Don’t Blame Me for Delaying Somalia’s Elections

Somalia's President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, commonly known by his nickname of Farmajo, attends the special assembly for abandoning the two-year extension of his presidential term and requesting the immediate election to ease the recent political tension at Villa Hargeisa in Mogadishu on May 1, 2021. - Somalia is witnessing its worst political crisis in years, with deadly clashes and armed rivals in Mogadishu after the head of state extended his mandate by two years without elections being held. (Photo by - / AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

Somalia’s president says entrenched elites are blocking the path toward universal suffrage and insisting on an indirect electoral system that maintains their power.

To avoid a power vacuum after my four-year mandate as Somalia’s president ended on Feb. 8, Somalia’s House of the People passed legislation in 2020 to ensure that the political transfer of power rightfully happens only through elections. This means that the current elected officials have to remain in office until they are reelected or replaced through the electoral process.

Somalia’s elections have been delayed not because I wish to cling to power, as some have falsely argued, but because of a political impasse that has led to a division between Somalia’s federal government and some of its member states on the way forward.

At the core of the disagreement is a conflict between my government’s goal of universal suffrage through direct elections and those who insist on an indirect election model that empowers elites and denies ordinary citizens a vote. It is time for the international community to ask: Why must a select few clan elders and leaders of the federal member states hold the Somali people hostage every four years? And why must the private interests of this small elite silence the voices of the millions of people they claim to represent?

In Somalia since 2012, all presidents, including myself, have been elected to a four-year term. But given that it is essential that the country’s future leadership be determined through an inclusive democratic process, the 2021 elections were delayed to fulfill this requirement. In the last two elections, Somali clan elders played a major role in selecting the political representatives for entire communities under a strict clan power-sharing formula.

These clan elders represented, and still do, the five major Somali clans that share governance powers within Somali society. Since all previous elections were indirect and concentrated enormous political power and influence in the hands of 135 clan elders, I was keen to prepare an improved model for elections rather than maintain the status quo. The fact that there were sequential peaceful transfers of power in Somalia in the past, despite the delays in all previous elections, is a testament to the increasing political maturity of our fragile state.

At the core of the disagreement is a conflict between my government’s goal of universal suffrage through direct elections and those who insist on an indirect election model that empowers elites and denies ordinary citizens a vote.

In Somalia, our federal model also necessitates a strong partnership between the federal government and the five federal member states, namely Puntland, Jubaland, South West, Galmudug, and Hirshabelle. These federal member states play a key role in the national electoral process. Given that Somalia is a representative democracy, the federal member states are vital constituencies for political representatives in both the House of the People and Senate, with the latter solely representing their interests at the federal government level.

From the beginning of my tenure starting February 2017, my government opened the political space for dialogue in advance of any electoral process to all the federal member states, which are the main election stakeholders. In fact, it was always our clear ambition to transition Somalia from indirect elections to full universal suffrage within my four-year term, and it seemed possible after we reached an agreement with the federal member states in June 2018.

This was not immediately possible, however, because all five federal member states reneged on the agreement. Instead, they opted for a renegotiated election model, because they opposed the multiparty system based on proportional representation that returned power to the people and excluded the established monopoly of clan elders.

With much regret and dismay on the part of the main stakeholders, including federal lawmakers who wanted multiparty elections, an indirect election was negotiated and agreed to on Sept. 17, 2020, as the way to preserve and build on our national democratic traditions and aspirations.

In all post-conflict and fragile recovering states, state-building processes are constantly negotiated and shaped by dialogue and compromise. Trust is also in short supply. Understanding this all too well, I accepted the September 2020 agreement, which was finalized by a panel of technical experts representing the federal government and its member states. It was a dramatic shift from the goal of universal suffrage to return to a clan-based model simply to accommodate the continuously shifting views and needs of the federal member states.

This agreement and its implementation processes provided a clear road map and reasonable schedule to meet the election timeline. This process broke down as soon as Puntland and Jubaland leaders returned from their trip to the United Arab Emirates and Kenya—two countries which Somalia did not enjoy strong bilateral relations with—in late November 2020.

Then, last month, the Somali House of the People, in line with its constitutional mandate, decided that the only way to remedy this paralyzing situation and to preserve Somalia’s nascent democracy was to return to the aspiration of universal suffrage within no more than two years. This period was necessary to effectively prepare the elections.

This was a perfect opportunity to end the clan model’s monopoly over Somalia’s political future.

Sadly, despite the independence of the lawmakers, this action was framed as an illegal term extension on the part of the federal government by the opposition and some of Somalia’s key international partners, including the United Nations, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States, to name but a few. In fact, this was a perfect opportunity to end the clan model’s monopoly over Somalia’s political future.

Following the majority vote of the House of the People, I signed the universal suffrage bill, which stipulated that the elections must be held within a two-year period. Despite misguided and highly politicized national and international uproar, this was genuinely the only way to break the political stalemate and respond to the Somali people’s aspirations to shape their own political destiny.

Yet again, the federal government compromised after the outbreak of violence instigated by members of the opposition. Furthermore, in line with our commitment to compromise and the need to preserve national unity and protect the security of our citizens, we returned to Parliament and I personally requested the House of the People to revert to indirect elections, which it unanimously voted for on May 1.

By the end of this month, we will, once again, return to the table to finalize the agreement to implement the indirect elections. The process will be led by Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble, and we will ensure that it is as inclusive as could be within the limitations of an indirect election and that it happens at the earliest possible opportunity.

Unfortunately, the political fragility of Somalia at present defies the established practical and healthy democratic tradition of majority rule, due to demands for total unanimity. Securing electoral consensus in Somalia means convincing absolutely all stakeholders, all the time, and on all issues.

This is what makes Somalia’s extremely unique and inclusive governance incredibly challenging. Indirect elections are clearly not ideal or sustainable. They also do not represent the genuine will of the people. Nevertheless, after a difficult negotiation process, they are all Somalia has now.

As a lifelong believer in the values of democracy who has proudly worked in public service in the United States and Somalia, I strongly believe in expanding the political space to create a truly thriving, durable, and inclusive democratic politics in Somalia.

Many of the remaining challenges of Somalia’s state-building processes stem from exclusionary elite demands centered on patriarchal clan identity. This does not serve the Somali people’s democratic or developmental interests for the long term.

Indirect elections are not ideal or sustainable. They do not represent the genuine will of the people. Nevertheless, after a difficult negotiation process, they are all Somalia has now.

The recent regrettable political violence in Somalia was opportunistically presented as a measure of last resort by those instigating it, but there is no shortcut to a democratic transition in Somalia.

Somalia still faces major state-building and developmental challenges. It is evident that the top-down state-building process is not delivering universal suffrage for the people. In the future, more bottom-up approaches must be encouraged and supported. However, we are determined that our democratic transitions will always be Somali-owned and Somali-led.

To that end, we will, and must always, strive for universal suffrage while implementing the current indirect elections so Somalia escapes the painful recurrent fragility trap in the short term and all of its people can elect their leaders in the long term.