Somalia’s 2020/2021 National Elections: Problematic Issues and Potential Scenarios

EPC | 18 May 2020

Preparations are underway to hold the presidential and parliamentary elections at the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021 in Somalia. A new draft electoral law has been developed by the Ministry of the Interior after consultation with the five federal states and the parties concerned. It was then approved by the Council of Ministers and both chambers of Parliament, to be ratified by President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo in February 2020. Holding elections in a federal country with weak institutions in both the centre and the periphery constitutes a completely new adventure. The political scene lacks federal states that are united, strong and capable of negotiating. Neither is there a strong centre that is capable of delegating some of its powers to the periphery. On the contrary, there is a federal government that has failed to take control of many areas and that acts as if it is in control of the whole of Somalia. In contrast, there are regional states that are weak and incapable of properly controlling the areas where they are located.

This paper aims to analyze the political process in Somalia, monitor the main influential actors at the current political scene, and build potential scenarios for those elections.

Features of the political process in Somalia

Somalia has not experienced free and fair elections since 1969. Rather, the scene was dominated by political fluctuations after the military coup that toppled the Somali civil government on 21 October 1969. After the downfall of the Somali central government in 1991, the country entered into a chaos tunnel characterized by the absence of law and the division of the society into belligerent tribes and militias. This has made the restoration of security and stability extremely difficult. After the collapse of the state in 1991, most parties concerned suggested that the federal system would be the ideal political solution for the country as the country was flooded by tribal pockets, and it would have been extremely difficult to bring them together under a model other than the federation as a unified political structure.

The constitutional and legal framework of the Somali state gives the country’s political life a chance of stability. Yet there are legislative and factual problems and obstacles that prevent the practical materialization of this. The main shortcomings are the absence of important institutions, such as the constitutional court, judicial committees, labour unions, and anti-corruption institutions. While the Constitution lays the legislative foundation for exercising basic freedoms (forming associations, freedom of expression and movement, protection of personal security, etc.), the necessary legal and institutional support for Somalis to activate those rights is also lacking in general, in addition to the existence of doubts about the possibility of establishing this constitutional form of the state with all its institutional requirements all over Somalia.

Elected on 8 February 2017, President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo gained unprecedented support from the international community in the hope of managing to establish a one-person one-vote popular election mechanism in the upcoming elections in 2020/2021, in addition to revising the Constitution and cleaning the areas controlled by the Islamist al-Shabab Movement. However, several indications demonstrate that his rule has failed to achieve those tasks due to the absence of the electoral infrastructure, continued insecurity in the country, and the political crises between the federal government and provincial governments. Meanwhile, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is supposed to complete its gradual military withdrawal from Somalia.

Main actors in the current scene

Many actors affect the current political scene, although they vary in terms of their position on the central state, given that major players in the race towards the presidential and legislative race do not have ideological or doctrinal agendas due to the prevailing traditional culture that establishes the employment of the political post to meet financial investments, gain public jobs and bargain to gain commercial opportunities.

The main actors could be classified into four categories: the ruling team in Mogadishu, a federal group, mainly governors of Puntland and Jubaland, a partisan group represented mainly by the leaders of the Wadajir and Union for Peace parties, and an independent group represented by public names, mainly Taher Mahmoud Jaili (former Minister of Information). The last three groups live in a state of conflict with the first group (the central state in Mogadishu), and possess pressure cards , alliances and funds in a way that would allow them to shake the balances of power in the current political scene. The general features of the size of each group are discussed below:

