By Katya Mavrelli,
The African continent caught international attention once more, when Somalia’s President, Mohammed Abdullahi, Mohamed signed a contentious law that extended his term by two more years. In a highly contentious move, the Somali president drew condemnation from the United States and other allies, who considered this to be a power grab in a nation that is already struggling to reestablish the rule of law and defeat the extremist group Al Shabaab.
President Mohammed Abdullahi Mohamed announced that he signed the law extending his mandate two days after it was approved by Somalia’s Parliament, despite accusations that this vote had been engineered by the President’s office. This action was the tipping point for UN officials, who had been trying for months to instill the rule of law over Mr. Mohammed and Somali regional leaders regarding the organization of parliamentary and presidential elections, which were scheduled to take place in early February.
The deadlock over elections has triggered the response of the United States and the European Union, which assert that should Somalia fail to resolve the internal stalemate, sanctions will follow. Due to the fact that these actions are ‘deeply divisive’ and because they ‘undermine the federalism process’, as US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken mentioned, the US couldn’t wait cross-handed for the situation to resolve itself. The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell further underlined the international community’s stance and asserted that a unilateral extension of the Presidential term wouldn’t be accepted, “under no circumstances”.
Somalia’s election process has found itself in a deadlock since the fall of 2020, when three leaders of Somalia’s five autonomous federal states, Somaliland, Puntland and Jubaland, made accusations against the current government for using the national intelligence agency to rig the voting system. In March, the United Nations pressured the two sides to initiate dialogue in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, but the attempts collapsed. Some political analysts suggest that Mr. Mohammed is influenced by Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki, given the close alliance that has emerged in recent years. A prime example of this strategic friendship is the training of 3.000 Somali soldiers by Eritrean military.
Somalia’s last elections in 2017 were held under an indirect clan-based system that was rife with corruption and was influenced by at least $20 billion in bribes. There were also concerns that outside forces, like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, were buying off presidential candidates to land business deals favorable to them, spread a harsher version of political Islam or spy on American forces in the region. Now, the extension will supposedly allow Mr. Mohammed to employ a one-person, one-vote system, which has been one of the aspirations of the West for the region for some time. However, this resembles more an excuse than a desire for change and lawmakers accuse him of turning into Siad Barre, a dictator who ruled Somalia with an iron fist until he was ousted in 1991 and the plunged the country into civil war.
Despite this unlawfulness and the secret political maneuverings, Mr. Mohammed retains public support, reflecting voters’ unwillingness to see their country plunge once more into chaos and become a playground for foreign meddling.
The possibility of extremist group involvement in government is also something that makes Mr. Mohammed uneager to leave office. Al-Shabaab has demonstrated that its staying power is particularly intense and hard to miss out and has made it clear that they stand to gain from internal chaos caused by a change in electoral rules. The Islamist military group intensified its terror attacks in the weeks before the previously determined date for elections, in an effort to instill internal chaos and disrupt any sense of stability in the Horn of Africa.
The disputes that developed within the context of recent Al-Shabaab resurgence were complemented by the departure of US troops in late December 2020 and the expected drawdown of the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia. Each of these events lowered the probability that national polls would proceed before the determined election date, and led to the collapse of a new round of talks between Mr. Mohammed’s government and the leaders of the autonomous regions.
Transparency International still ranks Somalia as the world’s most corrupt country, despite the claims of the current government for a new era of unit and democracy. Efforts to centralize power in Mogadishu have often been faced with fierce resistance by autonomous regions, but they have also enjoyed the support of key regional players, such as Kenya and the UAE. The ties with Qatar have been particularly close in the last few years, with the Persian Gulf state supporting the regime by providing undeclared cash transfers. The chief conduit of Qatari support is thought to be the head of Somalia’s National intelligence and Security Agency, Fahad Yasin, who has been accused of using the spy service to manipulate the composition of electoral bodies.
The political squabble is likely to lead the transfer of power from the current government to the hands of Al-Shabaab, supposing the turbulent situation doesn’t resolve itself and rule of law isn’t properly enforced. This, however, implies the need for the redefinition of the whole national system of justice administration, electoral body configuration and public service administration, which isn’t feasible in the short term.
The ambiguity and uncertainty of the current situation creates an inopportune setting for the domination of democratic principles. It is, therefore, ironic to observe people in Mogadishu celebrating the 30th anniversary of the ousting of the ruthless dictators Siad Barre, when three decades later their current government chooses the interests of Qatari allies and deviates from the rule of law.
- Abdirashid Diriye Kalmoy, What is behind Somalia’s 2021 electoral impasse?, Daily Sabah, Available here
- Mohamed Kahiye, Somali Elections Still Delayed After Failure of President-Hosted Talks, Voice of America News, Available here