Many Challenges to Address as Somalis Go to the Polls

The recent agreement on Somali presidential and parliamentary elections is a good but insufficient sign that Somalia’s many antagonists will allow the credible reestablishment of institutional life in the country. The agreement included provisions for holding elections for the upper and lower houses of parliament between July and September and for president in October. If Somalia is to address its political, economic, and security problems effectively and avoid the vagaries of outside intervention, its elites must accept the results of the upcoming elections and work together to strengthen and sustain their institutional life, without which their country would revert to the decades-long chaos and instability.

Somalia is beset by serious and continuing centrifugal tendencies in three of its federal states (Somaliland, Puntland, and Jubaland), deep economic and social problems and dislocations, and a persistent challenge by the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab Movement. Owing to its strategic location, Somalia is also part of a geostrategic landscape where proximate and distant players try to both influence its domestic politics and extract benefits for themselves at the expense of other competitors. To be sure, elite compromises and workable solutions to problems in the federal structure, the economy, and security can be firm bases for long-term stability and development for a country that has suffered from authoritarianism, disunity, and terrorism.

Pivotal Agreement on Elections

Agreement on new elections did not come easily, considering the disparate interpretations of what the polls may mean for vested interests in the central government in Mogadishu and in the federal states of Somalia. On April 12, and following months-long discord over the mechanisms of these elections, the sitting lower house of parliament voted to extend the term of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (known as Farmajo) for two years after it expired February 8. The president approved the extension; however, the decision was challenged by a large group of political opponents, including former Presidents Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. Army troops loyal to the opposition were deployed to the capital Mogadishu, where street clashes with Farmajo’s supporters killed two dozen people and displaced many others from their homes.

On April 12, and following months-long discord over the mechanisms of these elections, the sitting lower house of parliament voted to extend the term of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (known as Farmajo) for two years after it expired February 8. 

Street violence and pressure from the United States, including a threat by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to impose sanctions on Farmajo, led the president to annul his two-year extension and allow his prime minister, Mohamed Hussein Roble, to negotiate with the opposition. A new accord was signed in May in which all agreed on elections within 60 days. On June 29, Roble announced the terms and timetable of a process for conducting indirect elections, according to which the 54-member upper house would be seated by July 25 and the 275-member lower house would be elected by clan elders between August and September. A presidential poll would follow, conducted on October 10. The president is elected in a joint session of both houses of parliament.

The mechanics of this agreement are not that much different from another deal that was struck in September 2020 between Farmajo and political leaders in Mogadishu and the federal states. That one fell apart as he tried to skew its potential results in his favor since he planned—as he does now—to run for another term. The leaders of the semi-autonomous states of Somaliland, Puntland, and Jubaland also tried to maintain as much control as they could over the potential outcome of those elections that would affect their autonomy and freedom. In a sense, the September agreement fell apart as both the president, an interested federal officer, and the ambitious governors of the three states fought a typical battle between elites while the country slowly approached a constitutional crisis with Farmajo’s term expiring in February 2021.

The Trouble with the Federal Structure

While federalism as a political structure guarantees at least minimal autonomy for regions in domestic affairs and maintains a unifying central state edifice, it can be a recipe for separation tendencies by dissatisfied elites. Because of weak governing institutions, a legacy of authoritarianism, and a long history of disunity and discord, Somalia’s federalism has not been able to satisfy the desires of the elites of its periphery who want to maintain local autonomy but continue to rely on central government largesse. As the country’s troubles continued and metastasized, these elites have found that their interests lay more in striking out on their own than in sustaining relations with a weak center. However, their trouble so far has been their inability to secure international recognition of any independent entities they think they can establish. Thus, they see themselves standing in a middle ground of unsatisfactory relations with Mogadishu while unable to accomplish emancipation to chart their own paths as independent states.

Because of weak governing institutions, a legacy of authoritarianism, and a long history of disunity and discord, Somalia’s federalism has not been able to satisfy the desires of the elites of its periphery who want to maintain local autonomy but continue to rely on central government largesse. 

Somaliland has tried to act as an independent state since 1991. It has its own government structure, currency, and security system. Its geographic location on the southern shore of the Gulf of Aden gives it strategic value, especially for seafaring countries like the United Arab Emirate. In 2017, the Emirati Dubai Ports (DP) World began to operate Somaliland’s Berbera Port in a $442 million effort. A few weeks ago, the first phase of the port’s expansion was completed and Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi was at the opening ceremony. In 2018, it was announced that landlocked Ethiopia acquired a 19 percent share of Berbera Port, while DP World had a 51 percent interest, as the Somaliland government maintained a 30 percent stake. In early 2019, Abdi visited Abu Dhabi and inked an agreement with the UAE that allows the latter to expand and use Berbera airport, even for military purposes, in exchange for building power and cement plants in the city. None of these activities or developments are sanctioned by the central government in Mogadishu, which must look with trepidation at Somaliland’s obvious bolt away from a federated Somalia.

Puntland, located to the east of Somaliland on the tip of the Horn of Africa, announced its break away from Somalia in 1998. In August 2013, it declared that it would no longer deal with the central government because it was not getting the funds accrued to it from Mogadishu. Puntland President Said Abdullahi Deni also asked the UAE to help strengthen his state’s security forces against terrorists and pirates. In 2017, DP World also won a 30-year concession to manage Bosaso Port in Puntland with a $336 million investment. In all of these transactions, Somaliland and Puntland are exploiting the UAE’s interest in finding footholds along its maritime expansion route from the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean. By the same token, the UAE is using their tenuous relations with Mogadishu to strengthen its strategic reach, economically and militarily, despite the resultant negative impact on the unity of Somalia.

