Somalia is making urgent preparations for universal suffrage elections, which will be the first of its kind after more than two decades. Ever since the outbreak of the civil war that followed the collapse of the Somali government in 1992, the African nation has suffered a series of devastating setbacks that have held back the ability to hold elections and all indications show the exercise this time will also be fraught with challenges.

Will Somalia Succeed In Holding Elections?

While international partners have reaffirmed the importance of timely and effective preparations for the 2020 or 2021 elections in Somalia, questions abound on whether this fragmented country can pull through with this exercise.

For Somalia, such an election would be the first universal suffrage polls in half a century. With the last universal vote held in 1969, shortly before a coup that brought military leader Siad Barre to power. Following two decades of civil war which led to a transitional government backed by the United Nations and the African Union, Somalia has slowly been inching its way toward universal polls.

Somalia’s Recent Elections: Clan-Based And Restrictive

To date, what remains of this Horn of Africa nation has witnessed three presidential elections in 2009, 2012 and 2017 which were decided in a system where lawmakers were voted in by about 14,000 clan delegates. The lawmakers would then elect a president. The clan-based election system has been widely criticized for marginalizing young people, women and ethnic minorities. Yet both Somali and African Union officials hope that 2020 will be different.

In December 2017, the National Independent Election Commission (NIEC) launched a five-year plan to draft electoral laws, plan voter registration and work on setting up the right mechanisms to hold an election. Since then, 22 Somalian political parties have registered themselves for the polls. The electoral law is still waiting for approval from parliament.

The Looming Threat Of The Al-Shabaab Terrorist Group

In addition, after years of civil war, Somalia’s transitional government and the current government under President Abdullahi Mohamed have struggled to contain the threat from the Al-Shabaab terrorist group, who control a sizable portion of Somalia. According to Omar Mahmood, a senior researcher with the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (ISS) based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Somalia is still highly insecure.

“I don’t think there’s been a great change in the past year. We might even have some backsliding in certain areas,” Mahmood said.

While major urban centers could possibly be secured for the polls, people outside these areas would probably face difficulties voting or even traveling to the urban hubs. In addition NIEC chairperson Halima Ismail Ibrahim admits that security is still a major concern for her electoral body.

“Without security you cannot conduct an election. We are doing now the verification of the voter registration centers and we want that our security sectors sit together and see where it is safe where it is not safe,” she said, adding that “security forces have to direct us where NIEC will go, and without that election cannot happen.”

Preparations For Somalia’s Elections Come At A Difficult Juncture

The 12-year-old African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is still currently active, and is a regional peacekeeping mission operated by the African Union with the approval of the United Nations. It has been mandated to help the Somali government prepare for elections and to also provide security during the voting process, though AMISOM troops are at the same time in the midst of cutting down their presence in the country.

“We envision that by 2021 Somali security forces will be ready to take over security responsibilities from AMISOM fully,” Francisco Madeira, special representative of the chairperson of the AU Commission and head of AMISOM, wrote this June as a guest columnist in the South African based Male and Guardian weekly newspaper. He explained that the force had managed to withdraw 1,000 troops from the country, handing over security for facilities like the Mogadishu stadium, the university and military academy to local forces.

“The withdrawal process for AMISOM has been driven more by external funding considerations and less by conditions on the ground,” explained Mahmood. “There is some donor fatigue creeping in, and that spurred a lot of thinking in terms of exit strategies.”

Uganda, the biggest contributor to the AMISOM force with 6,400 troops, has also been very critical of the troop withdrawal. In March, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni threatened to take all Ugandan soldiers out of Somalia if the force was to be reduced even further. Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza has previously made similar threats also.

AMISOM’s funding relies heavily on donor money coming through the UN, and the decision to scale down the operation came from the UN Security Council. Observers have also warned AMISOM that the withdrawal could empower clan-based structures and it also provides an opportunity for al-Shabaab to exploit the divides in the country’s political environment.

Further Challenges To Holding Universal Elections In Somalia

Aside from security, there are other  major obstacles that could pose a problem for Somalia’s election plans. Mahmood said there’s still a great amount of tension between Somalia’s federal state government and the member states.

“Many of the states are not working with Mogadishu,” he said. “This affects security relationships, political relationships, institution building, state building—the constitution is provisional, but there is supposed to be a finalization of it.” Without any cooperation between the states, very little progress can be made, he added.

Other obstacles include the right processes and technical and logistical requirements that still need to be put in place before an election can take place. The hope is, that with AU backing, steps toward such requirements can be made in order to once again inch a little closer to a process in which all Somali citizens can take part. UN Special Representative James Swan underscores the need to forge political consensus to realize what he describes as the “ambitious agenda for 2020”.

“This will entail dialogue and compromise between the central government and Federal Member States; between the executive and legislature; between current office-holders and those now out of power; and between elite leaders and those community elders, civil society organizations, women’s and youth groups who give voice to so many Somalis”, he said.

“After more than a year without effective cooperation between the Central Government and key Federal Member States, this situation has become an obstacle to achieving important national priorities. Somalia’s leaders must act urgently to break this stalemate between the Center and the Federal Member States in the interest of the nation.”

Mr. Swan, head of the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia ( UNSOM), further says there is a need for Parliament to pass the electoral code and adopt amendments to the political parties’ law before the end of this year.

“Any delay in this timeline puts the 2020 electoral calendar at risk,” Swan wanred.

African Union Praises Progress On Somalian Election Prep

UN partner the African Union (AU) praised “commendable steps” towards reconciliation, including a meeting between Somali President and two of his predecessors held in the capital of Mogadishu this November. Francisco Caetano José Madeira, head of the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), acknowledged that while critical next steps towards the election are needed, there has been progress in reviewing the electoral bill over the past three months.

“We also witnessed the recent positive steps in the appointment of the National Electoral Security Task Force, the development of the draft concept note on the security for voter registration, and the provisionally approved list of voter registration sites,” said Caetano, who also is the Special Representative of the Chairperson of the AU Commission for the country.

Despite ongoing insecurity, fragile institutions and other challenges, the 2020 polls are expected to a “ massive improvement” compared to the past.

“A proportional representation system of this time, even if limited by the many challenges, will open up the political space and overcome many vested and corrupt interests in the status quo”, said Osman Moallirn, Executive Director of the Somalia Youth Development Network (SOYDEN), a Somalia based NGO that seeks to solidify the peace building programs through educational, skills training and recreational activities for the young people who suffered the most during the 17 years of the civil anarchy in country.

The forthcoming election is expected to cost $53 million, according to Ms. Ibrahim, the electoral commission chair who describes 2020 as “a pivotal year” for Somalis, who have been denied the right to political participation for five decades.

“However, this is a milestone which can only be realized when the Somali leaders and the international community show a commitment to one-person, one-vote election to take place in 2020-21”, Ms. Ibrahim added.

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