This week, the long-awaited 2016 Somali election- the upper and lower House- had begun and the day of reckoning is here. The country is in the grip of election hysteria, and for some, it is nearly becoming an obsession. People are understandably quite apprehensive of this semi-democratic system where only a handful of citizens (fourteen thousand) will be in a position to select representatives for the upper and lower houses of parliament. However, the fact that Somalia is holding an election, which is more relatively representative than in the recent past, is welcome progress. Gone are the days when warlords battled control of the main urban centres for rent money and political influence causing unbearable destruction and misery for communities.
Conversely, Somalia is already showing progress in political, social and economic arenas since the selection of the incumbent President in 2012. It points to a relative development which is a remarkable achievement of Somalia. Indeed, it was President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud who promised, right after his inauguration, that he would lead the country to a new dawn whereby citizens will exercise their democratic rights. i.e. universal suffrage by August 2016. Much was since written and said about the merit of his rather over ambitious statement or lack of it. Some political analyist, at the time, cautioned about raising public expectation, others dismissed the idea outrights pointing to the insurmountable difficulties the country faces.
Fast forward 2016- after a reality check, it became apparent that the government could not deliver its promise of universal suffrage. Therefore, it has to craft another electoral model that could satisfy local constituency and international partners who hold the purse strings thus dictate issues and agenda to a certain extent. After lengthy discussions, the government settled for an extended legitimacy, a process that will expand the previous 135 elders to and over 14,000 Electoral College.
It is worth mentioning that there is no, one size fit all, complete electoral process. It all requires ongoing improvements – but the degree to which any electoral processes meet international standards will determine their level of credibility. There are no prescriptive norms in International standards for democratic elections but rather set of principles and guideline that evolved from protocols, declarations, treaties, and other international instruments that safeguard democracy and human rights. Most of all these International standards require that certain benchmarks be met for instance elections must be free from intimidation, bribery, undue influence or fear of retribution.
Even though the current electoral system is not entirely democratic, nonetheless, it has some form of universal characteristics. Therefore, nothing inhibits it from aspiring to the highlighted democratic standards and ideals.
Aside from the mixed apprehension and excitement surrounding the election, there are serious misgivings as to how the current election is proceeding. Candidates with dubious characters and the widespread corruption are amongst the many grave concerns raised by key stakeholders. Some of these concerns were also highlighted in the 2012 elections.
The Issue of warlords and business-lords.
Somalia had suffered terribly at the hands of warlords, and their abhorrent and unfathomable actions during the civil war are engraved in the Somali psyche. They are accused of indiscriminate killings and widespread lootings. They generated significant income through illicit taxes and protection money from civilians, and local markets/businesses. The psychological scars of the deadly civil war are still fresh in the minds of many.
Suffice to say that, firstly, the country has not had a complete reconciliation to date to move forward from this traumatic experience. And secondly, legal and justice institutions for the society to ask for redress are either non-existence or lack the capacity to deliver. Hence, why the issue of warlords is very touchy subject. One would think that, for now, excluding them from political office would be easier at least- saving victims from reliving the horrible experiences of seeing their tormentors in public offices.
However, the notion of excluding individual associated with a history of violence from the political scene first surfaced during the 2012 transitional government. There were 19 candidates identified or related to a history of warlord activities in that parliament. Initially, the committee for dispute resolution was left with the task of vetting candidates without adequate support from the political office. There was a push by some of the political establishment for their exclusion from the political system; the International Community was part of this effort. For example, the US representative to Somalia commented that ‘ inadequate of women and in some cases former warlords nominated by their communities’. Furthermore, Augustine Mahiga, the U.N. envoy to Somalia, was quoted saying ‘credible information from Somali and international sources that some Somali leaders are using bribery, intimidation and violence to influence the selection parliament’. This attempt to exclude warlords was not pursued vigorously in 2012. It seemed that there was no appetite for this given the time constraints and other acute election challenges.
In the current 2016 election, there has equally been a similar outcry in the inclusion of former warlords in the political process. The international community has issued a statement on the matter indicating their displeasure by stating that ‘there should be no actual or perceived return to the days of “warlordism”‘. Somalis wish to start afresh and rightly so, the difficulty is, though, no one thought about how. Moreover, who is a warlord? As I write this piece, candidates with a history of ‘alleged’ warlordism are voted in the Upper House while others are not, showing inconsistency in the system.
