Somalia’s Incredible Shrinking Election
The promise of “one man, one vote” has been broken. But will more than 135 people get to vote in the next presidential contest?
MOGADISHU, Somalia — It has been nearly half a century since Somalis voted in a genuine popular election. During that time, the troubled wedge of a nation in East Africa has tried “scientific socialism,” clanism, and radical Islamism as it veered from a model of post-independence democracy to archetypal failed state. Each governing ideology had its own way of disenfranchising the masses, and each added a new layer of animosity to a conflict that, over three decades, triggered two famines and scattered more than a million Somalis across the globe.
But when a quiet academic named Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was sworn in as president in 2012, it was taken as a sign that Somalia was finally on the road to peace. Elected by the parliament, which in turn was selected by a group of 135 clan elders, Mohamud vowed to complete the country’s transition to democracy by 2016. The next president of Somalia, he pledged in September 2013, would be elected through a process of “one person, one vote.”
That promise, which reflected an agreement with international donors that many experts saw as overly ambitious, was finally broken last week when Mohamud officially ruled out the possibility of popular elections next year. A statement issued by the president’s office on July 30 cited insecurity as the main inhibiting factor. In a wide-ranging interview with Foreign Policy in June, however, the Somali president went into greater detail about his misgivings about a popular vote.
“Security might be one factor. But for me, there is a much bigger and wider concern I have for the election. We don’t want the election to create new conflict, new division, within the society, which is the experience of many post-conflict environments. We don’t want elections to create winners and losers. We don’t want elections to create some sort of ‘winner takes all.’ This time around, Somalia is still fragile,” he said.
The president was clear in the interview that he is not seeking an extension of his mandate, as some of his critics charge. Instead, he favored an incremental approach that does not bring Somalia back to “square one” — the same system of indirect elections based on the 135 elders — but that also does not “scratch the past wounds” by advancing too quickly toward competitive elections.
“If today, Somalia is not possible with ‘one-person, one-vote’ ballot boxes all over the country. If this is not possible today, we should not stay where we are. We have to transition to something closer to that, so that next time we can reach that easily,” he said. “Based on that now, anything other than extension and the 135 elders, or any number of elders, is an election for us.”
“Somali-led” or dictated by donors?
Security is certainly a concern going into 2016. Somalia faces a potent insurgency from al-Shabab, an al Qaeda-linked group that once controlled much of the south-central portion of the country. African Union forces, fighting alongside the Somali National Army, have succeeded in pushing the insurgents out of most major cities. But the conflict has settled into a stalemate in recent years, with militants continuing to carry out asymmetric attacks against government and African Union targets, as well as terrorist attacks across East Africa. On July 26, al-Shabab claimed responsibility for a bombing that killed 15 people at one of Somalia’s premier hotels, located just yards from the heavily fortified airport in Mogadishu.
In walking back his pledge to hold nationwide elections, the president caught few close Somalia watchers by surprise. Buffeted by corruption scandals and paralyzed by political infighting, Mohamud’s government has made little progress laying the groundwork for a vote. A planned permanent constitution, which would spell out the electoral process, has yet to be drafted; a system for registering voters has yet to be devised; and long-standing issues with Puntland and other semi-autonomous regions that look askance at central government control still need to be resolved.
In one sense, acknowledgment that all of this cannot be achieved in less than 18 months highlights the difficulty of meeting externally imposed deadlines. Perhaps the most common descriptor used by U.N. and Western diplomats in Mogadishu is “Somali-led.” The constitution-drafting, state-building, and electoral processes are all said to be “Somali-led.” But like the troops who keep the government from being overrun, the schedule for achieving these goals did not originate inside Somalia.
“These deadlines tend to come from the international community,” said Justin Marozzi, a former advisor to the Somali president. “They can be wholly unrealistic, and not suited to the Somali political culture of consensus building and negotiation over a long time. But because the international community holds the purse strings, it tends to dictate the timetable, which is often unrealistic.”