1. The ruling regime: it is not yet known whether President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo himself will run in the upcoming presidential elections or leave the candidacy to Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire. According to some observers, this is attributable to tribal considerations since Hassan Khaire belongs to the Hawiye tribe which accounts for the majority of the population in Mogadishu. There is a clear agreement that the Somali political process would proceed based on tribal quotas, and that the ruler for the upcoming period would be a name from the Hawiye tribe. Suspicions that Hassan Khaire desires to run for president become more plausible in view of his political activity across the country and the network of his commercial, political and tribal relations. Regardless of whether Hassan Khaire runs or Farmajo runs for a second term, the current regime has a certain desire to remain in power. This is manifested by the nature of the ratified electoral bill which has gaps that could be used by the government to return to power. During its term, the current regime has focused on building a new foreign policy and building regional and international alliances. It has become commonplace to hold periodic tripartite summits bringing together the Ethiopian Prime Minister, the Eritrean President and the Somali President in the framework of what is called the “New Horn of Africa” project which is promoted by the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. This convergence came at the expense of Kenya, Djibouti and Somaliland region that seeks to play a sovereign role at the level of the Horn of Africa region.

At the level of Arab countries, the impact of the Arab boycott of Qatar has extended to Somalia. The Somali President then expressed his rejection of the Arab quartet boycott. It is believed that the current Director of the Intelligence Agency and former Al-Jazeera correspondent Fahd Yasin is the mastermind of the convergence with Qatar. In addition to Qatar, Turkey remained Somalia’s most effective strategic partner among regional countries. It has recently struck an agreement to extract Somali oil. Both Qatar and Turkey are expected to support the re-election of Farmajo in the upcoming elections.

2. Puntland State: Puntland’s relationship with the central government is characterized by major political fluctuations, although it has not yet reached the point of estrangement. Puntland has a number of strengths, mainly the existence of a system to record political parties and an electoral committee that regulates the mechanisms, rules and lists for competing for municipal seats. It also has a stock of gold in the border areas with the Republic of Somaliland, as well as a stock of oil that the central government in Mogadishu fears could tempt the state rulers to look for an alternative to the project of the unified Somali state. On the other hand, Puntland faces hardships in neutralizing tribalism and tribal rivalry among a number of tribes. Salafi-jihadist groups have also managed to station in the region.

3. Jubaland State: the administrative system in Jubaland was officially established in May 2013 when Ahmed Madobe was elected as president of Jubaland state which is made up of three regions, namely Middle Juba, Lower Juba and Gedo. The Kenyan support of this system helped it fight the Islamist al-Shabaab Movement in those regions and liberate the strategic Port of Kismayo. Differences between Jubaland and the central government reached the point of complete estrangement as a result of the disagreement between the two sides on running the legislative and presidential elections in Jubaland. The region is rich with oil, and the region’s ruler Ahmed Madobe maintains strong relations with Kenya. He was recently re-elected despite the boycott by the central government of the elections and its rejection of the relevant results. Madobe receives material and military support from Kenya. On the other hand, the region is the country’s largest stronghold of the jihadist al-Shabaab Movement which could not be defeated by the region’s government as yet. Jubaland seeks initially to neutralize the hegemony of the central government over the strategic Port of Kismayo and prevent its handover to Turkey under concession and development contracts. Secondly, it seeks to stop Ethiopian intervention by submitting official complaints to the United Nations (UN). Thirdly, it seeks to defeat the al-Shabaab Movement with the help of Kenya which provides it with monthly material support worth 1.5 million dollars in the form of salaries to the region’s armed forces, according to statements by Farah Maalim, former Deputy Speaker of the Kenyan Parliament.

4. The Wadajir Party: led by the politician Abdirahman Abdishakur, the former presidential candidate in the 2017 elections. It is one of the political parties most critical of the government and its allies, if not the most adamantly opposed to them. The party seeks to win in the upcoming elections, but its endeavours are hampered by the government. The party seeks to achieve two goals: first, committing the government to the scheduled date of the presidential and legislative (Senate and House of the People) elections; and second, committing the government to offer an official apology for its attack on the party headquarters and paying compensation to families of the victims and those affected. The party’s alliances are mainly with the UK. The party leader is also one of the ardent political advocates of severing relations with the State of Qatar.

5. Union for Peace Party: one of the influential opposition parties in the Somali political arena. It is led by former Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mahmud who seeks to win in the upcoming elections. This party is seen as one of the most adamant opponents of the current regime, and its members include renowned Somali politicians.

