Somalia’s state-building project might unravel due to gerrymandered elections

MOGADISHU (SomaliAffairs) One of the key components of Somalia’s political settlement in the third republic is to organize an election every four years.  There were broad agreements on the rules of the indirect elections in 2000, 2004, 2009, 2012 and 2017.

For starters, term extension was not allowed. As the country was in a post-conflict environment, if direct elections could not be organised at the end of the mandate, the stakeholders negotiated and agreed on a different dispensation process. During each cycle, efforts were made to improve the process and every attempt was made to make it acceptable to the broadest section of stakeholders. Each election cycle produced a new president and parliamentary leadership.

Clans played a lead role in the selection of their representatives. In 2000, a single traditional clan leader (chief), after consultation with his constituents, appointed each of the then 225 MPs. During the 2012 dispensation, 135 traditional clan elders selected all 275 MPs. In the 2017 indirect election, 51 clan representatives (selected by the traditional elders) elected each parliamentarian. In this 2021 cycle, 101 clan representatives are tasked with electing each MP. National leaders (members of parliament and a president) were also selected/elected in violence-free elections and broadly agreed-upon institutions, however weak, were created.

The Heritage Institute realized as early as 2019 that the government could not organize a timely one-person, one-vote election. It presented four options and assessed them against seven standards including: ‘do no harm’, a gradual improvement towards universal suffrage, an increase in the number of voters and consensus decision making among stakeholders.

However, the delayed 2021 dispensation is different. Somalia’s national political landscape has been marred by acrimony and polarization. President Farmaajo and most of the FMS leaders were at odds throughout his term (2017 – 2021) in office.

President Farmaajo replaced three regional leaders whom he considered to be an obstacle to his vision for Somalia. Much effort and political and financial capital were spent on their removal and the installations of allied replacements. The pushback from holdout regions (Jubbaland and Puntland) as well as the Mogadishu based opposition – including two former presidents vying for a political comeback – culminated in a political and military standoff, punctuated by periodic outbreaks of violence in Mogadishu.

It is unfortunate that the political leaders did not learn much from Somalia’s history which teaches that a rigged election or a short-sighted power grab can only lead to conflict and violence. In its previous reports in 2019 and 2020, the Institute warned against the negative consequences of a term extension and a gerrymandered election process.10 Since the government has failed to complete the necessary tasks for a one-person, one vote election, the Institute provided options and called for an improved indirect election that showed progress towards universal suffrage.

As explained above, The NCC leaders have nominated most senators and they set the stage for the appointment of the 275 MPs through proxies disguised as elders, civil society figures and clan delegates. The 22 August agreement ignores most of the recognized clan elders. Instead, the state electoral implementation team (SEIT), a body handpicked by NCC would select a group of elders and civil society leaders that states recognize. These elders and members of the civil society would in turn select 101 electoral delegates for each parliamentary seat.

Somalia is too fragile for the insatiable appetite of the politicians. Several key actors have already called for the NCC to revisit its approach. !e country’s leading civil society organizations as well as respected traditional elders and many political groups have spoken strongly against the 22 August agreement.

In past dispensations, the international community has often pressured and helped Somali leaders in transitioning from one administration to the next. Interestingly, besides issuing periodical statements, the international community appears to have taken a ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ approach on the matter. For reasons that are not clear, the international community has not used its leverage. For some, donors lost interest in the whole project because of the legitimacy problem that comes with the indirect election, and the political elites’ lack of credible commitment to election.

The international community, the argument goes, cannot be expected to keep supporting the no-peace, no-war, no-forward and no-backward situation that the political class has created for the last 20 years.

The arbitrary senate nominations, long delays of the process and the self-serving provisions of the 22 August agreement set the stage for the wholesale rigging of lower house election. We think that will damage Somalia’s long-term stability and the state-building project. In other words, the net outcome of a rigged election will only deepen the social and political splits in Somali society.

This likely turn of events will have four implications.

First, following the violence in April 2021, the NCC, under the leadership of the prime minister, was expected to oversee an electoral process that would be acceptable to all stakeholders. Unfortunately, it has become clear that the prime minister does not have any leverage over the FMS leaders. !e way the NCC managed the senate dispensation and the election of the House of the People through the 22-August agreement compromises the legitimacy of the results. If this process continues the way it is going, it will be difficult for the NCC to maintain the trust of different stakeholders. This may lead to a new crisis.

Second, even though the members of the state parliaments were not elected by the people of the regions, the senate elections have further made these legislatures irrelevant. Instead of empowering these institutions, the FMS leaders have nominated their own candidates and made the parliaments rubber stamps. A great opportunity was missed. By allowing all interested candidates to compete for the senate, the FMS leaders could have rescued the integrity of the process, enhanced the legitimacy of the regional parliaments and raised the funds needed for the dispensation.

Third, the badly managed selection process perpetuates the destructive political culture that has brought the country where it is today. The mentality of burying a political rival by any means necessary will unleash a cycle of revenge among the members of the political elite. If the status quo changes a”er the upcoming elections, most FMS leaders will struggle to hold onto power. A similar scenario unfolded after the 2017 presidential election. In 2016, all FMS leaders who oversaw a deeply flawed parliamentary elections at the time were unceremoniously forced out of office by local and national rivals, mainly as the result of how they managed the elections.

Finally, and most importantly, rigged elections have in the past compromised the legitimacy of the outcome. The parliamentary election in 1969 was a case in point. It was so corrupt and unfair that some communities resorted to violence. !at led to the collapse of the nascent democratic system, facilitated the rise of a military dictatorship which led the country into a brutal civil war. Given the way things transpired, there is a possibility that the outcome of this year’s dispensation will be heavily contested. The population is armed and there are deep-seated communal grievances. If this is not handled sensitively, it might unleash a wave of post-election communal violence that could permanently damage the state-building process.

The Heritage Institute for Policy Studies is an independent, non-partisan, non- profit policy research and analysis institute based in Mogadishu, Somalia.