Somalia Elections: Challenges & Prospects

Suhaib Abdul Rahman | 19 Aug 2021

The decision to postpone the parliamentary elections in Somalia, which were scheduled to be held on July 25, raised political and security concerns that an agreement between the opposition and the regime of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (known as Farmaajo) on May 27, 2021, could collapse. The agreement helped resolve an electoral crisis between the two parties who were close to getting embroiled in an all-out civil war. The agreement stipulated that the elections be held within 60 days, with Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble taking a leading role in them, and reducing the powers of the outgoing president in the transitional phase, after the failed attempt to extend his term for an additional two years.

This paper sheds light on the political, security, and technical challenges facing the Somali electoral process, and the consequences of repeated delays. It also presents the possible scenarios for the electoral process and its outcome.

A Volatile Electoral Landscape

Somali President Mohamed Abdullah Farmaajo's term ended on February 8 this year, but he remained in office without legal cover until mid-April when he tried to extend his term for two additional years through the House of People (Parliament). This step sparked political and security chaos in the country, putting it on the verge of sinking into a new civil war[1]. The crisis led to splits within the police and the army, and there were exchanges of fire near the presidential palace. Under pressure from the street and Somalia's international partners, the president reversed the decision to extend his term. This came under a political agreement that excluded him from managing the electoral process, provided that the prime minister, who is traibally affiliated with the opposition, would run the electoral process.[2]

On June 4, Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble announced the formation of a new 25-member federal electoral commission, along with another commission to resolve differences and ensure that the country's parliamentary and presidential elections (the latter has yet to be formed) proceed as planned. However, the National Independent Electoral Commission has not allayed the opposition's concerns. It still includes members close to Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo, and includes members of the intelligence and the presidential office, so it remains one of the contentious issues that have disrupted the elections for seven months.

In mid-July, the commission released a timetable proposing a marathone electoral process that begins with the election of the Senate on the 25th of the same month and ends on October 10th with the election of the president. However, these electoral dates have not yet been adhered to. The government, through its spokesman, Muhammad Ibrahim Maalimo, announced the elections are deferred again[3] because some federal regions have been unable to present the list of candidates on the time specified for participation in the poll, and the failure to form local committees that must vote. But in fact, the main reason behind the current crisis is renewed political differences that the Political Consultation Forum put an end to last May. The opposition is complaining about President Farmaajo's interference in the electoral commission, as well as other controversial issues, such as the Gedo region and the seats earmarked for Somaliland.

The departure from the announced schedule further exacerbates the election crisis and disturbs the peace of Somali society which has long suffered from political instability and deep security problems, not to mention mounting political and tribal polarization that has reached high levels. In turn, international bodies have doubled their calls for dialogue in recent weeks to prevent the country from falling into chaos again.

Challenges to the Electoral System

The current electoral system faces major challenges, some of which are technical, as the government claims, but most of them are driven by political considerations related to President Farmaajo's ambitions to win the upcoming elections, which raises the opposition's fears.

1. Technical Challenges

 The political agreement issued by the consultative conference between Prime Minister Muhammad Hussein Roble and the heads of states in Mogadishu in early May stipulates that the senators should be elected by the parliaments of the regional states (413 local representatives) in two cities in each of the five federal states: (Galmudug, Hirshabelle, South West State, Jubaland, and Puntland). This is in addition to 46 representatives of Somaliland and the seats allocated for the capital, Mogadishu. The official date for announcing the results of the Senate elections was supposed to be August 1st.

The proposed timetable stipulated the initiation of preparing voter lists for the House of People, which numbered 27,775 voters, who will vote for members of the House (275 members). Each member will be elected by 101 people from the clan holding the seat, with both chambers of parliament (the House and the Senate) taking the constitutional oath on October 7. Under the current indirect election system, the new deputies shall elect a new president on October 10th.[4]But so far, it is clear that these timelines have not been adhered to. Not a single state has completed the Senate elections as scheduled, that is, before August 1st.

