Uncertainty looms large in the Horn of Africa as Somalia prepares for its delayed and contentious elections normally meant to take place when the president’s term expires on 8 February.
This year’s election is a defining moment for the country’s stability. The conduct and results of the vote will have a ripple effect on the social, political and economic relations in the Horn of Africa.
It will also influence what will take place when the African Union’s AMISOM peacekeeping forces leave in 2021 and the security of the country will fall under the responsibility of the Somali Armed Forces. Somalia continues to suffer from terrorist attacks at the hands of the Islamist rebels Al-Shabaab.
Ahead of the polls, we look at the top seven issues facing the country.
1. Election impasse and electoral model
The current impasse was sparked by the federal state of Jubaland and the semi-autonomous region of Puntland after they both refused to sign a pact introducing a new electoral model.
This model was introduced after protracted discussions among the federal government of Somalia, federal member states and the mayor of Mogadishu. It is largely based on the electoral model of 2016. But in this instance, the number of delegates who will elect MPs in the lower house has now increased to 101. Other changes include:
- Elections will only take place at two locations within every state, rather than four as before.
- Members of both levels of parliament from Somaliland – a secessionist region – will be elected in Mogadishu.
- Delegates are to be selected through collaboration with civil society, traditional elders and state governments.
- The agreement also fixes a 30% quota for female representation in both houses of parliament.
- Representatives in the upper house are to be selected by state parliaments.
Discussions about this new model ended on 17 September 2020 with both Jubaland and Puntland refusing to sign.
James Swan, the UN envoy to Somalia, has been at the forefront of negotiations, pushing for an amicable solution to the impasse. His shuttle diplomacy, both virtually and in person, has managed to resolve the stalemate, with Jubaland and Puntland conceding to elect members to the electoral committee.
The two states issued a joint statement on 28 January stating the would agree to take part in the electoral process following pressure from the international community.
According to Swan, the 17 September election model must be respected and all political parties are obliged to follow through with the agreement.
The UN envoy and the US Embassy in Mogadishu have both emphasised the same message: “No partial election. No parallel processes. No violence”. The tweet came after the US Embassy hosted a section of opposition presidential candidates on 24 January.
2. Farmaajo and the opposition: Ramping up the rhetoric
Some opposition presidential aspirants see the incumbent president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, popularly known as Farmaajo, as an existential danger to Somalia. They accuse the President of deliberately sabotaging the electoral process to ensure his stay in power.
Jubaland’s president Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed Islaan Madobe and Puntland’s Saed Abdullahi Deni are also convinced that Farmaajo is stoking nationalism as a way of destroying the agreed-upon federal power structure.
During his tenure, Farmaajo has had his way in who becomes president in South West, Hirshabelle and Galmudug states. Only Puntland and Jubaland have remained defiant against Villa Somalia’s increased centralisation of power.
A case that highlights the tensions is Gedo in Jubaland, where the federal government sent troops to the area that borders Kenya after Mogadishu refused to recognise what it and Madobe’s local rivals argue was a “flawed August 2019 vote that saw the Jubaland president win a second term.”
But when when the regional administration asked for the federal troops to leave, Villa Somalia refused, sparking a crisis.
Some oppositionists are angry with Farmaajo’s attempts to create a stronger central state as he seeks a second term.
In a December 2020 letter to the Turkish government, opposition politicians urged Turkey to stop a planned sale of arms to a special unit in Somalia’s police force – Harmaad– that receives orders from the executive branch of government.
Abdirahman Abdishakur Warsame, chairman of the Wadajir Unity party and presidential candidate, revealed the contents of their letter: “The President is already using Harmaad forces for coercion and rigging regional elections. So there is no doubt the same Harmaad forces and the weapons from Turkey will be used to hijack the upcoming elections”.
So far, the Somali President has out-witted his political adversaries and his pursuit of a nationalistic agenda is premised on protecting the country’s sovereignty. For Farmaajo, Somali opposition politicians are unpatriotic – representing foreign interests – and their intentions are to disrupt the progress made thus far in state-building.
3. Mogadishu vs Jubaland and Puntland
The lead-up to this year’s elections has transformed local politics, pitting forces in favour of a strong centre of power against those who prefer a devolved system of governance. Those in support of power decentralisation – approaches akin to Puntland and Jubaland – are aligned to the prevalent clan-oriented and non-hierarchical structure of Somali society.
As mentioned above, both Jubaland and Puntland had refused to take part in the polls. But they conceded to growing international pressure and have appointed eight members each to their respective electoral committees.
But, when Jubaland and Puntland submitted the names of their regional-level election committees, the manner of communication was initially declared null and void by the federal government.
The two states were said to have forwarded the list of names to a personal assistant of the UN special envoy to Somalia, going against government protocols. Hours later, Farmaajo endorsed a lower house resolution allocating 13 seats to Mogadishu in the upper house.
The move was bound to irk the two disgruntled states, as the additional seats will now benefit the larger Hawiye and Reer Banadir clans that are predominant in Mogadishu, to ensure equal representation of all four main clans from the capital.
Nonetheless, this increased representation of 13 senate seats was well received well by some residents in Mogadishu, as they feel they had been without equal representation in the upper house.
Mohamed Osman, a resident of Mogadishu, agrees: “Mogadishu is our capital city, it is the city of every Somali and it deserves the right of representation. Puntland and Jubaland should stop this divisive thinking.”
Osman’s father hails from the coastal town of Bosaso in Puntland, but speaks proudly of Mogadishu: “It’s time we see the bigger picture. I am glad we have President Farmaajo who was born in Mogadishu, unlike his predecessors. He is also spearheading the rights of more than three million people from all tribes in Somalia and deserves to be re-elected.”
