votes dominate the Somalia political scene. Mogadishu-based non-governmental organisation Marqaati has got political parties to sign up to “an integrity pact, committing themselves not to buy votes and to provide information on any vote-buying”. According to its website, 28 parties have agreed. One major holdout is the Peace and Development Party, the party of the incumbent president.

The power of incumbency is not as strong in Somalia as it is in other countries. The 2016 vote will put Hassan’s deal- making skills to the test as Al-Shabaab militants seek to hike up the tensions and politicians look to extract as much value as possible out of the uncertainty. ●

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