Somalia’s Promised but Problematic National Elections

Somalia’s Promised but
Problematic National


(Residents welcome Somalia’s President
Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in Barawe. 12
October 2014. ) At the “Vision 2016” National Conference
in September 2013, President Hassan
Sheikh Mohamud committed to deliver a
nationwide “one man, one vote” election
by August 2016 (also sealed in the New
Deal Somali Compact with Somalia’s
international donors). It was a big
promise made back in the heady days of
late 2012, in the wake of the new “post-
transitional” Somali Federal Government
(SFG), and was unrealistic even then.
Since then, and despite relentlessly
upbeat messages and some advances in
other sectors, the SFG and its institutions,
especially Parliament, have made little
real progress on key electoral
preparations. The electoral commission is
only now being selected, though there is
no clarity as yet about how voters will be
identified and registered, or how or even
whether the promised (and legally
necessary) constitutional referendum will
be held before national elections.
Despite these clear obstacles, the strict
policy line – that elections will occur in
August 2016 – remains intact. There are
good reasons for sticking to this, not least
to emphasise the continued progression
from the decade-plus “transition” that
finally ended in August 2012. Western
donors also argue that a missed 2016
deadline for elections may jeopardise the
hard-won international (re-) commitment
to Somalia.
(…) despite relentlessly upbeat messages and
some advances in other sectors, the SFG and
its institutions, especially Parliament, have
made little real progress on key electoral
An all-out push for elections in 2016 will
inevitably distract from other, more
important, processes. Foremost among
them is the need to consolidate security
gains against Al-Shabaab outside of
Mogadishu, primarily by establishing
interim federal administrations (IFAs)
charged with governing Somalia’s
fractious regions. To implement these
local governance arrangements,
reconciliation processes within the new
IFAs as well as the politically tricky
technical demarcation of new and
contested boundaries between them need
attention. Instead, because of the
proximity of the elections, these local
processes are being used by political
elites as platforms for bids for national
(potentially more lucrative) power.
Moreover, any electoral process seen as
unacceptable to either the federal
government or the proposed federal
member states (the current IFAs) could
widen existing fissures, mostly based on
the degree of political autonomy and flow
of resources, between the two.
A recent (18 March) statement by the UN
Special Representative of the Secretary-
General (SRSG) Nicholas Kay notes “later
in 2015, all stakeholders … will need to
consider exactly how best to achieve an
inclusive and representative process in
2016”. This is as close as any senior
diplomat has come to saying that “plan
A” (a nationwide election under universal
suffrage) may not be possible. A UN
assessment mission is expected soon,
which may give the necessary political
cover for a change of plan. It is important
that its main findings – relating to the
feasibility of holding polls within the
allotted timeline – are made public so
that sensitisation and consultation around
a “plan B” can begin in earnest. At the
moment neither prospective candidates
nor voters have any idea how
parliamentary representatives and a
president will be chosen.
While the SRSG warns that “now is not
the time for discussions” – effectively
deferring to the just-appointed electoral
commission to make the call on elections
– technical, political and theoretical
deliberations are of course ongoing.
Closing down debate is not the Somali
way; there is already a slow trickle of
alternative proposals for choosing the
next government in social media; Somali
meeting places have been debating the
issue for months. While no system will be
ideal for all parties – with the Somalia
Federal Government and IFAs holding
different views – there are some
important considerations that need airing
Inclusivity and participation: whether
Somalia is ready to abandon the 4.5
formula – a ratio dividing parliamentary
seats (and less precisely ministerial posts
and offices of state) between the four
major clan-families (the “4”), with half as
many seats reserved for remaining
“minority groups” (the “5”). Interim
federal administrations for example, still
retain it. And if this very rough division
of political power continues to have
relevance, how can the system be more
participatory, and reflect highly contested
demographic changes over the last twenty
years (since the last census in 1989)?
Transparency: how to transition, and with
what oversight mechanisms, from a top-
down (and historically corrupt) national-
level selection process into a system that
is more open and participatory,
undertaken in different geographical
constituencies (not just Mogadishu) with
provision made for the hundreds of
thousands of internally displaced persons
resident far from their home regions?
Practicality: given likely continued
insecurity, violent political competition
and regional differences, which system is
logistically possible – or “good enough” –
and acceptable to all parties?
The principle of keeping to a 2016
deadline for the current government and
parliament is a good one. Continuing to
suspend disbelief for another six months
that a national, one man one vote,
parliamentary and presidential election is
feasible by 2016 is less sensible. The
sooner the options are brought to the
table, discussed and agreed upon, the
better the chances for a more
representative, transparent and
acceptable process.


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