This year, Somalia is going into enormously consequential elections that will determine the fate of the country, its geopolitical role and its significance in the Horn of Africa region. Already, the Federal Indirect Electoral Commission (FIEC) has produced the voting timetable: parliamentary elections by Jan. 6, 2021, and presidential elections by Feb. 7, 2021. Given the political atmosphere in the country, however, an electoral and legislative impasse is in the making.
The FIEC has already missed its deadline for holding upper house elections, and there is a real possibility that some Federal Member States (FMS) will abstain from the electoral process. This is a grave concern in Somalia and its efforts of state-building.
At the foundation of this political cul-de-sac is Somalia’s federal system that was adopted in 2012 after a long transition period. Ever since the election of President Mohammed Abdullahi Mohammed in 2017, the federal system of governance seems to have hit a wall, and this is the hallmark of the nature of Somalia’s structure.
With parliamentary and presidential elections early this year, Somalia and its federalism are at a crossroads. The stakes of this year’s elections are high: The electoral outcome will have both national and geopolitical ramifications.
Genesis of federalism
One of the definitions of power, according to the Italian theoretician Antonio Gramsci, is the capacity to influence and convince others that your own agenda is beneficial and in tandem to their own interests.
Somalia’s federalism traces its genesis to the political calculations and regional ambitions of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – which is now a designated terrorist group in Ethiopia. The TPLF, employing its hegemonic powers in the region, along with the presence of Ethiopian peace-keeping soldiers in Somalia and the interests of a section of Somali elites, instituted a federal form of governance in Somalia.
However, federalism has failed in Somalia. Federalism is a system of governance that is common in ethnically, linguistically or religiously diverse nation-states. Germany – whose own federalism and partitioning is a by-product of its defeat in World War I – is the only peculiar nation-state with a federal government arrangement. Hence, federalism was a TPLF-imposed form of governance with the aim of regulating potential political and geopolitical threats from Mogadishu and creating a Somali state in the image of Ethiopia’s federal system, which was dominated by the TPLF until the premiership of Abiy Ahmed Ali in 2018.
Federalism has occasioned a center-periphery power struggle in Somalia and it has led to Puntland and Jubaland hindering the central government from exercising its political mandates. It is undermining state-building efforts in Somalia by fabricating ahistorical identities, political ideologies, flags and states that lack both historical and sociological underpinnings.
Furthermore, federalism has already become entangled with geopolitics as federal states are aligning themselves with regional and gulf powers and consequently undermining the central government’s foreign policy.
Governance or sovereignty?
Although a system like federalism is ideal for a country like Somalia that is recovering from a long and devastating civil war, it also poses dangers in the Somali context. From a sociological and anthropological perspective, federalism is a threat to the Somali state. Given that Somalis are divided into clans, a federal system will only exacerbate political disagreements, from which the current political crisis is a good indicator.
Moreover, in a country like Somalia where political elites espouse clan and regional interests, federalism will not engender the patriotism and civic solidarity that are essential in state-building.
Somalia’s federalism needs urgent reforms and reconstitutions that are unique to the Somali context. Devolution of governance is desirable and necessary in Somalia, but it should be balanced with a strong central state. This will entail compromise and trust in the political class.
No one voted in a referendum for federalism in Somalia, and moreover, it is a TPLF political design. Thus, it depends on the elites in government, in the opposition and at the federal state level to reform it.
The current fissure that has produced a nationalist camp and a federalist camp is not helpful and it is already undermining this year’s elections and the country’s peace. Nevertheless, this year’s elections are crucial and will determine the nature of the Somali state and its foreign policy outlook.
Stakes in 2021 elections
Opposition groups are accusing the current government in Somalia of pursuing nationalist agendas and of undermining the federal arrangement. The central bureaucracy and its allies (the Galmudug, Hirshabelle and Koonfur Galbeed states) allege that the opposition's presidential candidates and the leaders of Jubaland and Puntland are sabotaging the state-building process, pursuing self-interests and pushing the interests of foreign states in the region and in the Gulf. If the nationalist camp wins this election, federalism in Somalia could end or it may be radically reformed.
If the current government loses power, however, federalism and its political disputes based on clan interests will persist and any new leader has to deal with Galmudug, Hirshabelle and Koonfur Galbeed.
Moreover, this election will also determine the foreign policy of Somalia. With relations already at their lowest with Kenya, any new leader has to tread the geopolitical minefield of the region and the Gulf and continue strategic relations with Turkey and the United States. These international powers have played a critical role in Somalia’s state-building processes and this election will be a litmus test for Somalia and its achievements so far.
*Graduate student and a teaching fellow in the Sociology Department of Ibn Haldun University, Istanbul