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Somalia’s (eternal) election conundrum: time for a realistic assessment

Wednesday May 29, 2024
By Mahad Wasuge

On 8 June 2023, I had the privilege to be among a select group of intellectuals invited to Villa Somalia for an exchange with Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud on key national developments. The meeting took place shortly after the National Consultative Council (NCC) – a platform for the executive leaders of the Federal Government of Somalia, Federal Member States, and Benadir Regional Administration – had announced a controversial agreement on the future of elections in Somalia. The agreement had received negative reactions from many stakeholders. Among other things, it extended the term of the Federal Member States (FMSs), proposed a presidential system of government and the abolishment of the post of Prime Minister, limited the number of national political parties to two, and proposed a single election management body to manage all elections in the country. Moreover, it called for the holding of One-Person, One-Vote (OPOV) local council elections by June 2024.

In light of the negative reception of the NCC election agreement – and perhaps realizing that there had not been enough prior consultations – the Presidency organized the meeting with intellectuals to hear a broad range of views. It was my first time meeting President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in office. I had met him before, in 2019, with two other Somali Public Agenda colleagues for a discussion on federalism in Somalia while he was pursuing his PhD studies. 

After greeting us, the President covered different policy priorities for the FGS including security; the fight against corruption; Somalia’s bid (now approved) to join the East African Community (EAC); completing the debt relief process (finalized in December 2023); and finally the NCC’s latest agreement on elections. The meeting lasted for about two hours. All of the intellectuals invited reacted to the President’s initial remarks and some put forward recommendations on FGS priorities. When it was my turn to speak, I made sure not to miss any of the important points that I wanted to convey, not knowing if I would be afforded another opportunity for direct interaction with the Somali President. These are the key points that I highlighted concerning future elections in Somalia: 

Need to revisit the core election agreement

Apart from some reflections on security and fighting corruption, I focused my comments on the NCC election agreement. First, I pointed out that local council elections were unlikely to happen in June 2024. Organizing local council elections across all Federal Member States, and the Benadir region, in just one year was too ambitious and unrealistic. The electoral infrastructure was not yet in place in Somalia and building the necessary legal, administrative, and institutional frameworks and implementing them within 12 months was never going to be a realistic goal.

Second, I told President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud that the NCC election agreement risked extending the mandate of the Federal Member States for an indefinite period. The agreement linked the holding of Federal Member State elections – and by extension their terms in office – to ambitious and unrealistic timelines for local council elections. As a result, there was a risk that these FMS leaders would end up staying in power for an indefinite period, only aggravating the democratic deficit (or lack of democratic legitimacy) they already face. There was a risk, I warned the President, that an initial extension could lead to an extension of the mandate of federal institutions – a move that had created a major political crisis when it was last attempted in April 2021.

Third, I contended that limiting the number of political parties to two was not good for the country and also seemed unrealistic. I took issue not with the proposed number of parties, but rather my primary concern was that it would inhibit citizens from establishing FMS-level political associations that put forward an agenda for only their respective FMS. For example, such a framework would inhibit the Kaah Party, a political party based in Puntland, even from running for local council seats in Puntland unless it also built a national agenda and base. The recent amendment of the Provisional Federal Constitution’s first four chapters, including Chapter Four on elections, endorsed by the Federal Parliament on 30 May this year, had increased the number of political parties from two to three but did not create room for FMS-level political associations.

Finally, I challenged the President by arguing that the position of the Prime Minister and the semi-parliamentary system of government should not be changed. I pointed out that the President would not be in office had the immediate former Prime Minister not opposed the two-year term extension pushed for by his predecessor. In other words, there are benefits of ‘splitting’ executive power as it provides some balance and prevents abuse of power, compared to a setup with only one executive, as in a presidential system. Given the absence of formally registered political parties in Somalia, the Prime Minister often plays an important counter-balancing role to the power of the President, and repealing the Prime Minister’s current constitutional mandate could lead to a return to dictatorship. The revisions and amendments made to the first four chapters of the federal constitution have slightly changed the NCC agreement and have kept the Prime Minister’s position. However, the new arrangement is that the elected President will appoint a Prime Minister that (s)he can sack.

The President’s response

When it was his time to respond, the President rebutted most of my arguments. On conducting district-level elections in June 2024, he insisted that the timeline was realistic and that local elections could happen within one year. He implied that local council elections might not be feasible in all parts of Somalia, but could be conducted in districts that have relative political stability.

On dispensing with the position of the Prime Minister, the President contended that he did not believe that there was a risk of a dictator taking control of Villa Somalia as the fragmentation and fragility of Somalia currently inhibit the rise of a strongman. With regard to the number of political parties, the President reiterated that Somalia does not need multiple, smaller political parties and should learn from past mistakes. He did not comment on why the NCC election agreement does not allow for the establishment of political parties at the level of Federal Member States.