The new electoral law: fears and reservations

Several articles of the new electoral law[1] are the cause of disagreement between the government and the opposition. Most controversial, however, is article 53 which stipulates that the elections could be delayed for six months in case of unfavourable security conditions or the occurrence of natural or anthropogenic catastrophes. The opposition demanded the annulment of this article of the law while warning of the consequences that could be experienced by the country in case the current government proceeds to delay the elections and extend its tenure.

In this context, it is noteworthy that most members of parliament adopt a pragmatic approach. They declare their support for the popular election mechanism adopted by the new electoral law, although they actually prefer the 4.5 power-sharing mechanism[2] that ensures their re-election. They count on the difficulty of activating the new electoral law because of the shortage of time, lack of infrastructure, lack of security in most parts of the country, especially under the coronavirus pandemic, and the difficulty of distributing the parliamentary seats according to the new electoral law. There are also speculations that this mechanism could accumulate the powers in the hands of a single political party ‒ particularly with regard to the selection of the candidates who will represent it in parliament ‒ and the consequent critical decisions with regard to the country’s future.

In addition to the above hardships, the current political scene in most parts of the country is characterized by being strictly tribal. The Baidoa region is the scene of rivalry between the Digil and Mirifle clans; in Puntland region, there is rivalry among Majeerteen, Dhulbahante and Warsangali clans; in Jubaland region, there is rivalry between the Marehan and Ogaden clans, etc. The major challenge in view of such a reality is how to neutralize tribalism as a criterion for forming political blocs.

In this context, as mentioned earlier, Puntland state has a special system of recording political parties. The self-declared Republic of Somaliland, however, maintains tense relations with Mogadishu so that the National Electoral Commission would have no choice but to make special arrangements to elect some Somalilanders residing in Mogadishu for the seats assigned to Somaliland in the federal parliament. On the other hand, large parts of Jubaland state are controlled by the jihadist al-Shabaab Movement. They cannot be accessed and their electorate votes cannot be recorded by either the region’s government or the federal government. The same is true for regions controlled by tribal militias which normally set up checkpoints that prevent access by the convoy of the chair of the National Independent Electoral Commission who persistently seeks to hold consultative meetings with influential local leaders.

Challenges of participation by Somalis in the political process

Political actors find great hardships in directing the political culture of the population in a way that would contribute to building the state away from the power of the clan, religion and foreign influence. Foremost among those hardships are the following:

1. Multiplicity of political assassinations: targeted killings of political activists are considered commonplace in most Somali regions. The greater part of those operations is planned and executed by the jihadist al-Shabaab Movement, or results from commercial and tribal rivalry or engagement between armed guards of politicians.[3]

2. Risk of political arrests: for example, Mukhtar Robow, one of the leading defectors from the jihadist al-Shabaab Movement, was arrested after he managed, in December 2018, during the period of the elections of the ruler of Somalia’s South West state, to build broad support for himself among tribesmen in a way that put him in direct competition with the nominee of the federal government Abdiaziz Laftagareen. Robow’s arrest wasted an invaluable opportunity for the government to contain defectors from the jihadist al-Shabaab Movement by convincing them of the existence of room for them under the federal government. From time to time, security forces arrest individual journalists and sometimes media owners. They also shut down radio stations without court order. Government clampdowns on media outlet headquarters have increased in recent years on the pretext pf preventing the harm of their output to the stability of the state.

3. Lack of transparency with respect to political financing as power is shared based on the 4.5 tribal formula in the form of promises of obtaining funds through negotiation with local leaders and political mediators to limit the ambitious candidates and provide the necessary support to influence the selection of 51 voting delegates who in turn receive financial offers for voting.

4. Cultural and religious complexities: while religion and language are always referred to as unifying factors for the Somali people, they have become factors of instability and trouble in light of the controversy over the Arab nature of Somalia, in addition to the mixed religious situation with the rise of the Islamist groups. Women are the leading victims of this cultural confusion as clerics have announced on different occasions that women are religiously prohibited from participating in political life.

