COVID-19 in Somalia: A Public Health Emergency in an Electoral Minefield
COVID-19 in Somalia: A Public Health Emergency in an Electoral Minefield
A Muslim faithful wears a mask outside a Mosque, after attending the Friday prayers in Mogadishu, Somalia, 20 March 2020. REUTERS/Feisal Omar
Briefing 155 / Africa 16 minutes

COVID-19 in Somalia: A Public Health Emergency in an Electoral Minefield

The coronavirus pandemic could pose a huge challenge to Somalia. To manage the crisis, the federal government should reach out to and coordinate with political rivals. It should avoid a unilateral postponement of elections due in November, which could trigger a violent backlash.

What’s new? Somalia is highly vulnerable to both the COVID-19 virus and the socio-economic dimensions of the crisis. Its first cases of infection have also appeared at a time of heightened political tension over forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

Why does it matter? Opponents of the president worry that he might exploit virus fears to put off elections, as a way of staying in office past his term’s expiry. Any attempt to reschedule the contests without consulting the president’s rivals would meet with heated objections – and possibly violence.

What should be done? The president’s administration should take no unilateral step regarding the planned elections. Instead, it should seek to reach consensus with both opposition politicians and regional officials on electoral timetables and procedures.

I. Overview

Somalia might be less prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic than almost any other country in the world.

With one of Africa’s most fragile health care systems, millions of internally displaced people and a bureaucracy still recovering from state collapse and civil war, Somalia might be less prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic than almost any other country in the world. The coronavirus’s onset risks undermining Somalia’s recent progress toward debt relief, and it could also tempt the Al-Shabaab insurgency to step up attacks. To make matters worse, the virus broke out at a particularly inopportune time in Somali politics: tensions are running high among the central government, opposition groups and the country’s semi-autonomous regions, or federal states, including over preparations for elections (parliamentary polls are due by November 2020 and a presidential vote by February 2021).

The Somali government should take care not to add a political crisis to the public health emergency. The authorities should resist the temptation to unilaterally extend the electoral calendar or amend voting rules, steps their rivals would almost certainly contest, perhaps violently. Instead, they should forge consensus on how and when to conduct the vote and call a truce in their other disputes with federal states.

II. A Highly Vulnerable Country

How badly Somalia will be hit by the coronavirus remains unclear. The country reported its first case, a student returning from China, on 16 March, but the number of known infections is still low at 928.[fn]“Somalia: One of the Countries Least Prepared to Cope with the COVID-19 Virus”, CARE, press release, 17 April 2020. The national tally includes twelve cases reported in the self-declared republic of Somaliland.Hide Footnote Grounds for hope exist that Somalia may escape the type of outbreak that has overwhelmed some Western health systems. Somalia’s population is young – the median age is eighteen – and few foreigners visit the country due to persistent insecurity, including the battle against the Al-Shabaab insurgency centred in the south. That said, the current low figures likely reflect a lack of testing, and public health experts express concern that so many of those who can get tested show up positive.[fn]For example, Health Minister Fawzia Abikar Nur announced on 18 April that nineteen of 25 people tested that day were found to have the virus – a much higher percentage than in neighbouring countries. The high rates could also be explained by the limited testing, concentrated on those already displaying symptoms. “Somalia struggles with coronavirus as infections go undetected”, Al Jazeera, 28 April 2020; “Somalia’s surge in COVID-19 cases raises alarm”, Daily Nation, 20 April 2020.Hide Footnote Moreover, official figures, even if low, are rising fast. Cases have increased tenfold since mid-April, and there are worrying signs of community transmission beyond the capital Mogadishu. The outbreak has not spared political elites. A regional minister from the Hirshabelle in south-central Somalia has died after contracting the virus, while two other regional officials are in quarantine after contact with persons believed to be infected.[fn]“HirShabelle state minister dies of COVID-19 in Mogadishu”, Goobjoog, 12 April 2020; “Somalia: Regional presidents, speaker quarantined over coronavirus fear”, SomTribune, 12 April 2020.Hide Footnote

