What is delaying Somalia’s elections?

February 8 polls delayed as president and powerful regional leaders squabble over the voting process.

President Farmaajo of Somalia
President Farmaajo's term ended on Monday [Feisal Omar/Reuters]

As the clock ticked towards 12am on Monday, young men counted the seconds to midnight before firing a hail of bullets into the calm dark skies over the Somali capital to celebrate the end of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s term in office.

Rewind four years, and young men in Mogadishu were also turning their guns upwards but for the exact opposite reason – to express their joy at Mohamed, popularly known as Farmaajo, taking office.

Remarkably, in a country where clan loyalty runs deep, the crowd was celebrating the election defeat of their own clansmen. Running on a nationalist platform and a promise to wipe out the al-Qaeda-linked armed group al-Shabab, Farmaajo – a bespectacled Somali-American who lived for decades in Buffalo, New York – had defeated two former presidents who hail from the coastal city to clinch the top seat in the 2017 election.

Similar scenes were witnessed in several cities across the Horn of Africa country. Even in neighbouring Kenya’s Dadaab, home to one of the world’s largest refugee camps housing thousands of displaced Somalis, Farmaajo’s win was welcomed.

But four years is a long time – especially in Somali politics, as no president has ever won a second term in office.

On Saturday, Farmaajo and the leaders of the country’s federal states failed to break a deadlock over how to proceed with elections. Farmaajo accused the regional leaders over the impasse, but opposition groups said they would no longer recognise his authority following the expiration of his term on Monday.

“The president is solely responsible for the delay to the election,” Ilyas Ali, an opposition senator, told Al Jazeera. “He had four years to organise an election but he didn’t do that. Now, his term has ended. We don’t recognise him – and he only has himself to blame.”

Unique election system

Somalia, a country of 10 million people, has a unique electoral system. Clan elders indirectly choose the members of the Lower House, while the five federal states elect the members of the Upper House. Members of both houses pick a president, who then nominates a prime minister, who then selects a cabinet.

Last time around, a total of 275 electoral colleges consisting of 51 delegates each and selected by 135 traditional clan elders elected the 275 Lower House MPs. It remains unclear if the same will happen in the upcoming election.

For more than three years, Farmaajo’s administration was vowing to hold a one-man, one-vote election – something that has happened just once in Somalia since it gained independence in 1960.

It was a lofty promise, in a country where most of the rural areas in its southern and central regions have long been under the grip of al-Shabab. Lack of preparation and squabbles with regional leaders did not help, either.

“The government was over-ambitious when it made this assertion, with regards to context on the ground and prevailing political conditions including the push and pull between the centre and periphery,” analyst Abdimalik Abdullahi told Al Jazeera. “It was clear right from the onset that one-person, one-vote was largely not viable.”

In September, Farmaajo met leaders from four of the country’s five federal states in the central city of Dhuusamareeb and reached an agreement that would have paved the way for an indirect election.

Under the deal, the central government and the regional administrations would appoint electoral commissions at the federal and regional level. Largely clan-based electoral colleges of 101 delegates from each state would elect Lower House MPs, with clan elders, the public and regional officials picking the delegates, while local parliaments in the federal states would select the 54 senators. Meanwhile, the election of lawmakers in Somaliland, a northern region that wants to secede from the country, was decided to take place in Mogadishu.

As part of the agreement, the election planning was set to commence on November 1.

But the agreement did not hold for long. Two federal state leaders of Jubaland and Puntland, accused the president of reneging on the deal and packing the election boards with his allies – a claim Farmaajo denied.

“We are ready to implement the September 17 agreement. We are ready for an election. We have invested a lot of time in this. We need to move forward and hold an election. There will not be a constitutional vacuum,” Farmaajo told parliament on Saturday, shortly after the breakdown of the talks with the regional leaders.

“I hope you can talk to our brothers and make them return to the September agreement and implement it,” he told the gathered lawmakers.

Jostling in Jubaland, Somaliland

As part of the September agreement, federal member states, excluding Somaliland, were tasked with holding the vote in two cities in their territory.

For Jubaland, whose administration has a strained relationship with the central government, the chosen cities were Kismayo and Garbaharey. The latter, however, is under the control of central government forces, meaning the regional authorities will not be able to organise polls in the city.

Out of the designated 43 seats for Jubaland, 16 were to be picked in Garbaharey. And in a tight poll, every seat could decide who occupies the presidency.

“As part of our discussion, I told the president it is up to the federal states to decide how they will share the seats between the two cities. But he refused,” Ahmed Mohamed, president of Jubaland, told reporters in Dhuusamareeb on Saturday.

“Then the state [Jubaland] was divided in such a way that clans that live in both cities, were pushed to one side because it suited the president’s interest. We advised the government to hand control of Garbaharey to Jubaland so that election can happen. They declined,” Ahmed added.

Meanwhile, lawmakers from Somaliland, including the senate speaker, have accused Farmaajo of not consulting them on how the northern region’s poll should be conducted.

“The president doesn’t accept or respect the federal system this country has adopted. We are here to represent the interest of the people of Somaliland. We must attend all talks on their behalf and give our input,” Speaker Abdi Hashi told reporters last week in Mogadishu.

The region has a total of 46 lawmakers in Somalia’s 275-member Lower House and 11 in the 54-seat Upper House. The candidate who has Somaliland’s backing stands a good chance of being elected president.

In 2017, Farmaajo took home 184 votes while his closest challenger, the then-incumbent President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, garnered 97.

International appeals

On Monday, the United States, which until last month had hundreds of soldiers in Somalia, called on the country’s leaders to find a resolution to the “electoral impasse”.

In a statement, the US embassy in Mogadishu urged “Farmaajo and Somalia’s national leadership to act now to resolve the political impasse that threatens Somalia’s future and find agreement with Federal Member State leaders to allow the conduct of parliamentary and presidential elections immediately”.

Washington said the gridlock has led to a lack of progress in the fight against al-Shabab, which continues to carry out attacks in the country.

On Tuesday, the central government in Mogadishu said Farmaajo would host a summit with regional leaders in Garowe, the capital of Puntland.

Shortly afterwards, authorities in Puntland and Jubaland said they preferred the meeting to be held in Mogadishu and also be attended by representatives from the international community.

Meanwhile, the opposition said Farmaajo had no authority to call for such a summit.

“Farmajo doesn’t have a mandate to convene a meeting. He has lost credibility & lacks commitment. He’s an obstacle to the implementation of the 17 Sep agreement,” Abdirahman Abdishakur, leader of Wadajir Party and a member of the coalition of opposition candidates, said on Twitter on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the United Nations Security Council held a closed virtual meeting on the situation in Somalia.

“The members of the Security Council called for Somalia’s leaders to resume their dialogue urgently and work together, in the interests of the people of Somalia, to reach consensus on the arrangements for the conduct of inclusive elections with a view to holding them as soon as possible,” the council said in a statement.

With no side showing the willingness to compromise and the country’s institutions too weak to resolve the dispute, the delay may continue for longer.

“The core responsibility of the delay of the elections can be attributed to the inability of the government to foster political stability. It engaged in a precarious, costly and futile political fistfight with all the federal member states since 2017,” Abdimalik, the analyst, said.

Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa

Source: Al Jazeera