The Somali election that almost certainly won’t happen

September 26, 2019 - New York, NY, United States: Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed Farmajo, President of Somalia, speaking at the General Assembly at the United Nations. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA)

Somalia’s 2020-2021 elections are the subject of much fanfare. They will be the country’s first one person-one vote elections in 50 years. The Somali public will finally have the chance to directly elect their representatives. Or at least, that’s the theory.

There is a problem with this moment in Somalia’s slow march to democracy: the chances that universal elections will actually take place by the end of 2020 are approximately zero.

The Heritage Institute, a Somali think tank, predicted as much last July: “It’s highly improbable — if not impossible — that a credible, free and fair one person-one vote election can be organised throughout the country within the remaining 18 months of  of [the President Mohamed Abdullahi] Farmajo administration.” The institute’s report explained that the government didn’t have sufficient funding; the required laws weren’t in place; there were major security issues; and the central government and federal member states had serious disagreements. These issues are still unresolved.

Having spent billions of dollars and decades of effort trying to stabilise and democratise Somalia, international actors are desperate to see elections succeed. Noting the government’s slow progress toward key election milestones, the United Nations, African Union Mission to Somalia, and a host of (mostly Western) governments released a statement last December urging Somalia to fulfill its commitment to run elections by the deadline, and another as recently as February 25. Parliamentary elections are planned for the last quarter of 2020 and presidential elections for early 2021 to establish new leadership before the current administration’s term ends on February 8, 2021.

The government was supposed to pass an electoral bill and an amendment to the political parties law, which allows political parties to register, before the end of 2019. The electoral bill has only just become law and the political parties law still hasn’t been amended, putting the government well behind schedule. The government must also adopt an amended constitution by June. “I don’t think the constitutional review process will even finish by the end of the year,” said Abdirizak Mohamed, opposition member of the Lower House of Parliament.

Mohamed said there is still a huge funding gap. The chair of the electoral commission told the UN Security Council the election would cost over $53 million. According to Mohamed, the government’s funds don’t approach that figure.

Security is, of course, complicated. It’s a near-certainty that al-Shabab, the Islamist extremist group, which terrorises Somalia, will target the elections. Ensuring voter safety is a major challenge as the terrorist group regularly uses explosives to carry out public attacks, killing large numbers of civilians. It won’t be possible to hold elections in areas under al-Shabab’s control, which include much of southern and central Somalia. Considering that the group’s influence is widespread, it would also likely be dangerous for citizens in remote areas to travel to urban centres to vote.

Somalia’s regional governments or federal member states are highly autonomous, sometimes even breaking ties with the central government. President Farmajo envisions a unified Somalia with a strong central government, but that aspiration is at odds with member states’ level of independence. The federal government is too weak to force member states to bend to its will, but it’s trying to do just that — right when it should be collaborating with them on the fast-approaching elections.

In February, the federal government deployed the national army in Jubbaland, which Mohamed believes is meant to destabilise Jubbaland so Farmajo can take control of the region and install his preferred leader. The US Mission to the United Nations said at a UN Security Council briefing this week that the deployment of Somali National Army troops to a politically-motivated offensive in Jubbaland was unacceptable. The government of Puntland, a state in Somalia, condemned the government’s actions and called an emergency meeting, indicating that the government is actively worsening relations with other member states as well.

The federal government also continues to infuriate member states by trying to puppeteer regional governments’ election outcomes, aiming to install politicians who are loyal to it. The government was recently accused of interfering in Galmudug’s February elections, apparently unfazed by the uproar over its attempts to engineer Jubbaland’s elections in mid-2019 and Puntland’s elections at the end of 2018. Elections in South West State at the end of 2018 saw the most blatant interference: the UN Panel of Experts on Somalia reported that the government gave MPs $20,000 to $30,000 each to elect its preferred candidate, and one prominent minister received several hundred thousand dollars.

These are not the actions of a president eager to cooperate with stakeholders to hold national elections. “There is an onslaught on the federal structure in Somalia. If the federal structure is under threat, you cannot expect peaceful elections according to the original timetable,” said Medhane Tadesse, a Horn of Africa political analyst and adviser to the African Union. “Unless Farmajo delivers military victory against the member states, I don’t think he will feel confident enough to hold elections.”

Article 53 of the new electoral law says that if the electoral commission announces it is unable to hold elections within the time allotted, parliament will “decide the way forward”. The Farmajo administration could easily use that article of the law to extend its term past its expiration date. Experts say this would damage Somalia’s political progress. The Heritage Institute reports said an extension “would jeopardise the legitimacy of the post-transitional federal government and open the door for future indefinite extensions”.

“Of course, Farmajo will try to extend his term,” said Tadesse, who believes the ultimate outcome will not be elections, but rather “escalation of conflict, deepening of the crisis in Somalia, broadening of a complex insurgency, and low-level conflicts within the regions”.

The electoral commission continues to prepare for elections even as the rift between the federal government and member states deepens and the impossibility of the timeline becomes increasingly clear. Perhaps these preparations are simply a show to stave off the international community’s complaints. This election is touted as one of the most critical of the dozen African elections planned this year, but Somalia’s political process does not look fit for purpose.

Rachel Abbot


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