Witnesses to Somalia's democratisation process

With Somalia’s 2016 electoral process now finished, Saferworld-supported election observers share their views, findings and hopes for the democratic future of their country.

Somalia’s long and arduous electoral process came to a conclusion on 8 February 2017, months after its originally set date, as the newly-elected Lower and Upper Houses of parliament appointed a new president of Somalia -  Mohamed Abdullahi ‘Farmajo’. The process began in 2016 with 135 clan elders appointing 14,025 delegates representing numerous clans and sub-clans to elect the Lower House of parliament. Members of the Upper House were in turn elected by the parliaments of the Federal Member States.

Saferworld worked in collaboration with the Domestic Election Observer Mission (DEOM) - an initiative led by two local partners, the Puntland Non State Actors Association (PUNSAA) and the Somalia South Central Non State Actors (SOSCENSA), to observe the electoral process across the country. After decades of instability and uncertainty, strengthening civil engagement in political processes for greater transparency and accountability has been vital. 

"Somalis were promised that 2020 would see the country’s first democratic poll in more than 50 years, but the reality is much more complicated." - Abdikadir Ibrahim Bulle

Promoting civil rights

DEOM trained and deployed 34 election observers across the country who committed to impartial observation and reporting. In interviews, the observers noted the importance of their role: “Observers help build public confidence in the honesty of electoral processes. It can help promote civil and political rights, leading to the correction of errors or weak practices and deter manipulation and fraud,” said Hussein Mohamed Iyaye, an observer for SOSCENSA.

Observers’ duties were varied, including checking election materials and voter registration documents, deterring and reporting any incidents of violence or intimidation, and documenting the general atmosphere in polling stations. “Observing the electoral process was proactive, not confined solely to election day but crucially the steps beforehand including the planning phase, election officials’ recruitment and training, electoral delegates selection, campaigns etc.,” noted Mohamed Noor, who served as PUNSAA chair from 2011 - 2014, and acted as a long-term observer for this electoral cycle. His comments show the imperative nature of being involved in every step of the election procedure as prior grievances often escalate into violence, further complicating the democratisation journey.

Overcoming challenges

Mohamed and others met many challenges along the way, such as clan-based disputes and security issues at polling stations. PUNSAA observer Said Hamud Mohamed stated that the complicated role in the electoral process of community elders - who had limited knowledge about the new system - created misunderstandings that led to minor setbacks to the election schedule.

One key point raised by several observers was the involvement of women in the 2016 process. “The adoption and enforcement of the women’s quota was among the most interesting yet challenging occurrences in the male-dominated clan culture of Somalia. A woman defeated three men during the Upper House election within the Puntland Parliament - an amazing outcome!” stated former PUNSAA chair Mohamed.

Despite successful outcomes, some observers felt the new election process was not sufficient in meeting larger hopes for democracy. Aliyare Abdi Hashi, an observer from Jubaland State noted “In conversations with various youth and communities, people were dissatisfied with the selection process - they cannot wait to witness one-person-one-vote” – currently scheduled for 2020. “Although there have been improvements,” stated SOSCENSA’s Hussein Mohamed Iyaye, “a combination of poor security, chaotic politics and a devastated infrastructure means the majority of Somalis will have to wait even longer to have their say in who their leaders are.”

Hopes for the future

Elections are part of a larger set of aspirations that many hold for Somalia’s political development. “My hope for future democratisation processes in Somalia is to get leaders who will respect and implement the constitution, and enhance the capacity of government institutions to deliver the services that citizens expect,” stated PUNSAA’s Said. Most observers acknowledged that Somalia’s journey to democratisation is complex and the next steps following the presidential election are crucial, as special UN envoy to Somalia Michael Keating explains: “This election model, unique in the world, is a stepping stone, a political construct to help Somalis get to the next stage.”

The PUNSAA and SOSCENSA-supported observers played a fundamental role in promoting transparency and accountability in the electoral process, as well as improving voter confidence in Somalia. Despite the considerable challenges of insecurity and mistrust that the country continues to face, such involvement begins to pave the way for success in future elections, as PUNSAA’s Abdikarim Ahmed Mohamed notes: “By participating in this process, I feel we will form recommendations for the improvement of the 2020 electoral process.”

Saferworld has been working with partners to support domestic election monitoring as part of a Danida-funded Participatory Governance and Peacebuilding programme in Somalia and Somaliland. The programme aims to strengthen civil society engagement in peaceful and sustainable state building processes that allow the free and fair participation of all citizens.

Read the report: Somalia's electoral process 2016: preliminary report of the Domestic Election Observer Mission

Read the conference write-up: Democratisation in Somalia: reflections from 2016 and beyond

Read more about Saferworld's work in Somalia.

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