By PETER KAGWANJA
All things being equal, more than 6 million eligible voters, half of Somalia’s population, will elect parliamentarians on November 27 and a President by February 8, 2021 when Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo’s term expires.
But the horizons of Somalia’s politics are worryingly bleak. Its power elite is divided over what appears to be the regime’s efforts to frustrate the upcoming elections primarily to push for a term extension. This week, leaders of five federal states — Puntland, Jubaland, Southwest, Hirshabelle and Galmudug — turned down President Farmajo’s invitation to a critical National Security meeting slated for July 5-8, citing new controversial electoral laws.
From July 9, they have converged in Dhusamareb, the administrative capital of Galmudug to forge a common position on elections.
Paradoxically, the current electoral impasse is deeply rooted in the country’s reforms to deepen its nascent democracy. In February, President Farmajo signed a landmark electoral law that seeks to shift Somalia’s democracy from indirect suffrage to one-person-one-vote election. The coming election is likely to be the first democratic election in half a century after the last universal suffrage election in 1969.
The new electoral law seeks to replace the clan-based system known as the “4.5 system” that Somali leaders adopted during the Mbagathi consultation process in Nairobi in 2004 to stop the bloodshed and restore law and order.
Under this power-sharing model, parliamentary seats and most government positions are divided equally among the four major clans, with the remainder allocated to a cluster of minority clans.
However, the model was a temporary measure to mitigate clan conflict. By giving equal representation in government to the main clans involved in Somalia’s civil war, the “4.5 system” ended active clan conflict, setting Somalia on the path to stability and democracy.
Article 10 of the new National Electoral Law (2020) states that Somalia’s electoral model shall be Majority Electoral System, which is based on a first-past-the-post principle. Creating 275 nationwide constituencies, the new electoral system will still ensure clan representation in parliament.
The new law is expected to deepen the participation of women and minorities in decision-making. After the 2017 elections, women held 24% of seats in parliament. Parliament is expected to put in place the required measures to ensure that 30% of the seats are reserved for women.
But the new law has its critics. Somalia, some argue, is not ready for a popular poll.
Leaders of federal member states and major opposition parties say they were not consulted on the law. They fret that article 53 of the new law, which gives power to the federal government to postpone elections in the event of a national disaster such as floods, famine or armed conflict, is a regime’s gambit to extend its term.
Halima Ismail Ibrahim, the chair of the National Independent Electoral Commission (NIEC), courted controversy when she declared that neither the parliamentary nor the presidential election deadlines can be met. On June 28, she told the Lower House that political differences, insecurity, flooding and Covid-19 have hampered the commission’s work schedule.
She said holding a one-person-one-vote election based on biometric technology will require nine full months between July 2020 and March 2021 to prepare.
Somalia’s main opposition umbrella, the Forum for National Parties (FNP), swiftly denounced the move to postpone the election. In a press statement, the opposition accused Ms Ibrahim of collaborating with the government on term extension, calling on her to resign.
The law has run into the long-drawn conflict between the federal government and regional states, especially Puntland and Jubbaland. Puntland President Said Abdullahi Deni has insisted that the elections should “take place on time without a delay.” On May 28, 2019, his government suspended cooperation with Mogadishu and closed the NIEC offices.
Tensions between federal troops and Jubaland security forces in the Gedo region have reached fever-pitch. Elections are unlikely to take place in Somaliland and parts of the country under al-Shabaab.
It is said that in Africa, incumbents seldom lose elections. But Somalia is an exception. While President Farmajo is eligible for a second term, none of his five predecessors has won two executive terms! The default strategy has been to extend the government’s current term.
In Mogadishu’s corridors of power, word has it that Farmajo may drop Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khayre and replace him with a new face to pave way for a transition coalition government. But Mr Khayre, too, has ambitions to run for President. He is unlikely to allow a term extension in which his position becomes a bargaining chip. “Holding a timely election is more important than anything else at this time”, he said recently.
President Farmajo is walking down the same slippery path as three of his predecessors — Abdiqasim Hassan (2000-2004), Abdullahi Yusuf (2004-2008) and Sharif Sheikh Ahmed (2009-2012) who failed to manage transitions and exposed Somalia to chaos and uncertainty.
Only President Hassan Sheikh Mahmud, one of the front-runners to replace Farmajo, managed the transition well with the help of the Somalia’s neighbours and international community.
The international community should stay the course in ensuring that the coming elections are held on time, without extension of the terms of the executive or parliament to avoid instability.
As the only members in the 17-member list of International Partners to Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and IGAD should steer Somalia towards a peaceful transition.
Professor Peter Kagwanja is the chief editor of War for Peace: Kenya’s Military in the African Mission in Somalia, 2012-2020 (2020).