Despite the inordinate challenges confronting Somalia for decades now, one pillar has kept the country from relapsing into civil war and further disintegration: national elections every four years. In some ways, it’s nothing short of a miracle that, since 2000, when the Somali state was reconstituted after 10 years of absence from the global stage, presidential and parliamentary elections have been held largely on time, solidifying the country’s democratic credentials in a region where autocracy and dictatorship is the norm.
The last four presidents since the Arta (Djibouti) peace process, including myself, have handed over power peacefully after organizing—and losing—competitive elections that were held on time, and only after all relevant stakeholders were duly consulted on the parameters and scope of the polls. These processes took years of laborious and often difficult negotiations, but they were a harbinger for maintaining stability.
Unfortunately, that pillar of stability is now under assault by the current administration. Fewer than 10 months are remaining from its constitutional mandate, yet they have neither put forward a workable electoral model that is acceptable to Somalia’s key stakeholders (federal member states and registered parties) nor engaged in a constructive dialogue about it.
Instead, the administration is vaguely insisting that a universal suffrage (one person, one vote) election will be held, despite the consensus by virtually all stakeholders, including members of the international community, that the legal and practical infrastructure to implement such a daunting task is ubiquitously nonexistent due to this administration’s failure to focus on it for three years.
To be clear, all stakeholders prefer a universal suffrage election instead of the so-called “enhanced legitimacy” processes of the last two elections. However, the last two elections were part of an incremental process that was designed to pave the way for a fully-fledged universal suffrage election for this cycle. Regrettably, the current administration prioritized manipulating local elections with the view toward leveraging their outcomes for the national elections. When that strategy failed in some member states, the administration deployed its plan B, which is to delay elections and blame it on everyone else. By all accounts, a truly free and fair election that meets minimum standards of universal suffrage would require at least two years of intensive preparation.
And that is precisely what the current administration is banking on: an extension of their term by default since all the requirements for a universal suffrage are not met. In doing so, this administration is destroying the single most reliable pillar of stability in one of the most unstable countries in the world. That is unacceptable to Somalis who paid a heavy price in fighting a dictator who brutalized them for 21 years before he was ultimately deposed in 1991 for the sole objective of reviving the nation’s celebrated democracy—the first in Africa.
What is at stake?
Somalia has achieved many milestones over the past 20 years. But no milestone is more important than the nascent democratic institutions and traditions we had built in the face of extraordinary challenges. Our people are rightfully proud of their unfailing capacity to hold their elected leaders accountable through the ballot box every four years. Most importantly, the country’s past leaders have, on their own volition, recognized that protecting this tradition is not only sacrosanct but vital to the country’s fragile peacebuilding and statebuilding agenda.
By using a delay tactic and filibustering any substantive dialogue on a workable electoral modality that enjoys the support of relevant stakeholders, this administration is leading the country into unprecedented constitutional crisis. When the constitutional mandate of the president comes to an end, on the 8th of February 2021, the country that was upgraded from “failed state” to “fragile state” in 2013 will risk sliding back into its dark past. A number of federal member states and leading political parties have declared their intention to no longer recognize the legitimacy and authority of this administration. That is an unchartered territory for Somalia and a major setback to the substantial gains made since 2000. For the first time, the clock is ticking towards the end of a mandate, and no one (except the administration) knows if an election would be held on time, and what modality would it be.
What should be done?
Until now, the legitimacy of Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) has never been seriously challenged by key stakeholders such as member states and major political parties. But that prospect is now real, and its implications are catastrophic for peace and security in the country.
To avert that disaster, the international community, through the UN Security Council, must intervene forcefully and urgently. As the US representative rightfully observed during the Security Council’s meeting on Somalia in February, some of the electoral modalities under consideration “provide pretext for delaying the vote”. Therefore, the council must use its prerogative to demand that the election take place on time, and in agreement with relevant stakeholders. Importantly, the council should use the carrots and sticks in its disposal as necessary to ensure that the very progress it had vigorously supported and invested for 20 years is not squandered by the whims of one person.
In particular, the United States, UK, the European Union and the African Union have a fiduciary responsibility to act deliberately since they are, collectively, the largest donors and providers of security guarantees to the FGS. The African Union has more than 20,000 troops in the country and other international partners provide nearly half of the national budget, in addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian and development assistance.
In February, the Security Council urged the FGS to open a dialogue with the member states and other stakeholders regarding the elections. But that call was not only unheeded by the FGS, but the administration has since ratcheted up its campaign to destabilize member states politically and military. Furthermore, the administration is increasingly violating civil liberties enshrined in our constitution. A number of journalists have been arrested for reporting critically, and others, including a Somali-American who works for the VOA, has been threatened.
Finally, Somalia’s main donors should also co-finance the electoral process, much like they did over the past 20 years. This investment is arguably the most important one since it led to four peaceful transfers of power. The overarching objective should be to lay the foundation for a universal suffrage election during the next poll, scheduled for 2025.
Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is a former President of Somalia, a member of the parliament and chairman of the Union for Peace and Development (UPD) party. He can be reached at email@example.com
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