What has changed after a year?

What has changed a year after this conversation with President Hassan Sheikh? At the time of writing this commentary, in late May 2024, the election management body had not been formed. While my prediction turned out to be correct, it does not give me joy given that Somalia continues to struggle to make progress towards more democratic and peaceful politics.

Having worked on and studied election processes in Somalia since 2015, I understand the difficulties of conducting successful polls in a context of widespread mistrust, a weak political settlement, and nascent public institutions. A year ago, I saw an opportunity for the adoption of a realistic roadmap to elections, which would have taken two to three years of hard work by the election management body(ies) to conduct elections in Somalia.

The President spearheaded the constitutional amendment process in early 2024. In March, the federal parliament adopted a revised constitutional chapter on the elections outlining the core tenets governing elections in Somalia. But this received limited buy-in from key political stakeholders including former presidents, former prime ministers, and one federal member state. As a result of the vote, the Puntland cabinet cut ties with the federal government. Key political stakeholders opposed the constitutional amendments endorsed by parliament. This means that even if the relevant election laws – such as the political parties law, the election management body establishment act, and the electoral law – are amended by parliament and harmonized with Chapter Four of the recent constitutional amendments, key opposition politicians may still deem the process illegitimate and disengage from any electoral processes in the next two years.

Moreover, the technical feasibility of holding elections at national, federal member state, and local levels within two years remains extremely challenging. It took years of preparations for Puntland to manage local council elections, and to this day in some districts – including Garowe, the capital city of the state – these have not yet taken place. Even in a situation where there is a broad political consensus on an election roadmap,  technical capacity including registering voters and political parties, voter education, resources mobilization, and security will require time.

Strangely enough, we are currently not even talking about implementing nationwide local council elections in 2024. Instead, the election-related discussions center on the timing and modality of FMS leadership elections. The recent 17 May communique from the National Consultative Council (NCC) made no clarifications on election timelines. Instead, it indicated that election timelines would be announced by the election management body, which would be established when parliament harmonizes the Election Commission Establishment Act with Chapter Four of the recent constitutional amendment. One thing is now clear: a substantial technical extension to the timeframe for local council elections will be inevitable. If a technical extension leads to direct elections at the local level, and subsequent elections at FMS and federal levels, that itself would be justifiable. However, the disagreements over the election modalities make a technical extension unlikely and could drag the country back to an indirect election.

With two years remaining of the President’s term in office, the federal government’s proposed election process, in which it has been heavily invested over the past two years, lacks support from key political stakeholders, primarily one Federal Member State and key opposition politicians. Even if the government’s proposal had broad political support, it would require significant funding and a conducive environment to make it work. If one can predict anything from all this, it is that – sadly – there is a high chance that there will be another indirect election in 2026. The other most likely option is that it will lead to another term extension and therefore another political crisis. However, there are still opportunities to turn the corner.

Fixing a predictable crisis

First, the federal government should focus on making sure that key political stakeholders in Somalia agree on the rules of the game when it comes to elections. What does this mean? It implies revisiting some of the contentious issues in the amendment to Chapter Four of the federal constitution. Experience teaches us that anything that needs implementation across Somalia requires broader buy-in and acceptance. Indirect elections in Somalia are implemented precisely because key political stakeholders have agreed to hold them in this manner.

Second, it is not realistic for one election management body (EMB) to conduct both national, federal member states, and local elections at the same time. This is simply not feasible in Somalia’s current political landscape. The federal government should consider separating the FMS and FGS election timelines. Chapter Four of the constitutional amendments indicates that both elections would happen at once. Several Federal Member States missed an opportunity to conduct indirect elections once their terms ended. However, the FGS can still push for conducting a separate indirect parliamentary selection and the presidential election in each FMS at the end of November this year as well as a clear roadmap for federal elections in 2026, although this would remove local elections from the equation. The harmonization of Somalia’s election cycles might have to wait for another 20 years. 

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is facing multiple dilemmas and challenges, with less than two years to go of his term. Part of this results from his proposal of an unrealistic electoral roadmap, which risks creating renewed term extensions and political crises, in an effort to avoid another indirect election in the airport zone Hanger after four years in power. While the Somali public is still waiting for the opportunity to elect their leaders directly, the main puzzle for the president now is to come up with a multi-level election design that is realistic and broadly accepted. Whether he pauses the election train, reflects, and re-adjusts or not will entirely depend on him. His decision now may well decide the direction of Somalia’s next political dispensation.

Mahad Wasuge is the Executive Director of Somali Public Agenda.


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