This reveals the slow pace of technical preparations for the elections and the extent of the security complications in the country. In fact, it is difficult for provincial or federal governments to access some areas for voter registration because armed groups and clans set up checkpoints that impede access to National Independent Electoral Commission convoys, forcing election commissions to constantly seek consultative meetings with influential local leaders.

2. Political Challenges

Although this is the third election schedule issued by Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble since he assumed responsibility for overseeing and managing the electoral process, opposition parties remain expressing deep concern that the current political challenges may prevent the elections from being held on time. These political challenges can be summed up in three main contentious issues:

A. Electoral Commissions: This point is the root of a long-running dispute between the president and the opposition. On June 4, the Prime Minister appointed a new commission to manage the Somali federal elections through a murky process that sparked widespread controversy. Mohamed Hassan Arro was elected as the head of the commission, and Mould Matan Salah was elected as his deputy. The two are close to President Farmaajo and the head of Somali intelligence, Fahd Yassin. This step deepens what the opposition has long feared, [5]which is the possibility that the government will rig the elections. What is remarkable here is that President Farmaajo has sought, since coming to power in 2017, to make major changes to the electoral system. This likely appears to be related, observers say[6], to the president's realization that he cannot win any transparent elections and, instead, seeks that the outcome be guaranteed in advance by interfering with the National Independent Electoral Commission. Despite all this, it can be said that there is no guarantee that he will be the ultimate beneficiary of these changes. The Somali election process is much more complicated than that, which explains the president's attempt to extend his term last April for two more years.

B. Somaliland Electoral Commission: Another controversial political issue is how to determine the method of selecting parliamentary seats for Somaliland, as the latter's political system prevents participation in the political process in Somalia, as it is an independent entity. However, President Farmaajo has been trying to appoint a commission of his own to easily win the votes of Somaliland (57 votes), while the current Senate President Abdi Hashi, who belongs to a Somaliland clan, opposes these moves and has announced that parallel elections will be held to choose Somaliland representatives.[7]

C. Gedo Region Seats: This issue poses a challenge to the country's general elections. The dispute centers on 16 parliamentary seats in the Somali House of People allocated to the city of Garbahaarreey. On June 29, the Prime Minister assigned a ministerial committee representing four states: Hirshabelle, Galmudug, South West State, and Puntland, to resolve the issue. Although the committee reached a relative reconciliation before the start of the legislative elections, differences still persist, due to the president’s quest to win the city's seats, as he belongs to one of its tribes, even though it is administratively affiliated with Jubaland State.

3. Security Challenges

This election could be an opportunity for the Mujahideen Youth Movement (Al-Shabaab) to launch new attacks[8]. Indeed, the movement preempted the start of the elections by threatening those who participated in it with death. In a 36-minute audio recording, the movement's leader, Ahmed Omar Abu Obeida, said that those who participated in the 2016 elections, were targeted by Al-Shabaab militants and some of them were assassinated in the following years. Although these threats are not an unusual practice carried out by the movement in every election season in the country, i.e. targeting voters after the elections, there are two factors that make these elections more dangerous in terms of security. The first factor is the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces from some areas after the outbreak of war in the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia, and the second is the withdrawal of US forces from Somalia at the end of last year. These developments certainly pose unprecedented challenges to the government in terms of ensuring the security of the elections, especially in light of the expectation that large numbers of voters will cast ballots. More than 27,000 voters are expected to participate in elections.

Somalia Elections & Politics: Trajectories

Given the technical, political, and security challenges analyzed above, the trajectories of the electoral crisis in Somalia in the short term can be drawn as follows:

First Scenario: The government will proceed with elections despite the persistence of current contentious issues

In this case, it is very likely that the incumbent president will return to power, especially given his control of the National Independent Electoral Commission and the Somaliland Electoral Commission appointed by him. Although he is unlikely to win in the first round, he is aiming for the largest single bloc of votes. His inner circle estimates that he will be able to muster nearly 70 votes in the first round, which would give him a chance to go into the second round with ease. Usually, losers bargain with their voting blocs to support one of the four remaining candidates in exchange for special political gains.

