MS Risk Blog

Somalia’s Electoral Crisis

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After Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s, popularly known as ‘Farmajo’, term expired on February 8th, Somalia’s leaders were unable to hold elections, resulting in a constitutional crisis. The nation’s planned vote on February 8 was cancelled due to disputes over the mechanism between the federal and regional governments. On April 13, the Lower House of the Parliament voted to prolong Farmajo’s term for another two years in the absence of elections – an issue at the centre of the dispute. While the country’s lower house supported the change, the upper house did not, and an angry opposition – headed by two former presidents – claimed the extension was nothing more than a power grab. This sparked protests, clashes and further unrest in Mogadishu later that month, with international partners condemning the decision to extend the president’s term.

Clashes broke out between forces loyal to the president and opposition-affiliated forces on April 25th. Rival powers traded gunfire in Mogadishu neighbourhoods, including those where opposition political leaders live. According to local media, the clashes resulted in nearly two dozen deaths and, fearing the worst, up to 200,000 civilians fled the capital. Militiamen targeted army positions near the presidential palace in Mogadishu, the majority of the city’s roads had been blocked, and special forces were mobilised.

By evening, the fighting had died down, and Mogadishu was quieter the following morning, with the majority of residents remaining at home. The situation remained tense, nevertheless, as heavily armed rival security units appeared to be stationed throughout the area, serving as a chilling warning to anyone who passed by that fighting could resume at any time.

Shortly after, and following intense domestic and international pressure, Farmajo decided to drop his intentions to extend his term on the 1st of May and allowed instead for Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble to begin talks to negotiate a settlement by tasking Roble with overseeing the elections implementation and stability, signalling the start of a path out of the crisis. Opposition members and leaders of the five federal member states will gather around the negotiating table with Farmajo. The aim is to establish confidence between bitter political foes and to hold the long-delayed elections as soon as possible.

However, the situation is still precarious. On the 13th of May, Farmajo turned down a role for the African Union’s special envoy, whose presence is seen as essential by the opposition. Thus, both opposition and government forces are apprehensive, and could remobilise as easily as they disbanded when all parties agreed to talk.

The latest political tensions have only worsened the existing precarious situation faced by Somali people. The negotiated resolution to the impasse, along with strengthened security, will only help humanitarian aid reach and benefit the people who need it. The crisis came on top of a slew of humanitarian disasters, including the war against al-Qaeda linked rebels al-Shabaab, recent heavy flash flooding, and a forecasted drought that could impact more than 6 million people.

Due to political infighting, the delayed elections have allowed al-Shabaab militants to gain ground in an insurgency, increasing the threat of instability in eastern Africa. According to Bloomberg, al-Shabaab has taken advantage of the standoff as well as the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Somalia to increase their recruitment of fighters. Authorities have foiled some attempts, but the government is concerned that raids in Somalia and neighbouring countries will become more common.

Moreover, as the situation has heightened political and military distrust, this is playing into the hands of the militants who have already staged frequent attacks in Mogadishu this year. A report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) stated that the violence within Somalia [leading up to the political crisis] was already worsening, with at least 10 suicide bombings in the capital in the second half of 2020, more than double that of the previous six months. March 2021 also saw the highest number of improvised explosive device (IED) attacks since 2019. According to the ICG, although the Somali army has battled to retake territories from al-Shabab, it has not gained enough ground to prevent a security threat during elections. The increase of attacks, coupled with political uncertainty, has the ability of greatly deteriorating Somalia’s security situation.

The danger is not limited to Somalia. In the past, the group has carried out deadly attacks in countries throughout the East African region, including Kenya and Uganda. Thus, it is due to the security concerns that Kenya’s government is expected to close some of the world’s largest refugee camps along its Somali border, as Kenyan authorities have accused several asylum seekers of harbouring suspects in Kenyan terror attacks, including the 2015 assault on Garissa University.

Furthermore, during this period unrest, the Somali National Army, amid years of reforms and initiatives backed by their donors, fragmented along clan lines, which made the situation even more explosive. Some units defected back to the Hawiye-led opposition, capturing vast swathes of Mogadishu. The danger is that the Somali security sector will be further splintered along clan lines as a result of ongoing clashes – where solidarity is solely based on clan. In the heated political climate, the fighting on April 25th showed how the sector’s cohesion has largely broken down. This distracts the security forces from their primary tasks which are to protect Somali people as well as combating insurgents.

The difficulty comes simultaneously as the number of foreign troops assisting in the fight against the insurgents has decreased. In 2020, Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of American troops from Somalia – relocating them to Kenya and Djibouti. Ethiopia also pulled out some of its troops from a peacekeeping mission in Somalia in November 2020, focusing instead on resolving an internal dispute.

But the presence of AMISOM, the African Union Mission in Somalia, could fill any security gaps and serve as a buffer between the different factions- however, the opposition has already cast doubt on the mission’s neutrality, saying it has previously backed Farmajo. However, to appease the opposition’s fears, AMISOM, via the AU Special representative to Somalia, should clarify that it will support any AU-led mediation initiatives and will not take sides.