Somalia's political deadlock: Why have elections been delayed?

Somalia's political deadlock: Why have elections been delayed?
Analysis: International pressure is growing on Somalia's leaders to hold elections but talks to end the political impasse have repeatedly collapsed.
7 min read
08 April, 2021
Election talks collapsed on Wednesday for the third time in less than six months. [Getty]
"Compromise, compromise," cried Sheikh Abdi Umal, one of Somalia's most prominent religious leaders in a rare address to the country's political class in March, as the electoral deadlock entered its second month. "You weren't born with that chair, and it wasn't born with you," he continued.

Compromise, it appears, is in short supply, as the latest round of talks, described by former Somali president Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud as the "last opportunity" to reach an agreement, broke down on Wednesday. It was the third time in less than six months that Somalian leaders had failed to strike an election deal.

Whilst Somalia's international partners had hoped the country's leaders would deliver an early "special Ramadan gift" to the Somali people, the federal government, led by President Mohammed Abdullahi Farmajo, blamed the leaders of two federal member states - Puntland and Jubaland - for not being willing to hold elections based on previous agreements both states had signed up for. 

"We've come back empty handed," said Information Minister Osman Dubbe, lamenting the outcome. Puntland and Jubaland denied the accusations that they were responsible for the collapse in talks, saying that the president had called for a break. Said Deni, President of Puntland, later told VOA Somali that the announcement came as a surprise and appeared pre-planned. He said he was still open to talks.

Somalia's last election in 2017 was called "the most expensive vote-buying campaign in human history", and the 2012 election was also delayed, so the challenges Somali leaders face in organising the vote aren't new. Indeed, the jostling has already started, one Mogadishu based analyst told The New Arab, and many of the competitors realise that the way the election itself is conducted could impact its outcome.

The way elections are being conducted has revealed deeper cleavages in Somali society about what kind of country will emerge afterwards

A glimmer of hope initially appeared when Said Deni and President Ahmed Madobe of Jubaland - two of president Farmajo's staunchest opponents - accepted an icebreaker meeting on 5 April, the first time the leaders would have spoken face to face since the electoral deadline passed in February this year.

But those talks broke down when they failed to even agree on an agenda for the meeting - the same reason talks broke down on Wednesday. Deni and Madobe reportedly walked out, with Deni expressing his distrust in the president.

Read more: Turkey's growing influence in the Horn of Africa

Leaders of the federal government and federal member states agreed to a framework which would allow indirect polls in September 2020 after a 'one person, one vote' policy failed, but several issues remain which have blocked their implementation, says Mohammed Ibrahim Shire, a Somalia risk analyst and lecturer at Portsmouth University.

One of the major sticking points was the staffing of the independent electoral commission which will oversee the elections and resolve any disputes.

Because Somalia's polls are indirect - through delegates who represent various constituencies who will then elect MPs - influence over the process can have tangible returns on how Somalia is governed after the election.

The September agreement allowed both federal member states and the federal government to appoint members of the commission. However, "opposition politicians and federal member states accused the federal government of trying to hijack the commission by planting civil servants, intelligence agents and military officials loyal to the president," Shire told The New Arab.

The second major issue is Gedo, says Shire. Gedo is the largest region in Jubaland, Somalia's southernmost state bordering both Kenya and Ethiopia. Its president, Ahmed Madobe, has a turbulent relationship with Farmajo.

The capacity of the federal government has significantly increased over the last few years and as a result Mogadishu has re-imposed itself over its federal member states

Tensions between the federal government and Madobe go back to 2019 when the federal government refused to recognise a flawed election which gave Madobe a second term. Though Madobe remained in Kismayo - Jubaland's capital - his administration never reached Gedo, which remained independent.

Gedo has many grievances with Madobe because of his close relationship with Kenya, according to Shire. Nairobi has vested interests in securing Jubaland given the frequency of attacks by al-Shabab and its role in Jubaland's creation. Kenya, however, has also conducted airstrikes in Gedo damaging infrastructure and killing civilians.

"When the federal government deployed troops to Gedo to secure its border with Kenya the federal government was welcomed as a counterweight by locals," says Shire. 

Whilst Jubaland does have a constitutional right to administer the election in the Gedo region, Madobe is likely to select delegates favourable to his wider interests, as some clan elders from the region have pointed out to the government.

"The people of the region want an arrangement that allows them to have their say over who represents them and Madobe isn't likely to guarantee that. Madobe will have people loyal to him elected to parliament in Mogadishu," Shire said.

A final difficulty is how the delegates from Somaliland will be elected. Somaliland is a breakaway region in the country's north and because Mogadishu doesn't recognise Somaliland's independence, the region retains 46 seats in Somalia's 275 seat lower house.

Read more: What will Biden's presidency mean for the Horn of Africa?

As clan chiefs play a critical role in selecting the delegates who elect the MPs, and chiefs from the Somaliland region don't take part, disputes over how to conduct this process have arisen.

"The big question is whether the person who has control over the process by which the Somaliland delegates will be elected will be Abdi Hashi, the speaker of the Somali senate and most prominent leader from the Somaliland region, or the deputy prime minister," Shire told The New Arab.

In a recent interview with Somali radio channel Goobjoog, Hashi, who was once close with president Farmajo, outlined a catalogue of differences he has with him and is unlikely to elect MPs who will deliver a second term to the president when both houses elect the head of state. 

"The candidate who has the backing of these representatives stands a good chance of being elected the president of Somalia," wrote Afyare Elmi, an Associate Professor of Security Studies at Qatar University.

Core issues and the path ahead

Behind those differences, however, is a serious trust deficit, says Mohammed Sharif, a researcher at the Mogadishu based non-profit research organisation, Somali Public Agenda.

Somalia's leaders have even quarrelled over who should manage security at the conferences they hold. "The issues being discussed have moved from issues related to the election talks, to security and a lack of confidence," said one Somali MP.

The issues being discussed have moved from issues related to the election talks, to security and a lack of confidence

The way elections are being conducted has revealed deeper cleavages in Somali society about what kind of country will emerge afterwards. The election process, however, masks the real issues at play.

"The issues between them [Somalia's political leaders] appear to be bigger than elections which sit atop the actual issues," Professor Afyare Elmi told BBC Somali. "The sticking points are questions of power and what kind of government Somalis will have." 

The capacity of the federal government has significantly increased over the last few years, says Mohammed Shire, and as a result Mogadishu has re-imposed itself over its federal member states.

Read more: Troubled waters: Ports and power in the
Horn of Africa

"Of course, they won't be happy with that as some operate as semi-independent states so to lose that is difficult. Some even want a bigger share of the cake but Farmajo is part of the new guard. He wants the federal government to be the main driver of things," Shire says.

That centralising tendency has complicated relations between Farmajo and the two more rebellious federal states, Puntland and Jubaland. But the other challenges for Farmajo are the moving goalposts of opposition demands, says Shire.

Some of the federal member states have attempted to add questions about a shooting incident during protests on 19 February as well as questions about the status of the president to talks about elections.

"The size of the gap between leaders of the federal government can only become clear when we know what the fixed positions of the opposition are on the questions related to the election," Shire told The New Arab.

In the meantime, it is widely expected that Somalia's parliament will convene and attempt to chart a way forward, such as with a term extension, which the opposition bitterly opposes. But Omar Sharmarke, a two-time former prime minister and Somali ambassador, still has hopes that talks can restart.

The international community is "still exerting pressure on all sides," Omar Sharmarke told The New Arab. "I don't think they gave up on it."

Faisal Ali is an Istanbul based multimedia journalist. He writes about East African politics. 

Follow him on Twitter: @fromadic92