The Chicken and the Egg of Security and Democracy in Somalia

  • Anne Govern

Somalia’s presidential election was recently postponed for a fifth time, pushing Election Day to February 8. Although the election has been rescheduled time and time again, the average Somali will be largely unaffected by the delay. That’s because rather than citizens selecting the next Somali president directly through the ballot box, the country’s next leader will be selected through a complex indirect electoral system.

Under this system, 135 clan elders across the country nominated a total of 14,025 delegates from their communities. These delegates then formed 275 electoral colleges that elected the 275 members of the House of the People of the Federal Parliament of Somalia (note: two seats have yet to be filled as of this blog’s posting). In turn, the members of the House of the People and the 54-member Upper House will eventually vote to select Somalia’s next president. In other words, electoral decision making power in Somalia’s recent parliamentary and upcoming presidential elections belongs to slightly more than 14,000 people out of an approximate population of 10 million.

To further complicate things, Somalia is generally divided into three sections: South-Central, Puntland and Somaliland. The national electoral system incorporates delegates from across the country, centering activity in the capital city of Mogadishu, located in South-Central Somalia. However, Puntland has operated as a semi-autonomous state since 1998, with its first universal elections planned for 2019. Somaliland declared independence from Somalia in 1991; though no foreign government has ever recognized its independence, Somaliland has held two presidential elections, one parliamentary election and two local elections and is slated to vote for its next president later this year, after a six month delay due to severe drought was announced in mid-January. However, no direct elections have been held at the national level in Somalia since the federal state collapsed in 1991.

Why is all of the power to select members of Somalia’s lower house of parliament and subsequently the next president concentrated in an elite group of clan elders and electoral delegates rather than in the hands of more than 10 million Somalis? Aside from major technical barriers to holding universal elections, such as the lack of an updated civil or voter registry or nationally agreed-upon electoral laws, Somalia continues to face significant security threats, logistical challenges and clientelism which make it impossible to hold direct elections at this point.


Somalia notoriously faces significant physical security threats that impede democratic processes. For example, the al Qaeda-linked group al Shabab still operates in a large swaths of South Central Somalia, and maintains a presence, albeit smaller, throughout Puntland as well. The Somali National Army (SNA), despite significant help from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and U.S. forces, has been unable to defeat the terrorist group. Al Shabab regularly carries out devastating attacks on civilian and government targets. Some of the deadliest recent attacks have targeted the Ambassador, Nasa Hablod and Dayah hotels in Mogadishu and a major market in Galkayo, as well as AMISOM and SNA forces throughout South Central Somalia. Clan fighting and border disputes commonly displace populations, most recently in Galkayo, where fighting between the Galmudug and Puntland troops has caused thousands to flee deadly clashes. To add to Somalia’s long list of security threats, a breakaway group of former Al Shabab militants pledging allegiance to the Islamic State took over the small town of Qandala in northern Puntland in October 2016. The town has since been retaken by Puntland and Somali Federal Government forces, but the militants escaped into the surrounding mountains, posing an ongoing threat to the region. The Somali Federal Government and experts have agreed that due to general insecurity and the inaccessibility of some regions due to al Shabab presence, direct elections are simply not possible right now and the country must instead rely on an indirect electoral system. Coupled with the staggering logistical challenges that Somalia faces and the need for a voter registry, Somalia must address these security challenges in order for citizens to have any chance at a fair voice in their elections.


While the impossible task of providing security for thousands of polling stations throughout Somalia has been a main factor in impeding universal elections, clientelism has also prevented Somalis from having a say in who represents them. Irregularities and malpractice in selecting parliamentarians has in turn resulted in delays in selecting the president, as officials have accused electors of selling parliamentary seats to the highest bidder for as much as $1.3 million apiece. Even among the limited number of delegates voting in the parliamentary elections, there have been allegations of intimidation and voter fraud at delegate voting halls. The lack of capacity among Somalia’s government institutions to hold indirect elections free of manipulation on such a limited scale demonstrates the infeasibility of universal elections.


Is there any hope for Somalis to have a fair say in their government in the future? In a few ways, the answer is yes. Despite the indirect nature of the current electoral process, at the very least, it shows the government’s willingness to make progress toward more universal democratic practices in one of the most challenging environments for democracy on Earth; the 2016/17 electoral system includes more than 100 times more delegates than the last indirect elections of 2012. But in order to continue progressing toward universal elections, slated to be held in 2020, the Somali Federal Government will need to find a way to guarantee the security of thousands of polling stations nationwide. Through the Bringing Unity, Integrity and Legitimacy to Democracy (BUILD) project, implemented in partnership with Creative Associates and funded by USAID, the International Republican Institute is currently working in South Central Somalia to support development of political parties at their nascent stage. In Somaliland, IRI is working with the country’s three political parties to improve their internal democratic systems and better represent the priorities of voters ahead of the Somaliland presidential elections later this year. While challenges to democracy abound in Somalia, feasible steps such as increasing access to education and civic engagement opportunities, and improving the internal democracy and representativeness of political parties, can work to concurrently address security and democracy challenges, making fair and universal elections a more attainable goal.

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