Somalia’s Electoral Impasse and Implications in the Region

By Daniel Orogo

A cloud of uncertainty hangs over the Horn of Africa, pending resolution of the electoral impasse in Somalia. At a special sitting on 12th April 2021, Somalia’s Parliament unanimously passed a vote to extend its term and President Mohammed Abdullahi Farmaajo for two years. 

However, the parliamentary vote was marred with allegations of bribery, irregularities, and intimidation of opposition candidates. And with threads of insecurity, Somalia’s electoral aftermath will have ripple effects on the domestic, regional, and international fronts. 

Internally, the Al-Shabab militants have sustained domestic attacks killing thousands of Somali citizens and targeting various government installations over the last 12 years. Meanwhile, the African Union’s peacekeeping mission, AMISOM, plans to hand over the country’s security management to fragile Somalia’s federal armed forces this year, after over a decade of combat and peacekeeping mission. 

Regionally, Mogadishu is embroiled in a diplomatic war with her long-time ally turned foe (Kenya) over contested maritime border disputes; the issue has been escalated to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) pending the ruling. But, ahead of the polls, what are the real issues facing Somalia that might spiral into elections turmoil?

No election date, a prelude to the electoral crisis

Somalia’s federal government careened into a deeper political crisis after the President’s term expired on 8th February 2021, and that of the Parliament ended on 27th December 2020. The country has neither independent institutions nor an impartial electoral management body that can wade through murky waters of conflict of interest and electoral manipulation from different political parties, including the current head of state who is also contesting for the term. 

Evidently, with the lack of a proper plan for a caretaker government or an Ad hoc committee to oversee the elections, a looming power vacuum might further deepen the country into a severe electoral crisis. 

Peter Kirechu’s commentary on ‘Somalia’s electoral extremists’ published by HORN Institute on 2nd April 2021, observes that days before the President’s term expired, he launched efforts to resolve the protracted standoff with five federal members states on how to conduct contentious polls. It was unsuccessful and ended in blame games, hurtling the country into a new phase of electoral uncertainty.

An impasse over the electoral model 

The refusal by Jubaland and Putland’s regional states to sign a new pact after rejecting the 2016 model sparked the current impasse over the electoral model.

The Africa Report observes that the proposed new model would increase the number of delegates that elect MPs in the lower house to 101. The publication also highlights other electoral changes, including the elections taking place at two locations within every state rather than four as earlier proposed and members of both levels of Parliament from Somaliland’s (secessionist region) election in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu. 

Others are that delegates who would later elect Members of Parliament in the lower house are selected through collaborations with civil society, traditional or religious leaders, and state governments. For gender representation, the agreement also fixes a 30% quota for female elected leaders in both houses and representatives in the upper houses selected by state parliaments.

The protracted deliberations about the new model ended on 17th September 2020. However, both Jubaland and Puntland refused to sign the agreement. The international community has continued to pressure both regional and federal state representatives to abide by the new deal insisting that it remedies political violence, guarantees electoral integrity, and levels the playing field for all the parties. 

United Nations envoy to Somalia James Swan’s has been engaged in shuttle diplomacy but has not managed to resolve the deadlock. The UN and the US Embassy in Mogadishu have emphasized a clear message: “No partial elections. No Violence and No parallel process,” says the Africa Report.

On 24th January 2021, the two regional states announced their representatives to the state election committee through a tweet after a successful meeting hosted by the US Embassy in Mogadishu. However, it is unclear whether the commitment to the agreement will stand the test of time.

President Farmaajo’s conflicted legacies

Farmaajo ascended to office in 2017 with fanfare, buoyed by a reputation for pursuing progressive bureaucratic reforms during his short reign as Somalia’s prime minister from 2010 to 2011. He departed from the office due to the Kampala Accord of 2011 that negotiated the end to Somalia’s transitional government ushering in the new federal-state model. 

In 2017, as a staunch nationalist, Farmaajo ascended to the helm of Somalia’s leadership with a solid determination to expand federal governments’ authority over the other five federal member states. To further his agenda, the HORN Institute documents that he embarked on a placement mission installing his close confidants to powerful posts across the federal bureaucracy. The latter also embarked on intervention in other federal members by meddling in the local state elections. 

Undeterred, the Farmaajo sought to consolidate his authority in Mogadishu and weaken and challenge other state presidents inimical to centralization agenda. For example, in 2018 and 2020, his government reportedly engineered the removal and replacement of crucial political opponents in the central states of Galmudug, South West, and Hirshabelle.

