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A Last Chance to End Somalia’s Dangerous Election Impasse
A Last Chance to End Somalia’s Dangerous Election Impasse
Supporters of different opposition presidential candidates demonstrate in Mogadishu on 19 February 2021. AFP
Alert / Africa

A Last Chance to End Somalia’s Dangerous Election Impasse

Clashes in Mogadishu following the expiry of the president’s term highlight the risks of the standoff between the federal government and the opposition over electoral preparations. To avert a further breakdown, the African Union and UN should quickly step in to mediate. 

The political crisis brewing in Somalia for the past year has tipped into deadly violence – and worse could be coming if parties cannot find a consensual path forward to elections. On 19 February, clashes between the security forces and opposition supporters killed at least eight in the capital Mogadishu. The opposition plans further protests on 26 February to press their demand that President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (Farmajo) step down. Though Farmajo’s constitutional mandate expired on 8 February, he says the law allows him to stay in office until a new vote is held. The opposition disagrees, and the recent clashes show how easily things could spiral out of control. Given the degree of distrust among Somalia’s elites, third-party mediation is urgently needed. The UN and African Union (AU), backed by other international actors with influence in Somalia, such as the U.S., the European Union, the UK, Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, should step in now to broker a deal over how to manage the election and break a stalemate that could well push Somalia back into clan-based violence if it persists.

This cycle of elections in Somalia has been particularly fraught. Somalia’s elites managed to conduct previous polls in a way that averted mass violence and produced outcomes that were broadly accepted. The 2020-2021 election cycle is shaping up differently. Factional differences have thus far proven impossible to bridge, partly due to distrust that has curdled between the parties in Farmajo’s first term, during which his rivals accused him of attempting to monopolise power. The opposition also claims he has played games with the electoral process to tilt the playing field too far in his favour as he seeks re-election (he would be the first incumbent to return to office in recent Somali history). Tensions over the election have aggravated factional and regional rifts. In his campaign, Farmajo enjoys the support of leaders from the federal regions of Galmudug, Hirshabelle and South West. He faces opposition from the Council of Presidential Candidates, an alliance including two former presidents and a former prime minister, and the regional leaderships of Puntland and Jubaland.

International efforts to broker a compromise that would set the stage for timely elections have, notwithstanding some seeming successes, thus far failed to produce their desired outcome. Just five months ago, following several rounds of talks and under pressure from the U.S. and UN, the federal government and Somalia’s regions – or federal member states – agreed on an electoral framework on 17 September 2020. The agreement called for indirect voting much like the system used in the 2016-2017 national election, with some enhancements to increase participation and build confidence in the process. Under this system, clan leaders select delegates to electoral colleges, which in turn choose parliamentarians to fill lower house seats; the lower and upper houses then together select the president. Yet the September agreement quickly broke down, with all sides accusing the others of sabotaging the process. A last-minute attempt to resolve outstanding issues in the central city of Dhusamareb collapsed on 5 February, plunging Somalia into political uncertainty.

The 19 February violence highlights the stakes. Trouble began overnight when firefights broke out near a hotel where two former presidents and current candidates were staying ahead of their participation in planned marches. The Council of Presidential Candidates had called the protests to press two demands: that the Farmajo administration hand over power following 8 February, which marked the expiration of its four-year constitutional mandate, and that all candidates be included in talks about the election. The government, for its part, had banned public gatherings earlier in the week, citing a sharp rise in recorded coronavirus cases. On the day of the march, security forces fired upon protesters. Later that day, a projectile of unknown origin hit the perimeter of the heavily guarded airport compound, where most international missions are based. At least eight were killed during the clashes, though some estimates range as high as twenty.

The violence has left Somalia in the throes of one of its worst political crises for years.

The violence has left Somalia in the throes of one of its worst political crises for years. The legal debate over the validity of Farmajo’s hold on power is one facet. Farmajo supporters cite legislation passed on 26 September 2020, which states that current government institutions will stay in place until successors are formed, to back their claims that he remains in office legally. The opposition counters that this extension until elections violates the provisional constitution. They also note that while Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was president from 2012 to 2017, stayed in office longer than his constitutional mandate, a crucial difference is that the administration exercised only limited powers after its term lapsed – an option Farmajo has thus far rejected.

The crisis is more political than legal, however. Fundamentally, the parties have been unable to agree on a path forward to hold the vote. The major areas of dispute that have stymied implementation of the electoral agreement include the composition of federal and state-level electoral bodies that will oversee the polls. Parties can also not agree over who should manage the vote for delegates originally from the self-declared republic of Somaliland. They are also at odds over how to conduct the election in Gedo, where the federal government and Jubaland administration have been locked in a year-long standoff.

The events of the last several weeks have only complicated efforts to resolve these issues. After the 19 February clashes, Puntland and Jubaland pulled out of a meeting scheduled for 21 February to discuss the findings of a joint technical committee, comprising both the federal government and representatives of Somalia’s regions, convened the previous week to discuss a pathway to elections. Jubaland called for election talks to proceed without Farmajo’s involvement, while Puntland put forth a series of conditions that stop short of Farmajo’s removal but do ask that several senior security officials step down.

