By Mohamed Omar Hashi
Electoral processes are at the core of every democratic society. These processes provide an effective mechanism for the peaceful transfer of power and the source of legitimacy for the elected representatives. Without fair and regular elections, there is a breakdown of the rule of law that characterizes the current situation in Somalia. However, there are high hopes for the reestablishment of democratic traditions. Despite this, the foundations of the electoral process, including the framework for fair practices that make the confidence of the people’s will sacrosanct, are deeply flawed. Frequent abuses, including electoral malpractice or using intimidation and force as a mechanism to control the electoral process are reported regularly. If anything, it could be said that authoritarian rule is resurgent in Somalia, even if it may be legitimized through poor governance. There is no freedom of elections in Somalia, and it is deeply questionable if the transition toward democratic governance and a peaceful election would be feasible anytime soon.
According to the current provisional Constitution, members of the Parliament must end their term no later than four years after being officially elected. Based on this principle, the mandate of the current Parliament expired last December 2020, without a new one being given. This is an outcome of a delayed and perverted preparation process, with the law governing the elections only being legislated in early 2020. This was too late to secure fair and consistent application of its provisions. However, the current regime saw the fragile legal system as a critical steppingstone towards retaining control of the institutions and tried to use it to gain leverage within the political landscape. In September 2020, stakeholders ultimately agreed to revert to the existing system by running the election through traditional clan representatives, with a superseding body that would control the representation process.
Further events confirmed that the government had sinister plans, and implementation of the agreed guidelines remains in limbo. This impasse is further complicated by the danger of armed conflict in certain areas, most notably on the Kenyan border and in the state of Hirshabelle, which gave the Federal Government an excuse to transfer control of those areas to military officers. According to some observers, the actual reasons behind such moves are political, as military administration can more easily ignore local demands and act in the current leaders’ interest.
Such policies put the delicate balance between Federal Member States ( FMG) structures and federal authority in great peril and make the elections a source of anarchy instead of optimism. In other words, the electoral process is turned into a tool for establishing a nearly dictatorial level of control over the country through a seemingly coercive manner. Such an approach compromises any remaining shreds of legitimacy and clouds any outcomes of this election in doubt before it even started. The overall impression is that rule of the law has been weakened through the political machinations of the elites.
Going back to 1969 and the times of the military coup of General Siad Barre against the presidency of Mr Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, there were numerous instances when elections in Somalia has been mired in rampant vote Coercion, threats and other types of manipulation. The problem is often described as originating at the very top level of the government and transferring to different groups. Over time, more sophisticated strategies were added to the mix, for example, cherry-picking the electoral oversight committee members. Politicians seeking office are typically generators of corruption, as they readily utilize political violence, vote-buying, intimidation and other mechanisms. On the other hand, they often claim that such practices are widely used by their opponents, forcing every political candidate to operate within a corrupt environment. In effect, no one accepts the responsibility to act legally and socially beneficial during an election.
Lack of Prospects for Free and Fair Election
After spending decades in a state of internal conflict, Somalia entered a new phase in 2000 when Transitional National Government (TNG) was formed after a peace agreement. This development could not prevent continued disputes between clans and the widespread practice of political bribes. The ultimate result was that a clan formula was arbitrarily adopted, limiting the circle of those in power to a narrow group of clan elders while ignoring the majority’s will.
In this period, clan elders were able to select parliament members directly. While clans can still choose their representatives under a newly implemented system, special delegates, selected by the clan elders. This only applies to the lower chamber of the parliament, as senators are appointed by state presidents and then supported by provincial legislatures. The parliament can hear from candidates for the position of President and select the winner accordingly.
While this system was hoped to reduce abuse, it had quite the opposite effect, and in reality, it contributed to its significant growth. The only difference is that bribes are not directed towards a single person but instead distributed among all those who can cast votes for the clan’s representative that will sit in the Parliament. Sources indicate that the adoption of this principle pushed the total value of the illicit payments into millions, with approximately $20 million forecasted to be spent in total on influencing the outcome of the process for just one election. Multiple elders of clans openly talked about accepting such payments.
In classical literature, we can find an explanation in (Lehoucq, 2003), the conduct of the election process and citizens expectations. Large scale malpractice and abuse corrupt the delicate election process and prevent the will of the citizens from being realized. One phenomenon specific to Somalia that is the attempt to avert clan elders from choosing their representatives and using fake elders to act instead of them. This constitutes a conscious abuse of electoral rules and is used whenever the elder is not susceptible to direct or indirect influence. In this atmosphere, integrity and accountability are nearly impossible to achieve.
Violent activities of the terrorist group Al-Shabaab represent an ongoing danger for the fledgling Somali democracy. Confrontations and pressure on political actors could send the elections into disarray and bring the results into question. Any disruption of the already fragile political system in Somalia would enhance divisions in the society and play right into the hands of extremist organizations while making long term coexistence more difficult.
The efforts by terrorists are affecting the situation on the ground. In fear for their own safety, many clan elders indicated that they would have to accept the demands of Al-Shabaab and therefore have no option but to withdraw from the electoral process. Many delegates know about past abuses, including the murder of political representatives and community leaders, and are fearful of stepping into the political arena in the future. Since Somali elections are conducted indirectly, which already limits the number of people participating, any further drop in participation makes the entire process very undemocratic and ultimately untenable.
While the world’s attention might be fixed on the current electoral problems, it is necessary to take a step back and deal with this issue more comprehensively. The inability to agree about electoral rules and their interpretation results from the general absence of free expression of political will in the country can serve as a source of essential lessons for the future elected leaders. They should focus on fixing the fundamental structural issues that are causing all the corruption. New policies must strengthen the framework for reducing political malpractice, and only if the government shows tangible progress on those issues can the citizens be expected to support it. Foreign monitoring is also necessary during the electoral cycle to increase the level of transparency and accountability.
The possibility of terrorist attacks must be taken very seriously. We are at a crossroads, and the threats we are facing comes from all directions. We have to hold our leaders accountable by first condemning the current president’s behaviour and practice toward election, the malpractice, use of violence and corruption to achieve personal goals. This is a no-brainer; every Somali should push back against anyone who attacks our country. We are, after all, Somali first and foremost, and we have to be united behind the values that forged this country in the first place.
Mohamed Omar Hashi was a Member of the Transitional Federal Parliament of Somalia from 2009 to 2012 and held an M.A. in International Security Studies from the University Of Leicester.