If this scenario materializes in this way, President Farmaajo will likely face rejection from the opposition parties, specifically the Union of Opposition Candidates, which has emphasized more than once that it will not accept a result in which the president wins without resolving current disputes. Even more, the union sought to exclude the president from the presidential race in the first place, because of his use of violence against peaceful demonstrations last March. If this scenario materializes, it is possible that the president will not find acceptance from the outside world, especially from the parties supporting the elections, which link the financing of the elections to ensuring that the vote is transparent and consensual and that political agreements and timetables are respected. However, none of those requirements appear to have been upheld yet.

Second Scenario: Consensual Elections

This scenario is based on the assumption that the government is obligated to hold the presidential and parliamentary elections on their specified date and to form a consensual electoral commission, including the Somaliland Electoral Commission. In the event that the opposition's opinion is not heard in this regard, the scales will tilt in favor of the first scenario. The success of this scenario depends on the extent to which Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble will be able to distance himself from President Farmaajo's ambitions for a second term, and put an end to the latter's interference in the electoral commissions.

Mr. Roble appears to be on this path. At the end of July, he sacked both the director of human resources and deputy director in the intelligence agency, Abdullah Kalini, and the head of the intelligence unit at Mogadishu airport, Abdul Wahab Sheikh Ali. They had been two of the most influential figures in the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), and they had worked in the previous period to engineer the election of deputies who will ally with Farmaajo in the upcoming legislative elections. Undoubtedly, these decisions took the camp supporting Farmaajo off guard.  Although it is difficult to predict the outcome of the elections due to the spread of political money and the opposition's failure to field a candidate for it, if this scenario translates into reality, the elections will produce a consensual president, thus sparing the country a constitutional crisis and a struggle for legitimacy.

In both scenarios, it is expected that there will be a delay in the proposed dates, which may extend for weeks, or even months, to resolve political differences and form a dispute resolution committee. Opposition parties believe that any limited technical delay will not affect the electoral process, but the previous political challenges may lead to plunge the country into a new cycle of violence, such as the one seen in last March.

Conclusions

Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo has once again brought his country to the brink of an armed conflict, reproducing tribal divisions long forgotten after the civil war. The tribes of the capital Mogadishu, which includes most of the current opposition parties, are lining up against the president and demanding his removal. In addition to the fact that weapons are still widely spread across the country, the national army has been divided against itself along tribal lines, which threatens that the situation will spiral out of control at any moment.

The Mujahideen Youth Movement is considered to be the biggest beneficiary of this situation because intelligence services are preoccupied with the issue of elections, instead of fighting terrorism, which gives al-Shabaab an ideal opportunity to intensify its combat activity. Indeed, bombings have increased in the capital, Mogadishu, in recent weeks.

On the other hand, Somalia's international partners, especially the European Union and the United Nations, which finance the elections, should intervene to supervise the electoral process if the president does not cease his attempts to influence the elections. 

References

[1] "Hope and fear as Somalia’s civil war turns 30", 26/1/2021. accessed on 6/8/2021, at: http://bbc.in/3ozK4DX

[2] “Somalia: Agreement reached on delayed elections", 26/05/2021. accessed on 6/8/2021, at: https://bit.ly/3lMAIa9

[3] “Somalia postpones long-delayed election”, 25/07/2021, at: https://bit.ly/3Avj66D

[4] "Somali Elections Delayed Again; No New Date Set”, 26/7/2021. https://bit.ly/3s2qbso

[5] Matthew Bryden, “Somalia’s Election Is Already Rigged: The Question Is, For Whom?" 9/7/2021, at: https://bit.ly/37xPDMZ

[6] Matthew Bryden, Ibid.

[7] "Somalia's Senate leader Abdi Hashi accuses Farmajo of clinging to power", 6/8/2021, at: https://bit.ly/2Xhm00R 

[8] Crisis Group Africa Briefing, “Staving off Violence around Somalia’s Elections”, 10/11/2020, at: http://bit.ly/3alJMvg

 

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