A successful election, but at what cost?
Somalia’s President, His Excellency Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was re-elected in May 2022, delivered a public address and discussed political and security developments in his country in April 2016. Photo: US Institute of Peace/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Although it took 18 months longer than expected, the conclusion of elections in Somalia in May 2022 with a mandate for a new government is a relief. This result comes in the face of very significant challenges: punches between candidates, shots fired in Parliament and some inter-clan fights. Yet despite lingering fears that the country was once again descending into large-scale inter-clan violence, a relative and fragile peace held long enough for the elections to be completed.
For anyone trying to engage in the process of establishing the rule of law and functioning institutions in Somalia, this finding holds out hope that decision makers will now return to their duties and undertake the governance that the country has desperately need. This hope is particularly important beyond Mogadishu, the country’s capital. The elections proved disruptive for provincial administrations as local officials were inevitably drawn into lobbying and politics, often traveling to Mogadishu for long periods of time to attend meetings and leaving a vacuum in local decision-making.
The last piece of good news is that ultimately the incumbent president did not stay in power, despite several actions that suggested he would try to do so. This signals that Somalia has once again achieved a more or less peaceful transfer of power from a sitting president, which bodes well for the future.
However, the road ahead remains extremely difficult.
Rather than the one-person, one-vote system, the new president was elected by 327 members of parliament (out of 328, one non-voting), who were nominated by a group of around 4,000 traditional clan elders. Without universal suffrage, the failure of ordinary Somalis to hold leaders to account will continue. This is why many members of the international community insist on putting the word “election” in quotation marks in reference to Somali political processes.
References are often made to challenges regarding universal suffrage in Somalia, but in fact, away from the central government in Mogadishu, some states in the Somali federal system show what is possible – for example, the state of Puntland has successfully organized local elections with one person, one voting system in some districts in recent months.
While all Somali citizens would benefit from the one person, one vote system, minorities may benefit more than most. Currently, the clan’s 4,000 elders and 328 deputies are determined solely on the basis of an informally negotiated calculation known as the 4.5 formula. Under this, each of Somalia’s four major clans gets two-ninths of the political appointments (including MPs), with the rest of the clan communities (all minorities) getting the remaining ninth.
The formula is not based on population figures – in some areas members of minority clans may very well form a majority. Rather, it is the result of power and social status. The 4.5 formula effectively means that minorities are considered half the value of other communities, reinforcing racism, discrimination and marginalization. The fact that this experience continues to be an accepted electoral practice makes it a case of ingrained structural discrimination that runs counter to the idea of the equal and inherent dignity of all.
While many jurisdictions have quotas intended to increase the representation of marginalized groups (most often women, but also in some places religious or caste groups), which is shocking and perhaps unique to the system (so -so-called transitional) in Somalia, is that the most marginalized groups receive a quota equal to half that of relatively privileged groups in society. A practice that appears to run counter to all major international treaties or conventions that prohibit discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, but which is maintained in Somalia, nominally due to the continued threat of a further descent into conflict widespread if the current system is revoked and replaced.
While the enthronement of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud helps reduce the risk of conflict and can enable effective governance, the organization of yet another “election” without universal suffrage, which paralyzed the state for 18 months, and again decided on an openly discriminatory basis (playing on recruitment strategies used by radical groups) is far from ideal.
It is difficult at this time to predict how the change will come. Clearly, a concerted effort by all Somalis in a spirit of pragmatism, coupled with renewed support from the international community, remains essential to send clear messages to the new leadership to establish an inclusive and representative form of decision-making. Politics. This is the only guarantee that will ensure that Somalia will emerge from chronic instability into a situation where all Somalis, regardless of clan identity, can live in peace and harmony.