Somalia's rocky road to democracy

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A Somalian soldier at the scene of a suicide car bomb blast in Mogadishu on August 30, 2016Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Recent al-Shabab suicide bombings in the Somali capital Mogadishu have targeted the UN, hotels and military leaders

Somalis were promised that 2016 would see the country's first democratic poll in nearly 50 years, but the reality is much more complicated.

In the heady days of 2012, when two decades of political transition were finally over, Somalia's new federal government made a bold announcement.

The conflict-battered country would hold a one-person, one-vote election in 2016.

This would be the first democratic poll in nearly 50 years. The last was in 1969 when 64 parties took part. Then there was a coup, long years of dictatorship, followed by even longer years of civil conflict, the country ripped apart by clan militias, pirate gangs and Islamist extremists.

But 2016 is now upon us, and that election promise has been broken.

Although there have been improvements, a combination of poor security, chaotic politics and a devastated infrastructure means Somalis are going to have to wait even longer to have their say in who their leaders are.

Instead, a bizarre and complex system has been devised to select a new legislature, including an upper house for the first time, a new speaker and a new president.

"This election model, unique in the world, is a stepping stone, a political construct to help us get to the next stage," says the United Nations special envoy to Somalia, Michael Keating, who is playing a crucial role in the process. "It is the least objectionable compromise."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Flash floods have destroyed crops in Somalia leaving nearly half the population short of food

As so often happens in Somali politics, the road to reaching consensus has been long, rocky and full of wrong turns.

Nobody can even agree on what to call the new model.

Those involved have given it a variety of names, including "indirect election", "selection process", "limited franchise election", "semi-electoral process" and "a political process with important electoral dimensions".

The more cynical simply refer to it as an "auction", where millions of dollars will be spent buying votes.

The process will take more than a month, and involves several complex stages. Understanding it requires a good head for numbers.

Latest election schedule

  • 135 traditional clan elders will select 14,025 delegates who will form 275 electoral colleges of 51 members each
  • At least 16 members of each college must be women, and 10 youth.
  • The delegates of each college must represent certain sub-clans
  • 23 October - 10 November: Each of the 275 electoral colleges votes for an MP for the lower house of parliament. The seats are distributed according to a power-sharing formula, known as "4.5", whereby the four majority clans (and their sub-clans) get an equal number of seats, and the minority clans (and their sub-clans) get half the number of seats allocated to each majority clan
  • Started 5 October: Somalia's new federal states select 54 members of the upper house
  • November: Speakers elected for lower and upper houses.
  • 30 November: Members of both houses elect a speaker and a president

Source: UN

The United Nations, foreign donors, and the many Somalis involved in the process make much of how different it will be from 2012. They repeat time and again that - this time - 100 times more people will be involved in electing the new leaders.

But the numbers remain tiny.

In 2012, 135 clan elders chose the MPs who then chose the president. This time, 14,025 people will choose the MPs, significantly less than 0.2% of the population. And those 14,025 were chosen by just 135 clan elders.

There are other differences too.

In 2012, voting only took place in the capital, Mogadishu, in itself a breakthrough as previous elections were held outside the country due to the immense insecurity within Somalia.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Current President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was appointed in Somalia's first federal government elections in 2012

This time, the electoral colleges will vote in regional capitals as well as Mogadishu. There are also strict quotas to ensure women and young people are involved in the selection process, although it is not clear whether this will translate into more women and youth in parliament.

There have been threats against those involved from the Islamist group al-Shabab, which controls swathes of the country and carries out regular attacks in Mogadishu and elsewhere.

Why anyone would want to be an MP in Somalia is another question.

It must be one of the most dangerous place in the world to be a politician. In the past four years alone, 18 MPs have been killed, some by al-Shabab, others by enemy clans or those with scores to settle.

Who controls Somalia?

Critics ask why so much money, time and energy have been spent on elections in a country where, according to the UN, nearly half the population doesn't have enough to eat.

Where millions are displaced inside and outside the country, scratching the most basic of existences for more than two decades.

Where religious extremists, clan militias and other armed groups continue to attack and kill, despite the presence of a 22,000-strong African Union force.

Where those in government spend so much time in petty politicking and helping themselves to state finances.

The argument is that, once a credible election process takes place, the new administration can get down to the serious business of securing, governing and developing the broken country.

Perhaps the real test will come in 2020.

Will the country be safe enough for every Somali of voting age to wake up, queue outside a polling station and cast a vote?

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