Is Democracy Emerging in Somalia?

Supporters of new president Mohamed Abdullahi celebrate in Mogadishu. Photo: Getty Images
Supporters of new president Mohamed Abdullahi celebrate in Mogadishu. Photo: Getty Images.

On 8 February, widespread street celebrations took place in Somalia, following the election of its 9th president: Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, nicknamed 'Farmajo'.

A popular former prime minister and dual Somali-US national, his victory has raised hopes that the country remains on track in its gradual emergence from a 30-year civil war—and protracted fight against the insurgency of Islamist militants al Shabaab. Though serious flaws with Somalia’s political system remain, the election was the most extensive effort at a democratic exercise in the country for many decades. Successive peaceful transfers of power hint at emerging layers of democracy not always visible elsewhere on the continent.

On the day, over 20 candidates were vying for the presidency, each needing two thirds of the vote in order to win outright; 329 members of the lower and upper houses of parliament voted in a secret ballot. A traffic ban was imposed in the capital Mogadishu, and the security forces were on full alert. The vote was held in the capital’s heavily guarded airport because of concerns about an attack by al Shabaab, and in a measure designed to tackle corruption, MPs were banned from bringing mobile phones into the venue. Abdirahman Duale Beyle, the Election Commission chairman, confirmed that this was to prevent politicians taking pictures of their ballot papers to prove to those who had given them money that they had voted as instructed.

After a close first round of voting, the four leading contenders left in the running had all previously served in government, including the incumbent Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, prime minister Omar Abdirashid Sharmarke, former president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and Farmajo. Sharmarke’s decision to drop out of the race swung the second round in favour of Farmajo, who won by 184 votes to Mohamud’s 97. He benefitted from opposition candidates voting against Mohamud, support from those allied to Sharmarke (who is from the same clan), as well as MPs voting with their conscience, despite thousands of dollars purportedly on offer to vote for other candidates.

Selection of the president and other top positions in Somalia is marked by identity politics and based on a clan-based power-sharing formula. With the re-elected speaker of parliament, Osman Jawari, representing the Rahanweyn clan, the frontrunners going into the election came from two of Somalia’s other major clans, the Hawiye and Darod. As President Farmajo is from the Darod, the next prime minister is likely to be from one of the Hawiye sub-clans.

The problems with the election

The unanticipated concession of Mohamud and smooth swearing in of Farmajo was a dramatic finale to a tarnished electoral process that had begun in September 2016. There were lengthy parliamentary elections marred by corruption, intimidation and manipulation. Delays occurred because of the unprecedented logistical and security challenges of holding these votes in six different cities across the country for the first time.

Partially successful oversight mechanisms were set up to monitor and punish misconduct and an integrity commission of respected Somali individuals was tasked with monitoring violations during the presidential election. But in the days before this, four out of five annulled MPs were re-elected, despite being previously disqualified for malpractices. Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan Noah, the outgoing federal minister of youth and sports, had his parliamentary position upheld after it was nullified for his involvement in polling centre violence. The lack of transparency around such decision-making highlighted the desperation of Somali leaders and international partners to conclude the election, leaving the integrity of the results questionable.

Partial progress

There were some causes for (cautious) optimism, though. The expansion in participation, oversight and coverage was encouraging. Every result was followed and scrutinized in the press and on social media, both within the country and abroad. Somalia has demonstrated a more competitive electoral process and plural political landscape than many countries in east Africa or elsewhere on the continent, as evidenced by one-sided victories in Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti and unrest in Burundi, Gambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

With universal elections not yet feasible, progress has been made in widening representation across the country, resulting in a government that is more inclusive, both politically and geographically, compared with that produced by previous elections. In addition, there has been an almost 50 per cent increase in the number of female MPs elected—67 of the 275 MPs are women. The final figure of 24 per cent in parliament is comparable to the number in the UK. With all the presidential candidates being men, the election of more female MPs will be a test for whether Somali politics is genuinely ready to accommodate gender equality. Another hurdle will be the level of female representation in the cabinet.

Future priorities

President Farmajo is untainted by the actions of recent governments. A technocrat during his short spell as prime minister from 2010-11, he pursued transparency, economic prudence and streamlined the cabinet before being ousted in a power struggle. Today he faces four pressing priorities.

First among them is to select a prime minister capable of working with him to build a functioning government and continue the country’s evolution towards a participatory democracy.

Second will be to improve Somalia’s long-term security. This will require a coherent strategy for tackling al Shabaab and building the capacity of effective national security services, alongside a coordinated donor response. The latter has not been prioritised until now and is especially important given the reliance on 22,000 peacekeepers from neighbouring countries and uncertainty caused by reduced budgets for the $900 million/year African Union mission (AMISOM), which has underpinned political progress in Somalia for a decade.

Third will be the steady attention needed to strengthen the relations between the federal government and the country’s member states, as well as between the member states themselves, as Somalia’s embryonic federalism develops. This will include efforts to tackle the recurrent threat of famine, as well as building and managing the resources of a limited economy, to lessen reliance on foreign aid.

Finally, it will be up to the incoming government to negotiate a more inclusive representational formula that will take the country a step further away from identity politics, in order to make good on the goal of preparing Somalia for universal elections in 2020.

Ahmed Soliman is the researcher on the Horn of Africa with the Africa Programme at Chatham House. His work focuses on the politics of Somalia, the Sudans, Ethiopia and Eritrea; producing policy-driven research that influences thinking on the Horn of Africa.

This article was originally published by Prospect.

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