In another sense, however, the abandonment of “one man, one vote” speaks to a broader lowering of expectations on the part of the international community. Whereas Nicholas Kay, the special representative of the U.N. secretary-general for Somalia, once told a gathering of Somali politicians that failure to hold an election would mean “the shattering of the hopes and dreams of millions of Somalis,” he has since taken to downplaying the importance of a popular vote. If the “hugely ambitious” electoral checklist is not completed by 2016, he told the Times of London in April, “I don’t think anybody will judge that as a failure.”
Yet there are more than a few Somalis who see the decision to forego elections as selling their country short. Worse, they say, a watered down electoral exercise could allow people close to the current president to remain in power. “Anyone who says elections are impossible is listening to people who want the status quo maintained,” said former Prime Minister Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed, whose coalition of parties and politicians is pushing for increased popular participation in 2016. “The international community is not serious about this, I think, because they are talking with people who do not want to have elections.”
Ahmed resigned in December 2014, after a prolonged standoff with President Mohamud over cabinet appointments that crippled the government and prompted the U.S. government to boycott a donor conference on Somalia in Copenhagen. He was the second prime minster to resign in the midst of a political crisis in a little more than a year.
The former premier was coy about his political ambitions for 2016, but he is clear about the need for a more inclusive selection process this time around. “Why elections cannot happen in Somalia when elections happen in Afghanistan?” he asked in an interview with FP in Nairobi in June. “Or elections cannot happen in Somalia when elections happen in Iraq, in Sierra Leone, in Ivory Coast, all over the world where they have the same problems as we have?”
A system “based on injustice”
Now that the president has ruled out a genuine plebiscite, it remains to be seen how far the government will stray from the elders-based system. In the interview, Mohamud spoke of “enhancing the legitimacy” of the parliament by expanding the number of electors beyond the original 135 elders. That system, he noted, is based on a power sharing scheme known as the “4.5 formula,” according to which an equal number of parliamentary seats go to the four most powerful clan-families, and half — or “0.5” times — as many seats are divided among the remaining minority clans and ethnic groups. This complicated agreement has succeeded in keeping the most dangerous clan rivalries in check, but is seen by many Somalis as deeply unfair.
“The way this 4.5 system is structured, the ‘0.5’ are actually a majority, more so than the four big tribes,” said Fadumo Dayib, one of more than a dozen declared candidates in the yet-to-be-designed 2016 presidential contest. “This is about holding onto power. It’s about keeping this elite in place.”
The president did not specify whether an expanded electorate would be based on this same “4.5 formula.” Instead, he skirted the issue, saying, “This time around we want to change and make the next parliament, a parliament that has been elected by a bigger number of citizens.”
Already, however, many of the proposals being bandied about retain elements of the “4.5” formula. One such plan, put forward by former U.N. Monitoring Group for Somalia and Eritrea chief Matt Bryden, calls for the establishment of a new upper house of parliament composed of representatives of the nascent federal member states (the same donor pact that calls for elections in 2016 also lays out a plan for federating the country). The new upper house, which would elect the president in a joint vote with the lower house, should address “the need for regional representation while at the same time maintaining a degree of equilibrium between Somalia’s major clans in line with the ‘4.5 Formula,’” Bryden writes.
“Even if, from a technical perspective, the preparations for elections could be completed in time, it would be reckless to rush such a sensitive and potentially divisive process,” writes Bryden. A hasty departure from the “4.5 formula,” in his view, would inevitably leave “some communities feeling disenfranchised and disaffected.”
From the perspective of outside candidates like Dayib, who is one of three female candidates to jump into the 2016 race, the abundance of caution exercised by analysts like Bryden will only ensure that old patterns of corruption and predatory politics stay unchallenged.
“Once you go back to this 4.5, you’re going to talk about money. It’s about money; it’s about rigging. It’s a system based on injustice,” she said in a telephone interview from Helsinki. “When they look at me, they are not going to ask me, ‘What do you have to offer Somalia?’ They will look at me and ask, ‘What do you have to offer me?’”