The country could suffer enormously were a major outbreak to occur. The limited testing means that for now it is impossible to know the true extent of the viral spread. The World Health Organization (WHO) rates Somalia’s public health system as one of the weakest across the globe.[fn]“Humanitarian Response Plan: Somalia”, World Health Organization, 2015.Hide Footnote One study prior to COVID-19’s onset ranked Somalia as the country most vulnerable to infectious disease in the world.[fn]Melinda Moore, Bill Gelfeld, Adeyemi Theophilus Okunogbe and Christopher Paul, “Identifying Future Disease Hot Spots: Infectious Disease Vulnerability Index”, RAND, 2016.Hide Footnote An estimated 2.6 million of the 15 million-strong population are uprooted by war, with many living in crowded camps. The displaced are concentrated around cities like Mogadishu, where the majority of coronavirus cases have been reported thus far. A major eruption could take a terrible toll. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the mortality rate from the crisis may already be far higher than official reports indicate, with medics and gravediggers saying they have seen a surge in deaths over the past few weeks.[fn]“Somali medics report rapid rise in deaths as Covid-19 fears grow”, The Guardian, 2 May 2020.Hide Footnote

Already reeling from the worst locust invasion in a generation, the country must now contend with a coronavirus-related drop in remittance income.

Federal authorities have undertaken a range of containment measures but stopped short of imposing a lockdown, in part to mitigate the economic impact. The government has suspended international flights except for humanitarian purposes, closed educational institutions, restricted religious gatherings and instituted night-time curfews in major urban areas. A number of Mogadishu residents told Crisis Group that despite some violations, most people are respecting the curfew, but that many youth are ignoring social distancing orders.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, April 2020. On 24 April, a police officer killed two civilians who were reportedly in violation of the curfew in Mogadishu, sparking protests against the incident and government-imposed restrictions. “Police arrest soldier who allegedly killed two citizens in Mogadishu”, Halbeeg, 25 April 2020.Hide Footnote The government has also backtracked on some restrictions, allowing mosques to continue to host prayers, albeit under guidelines in keeping with those the WHO advocates, as the holy month of Ramadan commenced.[fn]In the event that religious gatherings are not cancelled or held virtually, the WHO recommends observing physical distancing of at least 1 metre, shortening the assembly’s duration and ensuring that hand-washing stations are available at the venue, among other guidelines. “Safe Ramadan practices in the context of the COVID-19”, WHO, interim guidance, 15 April 2020.Hide Footnote Regional administrations have generally put in place similar preventive policies, but measures are not always coordinated.

The crisis appears set to exact a heavy economic toll. The containment measures, despite variations in enforcement, will inevitably make Somalia’s economic situation more precarious as people suffer disruptions to daily livelihoods and a breakdown in local and regional trade. Already reeling from the worst locust invasion in a generation, the country must now contend with a coronavirus-related drop in remittance income, as shutdowns around the world depress the earnings of many Somalis in the diaspora.[fn]“Somalia declares emergency over locust swarms”, BBC, 2 February 2020.Hide Footnote The World Bank estimates that $1.4 billion in remittances flow into Somalia annually under normal circumstances.[fn]“World Bank Makes Progress to Support Remittance Flows to Somalia”, World Bank, press release, 10 June 2016.Hide Footnote That total amounts to approximately one quarter of GDP – and many families depend on these funds for sustenance. International assistance flowing to Somalia might also decrease, given the impact of the virus globally. To soften the blow, authorities have ordered traders to avoid price inflation and lowered some taxes.

With fortuitous timing, however, Somalia finds itself in good standing with international financial institutions for the first time in 30 years.[fn]“Somalia to Reestablish Financial Relations with the World Bank after Thirty Years”, World Bank, press release, 27 February 2020.Hide Footnote Having cleared its arrears to the World Bank in March, Somalia can now gain access to concessional financing from the Bank’s International Development Association – including support from the $14 billion fast-track fund established to assist countries to prevent, detect and respond to COVID-19.[fn]“Somalia Clears Arrears to World Bank Group”, World Bank, press release, 5 March 2020.Hide Footnote Starting with a Paris Club decision to immediately approve $1.4 billion in debt relief, Somalia also recently began a three-year macroeconomic monitoring process under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative.[fn]“Somalia to Receive Debt Relief under the Enhanced HIPC Initiative”, World Bank, press release, 25 March 2020; “Paris Club creditors agree to cancel $1.4 billion of Somali debt”, Reuters, 31 March 2020.Hide Footnote With over $3 billion of additional debt relief at stake, Somalia may need to strike new agreements with international financial institutions that reflect rapidly shifting economic conditions while preserving efforts to expand the government's revenue base, improve financial transparency, increase funding of public services and promote private investment.

