Somalia’s Milestone Electoral Process Requires U.S. Scrutiny

Report Africa

Somalia’s Milestone Electoral Process Requires U.S. Scrutiny

August 19, 2016 5 min read Download Report
Joshua Meservey
Joshua Meservey
Former Research Fellow, Africa
Joshua studied African geopolitics, counterterrorism, and refugee policy at The Heritage Foundation.

The East African country of Somalia is approaching a milestone in its efforts to emerge from more than two decades of conflict. It is in the midst of an electoral process that will culminate in October with members of the Somali parliament electing a president, the country’s first electoral process since the United States recognized the Federal Republic of Somalia in January 2013. The current process will be a useful measure of how effective strong U.S. support for the government has been. U.S. policymakers should follow events closely to determine if the process represents progress; push all parties to conduct the process in a manner that establishes the primacy of rule of law and contributes to building the systems and institutions necessary for stability and peaceful transfers of power; and increase U.S. ability to monitor its investment in Somalia.

An Electoral Process, Not an Election

In September 2012, 275 members of the Somali parliament elected Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as the first president of the permanent federal government, marking the end of a string of weak transitional governments. In January 2013, the United States officially recognized a Somali government for the first time in 20 years.

The country was to hold national elections this year, but insecurity and slow progress on completing a host of election-critical activities led Hassan Sheikh to announce in 2015 that one-man, one-vote elections would be impossible in 2016. The National Leadership Forum—a group of federal and regional Somali leaders—negotiated an alternative electoral framework, ultimately deciding to expand the previous electoral process. In a delayed procedure now scheduled to end on October 30 this year, 135 elders drawn from every clan will choose 14,025 delegates. The delegates will then select the 275 members of the Lower House (officially known as the House of the People).[1]

The parliamentary seats for the Lower House have been apportioned according to the “4.5 formula,” by which the four dominant clans—Darod, Dir, Hawiye, and Rahanweyn—receive an equal number of seats, while all other clans combined receive half as many as one of the major clans. So, the four dominant clans will each elect 61 members for the Lower House, while the rest of the clans receive 31 seats among them.

The procedure for filling the Upper House is different. Somalia has a federal system, with four established states—Galmudug, South West State, Jubaland, and Puntland—and one region in the process of becoming a state, Hiiraan-Middle Shabelle. The constitution stipulates that states will have an equal number of members in the yet-to-be-composed Upper House of parliament, and that the total number of Upper House seats cannot exceed 54. Once selected, MPs from both houses of parliament will vote on the next president of Somalia.[2]

A Delay and Its Constitutional Implications

The National Leadership Forum torturously negotiated these and other details, finally releasing an electoral timetable in June, which quickly fell behind schedule. In August, the electoral commission announced that the process would be delayed by more than a month.

The delay brings constitutional problems. Article 91 of the provisional constitution states that the president “shall hold office for a term of four years, starting from the day he takes the oath of the President.”[3] Hassan Sheikh was sworn in as president on September 9, 2012, which means that his mandate expires on September 10, 2016. The parliament faced a similar problem with its mandate earlier this year, but amended the constitution in June 2016 to allow itself to remain in office until a new parliament is sworn in. In August, the National Leadership Forum announced that government institutions, including the presidency, would stay in power until their replacements are announced, despite the fact that this means they will be operating with expired constitutional mandates.

All this maneuvering calls into question how much of an improvement this new process can be. Metrics of success should include adherence to constitutional requirements—such as secret balloting and whether the state and federal electoral commissions were empowered and acted independently—and a qualitative assessment of whether the process bolstered the rule of law and institutions critical to stable and fair governance. The slapdash constitutional amendments, a number of constitutional violations, and the fact that some of the officials establishing the process’s rules are candidates for various offices, constitute a bad start.

Challenges Remain

Even this process pared down from national elections will be difficult to execute. The terrorist group al-Shabaab still controls chunks of the country and is determined to play spoiler in its effort to delegitimize the Somali government. Gathering over 14,000 delegates into 37 venues scattered throughout the country will also be difficult, as will be providing security for them and the approximately 1,400 parliamentary candidates, and the various presidential candidates.

Uncertainty remains around a number of key issues as well. The National Leadership Forum has accorded the Benadiir region—which is not a state but hosts the capital, Mogadishu—an unclear number of seats, though it is likely two. There are rumors the limit on Upper House seats will be raised from 54 to 56 to accommodate Benadiir’s extra seats,[4] which would violate the constitution. Finally, a number of obstacles remain to making the Hiiraan-Middle Shabelle region a federal state.

A Role for the U.S.

To best influence Somalia to respect the rule of law and to build norms and institutions that promote long-term freedom and stability, the United States should:

  • Determine clear metrics of success for the electoral process. The U.S. should use these to assess the effectiveness of its aid. Somalia has endured decades of war, has little experience with democratic governance, and is fractured by clannism. This electoral process cannot begin to meet the standards of established democracies. The U.S. should instead assess whether the process was a significant improvement over the 2012 electoral process, which was an ad hoc exercise in vote-buying.
  • Compose and enforce a series of measurable benchmarks for the Somali government beyond the electoral process. Maintaining or increasing U.S. aid to Somalia should be made contingent on measurable progress in key areas, such as security-sector reform, anti-corruption measures, and economic reforms.
  • Ensure it is effectively monitoring the aid to Somalia. Somalia remains dangerous, which makes it difficult to accurately monitor where U.S. funds are going. It is crucial to do so, however, as there is a long history in Somalia of aid money acting as an accelerant to conflict. The U.S. must ensure its investment in Somalia is not part of the problem.

A Long Road

It is going to be a long, slow process for Somalia to overcome its enormous challenges, and its ability to do so is still in doubt. However, the country has one of its best chances in two decades to move toward stability. Given Somalia’s sensitive geographic location and terrorism challenges, the United States should remain engaged as long as there is a realistic possibility it can help Somalia seize this chance. That requires holding the Somali government accountable for progressing at a reasonable pace—and the electoral process is an opportunity to do just that.

—Joshua Meservey is Policy Analyst for Africa and the Middle East in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] Somali National Leadership Forum, “The National Leaders Forum Communique,” April 12, 2016, (accessed August 10, 2016), and Mohamed Osman, “Communique of the National Leaders Forum,” Somali National News Agency, August 10, 2016, (accessed August 10, 2016).

[2] The Federal Republic of Somalia Provisional Constitution, 2012, (accessed August 12, 2016). Hiiraan-Middle Shabelle is expected to become an official state before the electoral process begins, and will be treated like the other states. Somaliland, an autonomous region in the north of the country, declared independence in 1991. It therefore refuses to participate in the electoral process or as a federal state. Somalia, however, does not recognize Somaliland’s independence claims. To maintain its position that Somaliland is part of Somalia, the latter is according Somaliland seats in the Lower and Upper Houses of parliament as if it were an official state. These seats will be filled by people who come from Somaliland clans, but Somaliland will not recognize them as its representatives. In fact, they will not be allowed into Somaliland as long as they hold federal office. Once they have left federal office, their clans can file for a pardon from the Somaliland president that, if granted, would allow them to return to Somaliland.

[3] The Federal Republic of Somalia Provisional Constitution, 2012.

[4] “Leaders Debate Technicalities, Women’s Rights, and Clan Issues for Somali Elections,” Somalia Newsroom, June 29, 2016, (accessed August 10, 2016).


Joshua Meservey
Joshua Meservey

Former Research Fellow, Africa