Putting aside the emotive rhetoric, the difficult lies in the election process, and as much as we abhor warlords, the political elite has to take full responsibility for the inaction of and the lack of exclusion of this group. Evidently, there were no clear guidelines for committees to exclude them in 2012 transitional periods, and no one has since pursued this nor put forward a legal position to execute this. The Federal Independent Electoral Team (FIET), responsible for overseeing the process, seemingly suffers the same fate. FIET shared scant inconclusive guidelines for the s/election and as such barely mentions a history of violence in the selection criteria. The following is part of FIET’s instruction script: ‘25 years old and has a high school degree or equivalent experience …… pay a $5,000 registration fee whereas a female pays $2,500. A male candidate for a seat in the Upper House will need to pay a $10,000’. Strict criteria and rigid vetting process should have been put in place to bar these warlords and anyone with a history of violence.
Corruption and vote buying
Many believe that corruption will be a major concern in this year’s election. So far, a dark cloud is overhanging the selection of the upper house in that there are serious allegations of vote-buying to the extent that colleagues said that it was out in the open and somewhat like an auction house. Significant amounts of money exchanged hands ranging from $10,000 to $15,000 per vote. This activity is unethical and indeed, undemocratic; a process that belongs to yesteryears.
International Community had recognised that there was growing concerns about reports of intimidation and corruption. Money was passed around to buy political influences. In a recent interview, Mr Keating, the Special Representative for Secretary General, conceded that there is an ample evident of vote-buying, pointing to the wider social media coverage of the issue, but also opined that the secret ballot box and rigorously national and international observations would minimise it. It is unfortunate to note that Members of Parliament do not vote with their conscience, this will continue to encourage an unethical practice of corruption. The litmus test will be the election of the President by Parliament, and the role of money will play in the campaign.
Additionally, there is a new but worrying phenomenon that requires a closer look. It is, of course, the unhealthy obsession of some Somali businessmen with politics. It is common knowledge that a good number of people in business are contesting seats in the Upper and Lower houses of parliament in the current election. Some contend that these groups bring an enormous amount of money into the election process. Nonetheless, they possess a little understanding and experience of politics of the country but are solely motivated by self-interest. Furthermore, this group openly share their primary motivation for going into politics, which is to protect their business interests. Combining economic muscle, political power and the influence that comes with it will create oligarchs. It is crystal clear to everyone that this group will seek further exemptions from government institutions for their business interests; amassing immense wealth and influence along the way. If this group is successful, it will have an adverse impact on Somali’s nascent democracy.
Perhaps one would assume that people go into politics to make a positive change to their communities. It very much concerns that this group seems unstoppable as they have the resources and the influence to secure seats in both houses. Conceding that there are already rumours of businessmen boosting about buying of positions. It is with a great loss of this nation if all aspire to political career to serve their personal interest and not for the greater good.
A way forward:
Somalia has gone through various conflict stages depending on the time and situation: from clan-based civil war to warlordism, into a proxy war between neighbouring states and into globalised religious and ideological. It appears that now Somalia is gradually regaining its position amongst nations. It is intrinsically important to safeguard the nascent democracy, and the following priority areas should be considered:
I. Strong electoral institution: To ensure that future elections are fair and transparent, it is of vital importance to establish a more credible electoral body. Set a clear and strict criterion for candidates in particular addressing issues of criminality and corruption defined and agreed by all stakeholders. It needs to be put in place before 2020 election to avoid ambiguity.
II. Multi-party system: Completion and refinement of the Political Parties legislation is crucial to introduce the multi-party systems before 2020 election. Political parties will diminish the importance and influence of clan politics. Political parties play a significant role in democratic governance. The main advantage of the multi-party system is that it gives electorates the opportunity to speak their mind about issues they hold dear. It gives citizens the opportunity to vote for a political party that will make real changes to their lives and the lives of their families.
III. Voter registration: This is critical to the election process as voter registration establishes the eligibility of individuals to vote. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the government to conduct a thorough national voter registration exercise in time for the 2020 election. There are three various voter registration models, namely the periodic list, the continuous register and the civil register- The government can choose whichever suits depending on its current condition. There is no doubt if this is achieved it will give much-needed legitimacy to the election process.
IV. Party membership: encourage party membership, raising citizens’ education and awareness of the democratic process. It creates an active citizen who engages the political process. Also, minimises the role of the clan since parties will have different socio-group representation. It further encourages and creates room to political independent as well giving choices to electorates.