The International Community’s Stake in Somalia

Farmaajo’s train has arrived at the station it had been running towards. Many people who were unsure about his intention now know better,” said Mr Abdishakur Abdirahman, leader of Wadajir Party and a presidential aspirant.

“Anyone who provides financial, military or diplomatic support to Farmaajo’s unconstitutional acts becomes part of a crime against the Somali people,” he concludes.

Mr Abdirahman and several other aspirants had formed the Council of Presidential Candidates, a caucus that has insisted on no extensions or parallel electoral programs. Previously, the ex-President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed group called on parties to return to the negotiation to resolve the elections impasse. However, the caucus noted a trend of the heavy involvement of external forces or partners in Somalia’s affairs and stability.

Turkey’s influence

On 29th January 2021, while international partners namely United Nations, European Union, and IGAD released a joint statement in support of the notable positive achievements made by Somalia politicians to compromise the previous hard-line stands in support of the 17th September electoral model, Turkey surprisingly urged for a dialogue to solve the elections impasse. 

Turkey, a key foreign development partner, remains a significant influencer of Somalia’s politics. Besides its massive security and military support to the Somalis federal state government, the European- Arabic nation plays a host to thousands of Somali migrants. Somalia is certain to be keen on their views.

Souring Kenya’s relations

Once considered two of east Africa’s great friends with long ties, good miraa /Khat trading partners, the relationship between Kenya and Somalia has deteriorated since 2019.One of the tense relationship aspects is the situation of Somali refugees in Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps in Kenya that host the refugees who fled the country during the 1991 civil war after the ouster of President Mohammed Siad Barre. As a result, over 220,000 Somali refugees in Kenya might be victims of strained relationships between Kenya and Somalia. 

The Kenyan government has issued several orders to close down the two camps terming them ‘breeding grounds’ and ‘recruitment cells’ for Al-Shabab militants. However, the Kenyan Judiciary, religious leaders, and the UNHRC have urged the government to restrain from measures deemed to violate the rights of refugees and detrimental to Kenya’s reputation in the international community. 

Secondly, the on going maritime dispute case at the International Court of Justice pitting Kenya versus Somalia has put the two nations at loggerheads. Somalia accuses Kenya of violating her territorial integrity by encroaching and annexing a maritime stretch. Kenya vehemently opposes the allegations and terms Somalia as desperate to stoke a false sense of patriotism by creating turmoil in the horn region.  

Thirdly, Somalia has also accused Kenya of hosting and arming Abdirashid Janan, a fugitive on the run who escaped from a Mogadishu prison in 2019, crossed over to Kenya and fought the Somali National Army (SNA) in the Gedo region. In hosting Janan, Somalia believes that Kenya is arming the fugitive and supporting Jubaland, a breakaway regional state, under President Sheikh Mohammed Islaam Madobe. 

International community’s role in mitigating the impact

The current electoral impasse in Somalia has far-reaching implications not only on the domestic governance system, peace and stability in Somalia but also on regional security and stability. 

Somalia and Kenya are interlinked. They face common threats such as the Al-Shabab militants, violent conflict and extremism, refugee crisis and cross border trade. Failure by the Somalia federal government and the regional states to amicably and urgently handle the electoral crisis might provide an opportunity to Al-Shabab militants to run a recruitment campaign in Somalia and Kenya leveraging on the narratives to portray Somalia government as a failed state and Kenya as an enemy of Somalia and Islamic state. 

The crisis also compounds the Kenya and Somalia refugee standoff. While the Kenyan government is determined to close down both Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps, the future of Somalia’s peace and stability is not guaranteed with the current impasse. If not handled well, Somalia is exposed to further conflicts and the potential risk of civil war. Therefore, Kenya and the region could experience a further influx of refugees and asylum seekers should the further conflicts escalate to violence.

It is incumbent on Kenya as a previous good neighbour to Somalia and her current strategic and key position in regional peace and security organs. Kenya currently chairs the East Africa Communities (EAC) Regional peace, governance and trading block, the African Union Peace and Security Council (PSC) and a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

Against the background of Somalia’s parliament vote to grant President Farmaajo two additional years, Kenya should lead the international community in restorative initiatives that go beyond the threats for sanctions but instead assist both Villa Somalia and the regional states parties establish a strong, reliable electoral management system that would deliver a people-centred, accountable and reliable democratic election in Somalia.

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