one vote

Somalia announces universal suffrage to replace clan-based system

By Mohamed Sheikh Nor

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Posted on June 9, 2023 10:57

 © A member of the Somali parliament casts a ballot during the first round of the Somali presidential elections, in Mogadishu, Somalia. May 15, 2022. REUTERS/Feisal Omar
A member of the Somali parliament casts a ballot during the first round of the Somali presidential elections, in Mogadishu, Somalia. May 15, 2022. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

Somalia has announced universal suffrage will be implemented across the country, thereby replacing the current clan-based election system. However, despite much praise for the landmark decision, there remains voices who question the timing of such a decision.

This landmark decision, paving the way for one-person, one-vote electoral process, was reached on 28 May after a four-day conference held in Mogadishu. Following intensive consultations, the National Consultative Council (NCC) agreed to eliminate the 4.5 clan-based voting system in favour of direct universal suffrage to be enacted in 2024.

It is time for us to regain a sense of responsibility and rights that were hijacked from us over half a century ago

Several Somali politicians, including former prime ministers and former president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, have expressed concern, terming the decision as premature and calling for wider consultations.

They have called on the Somali parliament to block the decision made by NCC, to discourage what they perceive as power hungry ambitions by the current administration. Although President Said Abdullahi Deni of Puntland State failed to attend the meeting, despite being a member of the National Consultative Council, he did oppose the final agreement saying: “The current situation makes it impossible for such a thing to take place.”

New electoral system gains support

To eliminate the 4.5 clan electoral system, the NCC is proposing to replace the office of prime minister with the office of deputy president, a decision that must also be ratified by parliament.

In addition to voting being conducted through a one-person, one-vote system beginning in 2024, Somalia will be holding elections every five years, rather than every four years as has been the case.

The decision announced by the NCC is historic because Somalia’s legal and constitutional order had been undermined by the military takeover, and the return of voting rights to ordinary Somalis is a major milestone for the country, Hassan Moalim Mohamud, the current justice and constitutional affairs minister and leader of the Daljir political party, tells The Africa Report.

Since Somalia’s military takeover in 1969, there has been great pains to restore constitutional order and democracy, says Mohamud. “Many peace conferences were held to reconcile the warring factions, which led to the establishment of a parliament based on the 4:5 clan formula. It is […] historical to move away from this formula, to have direct elections by popular vote.”

Although the NCC’s has set a precedent, one caveat is that elections will be limited to two main political parties, to the exclusion of others.

Hassan Abdi Khalif, the leader of the Personality and Nationalism Party, which is a nascent political formation in the country, says he is not concerned about the limitation. “I have no worries at all, as long as political parties are present in the election and the opportunity for people to vote is available […],” Khalif tells The Africa Report.

Most Somalis appear to be enthusiastic about the political developments, stating that they will soon have the right to vote after 53 years. However, others wonder how this new arrangement will be achieved in the near future. “I am eager to see this happen. It is time for us to regain a sense of responsibility and rights that were hijacked from us over half a century ago,” Ahmed Da’ud, a primary school teacher in Mogadishu, tells The Africa Report.

Cautious optimism

Although many applaud the move by the NCC, the reality is conducting a popular vote is not a sure thing in terms of security and the fact that the federal government does not control the entire country.

Moving in a deliberate and gradual manner might prove more sustainable over the long run

The plan to hold a popular vote next year, as announced by the NCC, appears untenable. Farhan Isak, a research associate with Somali Public Agenda, a Mogadishu-based research organisation, says while the agreement to adopt a popular vote is a groundbreaking initiative, nonetheless, if it is not widely consultative, it will likely be highly contentious. “As a revolutionary and ambitious measure, the issue of holding the popular vote may cause disagreement if it is not fully discussed,” Isak tells The Africa Report.

The implementation of a one-person, one-vote electoral system throughout Somalia by 2024 will be difficult due to prevailing insecurity and other factors, according to Omar Mahmood, a senior analyst at ICG. While shifting the electoral system to a more accountable form is necessary, Mahmoud adds that making such a drastic change in one shot is a challenge – and one that had previously failed to materialise. “Moving in a deliberate and gradual manner might prove more sustainable over the long run,” Mahmood tells The Africa Report.

Optimism to Somalia’s direct universal suffrage

Somali civil society groups have also welcomed the removal of the 4.5 clan formula system in favour of the popular vote. However, they believe that two things must be completed before the process can begin.

“The process of population census and finalisation of the constitution should be completed before the election otherwise things will be futile,” Ahmed Dini, a member of a civil society group, tells The Africa Report.

However, some see this new system as a different form of the older one.

Ahmed Abdisalam Adam, a former deputy prime minister and currently the director of HornCenter, a strategic and research centre, believes this call for the popular vote by the National Consultative Council is no different than the old 4.5 formula, which has been used for decades.

“There will be no universal suffrage in the next parliament, since it will still have the same number of 275 as the one formed in neighbouring Kenya in 2024, a clear indication that the process will be governed by clans rather than merit or Somalism,” says Adam.

Since the previous method of indirectly selecting Somalia’s leaders has been criticised for being narrow and corrupt, the move to eliminate the clan-based system and empower Somalis to elect their leaders has been widely praised and welcomed as both appropriate and commendable.

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