Al-Shabaab labelled COVID-19 an export to Somalia by “crusader forces who have invaded the country”.

Added to the public health and economic concerns are fears that Al-Shabaab may try to use the crisis to its advantage. At a forum in mid-March, the group’s leaders asked militants to fight on. They labelled COVID-19 an export to Somalia by “crusader forces who have invaded the country”, a reference to the African Union (AU) Mission in Somalia, whose thousands of troops support the UN-backed government against the insurgency.[fn]“Al-Shabaab fails to stop attacks in Somalia, blames AU forces for coronavirus pandemic", Garowe Online, 28 March 2020. The group’s spokesman Ali Dheere released two audio messages in late April, in which he referred to the coronavirus as a punishment and called on Muslims to pray for protection. Interestingly, he also urged those living outside Al-Shabaab areas to pray at home, rather than directly challenge government regulations. Audio messages on file with Crisis Group.Hide Footnote An outbreak in rural areas under Al-Shabaab’s control could be disastrous, especially if the group refuses outside humanitarian assistance as it did during the 2011 famine, which contributed to the loss of 260,000 lives and fuelled public indignation at the militants.[fn]Rashid Abdi, “Al-Shabaab and Somalia’s Spreading Famine”, Crisis Group Commentary, 10 August 2011; “Somalia famine ‘killed 260,000 people’”, BBC, 2 May 2013.Hide Footnote

III. An Electoral Minefield

Aside from public health and the potential economic harm, the federal government’s key challenge amid the COVID-19 threat is political: how to handle the contentious planning for voting slated to kick off with parliamentary elections in November and culminate in a presidential contest in February 2021.

This process was already difficult prior to the disease’s spread, as parties remain divided over a raft of issues. The federal government has insisted on a one-person, one-vote electoral model, in line with international expectations that such a vote would symbolise Somalia’s recovery from state collapse.[fn]“Somalia’s 2020 Elections Will Be Historic Milestone on Long Journey Back to Security, Stability, Special Representative Tells Security Council”, UN Security Council, press release, 24 February 2020.Hide Footnote Observers, however, privately say this model is unrealistic, given the prevailing insecurity and poor electoral preparations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, regional diplomats and analysts, Addis Ababa, February-April 2020.Hide Footnote Some opposition figures are concerned that President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (commonly known as Farmajo) is purposely sticking to an impractical plan, so as to have a pretext for delaying the election and extending his time in office.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, opposition politicians, April 2020; “Farmajo blamed for ‘conspiracy’ to block Somalia’s elections”, Garowe Online, 5 April 2020.Hide Footnote

The public health crisis will compound the problems with electoral preparations. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, for instance, the Puntland federal state leadership complained that authorities were formulating a new electoral law without adequate consultation. They subsequently refused to cooperate with Mogadishu in planning for the polls.[fn]See the Puntland leadership’s letter posted in a tweet by Garowe Online, @radiogarowe, 6:52am, 6 February 2020.Hide Footnote In early February, Puntland’s Ministry of Interior ordered the closure of the National Independent Electoral Commission office in the state capital Garowe, stymieing steps to organise the vote in the region.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Farmajo ratified the electoral law on 20 February, but parliament named a committee to reconcile outstanding issues in its text. On 2 April, however, the committee suspended meetings due to virus fears, calling into question how it could complete its tasks within the 45 days that parliament gave it at the end of February. Other election-related business, such as voter registration, will also be subject to delay with social distancing regulations in effect.

Opposition groups and some regional authorities have signalled that they will not accept any electoral delay.

