Somalia’s arid, semi-autonomous Puntland region has been having a lively couple of months recently due to hotly contested elections.
On Wednesday, the country’s northeastern region will select a new president. Low-budget political ads fill the airwaves, and posters are everywhere.
Elections in Puntland are unusual and unique by design – they are not based on the modern, democratic system in which every adult is entitled to a vote. Instead, they are based on clan representation. After months of meetings and back-door negotiations, clan leaders have selected 66 MPs to sit in Puntland’s House of Representatives. Each selected MP represents his sub-clan.
Puntland declared itself to be semi-autonomous from Somalia in 1998 as fighting raged through most of the country. Since then the region of about 2.5 million people has had four presidents, all selected by MPs who were in turn selected by clan elders.
More than 15 candidates initially showed interest, but the list released by the electoral commission included the names of 11 candidates, with most coming from the diaspora community.
This election is the most tightly contested since Puntland was established, and tens of thousands of dollars were spent on campaign materials and buying airtime on local TV and radio stations.
The incumbent president, Abdirahman Mohamed Farole, who is seeking his second and final term in office, is promising a tougher stance in dealing with Somalia’s central government in Mogadishu. Farole accuses the Somali government of neglecting the needs of Puntland’s people.
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Under his stewardship, relations between Mogadishu and Garowe – the capital of Puntland – have been strained.
His opponents have taken a more conciliatory tone, focusing on domestic policies such as promising free primary school education to all children – things that were recently unheard of in Somali politics.
With more than 40 percent of Somalia’s population under the age of 15 and no strong revenue-generating systems in place, these promises seem to be a tall order.
Even though Puntland is relatively peaceful compared to other parts of Somalia, the most pressing issue is nevertheless security. Lurking on its southern border is al-Shabab, the rebel group bent on establishing an Islamic state in Somalia governed by a strict interpretation of Sharia. From attempted prison breaks to suicide bombings, the group has carried out at least two major attacks in the past two months that left more than 15 people dead.
On Puntland’s western border is the disputed Sool and Sanaag region. Both Puntland and Somaliland – a breakaway region in northwestern Somalia – claim this patch of land. With more than a dozen MPs coming from the disputed region, anyone who wins their support is almost guaranteed the top job. This is causing every presidential candidate to take a tougher stance on the issue.
“Sool and Sanaag is the big foreign policy all the candidates are pushing,” Sakariye Isticmaar, a Puntland-based political analyst, told Al Jazeera. “Whichever candidate convinces the people, clan elders and the MPs that they will reclaim Sool and Sanaag for them and promise to ensure the sovereignty of Puntland will sure have a very big advantage.”
positions have been grabbed and we blame the clan elders and not anyone else.”]
Another priority issue for the next president will be resuscitating the region’s economy. Puntland was devastated by a deadly tropical cyclone in November that washed away entire villages, roads and bridges. More than 300 people were killed in the cyclone and many more are missing. The cyclone also swept away hundreds of thousands of livestock, Puntland’s main export.
Many of Puntland’s 2.5 million people are nomads and were already reeling from the 2011 famine and the 2009 tsunami. To make matters worse, the government raised taxes on livestock exports from Puntland’s Bosaso port two years ago, forcing many traders to ship their animals from Berberra port in Somaliland instead.
Piracy is also a major issue. Although cases of piracy are dwindling, and the issue doesn’t rank high among the clan elders, it is a pressing concern for the international community, which has poured millions of dollars into building pirate prisons in Puntland. There is also the issue of migrants fleeing the Horn of Africa through the port of Bosaso.
Hundreds have died in attempting the perilous journey to cross the sea to Yemen. Recent boat sinkings off the coast of Italy, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of migrants, have brought this issue to the fore and whoever assumes office will have to deal with pressure from the international community to curb human smuggling.
The international community and women’s rights groups in Puntland have also spoken out against gender inequity in Puntland. Although the region’s previous legislature had five female members, only two of the 66 MPs selected by clan elders to sit in the assembly are women.
Puntland’s former minister for women development and family affairs, Asha Gelle Diriye, said the selection process has been far from ideal. “Injustice has been done. Women’s positions have been grabbed and we blame the clan elders and not anyone else,” Diriye told Al Jazeera. “We hope whoever wins abides by the law passed by parliament and gives the women’s positions back.”
Somalis everywhere will be hoping for a peaceful end to the election process, which started more than two months ago. All candidates have agreed to accept the outcome of the polls.
Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa