Somalia: Spectre of political meltdown

Which political system can end Somalia’s vicious cycle of political crises?

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud's dismissal of the prime minister has triggered another crisis in Somalia [AFP]

A stable executive authority still remains elusive for Somalia. On December 2, Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon’s government collapsed after the parliament passed a motion of “No Confidence”.

The latest rancorous drama between President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and his sacked prime minister is nothing new. Since 2000, practically every pair of leaders appointed or elected has gone through similar challenges. At the end of each round, significant crucial time was lost, institutions were damaged and the profound structural problem – the real impetus causing periodical disharmony – was never addressed.

The often-employed process for a quick fix was to sack the prime minister by using members of the parliament; often by corrupt means or by way of external political pressure. Ordinarily, such processes are long and highly contentious as it requires a significant number of the parliamentarians to rally to pass a “no confidence” motion. At the success of this endeavour, yet another long process of appointing “the right” prime minister, negotiating the make-up of the new council of ministers, and then securing a confidence motion for him and his ministers, gets under way.

Endless cycle

This tooth-pulling process not only demoralises and disharmonises, but it causes critical priorities to haphazardly shift. For all sides, surviving a real, or perceived, political mortal combat becomes first priority and everything else a far second. For each of the past episodes, the president has gotten his wish and appointed a prime minister of his choice only to face the same outcome within a year or so.

The cyclical political dilemma is simplified and individualised – thus treating the symptom and not the root cause. As a result of this erroneous approach, in a period of 13 years, Somalia has had four presidents and ten prime ministers.

Moreover, the already weak institutions take a devastating and irrecoverable hit. The council of ministers is overrun; the president comes out with bruised eyes; the judiciary is kept in the periphery; and the parliament is further corrupted. 

Almost always, the struggle has been over the demarcation of the executive authority. The underpinning argument has always been “the country cannot have two presidents or two offices competing for executive authority”. 

The cyclical political dilemma is simplified and individualised – thus treating the symptom and not the root cause. As a result of this erroneous approach, in a period of 13 years, Somalia has had four presidents and ten prime ministers. 

Genesis of a dysfunction

The root cause of the government’s short lifespan is a systemic dysfunction deeply embedded within the constitutional structure and political culture of the elite.

In 1960, immediately after independence, the newly formed state of Somalia adopted a constitution inspired by the Italian one. This was anticipated since Italy was not only the colonial power that ruled Somalia, but also the trustee under which soon-to-be-independent Somalia was administered and its political elite was trained during the decade of UN trusteeship. According to E A Bayne, Italian academic Professor Giuseppe A Costanzo drafted the constitution and Somalis revised it through an inclusive process.  

From 1960 to 1969, the nascent state of Somalia adopted a parliamentary system. Like other parliamentary systems, the president was to be the head of state and to be elected by the parliamentarians. On the other hand, the leader of the winning political party would be appointed as prime minister, assuming that the party is disciplined enough to keep the government in office.

To their credit, the first two presidents selected their respective prime ministers from the Somali Youth League which won the election, albeit, on each occasion, the leaders of the party were bypassed for clan-based politics. Nevertheless, with sporadic hiccups, the system worked.

Fast forward two decades later to post-civil war. The charter that was drafted and signed as part of the Arta Peace Accord in Djibouti kept the 1960 constitution with some modifications. For instance, in the new charter, the president’s power was to include the right to appoint a prime minister but was modified to exclude the right to dismiss the prime minister as mandated by the 1960 constitution. Somali experts who drafted the charter clearly understood that these were substantive powers which the president could exercise.

Moreover, in contravention with the conventional parliamentary systems, Somali presidents appointed the prime minister of their choice. This contradiction has, inadvertently, created and sustained a political culture that is profoundly at odds with the parliamentary system. In practice, Somali presidents acted as though the country had a presidential system.

Under the current arrangement the political culture far outweighs the constitution: The prime minister is a political paradox – an unelected official, who, upon being appointed by the president, becomes more powerful than the head of state. 

Overhauling the system  

What Somalia needs is a total overhaul of its current political system. A great opportunity was missed during the preparation of the draft constitution in 2012. The UN offices that led the constitutional process, chose to ignore the many voices that called for a debate on governance and other political issues.

Somalia’s political class must come to terms with the type of system that they want to use in regulating political conflicts among groups, individuals and institutions.

That said, the latest political setback could be the tipping point for mobilisation and building consensus for an authentic constitutional overhaul. However, this would lead to a faulty outcome unless it is preceded by genuine political debate on a number of contentious issues.

Somalia’s political class must come to terms with the type of system that they want to use in regulating political conflicts among groups, individuals and institutions. The prevalent political culture of the elite suggests that Somalia, without any debate and without enshrining it in the constitution, has adopted a presidential system. It is widely accepted to find a would-be president campaigning publicly and negotiating with parliamentarians and clan leaders on political deals; and, at times, on purchasing votes in the open political market and promising cabinet positions to supporters.

What are the options?

In order to prevent perpetual bickering and political meltdown, there are two practical suggestions: Either change the aforementioned political culture by strictly following the parliamentary system that the constitution prescribes, or change the parliamentary system and create one that is consistent with the prevailing political culture that embraces a presidential system.

Of course, each of the systems has its own advantages and disadvantages. Adopting a presidential system would guarantee the direly needed executive stability and the continuity that has been elusive in Somali politics. On the other hand, the parliamentary system has the advantage of emphasising accountability.

We believe that the parliament should put a moratorium on the parliamentary system and embrace a presidential system. Even though the current constitution does not conceive a popularly-elected president, we think it is necessary to include this in the constitution.

We propose adopting a presidential system for four reasons. First, creating the political culture necessary to sustain a parliamentary system will take a long time. Organised and disciplined political parties are practically non-existent. Looking back, almost all of the 10 prime ministers were diaspora Somalis without any organisational backing. 

Second, instability of the executive authority is one of the main factors that is behind the perpetual dysfunction. Power struggles and zero sum tribal politics dominate the system. We consider the value of stability in the system as a whole, and that of the executive in particular, as the paramount value to which other important governance issues should be subordinate.

Third, the lessons learned from other places such as Liberia, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Mozambique and South Africa, convince us that the presidential system is worth trying. While some of these countries are struggling, none of them are caught in the cycle of getting a new government every six months or so. 

Finally, the fear of the president becoming a dictator is legitimate. We think such a fear can be mitigated by empowering the parliament, the judiciary branches, civil society and the media. 

In doing so, Somalia would be able to steer away from the systemic political volatility that has been crippling the government for at least 13 years, and it would help promote civic-based competitive politics.   

Afyare Elmi is a political scientist who teaches at Qatar University. He is the author of Understanding the Somalia Conflagration.

Ambassador Abukar Arman is the former Somalia envoy to the United States. He is a writer and analyst.