The Somali political crisis calls into question its transitional plan

The government of Somalia and a number of its federal states have been holding critical talks since 22 May 2021 to help resolve the country’s political crisis.

The African Union (AU), meanwhile, has been spearheading international efforts in Somalia. This is despite the fact that the Somali government has rejected the AU’s special envoy, former president John Dramani Mahama of Ghana.

The AU endorsed Somalia’s transitional plan in 2018 and is still well placed to support Somali stakeholders to overcome their differences through dialogue. It can also help Somalia to develop a more robust transitional plan, which is currently under review, in order to solve structural governance and political problems related to the politicisation and militarisation of clans going forward. This is in addition to the support the AU has been providing to the election process.

The AU is well placed to support Somali stakeholders to overcome their differences through dialogueThe AU should also fast-track the development of its peace and security strategy for Somalia, to guide the continental body’s engagement following the drawdown of the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) by the end of 2021.  

Crisis around the president’s term of office

Tensions have been mounting following an attempt in April to extend the term of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (Farmajo) by two years. This led to armed confrontation in the capital Mogadishu between supporters of the president and clan-affiliated opposition groups. The confrontation is an indication of the extent to which the political crisis has escalated following delayed parliamentary and presidential elections, which were expected to be held in early 2021.

The political crisis and ensuing confrontation between clan-affiliated factions in the armed forces has been a significant setback for Somalia’s transitional plan. It also calls into question the feasibility of drawing down AMISOM by the end of the year.

The stand-off between members of the political elite and their respective supporters in the army shows that the planned creation of a professional army before handing over AMISOM’s security responsibilities to Somali forces is yet to be realised. This is of great concern not only for Somalis but also for AMISOM, troop-contributing countries in the region, and other partners supporting the fight against al-Shabaab.

The ongoing revision of the transitional plan should therefore focus on building a viable political system and public institutions, as well as drafting a consensus-based national constitution. So far military arrangements have attracted the most attention. 

What caused Somalia’s election crisis?

Somalia’s political crisis flared up when the country missed a second deadline for legislative and presidential elections planned before the end of the government’s term in office in February 2021. This was a major setback for the agreement reached on 17 September 2020 between the government and federal member states on the way forward for indirect elections, whereby clans select members of the Lower House of Parliament (House of the People), which in turn chooses the president.

Opposition groups say the government is ruling without a mandate and that the president must step downIn accordance with the agreement, legislative and presidential elections were scheduled for December 2020 and February 2021 respectively. Since these never took place, opposition groups have accused the government of ruling without a legitimate mandate and have asked for the president to step down. They want  a transitional government to be established. 

The crisis escalated in April 2021, when Somalia’s Lower House voted to extend the president’s and its own term for an additional two years.

Somalia’s Upper House (Senate) rejected the Lower House’s decision. It was also criticised by the United Nations, the AU, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the European Union. In a joint statement, they called on Somali stakeholders to return to dialogue on the basis of the 17 September agreement.

Parliament likewise annulled the controversial bill in May, and reverted to the agreement reached by political actors in September 2020 to guide elections.

The president then appointed Prime Minister Mohamed Roble to take the lead in solving the political stand-off and prepare for peaceful and credible elections.

Outstanding issues

There are a number of outstanding issues related to the 17 September 2020 agreement, which is guiding the ongoing election-related negotiations.

The first is the continued military stand-off between the federal government and a few federal member states that have asked that forces aligned with the federal government be removed from their regions. This will have security repercussions, given the continued threat of al-Shabaab and the ongoing struggle to reclaim large areas of central and southern Somalia currently controlled by the group.

Secondly, federal member states want the two election stations per region, as stipulated in the 17 September agreement, to be reduced to one per region, based in an area over which they have more authority. This will give them greater control of the members of Parliament (MPs) representing their region and selected by the clans.

The third major issue is the composition of the 11-member technical committee appointed to help solve the political crisis. Most of the members are not regarded as neutral by federal member states and other political actors. This will have significant implications for public buy-in to the pre-election negotiations.

Voting will take place but Somalilanders’ support is divided between the president and opposition groups

The fourth critical point of contention is the election of Somaliland MPs for the 57 seats in Parliament. While voting will take place in Mogadishu, Somalilanders are divided in their support for the president and opposition groups. The representatives will also not be recognised by the self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland. 

The September agreement is further criticised for stipulating that those competing for a seat in the Lower or Upper House have to pay US$10 000 or US$20 000 respectively. Observers argue the exorbitant amount will make government seats exclusive to wealthy elites and/or those who can successfully mobilise local and international sponsors in exchange for political favours. 

The significant budget and security required to undertake the elections are additional issues to address.

Danger of continued political stand-off

A failure by the government and federal member states to find a political solution to the election crisis could reignite armed confrontation between the clans, which has already created divisions in the army.

Beyond the election, Somalia’s current political crisis has laid bare the structural challenges facing the country. Clan-based political mobilisation and militarisation, which in recent years has been contained from completely destabilising the country through elite bargaining, has unravelled during the current political crisis.

This threatens not only the significant progress made in establishing a legitimate government through political negotiation and compromise, but also the hard-earned stability that has made such a government possible in Somalia.

One of the priorities of Somalia’s transitional plan is to strengthen the ability of security institutions to undertake coordinated operations, which will not be possible if the army is divided along clan lines.

Given the threats Somalia and the wider region continue to face from  al-Shabaab, and the planned drawdown of AMISOM by the end of 2021, the current division and infighting in Somalia’s army could lead to a much worsening security situation, with direct implications for the whole region.

The future of Somalia’s transition plan

Clearly, implementing the September agreement is only a temporary fix for a much deeper governance challenge facing the country.

The ongoing revision of Somalia’s transitional plan should therefore be expanded to not only address security concerns but also structural peace and security challenges. This can help ensure political discord does not trigger a clan-based military confrontation leading to a civil war.

The one-person one-vote model, adopted in 2020 but later rejected by regional member states, was expected to help overcome the politicisation of clans as the only avenue to power and representation in the legislature and government. While the one-person one-vote model may help overcome some issue related to clan-based politics, it is not a panacea for Somalia’s governance woes.

‘One-person-one-vote’ may ease clan-based political issues but isn’t a panacea for governance woesBuilding national institutions, drafting a permanent constitution and putting in place federal arrangements should be given as much, if not more, attention as support to the military during the revision of the transitional plan.

The AU has an important role to play in this regard, as it has already been supporting these processes. It should expedite the appointment of another envoy that is acceptable to both the government and federal member states. In addition to helping Somali stakeholders overcome election-related differences, the envoy can play an important role in assisting the continental body to articulate its political engagement and Somalia strategy beyond 2021.

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