Somali elites have navigated their way out of election stalemates before. Presidents Mohamud and Sheikh Sharif Ahmed (2009-2012) stayed on five and seven months, respectively, past their original mandates. Mandate extensions are hardly unusual in Somalia, as logistical and organisational delays often beset election preparations. Yet the crucial elements underpinning those past technical extensions – elite consensus, limited federal authority and a pre-agreed timeframe for conducting elections – are sorely lacking today. During a speech on 21 February, Puntland leader Said Deni accused Farmajo of preparing to rule Somalia by force – underlining growing divisions. Further deadly clashes during demonstrations planned for 26 February, which authorities have again banned, could make it tougher still to reach a peaceful resolution to the standoff.

Somalia’s best-placed outside partners urgently need to offer themselves as third-party mediators to cut through the rancour and forge a new agreement.

A change in approach is needed, particularly from external actors who might be able to nudge the parties to compromise. Thus far, these actors have tried to stimulate dialogue among Somali politicians, while staying out of talks themselves. But the distrust among Somalia’s political leaders is too high for them to surmount without help from outside. For this reason, Somalia’s best-placed outside partners – probably the UN and AU, with backing from other groups and nations that work closely with Mogadishu and Somalia’s member states – urgently need to offer themselves as third-party mediators to cut through the rancour and forge a new agreement that allows for holding elections as soon as practicable, in a manner that corresponds as closely as possible to the 17 September 2020 document.

Western powers should have considerable influence over Farmajo, given that, by declining to support calls for him to step down, they have implicitly expressed a preference for him to stay in office until elections. This posture, possibly motivated by a desire to avoid a power vacuum or a messy transition, has angered the opposition but could create useful leverage now. Specifically, Somalia’s international partners should make clear that they will not continue to accept the extension of Farmajo’s rule without conditions. They should prevail upon him to give up the control he has wielded over electoral discussions, since he has been ineffective in leading them. Moreover, they should impress upon him that the longer the stalemate drags on, the more partners are likely to view a transitional arrangement in which he potentially steps down as the only way out of the crisis.

The opposition should correspondingly offer concessions too. For example, its call for Farmajo to step down as a pre-condition for talks is unrealistic, given he is unlikely to voluntarily leave power prior to elections. International pressure on him to resign might instead back his administration into a corner, where it sees little downside to using all available tools, including force, to preserve its rule. The opposition should instead accept that Farmajo’s pre-electoral status will be an issue to be discussed during talks, with the idea that he might consent in that forum to limit his presidential powers pending elections, and also lessen his grip on the electoral process itself.

International actors should, however, get behind the opposition’s demands to expand participation in the talks. The enlarged cast would ideally encompass representatives from the Council of Presidential Candidates, in order to accommodate major political figures who can mobilise protests that disrupt life in Mogadishu. Somalia’s vibrant civil society could also send representatives to what has thus far been a process only led by Mogadishu and the federal member states.

The UN and AU are well placed to press for this expansion to happen, and to lead mediation efforts more generally. The UN Assistance Mission in Somalia has already engaged in active diplomacy among the parties, calling for restraint while urging them to engage in dialogue. The AU is also a key partner given the security role played by the African Union Mission in Somalia. The AU Commission chair, Moussa Faki, could appoint a special envoy to spearhead mediation along with the UN Secretary-General’s special representative for Somalia, James Swan. This joint effort should be backed by the U.S., the European Union, the UK, Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. In the past, Somali factions have exploited divisions among outside powers to secure support for their own positions, frustrating efforts to resolve the country’s conflicts. All sides, however, should recognise how high the stakes are now and how dangerous factional violence could be. The U.S., which has partnerships with all these actors, should strive to persuade all of them to maintain as united a front as possible.    

Somalia’s partners should also be prepared to throw their political and diplomatic weight behind implementation of any agreement. They should sustain pressure on all parties to stick by any commitments they make and should offer mediation to resolve new disputes that arise. Such pressure will help avoid yet another breakdown. External actors could tie future support for initiatives that Somali elites prize, such as debt relief, to the parties reaching an agreement and holding successful elections. They could also threaten actions directed at individuals whom they see as hindering progress, such as publicly naming them as spoilers or considering punitive measures including targeted sanctions. 

The fact that Somalia’s political crisis has worsened to this point represents a failure by all involved. It is not impossible to get the country back on track. But time is of the essence: this opportunity to preserve the September 2020 electoral agreement may be the last. Somalia’s political leaders should accept external mediation to end the election impasse, while outside powers should rapidly close ranks around robust engagement, including pressure on all parties to avert more clashes. With violence already unleashed, any further incidents could upend the progress Somalia has made over the past decade toward establishing peaceful transitions of power as a norm, with dire consequences for Somalia’s people.