4. Gedo: a thorn in Mogadishu’s side
The Gedo region remains a hotspot and the main source of Villa Somalia’s discontent with Kenya’s leadership.
In January 2021, fighting broke out between federal troops and regional forces under the command of Abdirashid Janan, who is alleged to be launching attacks from neighbouring Kenya.
The situation has yet to de-escalate and the presidency has used the Gedo crisis to whip up patriotism, portraying Kenya as the enemy infringing on Somalia’s sovereignty. The recent Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) fact-finding mission sent to unravel the Gedo dispute has worsened relations, as it expeditiously exonerated Kenya from the allegations of violating Somalia’s sovereignty.
The IGAD delegation is said to have only visited Mandera on the Kenyan side and skipped crossing the border to get the full picture. As soon as the delegation left for Nairobi, fresh fighting broke out between Jubaland’s Darwish militia and federal forces. The Darwish militia, led by their fugitive commander Janan, has been spotted in Kenya’s north-eastern county.
Billow Kerrow, a former Kenyan MP for Mandera Central, laughs off IGAD’s assertions of Kenya’s innocence: “If the Djibouti team that visited Mandera reported that they did not see Janan’s militia in the town, they probably had wool over their eyes rather than face masks.”
How elections will be managed in Gedo and the northwestern regions remains a big question.
5. No election date, possible crisis?
As per the constitution, President Farmaajo is to step down exactly four years from the day he was elected, so in this case 8 February.
But Somalia’s political elite have realised that presidential elections cannot be held on 8 February.
The opposition had hoped that a lapse between stepping down from power and delayed elections would work to its advantage. Leaders argued that with Farmaajo out of power, they could come together to agree on a way forward.
Unfortunately for them, Swan’s plan is for Farmaajo to remain in Villa Somalia until a new president is elected and sworn in.
Many opposition candidates are anticipating another crisis due to a delay in the polls. They accuse the President of having dictatorial tendencies that could plunge the country into instability if he tries to hang on to power.
Responding to clarifications by Swan, Mohamed Ibrahim Moallimow, a spokesperson in the office of the prime minister, tells The Africa Report: “I still hope the elections can take place as scheduled. There are ongoing efforts and the government, for its part, is trying its best to hold the elections in the few days ahead. This will happen with the consent of all stakeholders.”
6. Turkey’s stake in Somalia
On Friday 29 January, Somalia’s international partners came together and released a statement supporting recent political developments.
They see such compromises as a positive step towards the implementation of the 17 September electoral model. The pressure from global partners has pushed Somalia’s politicians to compromise.
At the end of their statement, the international partners were listed, but Qatar was not among them, though the small kingdom is a supporter of Somalia’s political processes.
But, unsurprisingly, Turkey was listed among the partners urging for dialogue to solve the election impasse.
- Turkey is a major investor in Somalia and hosts thousands of Somali migrants.
- It is a key foreign development partner and remains a quiet influencer in Somali politics.
Many people want to know who Turkey is supporting in the elections.
Abdurrahman Nur Diinaari, a former Ambassador to South Sudan and Syria tells The Africa Report: “Hassan Ali Khaire appears to be Turkey’s choice for president, though the current president, Mohamed Abdullahi, also commands a lot of respect among the Turks.”
7. Notable Farmaajo rivals
It’s no mystery that many of the main candidates vying to replace Farmaajo have worked regional relations into their strategies.
Here is a look at the top five rivals:
- Hassan Ali Khaire
- Somalia does not have reliable opinion surveys, but he is considered to be amongst the most popular candidates
- has support from Turkey and Qatar
- has a strong reputation from his time as prime minster
- Hassan Sheikh Mohammoud
- former president of Somalia from 2012 to 2017
- known for his work with civil society groups since the fall of the Siad Barre government in 1991
- worked with The Center for Research and Dialogue (CRD) in south-central Somalia in the aftermath of the civil war
- helped boost Somalia’s education system through the founding of Simad University in 1999
- Dahir Mohamud Gelle
- former MP
- has support from Saudi Arabia
- a former member of the Islamic Courts Union government
- founded the well-known Islamic radio based in Mogadishu, Holy Koran Radio
- the station was robbed by Al-Shabaab because he joined the government in 2010
- appointed information minister in 2019, but later resigned after falling out with Khaire and Faramaajo
- Sharif Sheikh Ahmed
- former executive leader of the Islamic Courts Union
- maintains good relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia
- considered by some as ‘the father of modern Somalia’ for his work as president from 2009-2012
- under his leadership as president, the Transitional Federal Government drove out Al-Shabaab from Mogadishu and surrounding areas
- Abdirahman Abdishakur Warsame
- leader of the Wadajir Party
- MP from 2009-2010
- appointed planning and international relations minister under president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed
- contested the 2017 elections after Farmaajo won
- maintains strong ties with the UAE
- through his work has developed grassroots support in Mogadishu
Just a few days ahead of 8 February, and all signs point to a delay. Farmaajo convened an emergency meeting in Dhusamareeb, Galmudug on 2 February 2021 aimed at breaking the deadlock and preventing a constitutional crisis, despite certain concessions made now by Jubaland and Puntland.
The Dhusamareeb conference is the last hope for Somali leaders to reach an agreement and compromise for the prompt implementation of the 17 September electoral model.
As Abdirashid Hashi, an analyst at the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies in Somalia, says: “Somali politicians know that they will either do what is needed or do the necessary. But they must do it fast and reach a compromise or they will become weaker and weaker. This foot-dragging has already weakened them. They only have a few days left to 8 February.”
Source: The Africa Report
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