Time is running short to fix these problems. According to the new electoral law, legislative elections are to commence one month before the sitting parliament’s term expires in December and the electoral commission is to announce the timetable for the vote 180 days prior. Working backwards, the commission should thus unveil the schedule by the end of May. Otherwise, it must acknowledge its inability to organise the vote within the given timeframe, due to shortcomings in preparations, now exacerbated by the onset of the coronavirus. In this scenario, parliament would have the authority to determine a new timetable, but the virus has delayed its reopening after a regularly scheduled recess. The speaker of the lower house, Mohamed Mursal, said on 22 April that parliament will resume in May, in part to address the elections’ status.[fn]“House to reopen in May, Speaker Mursal says, dismisses claims of term extension”, Hiiraan, 22 April 2020.Hide Footnote It is unclear, however, given the restrictions imposed by the virus and the fact that many deputies are outside the country, if the body will convene in person or remotely.

Opposition groups and some regional authorities have signalled that they will not accept any electoral delay. On 3 April, the Forum for National Parties (FNP), a formidable coalition that includes two former presidents and a sizeable proportion of parliament, called for the elections to be held on schedule.[fn]See the FNP’s letter posted in a tweet by Harun Maruf, journalist, @HarunMaruf, 5:04pm, 4 April 2020.Hide Footnote The FNP, which enjoys the support of powerful clans, has stridently rejected many of the Farmajo administration’s policies. Puntland’s interior minister has also demanded that the vote go ahead on time.[fn]“Puntland interior minister: 2020 elections must take place on time”, Puntland Post, 12 April 2020.Hide Footnote As a result, if parliament, which is divided between Farmajo’s supporters and opponents, decides to postpone the vote, serious unrest could ensue.

IV. Centre-periphery Fault Lines

Farmajo’s first term in office has already been marked by major tensions between the federal government and Somalia’s regions. The president favours a strong central government, while federal states and other politicians seek to safeguard their prerogatives within a loose federal model. Farmajo’s government has secured better working relations with Hirshabelle, South West and Galmudug states by installing allies in those state governments, albeit through controversial and contested elections.[fn]In 2018, for example, Mogadishu muscled in on an election in South West state by arresting an Islamist candidate who might otherwise have won. Rashid Abdi, “Somalia’s South West State: A New President Installed, a Crisis Inflamed”, Crisis Group Commentary, 24 December 2018.Hide Footnote His attempts to achieve the same in Puntland and Jubaland failed, however, paralysing cooperation between Mogadishu and these states. Mogadishu’s rejection of the August 2019 Jubaland regional elections has exacerbated tensions, leading to a military standoff between the federal government and the administration led by Ahmed Mohamed Islam (Madobe) in the state’s Gedo region, as both sides vie for political control there.

Political quarrels could result in disjointed or contested responses to COVID-19.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, federal states have put in place their own policies, which for the most part resemble the federal government’s measures but at times differ. On 27 March, for example, Puntland reportedly took the lead in closing its international borders, a move other states have followed, but not in a coordinated fashion.[fn]“Puntland closes border with other regions over coronavirus fears”, Mustaqbal Radio, 27 March 2020; “Somalia closes border with Kenya, Ethiopia to curb COVID-19 spread”, Somali Affairs, 9 April 2020; “Hirshabelle leader calls for closure of Somali-Ethiopian order over COVID”, Halbeeg, 14 April 2020.Hide Footnote The mayor of Mogadishu has also criticised the federal government’s infection recordkeeping as incomplete.[fn]“Mogadishu mayor claims COVID-19 cases and deaths in Somalia ‘higher’”, Goobjoog, 9 April 2020.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, the dispute over Somaliland, the north-western region that asserts its independence over Mogadishu’s objections, has reared its head amid the seemingly mundane task of tallying the COVID-19 caseload. Leaders in Hargeisa, the territory’s capital, argue that the federal government should stop including Somaliland’s cases of infection in the countrywide reporting. These examples show how political quarrels could result in disjointed or contested responses to COVID-19. An uneven response to COVID-19, due to political division or a lack of coordination, risks hindering measures to contain its spread.

The good news is that a basis exists for tighter cooperation between Mogadishu and the states. The federal government is the primary recipient of international aid, which gives it a crucial opportunity to overcome political divides with fair and rapid distribution of assistance. Mogadishu has already doled out medical equipment donated by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma’s foundation to various federal states, while Prime Minister Ali Khayre has directed that emergency funds in Mogadishu’s treasury be distributed in a similar fashion.[fn]“PM instructs COVID-19 funds delivery to states”, Hiiraan, 15 April 2020.Hide Footnote Actions like these will be critical to overall political stability, as the division of resources was a bone of contention between centre and periphery before Farmajo took office. Any failure by Mogadishu to appear anything less than even-handed in handling aid distribution inevitably would provoke its opponents.