In Jubaland to the south, elite conflicts between periphery and center have pitted the territory’s president—and former warlord—Ahmed Mohamed Islam (aka Madobe) against President Farmajo, who is most interested in preserving and strengthening the central government’s control over the states. The discord also has a regional dimension: neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia have chosen to take sides despite their joint military cooperation under the auspices of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in fighting al-Shabab Movement and assisting the central government. Kenya’s support of Jubaland’s Madobe originates in its objective to erect and maintain a buffer zone against al-Shabab, which used to control southern and central Somalia and Jubaland’s capital Kismayo. On the other hand, over the last few years Ethiopia has striven to maintain central authority in Mogadishu because the presence of disparate and disunited Somali states increases the chances of instability on its long border with Somalia.

What is paradoxical is that these three states, desirous as they are to shed the central government’s control, are participating in the upcoming elections for a federal parliament and president of the Federal Republic of Somalia. Indeed, part of President Farmajo’s disagreement with their leaders is his wish to influence how they conduct their elections as well as who subsequently rules them. For example, Puntland and Jubaland are interested in preserving an election process that allows clan leaders to choose members of the lower house of parliament, while Farmajo has long campaigned for a one man, one vote election system.

Poverty and Social Dislocation

While politics appears to govern Somalia’s elite relations, necessary compromises will help the country address serious economic problems. Somalia is among the poorest countries in the Arab world and Africa, not necessarily for want of resources or assets but because of continuous crises, conflicts, and natural conditions. In 2019 and 2020, a combination of COVID-19 restrictions, droughts and floods, and locust infestations reduced output and increased poverty rates and dislocation. The gross domestic product declined by 1.5 percent in 2020 after posting a modest increase of 2.9 percent in 2019. Political discord shrank foreign investment and the global recession reduced remittances back into the country. Seventy percent of Somalis are classified as poor, living on $1.90 per day.

Locust infestation and drought conditions, among other problems, threaten the food security of some 2.6 million Somalis. International assistance continues to be essential for the country. 

In February 2021, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations published a report on food security in Somalia that highlighted the continued humanitarian crisis. Locust infestation and drought conditions, among other problems, threaten the food security of some 2.6 million Somalis. International assistance continues to be essential for the country. Somalia also suffers from high unemployment and low literacy rates, widespread displacement, and environmental degradation. Under these conditions, a serious effort to find political compromises that can bring about needed social peace must be undertaken by the country’s elites.

Al-Shabab Is Still a Threat

The al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab Movement remains Somalia’s most immediate challenge. To be sure, discord between the central government in Mogadishu and different political factions and ambitious federal state elites is negatively impacting a unified and successful military campaign against the jihadi organization. Al-Shabab attacks on military, police, and civilian targets are frequent, the latest of which was a suicide car bombing in Mogadishu on July 10 that aimed to kill the city’s police chief (but he escaped). Another suicide attack on July 3 killed at least 10 people at a tea shop in the capital. The organization continues to be a serious threat to neighboring countries and, in the past, carried out attacks in Uganda in 2010 and in Kenya in 2013 and 2019.

Since the early 2000s, the United States has prosecuted a military campaign against al-Shabab and worked to curb its spread, influence, and activities.

Since the early 2000s, the United States has prosecuted a military campaign against al-Shabab and worked to curb its spread, influence, and activities. Former President Donald Trump’s decision in January to withdraw the 700 US troops from the country is being reconsidered by the Biden Administration. As US Africa Command leader General Stephen Townsend put it at a recent conference, US troops are “commuting to work” in Somalia from other places, which makes their mission of training Somali forces more difficult. The appointment of a new ambassador in Mogadishu, Larry Edward Andre, Jr., signals continued US interest in the country. The US military has also been busy for years against al-Shabab, conducting air strikes against the organization’s fighters. In addition, Turkey and Qatar are heavily involved in training and supplying equipment to Somali forces. But despite the assistance Somalia receives from its partners and the African Union, fighting al-Shabab and winning the battle for peace and security in the country remain contingent on cooperation between the federal government and the constituent federated states.

The Hope of the Upcoming Elections

Somalia’s upcoming election has the potential to revive the country’s institutional life after decades of authoritarianism, civil war, and instability. The timetable announced for holding the parliamentary and presidential rounds—starting this month and concluding in October—may be relatively short, but considering the stakes, elections come at a very crucial time. Somalia’s elites in the center and the periphery must cooperate on ending fruitless squabbles that have delayed needed compromises and work to make the federal formula of government more fair, equitable, and efficient. One thing is sure, however: ambitious leaders in Somaliland, Puntland, and Jubaland must curb their enthusiasm about more autonomy—or even independence—for their territories. This is because, first, their interests lie more in a united Somalia and, second, the international community does not appear to be interested in recognizing them as independent states.

By the same token, and as the case has been for decades, especially during the period when Somali pirates wreaked havoc on international shipping in the Gulf of Aden and the Horn of Africa, Somalia can present a continuous headache for the international community. As states like the UAE and Kenya try to carve out spheres of economic or military influence in Somalia’s periphery, they would do well to remember that their interests lie in a more unified country with strong institutions and improved economic conditions. Indeed, Somalia should be able to count on its elites and the assistance of many Arab, regional, and international actors in order to fight persistent challenges and crises, 61 years after its independence in July 1960.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here