After decades of violence, can Somalia ever hold a free democratic election?

Campaign posters in Mogadishu tout candidates for president of Somalia.
Campaign posters in Mogadishu tout candidates for president of Somalia.
(Mohamed Abdiwahab / AFP/Getty Images)

In Somalia, a decades-long struggle for stability and peace was supposed to culminate this year in the country’s first democratic elections in nearly 50 years. Instead, a clan-based election system shut out ordinary voters, while electoral abuses undermined the credibility of the vote.

That’s the conclusion of the United Nations and other international bodies, which on Tuesday cast grave doubt on the credibility of the elections. The assessment came the same day new lawmakers were sworn in, a moment that should have marked momentous progress in Somalia’s hoped-for transition from failed state to stable democracy.

The election of a president, originally due in August, has been repeatedly delayed amid corruption, electoral fraud, vote buying, violence and intimidation in elections for parliament. The parliament will vote in the president, likely next month. Members of parliament are elected by clan elders and leaders, not the general public.


The U.N. and other international bodies, including the African Union and European Union, on Tuesday issued their gravest warning yet on the credibility of the electoral system, after the National Leadership Forum — a group of Somali federal and state leaders — abruptly breached Somalia’s Constitution by increasing the number of upper house seats from 54 to 75.

The NLF also sparked outrage by refusing to allow fresh votes in many districts where severe abuses had been reported. Such abuses were alleged in contests for 24 parliamentary seats, and the Somali electoral disputes panel, the Independent Electoral Disputes Resolution Mechanism, this month nullified the results for 11 seats and called for fresh votes. But on Saturday, the NLF dismissed that decision, enabling new elections for just five seats.

A joint statement Tuesday by the U.N., the African Union, the EU and others expressed “grave concern” about the NLF’s action, saying that this “represents a blanket amnesty for some of the most blatant irregularities witnessed during this electoral process.”

The statement warned that unless Somalia takes action against electoral abuses, the international community may not be willing to work with the future Somali government.

Six presidential candidates also condemned the electoral abuses in a joint statement Tuesday.

“While this is a gross violation of the constitution, it’s also politically inconceivable to undertake in [the] midst of [an] electoral process that is already shrouded in corruption, manipulation and secrecy,” the statement said, referring to the increase in upper house seats.


Female presidential candidate and former refugee Fadumo Dayib on Tuesday blamed the international community for allowing the election to proceed despite its lack of credibility.

“Understand this, the #electoralsystem is flawed, unconstitutional & highly #corrupt,” she tweeted, adding that the international community “facilitated & still funds this farce.”

Somalia’s last democratic elections were in 1969, before a military officer, Siad Barre, seized power in a coup later that year, ushering in more than two decades of dictatorship. His regime collapsed in 1991, bringing years of clan-driven civil war before the rise of Islamist militias, including the Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabab, beginning in 2006.

In 2011, U.N.-backed African Union forces known as AMISOM drove Al Shabab from the capital of Mogadishu. A year later in Somali elections, just 135 clan leaders voted in the parliament that elected the president, Hassan Sheik Mohammud. He promised one-person, one-vote national elections by 2016, but in July of last year he announced there would be only an indirect election conducted by clan elders and elites, saying insecurity made a popular vote impossible.

Somalia is still seen by many international observers as too fragile and unstable to risk a one-person, one-vote election, because of ever-present clan rivalry and persistent insecurity due to an Islamist insurgency by militias loyal to Al Qaeda and Islamic State.

Al Shabab still controls part of Somalia and frequently carries out suicide bombings and other attacks in the capital, Mogadishu, and elsewhere. Last week, Al Shabab kidnapped five clan elders who were among the 14,025 election delegates.


The election saw backroom wheeling and dealing, with seats being auctioned off to the highest bidder. Somalia’s auditor general, Nur Jimale Farah, warned in a radio interview in November that the election was not credible because some candidates paid up to tens of thousands of dollars, and in two cases over $1 million, in bribes to voting delegates.

In September, the U.N. special representative for Somalia, Michael Keating, told the U.N. Security Council that election delays could see the electoral process manipulated.

“The urgency and the momentum must be maintained and the additional time used to ensure that the process is as transparent and credible as possible,” he warned at the time. But since then, the timetable has continued to slide, and abuses have gone unaddressed.

Somali government officials have expressed confidence that popular elections will be held in 2020.

Twitter: @RobynDixon_LAT



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