After a lengthy electoral process, Somalia got a new president last month, former prime minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed. Incumbent President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud conceded defeat in the Feb. 8 election when he failed to get the plurality of votes needed to win the second round of voting.
This was only the second smooth transfer of power since Somalia’s first direct elections in 1960: Incumbent President Aden Abdulle Osman graciously ceded the 1967 election to Abdirashid Ali Shermarke.
Somalia’s democratic trailblazing in Africa came to a halt in 1969, however, when Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre seized power in a coup. Siad Barre ruled the country until his ouster in 1991, when a civil war ensued.
Elections have been a long time coming
A Transitional Federal Government (TFG) created in 2004 made several attempts to hold elections, but these efforts failed due to security concerns. Once the TFG’s mandate expired in 2012, Somalia embarked on the road map laid out by the United Nations, which included drafting a provisional constitution and selecting a new parliament that would then elect a president. This process guided Mohamud’s election in 2012.
Like the 2012 elections, the 2017 elections were indirect — parliament, not citizens, elected the president. The main reason for holding indirect elections was concern in the central government and the international community about the terrorist group al-Shabab, which had controlled large swaths of Somalia since 2007.
Aided by African Union (AU) forces, the central government regained control over much of the insurgent-held territory. But Mohamud’s administration failed to create voter districts or establish an electoral commission, as stipulated by the provisional constitution. This groundwork was necessary for direct elections — one person, one vote.
Now that the 2017 elections have taken place, here are three challenges the new government will face:
1) Ethnic power-sharing is an ongoing process.
The method for filling seats in Somalia’s parliament was hotly debated. In the 2012 election, parliament seats relied on a “4.5 Formula” — a power-sharing agreement among Somalia’s major clans. The formula allocates one in four seats to each of the major clans in Somalia, and half of one seat to minority clans.
The clan-based quota was used to appoint the 275 seats of the Lower House of parliament: 61 seats for the four major clans, and the minority clans shared the remaining 31. In 2012, 135 Somali elders, nominated by the main clan families, elected parliament.
This same formula applied in 2017, however, the number of delegates was expanded to thwart vote buying, which tainted the 2012 election.
Here is the step-by-step process used to elect the president on Feb. 8:
First, 135 elders from all of the large clan families were selected by the departing administration to form delegates based on the 4.5 formula. The provisional constitution calls for 275 electoral colleges, each consisting of 51 delegates selected by these 135 clan elders. This larger pool of 14,025 delegates then elected 275 Lower House members of parliament.
Before the presidential election, Somalia also held separate elections for the 54 seats in the Senate, the upper house. Each of the country’s six federal states was allocated 48 seats, with the remaining six distributed equally to Somaliland and Puntland, which have been semiautonomous regions since 1991. State assemblies across the country held elections to fill these seats.
On election day, the combined 329 parliamentarians elected the president in three rounds of voting. While incumbent President Mohamud received slightly more votes than Mohamed in the first round, it was not enough to offset a runoff — to win outright, a candidate needed two-thirds of the votes. In round two, Mohamed pulled off a surprising victory.
This seems a complicated process, but it gives clans — a powerful identity in Somalia — an equal say in selecting delegates to decide who rules the country. In fact, the 2017 election saw a shift: Mohamed is from a different clan than Mohamud.
To be sure, there are drawbacks to the clan quota. Institutionalizing Somalia’s clan system runs the risk of deepening clan loyalties during elections — which could mean rigid ethnic voting in future elections based on universal suffrage.
But research on elections elsewhere shows that even voters in African countries where ethnicity is highly politicized may be more influenced by pocketbook issues than by ethnic appeals. Voters in Somalia might also follow this trend, as elections become more democratic.
The current clan-based quota disadvantages Somalia’s minority clans who historically have been marginalized from the political process, however. For example, before the election, the politically disadvantaged clans in the Johar region protested that dominant clans, who wield the threat of violence, usurped their delegates.
Going forward, those drafting Somalia’s constitution will have to navigate the role of clans in Somali society — and the design of the country’s electoral system.
2) Somalia’s diaspora will play a major role in the country’s politics and development.
Somalia’s new president is a dual citizen of the United States and Somalia. Since receiving political asylum in the United States in 1988, Mohamed participated in several local political campaigns, and was eventually appointed as the Department of Transportation county representative in Buffalo Mohamed is part of a wider trend of politically active return migrants.
Political science research shows that diaspora groups contribute to the economic development of their home countries through remittances that help improve access to public services for their families back home. A recent study shows that recipients of remittances in Africa are more likely to contact government officials and to protest — and potentially become politically active.
The Somali diaspora community has been a crucial lifeline to residents in Somalia over the past two decades. It remains to be seen how economic assistance from the diaspora might translate into political gains once Somalia adopts universal suffrage, a target by 2021.
Immediately after his election, Mohamed vowed to clamp down on corruption and to instill core democratic values in Somali civil society. The president’s previous experience living in a mature democracy may help promote democratic norms in Somalia.
3) Security remains Somalia’s greatest concern.
Violence carried out by the militant group al-Shabab presents a serious threat to the new Somali government. Although al-Shabab’s control over territory has greatly diminished, the group has resorted to the use of guerrilla-style tactics that target public places and political officials. Its objective is to overthrow any central government in Somalia.
Although studies show that terrorism is no more common in weak states than it is in stable countries, the long absence of a democratic government has made Somalia a fertile ground for al-Shabab. The strengthening of political institutions in Somalia, and a state-controlled domestic police/military force can help neutralize the al-Shabab threat.
Thus far, the AU-sponsored AMISOM forces have been working with the Somali government to push al-Shabab into remote parts of the country in southern Somalia. However, as a long-term solution, a strong central government is necessary if Somalia is to defeat al-Shabab.
Safia Farole is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California, Los Angeles.