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Somalia’s disputed polls is an important lesson in its democratic journey

Liban Obsiye  
By Liban Obsiye  

Former Senior Adviser at the Somali Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Posted on Monday, 22 March 2021 13:09

Somalis march and protest against the government and the delay of the country's election in the capital Mogadishu, Somalia Friday 19 Feb 2021.(AP Photo)

On 8 February this year, there were many people who worried that Somalia would descend into chaos.

There were fears of street fights, bullets whizzing uncontrollably and, even a (false) prediction for a military mutiny. None of these happened on this exact day. The heightened fears were based on the experiences of Somalia of the past. The new Somalia is different. Still troubled, but different. It has been bravely fighting terrorism with its international partners and achieved debt relief early last year after a rigorous economic reform programme guided by the International Monetary Fund.

Delayed elections

Somalia’s elections are late. This is a fact. These elections are not even the universal suffrage consecutive presidents, including the current one Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, had promised. Nor are they the ones the the Somali people hoped for to finally escape the elite clan selection of their so-called representatives.

However, it is the case that Somalis are truly committed to democracy as has been proven previously with the often late but successful holding of indirect elections in which all former incumbents handed over power peacefully. In fact, the political change brought about by some form of a vote every four years or thereabouts has been the only predictable and agreeable thing in the Somali political discourse.

Despite the usual reports of electoral corruption in Somalia, the fact that no single incumbent has so far returned to power is a natural political karma that is a testament to the promiscuous nature of modern global democratic politics.

The provisional Somali constitution states that parliamentary and presidential elections must be held within the government’s four-year electoral mandate.

However, this parliament has provided what can be best referred to as a technical extension with the agreement that all federal institutions and actors, including legislators themselves and the president, will remain in office until their successors are sworn in after the delayed elections.

Although there is no specific time limit for this (the earlier the better, of course), this has always been the practice. This indefinite technical extension is unprecedented but it is arguably a sensible and viable option at a time of a global health pandemic, increasing insecurity and financial constraint which is gravely affecting the Somali people and economy.

All the Somali political stakeholders will benefit from the envisaged predictability and order that a potential election agreement can and will bring to both Somalia and its international partners who have thus far remained patient if it finally comes to fruition.

Somalia’s important international partners who are engaged in shuttle, telephone and Zoom diplomacy within the country continue to express their concerns repeatedly in a coordinated manner, including through the recent UN Security Council meeting of Friday 12 March 2021 in which they agreed that Somalia’s elections must be held “without further delay.”

Of course, while this strong unified position and rhetoric ought to revitalise the electoral process, a consensual and implementable election agreement must materialise amidst the current health, humanitarian and security challenges the country faces.

Indeed, agreeing on the way forward may just prove to be the easiest part of this electoral saga in Somalia.

The state of the nation

Somalia is truly a unique place. Nowhere else has suffered so miserably from state collapse in the same dramatic fashion as Somalia.

Men and women were killed, others maimed one another, public and private institutions were destroyed, families were separated and flung to the furthest corners of the world leaving warlords and radicals to fill the power vacuum in the absence of a functioning state.

The pain, misery and anger that resulted from this are still raw and visible on buildings and even on some people’s faces. Suspicion still lives on in people’s hearts and lingers in their minds. Yet, despite all challenges, the Somali people have yearned for a return to normalcy.

What is normal? It is an effectively functioning government, delivery of basic public services and opportunities for an entire generation that was born and socialised in conflict and uncertainty.

Today, despite all the anger, political posturing, disagreements and tension, there is no single Somali who wants to return to Somalia’s dark past. The Somali people have now seen, felt and tasted some form of normality and it is not possible for political elites to deceive them into self-destruction again. This is what should give all concerned stakeholders hope that elections will take place in Somalia and the Somali people will continue to move forward to a more stable and democratic future whether their political leaders agree or not. There simply is no alternative to this.

Somalia’s election has captured the imagination of the world. It has all the makings of a blockbuster political soap opera in which characters in power and those seeking it come from all corners of the globe to seek presidential power that is determined by a select few lawmakers.

Local news reports are amplified by global media interest which has internationalised Somalia’s electoral challenges. For some it is ideological, and for others, it is an experiment to see whether or not Somalia can find its way out of a difficult situation that plunged stronger nations into civil war in the past.

Yet, those who know Somalia will not overly worry because, despite the heated electoral theatre, Somalis always muddle through to some sort of agreement to survive another day. The core of this agreement is usually some form of an (s)election in which power is either transitioned or, as never happened in history, retained by the incumbent.

Bottom line

Democracy is difficult. Even developed western nations that are the beacons of the international liberal order have recently shown the fragility of the democratic process.

The rise of populism and the response to the Covid-19 pandemic have shown the strain in the understanding of politics and democracy as a whole.

In Somalia, the national political health is stress-tested every four years and, like Western banks, there usually is much strain but never enough to bankrupt the institution. In this regard, Somalia is a recovering but fragile state, whose democracy requires continuous dialogue, patience, compromise and strong legal, political and civic institutions to nurture and guide it.

Much of this is ongoing with the constitutional review process as a lead. However, agreeing on inclusive, truly representative rules-based governance in Somalia will take time. Rome, London, Paris, Kigali and any other capital or state was not formed in a day.

No doubt, mistakes will be made by all sides of the argument and political divide in Somalia. However, the current disputed election process will certainly be an important lesson in Somalia’s democratic journey while the outcome will set a valuable precedent for the country’s democratic future.

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