V. Fashioning Consensus

The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic demands an unprecedented response, which should involve all parties embracing a spirit of consensus and setting aside poisonous divisions.

The distribution of international assistance without regard to political allegiance will be crucial.

Authorities, particularly at the federal Health Ministry and the various coronavirus-related task forces that have emerged at the regional level, will need to work together closely. As noted, the distribution of international assistance without regard to political allegiance will be crucial not only to foster cooperation but also to avoid uneven efforts at containing the spread of the virus. For its part, Al-Shabaab, which in spite of its ruthless assaults on civilians has shown a capacity for pragmatism, for example by permitting some humanitarian organisations to operate in the territories it controls, should accept the imperative to cooperate with aid efforts for the sake of the Somali populace, rather than seek its own advantage.[fn]Ashley Jackson and Abdi Aynte, “Talking to the Other Side: Humanitarian Negotiations with Al-Shabaab in Somalia”, Humanitarian Policy Group, December 2013; Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°99, Al-Shabaab – It Will Be a Long War, 26 June 2014.Hide Footnote

Meanwhile, the federal government should engage electoral stakeholders without delay to discuss how the coronavirus affects the planned timeline and format for the polls. Unilateral decision-making could prove perilous, given the high degree of polarisation and the readiness for confrontation some actors display. Rather, engagement with those who want to avoid election delays – including federal states and opposition groups – will be pivotal to managing any fallout from choices the authorities make on this matter.

Federal engagement should focus on achieving consensus on the timeframe for elections and/or on adjustments to the electoral model. The latter could include abandoning plans for a one-person, one-vote election and instead providing for some form of an electoral college system, as was used in the 2016-2017 vote, whereby some 14,000 delegates selected the representatives for 275 parliamentary seats. This system would allow a smaller electorate to vote, minimising risks to public health by avoiding the need for mass registration and mobilisation. Postponing the vote would require further agreement on the Farmajo government’s status, given its constitutional restriction to a four-year term. Parliament might agree to a term extension of its own, or it might propose the formation of a temporary national unity government in the event of an extended delay, which could involve the federal government offering posts to opposition nominees as a compromise.

External actors engaged in Somalia, such as the AU, Intergovernmental Authority on Development, UN and EU, in addition to bilateral donors, should maintain public pressure on the federal government, opposition and states to emphasise the need for consensus, as they continue to engage the various actors through back channels. A starting point would be to push for open lines of communication – virtual, at first, given social distancing restrictions – between Farmajo and his principal opponents in the states and the capital.

A starting point would be to push for open lines of communication between Farmajo and his principal opponents in the states and the capital.

Mogadishu’s partners may be distracted by events related to COVID-19 at home, but they ought not to ignore Somalia during this pivotal period. The U.S. and EU in particular could play prominent roles, as both have responded to the federal government’s battle against the coronavirus with financial packages and worked to forge consensus in Somalia in the past.[fn]“U.S. Provides Nearly $274 Million in Emergency Health, Humanitarian Assistance to Help Combat COVID-19”, U.S. Embassy in Somalia, 1 April 2020. Tweet by EU Delegation in Somalia, @EU_in_Somalia, 9:14am, 9 April 2020.Hide Footnote The federal government’s intolerance of international criticism may have muted responses to the Farmajo administration’s more divisive policies so far, but now is the time for a sustained diplomatic push to prevent the potential for even more bitter political divisions.

VI. Conclusion

COVID-19 is likely to be a huge challenge for Somalia. Tackling the public health emergency will require high levels of cooperation among all Somali political actors as well as international partners. Even if the country escapes a major outbreak, the economic impact is likely to be profound. Injudicious actions designed to exploit the crisis – especially any unilateral decision by the federal government to postpone the elections – could pose a serious threat to the internationally supported Somali state-building project. Somalia’s politicians in particular should unite at this unprecedented time. Failure to do so would come at a high cost, especially to Somalia’s long-suffering population.

Mogadishu/Nairobi/Brussels, 8 May 2020

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