The vote was supposed to mark the culmination of the war-wracked country’s democratic transition. Instead, it’s a backroom deal greased with Gulf petrodollars.
MOGADISHU, Somalia — The proliferation of billboards and glossy campaign fliers, plastered across windshields and storefronts here, gives the impression of a hard-fought battle for Somali votes. But the coming parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled to take place over the next six weeks, won’t be decided by a democratic ballot.
They’ll be decided behind closed doors, by coalitions of powerful clan and militia leaders, often greased with illicit funds from abroad.
This year’s election was supposed to mark the culmination of Somalia’s democratic transition after more than a quarter-century of civil war. Instead it will be only slightly more inclusive than the last one, in 2012, when just 135 clan elders selected the Parliament that in turn voted on a president. It also may be tarnished, U.N. officials and opposition candidates say, by a surge in harassment of political activists and journalists by Somali security services.
“I think there are a lot of people who think they are deeply disadvantaged by this election — and they would be right,” said Michael Keating, the special representative of the U.N. secretary-general in Somalia, who maintained that the vote still represents a step forward for the country.
Security has improved in parts of Somalia since the last election, thanks mainly to a 22,000-strong African Union force that has dislodged al-Shabab from most urban areas. But the al Qaeda-linked group continues to carry out regular bombings and assassinations, killing a top Somali general and six of his bodyguards in Mogadishu as recently as Sept. 18.
But it’s not just al-Shabab that stands between Somalia and a return to political normalcy. The clan violence that fueled the civil war throughout the 1990s and early 2000s has mostly subsided. The underlying clan rivalries, however, are still very much intact. And they have made everything from drafting a new constitution to federating the country to drawing up a plan for the current election — all things the government was supposed to have done by now — excruciatingly difficult.
After months of tortured negotiations, officials finally agreed that 14,025 “electors” representing the clans will select the members of the lower house of Parliament while the country’s recently formed state governments will nominate members of the upper house. Together, the two houses will elect a new president.
More than a dozen candidates have thrown their hats into the ring, but only a handful, including President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, and former President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, have the clan backing and financial support to be considered real contenders. The country’s first female candidate, Fadumo Dayib, has acknowledged she has virtually no chance of winning.
In an interview at his private residence in Mogadishu, Sharmarke likened the process to the Iowa caucuses in the United States. “We don’t have the primaries; everybody doesn’t vote. It’s just a caucus reflecting the larger society that is voting,” he said.
Sharmarke, whose bookish appearance is reinforced by a pair of thick rectangular glasses, is arguably the front-runner to replace Mohamud, whose popularity has faltered amid persistent allegations of corruption. (Last year, the president survived impeachment proceedings initiated by the speaker of the Parliament.) Sharmarke is the son of Somalia’s second president, Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, who was assassinated in 1969.
A year and a half into his second term as prime minister, he acknowledges that progress on many of the government’s top priorities, including the constitution and the federalization process, has been slow. But he says the election is proof that things are headed in the right direction.
“Last time any election like this happened was 1969. Forty-seven years later, I think this is going to be a test of whether the country is ready for one-person, one-vote,” he said.
International donors have reluctantly come around to this view, having long ago dropped their insistence on a plebiscite open to all citizens. Already, however, there are worrying signs that the carefully designed electoral exercise may be marred by abuses. In July, the president told local media outlets that anyone who opposed his re-election bid was Somalia’s second-biggest enemy, after al-Shabab. Since then, there have been numerous reports of harassment and intimidation of candidates who are challenging the president, especially those without the backing of powerful clans.
“I am subject to all-day harassment from him, from security,” Abdirahman Abdishakur Warsame, a former planning minister who is also running for president, said of Mohamud and his allies. He said that all his campaign billboards in Mogadishu were torn down, and that it was a hassle just to get permission to hold a news conference to release his new political manifesto, a 19-page document titled “Iskutashi,” or “self-reliance.”
“I don’t believe it will be a fair and free election,” Warsame said in interview at the heavily fortified airport in Mogadishu. “The president will try to use the government machine and money against us.”
The frustration of opposition candidates tracks with reporting from international observers, including the United Nations. Earlier this month, the U.N. assistance mission in Somalia released a report detailing a steep decline in freedom of expression. It highlights a range of abuses by government security forces against journalists and political activists, including arbitrary detentions, harassment and intimidation, and the forced closure of websites and media houses.
“I think there will be probably be many examples of security forces of one kind or another trying to stop people [from campaigning], reacting to reports that they don’t like. Unfortunately, that’s going to happen,” Keating said. “This is an important moment coming up, and it will be a test of whether Somalis are tolerant enough to allow freedom of expression and access to the [electoral] process.”
A spokesman for the president, Daud Aweis, denied that security forces had harassed opposition candidates. “Unfortunately, it has become common practice for some of the presidential candidates to spread unsubstantiated accusations of intimidation against our security forces,” he said in a written statement to Foreign Policy. “This government does not tolerate such behavior nor accept the divisive rhetoric, which distorts the inclusive, credible and transparent electoral mechanism that our leaders agreed upon.”
Just as troubling as the allegations of intimidation is the unprecedented influx of campaign funds from abroad, particularly from the Gulf countries whose leaders appear eager to curry favor in Somalia. One consequence of the country’s expanded electorate and new upper house of Parliament is that, given the lack of strong political parties, winning alliances will be much more expensive to build. Countries like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey have happily picked up the tab, welcoming the parade of Somali politicians shuttling among their capitals on discreet fundraising trips in recent months.
“There was quite a competition going on between the Qataris and the Turks on the one side, who are supporting candidates who are broadly aligned with the Muslim Brothers, and the Saudis and the Emiratis on the other side, who are broadly supporting candidates not aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood but who have professed some sort of Salafi [or] Wahabi allegiance,” said Alex de Waal, a Horn of Africa expert who leads the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University. “The implication being that huge amounts of money, by Somali standards, were going to be spent in order to secure the loyalty of whoever wins.”
The combination of shady foreign funds and inscrutable clan politics reinforces the perception that the election is rigged against ordinary Somalis.
“If the highest bidder carries the day — whether the money is gotten from external funders or secured from local sources, illicit or otherwise — it shortchanges the Somali people,” said Abdirashid Hashi, executive director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies in Mogadishu, adding that the majority of Somalis already feel shortchanged by “a lopsided electoral process” that is dominated by the president, prime minister, and a few regional power brokers.
That is a dangerous proposition in a country where bullets have long held sway in the absence of ballots. According to Warsame, the former planning minister, the main driver of conflict in Somalia isn’t al-Shabab as such, but manipulation of the political system to serve clan interests, which is what drives ordinary Somalis to join the terror group in the first place.
“I regard al-Shabab as a symptom, not the real cause of the problem. Al-Shabab thrives on the grievances of the clan,” he said. “The key challenge for peace-building in Somalia is corruption in business, security, and politics that enables al-Shabab to thrive.”
Photo credit: MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB/AFP/Getty Images