Potential scenarios with regard to the future of the upcoming elections

1. Extension scenario: the tenure could be extended for both chambers of parliament and the government. The law endorsed by the House of Representatives in December 2019 paves the way for this option. Article 53 of the law stipulates that the elections could be delayed for six months in case of unfavourable security conditions or the occurrence of natural or anthropogenic catastrophes. Members of parliament favour the continued power-sharing based on the 4.5 formula that ensures their re-election. They count on the difficulty of activating the new electoral law due to the shortage of time, lack of infrastructure, and lack of security in most parts of the country, which would make it unlikely to hold the general elections in the remaining short period. It is also quite likely that the government would use the crisis of the coronavirus spread to extend its tenure which ends at the beginning of February 2021 for at least one year, based on article 53 which permits delaying the election date in case of environmental catastrophes, epidemics and wars that prevent the possibility of holding the general elections. This scenario is unlikely due to the pressures by the international community and the opposition on the President of the Republic Farmajo to hold the elections on time.

2. Scenario of holding the elections based on the 4.5 formula: in view of the country’s long experience in holding such elections within a short time, the upcoming elections could be held based on this formula, especially in light of the hardship of holding direct elections for the security, political and procedural reasons witnessed by the country. In terms of financial cost, this option is the least costly. Since 2000, five presidents have been elected using this method. This scenario is unlikely as well since it ensures a comfortable win for the opposition that has managed to create a severe popular polarization.

3. The scenario of holding the elections in particular regions controlled by the central government: President Farmajo adopts this option based on the recently signed law. This scenario is based on holding the elections in areas that can be secured by the government at the time of its choice. This option ensures the return of the government to power for a new electoral term. However, the opposition powers are firmly opposed to this option. This scenario is the most likely for the following three reasons:

a.  The new policies of the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his convergence with Somalia allow the central government to implement its agenda with regard to elections and implement the new electoral law which entitles it to return to power.

b. The military engagement between the central government and the Jubaland state, non-recognition by the central government of the elections there and its escalation against Kenya weaken the likelihood that the region and its population will take part in voting at the presidential and legislative elections based on the terms of the new electoral law in light of the complete estrangement between both sides.

c. Success by the federal government in tightening its hold on two important regions: Galmudug state in the middle of Somalia after it succeeded in defeating the Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a group and the surrender of its leaders, and the Baidoa state south west of Somalia after the arrest of Mukhtar Robow and the recent visit to the region by Prime Minister Hassan Khaire where he launched development projects and enhanced his relations with tribal elders to be a springboard for his presidential campaign.


[1] The House of Representatives ratified the new national federal electoral law in December 2019. It was then ratified by the Senate in February 2020 and signed by President Farmajo to take effect.

[2] The 4.5 power-sharing mechanism is a non-territorial consociational model whereby the so-called “major Somali clans” are divided into four equal portions with equal shares in the legislative and executive powers (61*4=244) whereas the clans outside those four clans are allotted half a share (61/2=31). This formula was provisionally agreed upon for its practical rather than fair nature.                                                                                                                  

[3] In March 2019, Deputy Labour Minister Saqar Ibrahim Abdalla was killed together with a number of police officers during an attack by militants on the ministry building. In July 2019, the Mayor of Mogadishu Abdirahman Omar Osman was killed with three directors and two district commissioners by a suicide bomber. In May 2017, Public Works Minister Abbas Siraji was killed by the bodyguards of the Auditor General at a checkpoint. In October 2018, Mohammed Feeldheer, the electoral delegate for Galmudug state, was killed. In March 2019, Sultan Bashir, who took part in the election of the President of Puntland State, was killed outside a mosque in Bosaso. In July 2019, Abdullahi Abdirahman, a tribal elder, was killed in Galkayo. In August 2019, Sultan Rashid Duure Omar, a traditional elder who took part in choosing representatives of the Jubaland State Council, was killed in Kismayo.


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