Nairobi, Kenya - As presidential elections approach in Puntland, the candidates in the running have accused one another of failing Somalia's semi-autonomous region.
The international community is closely watching Puntland's January 8 election, worrying that increased instability in the region could damage Somalia's efforts to recover from decades of chaos and civil war. The region is hosting hundreds of thousands of Somalis who have fled from the country's southern regions.
Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, who until last year was Somalia's prime minister, has warned of "a huge political, security and economic collapse" in the region if its incumbent President Abdirahman Mohamed Farole is re-elected.
Ali, who is also running for president, has accused Farole of corruption, financial mismanagement and political shortsightedness. He says these ills have allowed the region to fragment into disgruntled fiefdoms, caused government workers to go without pay for months on end and worsened already high unemployment rates. "To re-elect Farole means courting a huge political, security and economic collapse for Puntland. It is insanity," said Ali, who works as an associate professor at Niagara University in Lewiston, New York.
But President Farole responded that these accusations were "slanderous", noting that Ali's administration was accused of mismanagement when he was the deputy prime minister and then prime minister of Somalia. In comments to Al Jazeera, Farole also charged Ali with presiding over Somalia's monetary crisis, which Farole claimed worsened during Ali's tenure as prime minister.
Puntland, a region of about 3.5 million people that comprises roughly one-third of Somalia's land, has escaped much of the violence plaguing the country's south, where more than 17,000 African Union peacekeepers are battling the al-Qaeda-linked group al-Shabaab, which is determined to overthrow Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud's fragile government.
The opposition, clan elders and the international community should insist on a level playing field.
Puntland and the breakaway Somaliland region, which are both located in northern Somalia, had the only functioning governments in the country after warlords brought down Somalia's central government in 1991 and before the current administration in Mogadishu came to power last year. Unlike Somaliland, though, Puntland still considers itself a part of the federal state of Somalia.
Ali, 48, hails from Puntland and was Somalia's premier from June 2011 to October 2012. He frequently mentions the fact that he served as prime minister when al-Shabaab was driven out of Mogadishu.
The presidential election will not be open to all. Instead, Puntland's clan elders will nominate 66 representatives who will then elect a president. The winning candidate must receive at least 34 votes; if not, the three candidates with the highest number of votes will compete in a run-off.
The president's rival candidates complain that this process is flawed, and that Farole, as the incumbent, can easily influence the selection of the 66 electors. They allege that he has already doled out money to buy off the elders.
Farole's government denies these allegations, promising free and fair elections. Farole said in an email to Al Jazeera that there are "many tangible guarantees of fair elections" in Puntland, noting that other candidates are allowed to use government-run radio and TV stations, are allowed full freedom of movement, and are protected by the constitution and electoral law.
The candidates have asked for equal air time on government-run TV and radio stations, and requested that their security be guaranteed during the campaigns - a concern also raised by the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General, Nicholas Kay, who visited the region in November.
"Every candidate should have the opportunity to access the media, including state-owned media. Journalists should continue to be free to cover the electoral process as they are now," said Kay, noting that the UN is following the election process closely.
Opposition candidates' concerns were echoed by analysts who say that the chance of a fair election in Puntland appears slim. "The opposition, clan elders and the international community should insist on a level playing field," said Rashid Abdi, a Somali analyst and former International Crisis Group researcher. "If Farole is sincere in his claim that he wants to leave a good legacy for his people, that is the least he could do."
Abdiqani Hussein Mohamed, the deputy minister for civil aviation and airports, said in an interview with Al Jazeera that much of the anti-Farole rhetoric is "mere propaganda spread by people afraid of defeat".
"President Farole has achieved a lot during his tenure. He built up security forces that were in a shambles and banned citizens from carrying weapons in public," Mohamed said. "The government has also built office blocks for government ministries, something that didn't exist before his arrival." Mohamed added that the region will have two new airports soon, and work on them is scheduled to begin in January.
Ali, the former premier, has also accused Farole of failing to address the concerns of certain clans in the region, most notably inhabitants of Las Anod city and its environs, which is now under the control of neighbouring Somaliland. This clan, Dhul Bahante, has already carved out its own mini-state, Khaatumo, which straddles Somaliland and Puntland. Ali has warned that more regions are likely to break away if their concerns remain unaddressed.
But Farole countered that Khaatumo emerged "with the tacit support of [Dr Ali's] administration in January 2012, intended to dismantle Puntland statehood. It is an unfortunate paradox that this same man ... is now seeking the leadership of Puntland state."
Meanwhile, Puntland faces continued security problems. Though the region is relatively safe compared to Somalia's southern half, security has deteriorated in recent years, and at least four lawmakers and dozens of clan elders and clerics have been killed.
The region is also engaged in a low-level battle with fighters in a mountainous region near the port city of Bosaso. "That is what happens when members of security forces go without pay for several months," Ali said. "There is no incentive to be vigilant and keep the peace in the region."