Somalia’s election raises more questions than answers
Somalia now has a new parliament – and a president elected by its 329 legislators. This followed more than a year of delay.
Somalis wonder if President Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud – who ruled the country between 2012 and 2017 – will, in his second term, pave the way to the promised land of reconciliation and development. Many will wonder if this opportunity will not be squandered, as was the case during his previous term.
According to my analysis, the outcome will depend on the interplay between the inertia of the deeply corrupt process that produced the parliament and the president, and the willingness of the new leadership to dare to introduce a transformational agenda. But the president’s first step of appointing several bigoted people to his office and national security office appears to undo his promises of an inclusive political roadmap.
President Hassan has a unique opportunity to lead by example by providing a cohesive civic voice backed by progressive policies and institutional reforms.
A flawed electoral process
Somalia has arguably one of the most fraudulent political systems in the world. Its people have been denied the right to vote since 1969. The partnership between a corrupt elite and the terrorist organization Al Shabaab has created an open political prison across the country in which citizens are cowering observers.
Al-Shabaab dominates south-central Somalia and has infiltrated the cities. Meanwhile, the political class operates in a few areas, such as Mogadishu, as they hide in their barricaded villas and navigate tight spaces in their bulletproof Land Cruisers. These conditions are the by-products of past mistakes.
About two decades ago, warlords and bigoted politicians concocted a vile tribal formula meant to reflect people’s political identity. This formula balkanized Somalis into tribal political groups, denying them the possibility of a civic identity like apartheid South Africa did for the African population.
Two policy changes emerged from this formula. First, the country was divided into federal provinces based on tribes. Second, traditional authorities have been granted the right to represent their groups in the political arena. In the process, tribal chiefs became the de facto selectors of parliamentary representatives.
Once the tribal provinces were established, a conflict arose between the governors of these regions and the traditional chiefs, both seeking power. Governors, who control the provincial administration and security forces, used this leverage to weaken the role of chiefs in the recent “election”. Therefore, they were able to appoint deputies who were loyal to them.
Meanwhile, the former president and his political allies have handpicked and installed loyalist governors in three of the five provinces. Thus, the “election” of new deputies resulted in an epic struggle between the former president and his regional allies, and two opposition governors and other politicians. Such politicking has corrupted every government agency.
Another major problem was the injection of corrupt money into parliamentary and presidential campaigns. The selection of candidates in most provinces did not attract much money because governors singularly controlled the levers of power and selected loyalists. In a few cases where there was genuine competition between candidates, paying bribes was almost the most important winning factor.
These shenanigans delayed the elections. Finally, the two houses of parliament chose their officers only two months ago. A week later, parliament appointed a joint commission to organize the election of a president in two weeks: May 15 was D-Day.
The list of presidential hopefuls was very long. In a country where the average person earns less than $2 a day, each of the 39 presidential candidates paid an astonishing $40,000 to register as a presidential candidate. This requirement was determined by the former president and his team. Once registered, the candidates lobbied the MPs who would elect the president.
In the absence of political parties or ideologies, the only distinction between the candidates was the size of their campaign chest and their genealogical identity.
Five candidates dominated the money game: two former presidents, the incumbent, a regional governor and a former prime minister. Courting MPs intensified the week before the election, but it was on the eve of Election Day that MPs went after the big bribes. Candidates reportedly paid bribes ranging from $30,000 to $90,000 per MP.
This culture of corruption permeates all levels of society and everything in the domain of the state. Confronting this demon will require far-sighted and determined leadership, and a revolutionary movement.
To win the trust of the people, the new president must, at a minimum, take on the following tasks:
- Strive to reverse the tribalization of political identity.
- Radically restructure the tribal-based federal system to undo exclusive tribal fiefdoms.
- Admit the role of corruption in the elections and appoint an independent electoral commission made up of the most credible Somalis to bring the country out of the current stalemate.
- Develop and apply radical strategies to defeat or reconcile with Al-Shabaab.
The first sign of the president’s intention and agenda will be his appointment as prime minister. If he selects a candidate of integrity, with civic and independent capital, this will signal his commitment to serious reform. But if, as he did during his previous presidency, he appoints a client who would be a front for his machination, the charade will lock 15 million desperate citizens into perpetual purgatory.
In a letter from prison in 1929, Antonio Gramsci, the famous Italian theorist and political activist remarked that he was
… a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.
Having studied Somalia for three decades, I am convinced that the intellect can clearly see the way to progressive reform. However, what seems to be missing is an organized will on the part of those concerned about the plight of the Somali people. A certain degree of fatalism and fear has paralyzed the civic spirit, and it is as if the risk of change is more feared than the persistence of despair and slow death.
Abdi Ismail Samatar, researcher, University of Pretoria