Op-Ed: Somalian democracy not ready to go it alone
October 2016 marks an important month on the historical calendar of Somalia. After more than thirty years of violence, chaos and political instability the country held the first electoral steps to determine a roadmap for what could be called its ‘most democratic’ election in decades – with delegates casting votes for the members of the Upper House. Popular elections had been planned for the parliament back in 2012, but did not come to pass, with just 135 elders – from the 11-million strong population – casting a ballot on the country’s President. This year, clan elders are selecting an electorate of some 14,000 delegates, organised into electoral colleges, and who will then elect the 275 members of parliament. Notably, 30 percent of the number is being reserved for women.
While the concept “one person, one vote” cannot yet be applied – owing to the threat posed by Al-Shabaab – these elections signal the first step for the country towards the possibility of a brighter future. Yet scepticism hangs heavy.
These elections, and the democratic process that comes with them, fulfil one of the most important sections in the AMISOM mandate: “To assist with the free movement, safe passage and protection of all those involved with the peace and reconciliation process in Somalia, and ensure the security of the electoral process in Somalia as a key requirement.”
A successful presidential nomination will most likely speed the withdrawal process of foreign troops and peacekeeping missions present in Somalia. Neither the UN nor the African Union missions have a fixed expiry date but, with democracy finally in sight. the likelihood of a gradual decrease in commitment is high.
In his final interview as the UN special representative in Somalia, Nicholas Kay noted that while the timetable for AMISOM’s departure “is clearly impossible to fix rigidly…It will be reviewed again at the end of 2016.” After that, he continued, “I think there is an expectation that AMISOM numbers will start to fall.”
And the numbers are indeed falling. Uganda, the force’s biggest contributor with more than 6,000 troops, announced this June that it will pull its soldiers out of Somalia by December 2017 over frustrations with the Somali army and military advisers from the US, UK and Turkey. This announcement sets a perilous timeframe for Mogadishu. If other major contributors of AMISOM announce a pull-out, the country could find itself without sufficient foreign boots on the ground before it has found its own feet.
AMISOM involvement is also at risk of a drastic decrease through a lack of funds. The EU, the major economic sponsor of AMISOM, cut investment destined to the African Union mission in Somalia by 20 percent earlier this year. After the cut, mission costs are estimated to be around $200m per year.
This reduction, EU Delegation ambassador to Somalia Michele Cervone claims, did not come out of the blue. “The EU had informed the African Union of their intention to cut funding over a year ago and had expected they would have had other donors on board.”
But donors have not been forthcoming.
The recent elections, in addition to the cut in funds and the withdrawal of more than 6,000 troops, could signal the beginning of the end for AMISOM. However, if the mission is to end in the near future, questions remain over the health of the country it leaves behind. Can Somalia look after itself?
A detailed report from the Heritage Report for Policy Studies released in February explained the main reasons why AMISOM exit strategy will not be successful, arguing that the AMISOM mandate has not been implemented effectively due to internal disconnect and that, within Somalia, there is lack of political cohesion and military preparation that could cause the country to plunge into chaos once foreign troops pack their bags.
AMISOM had to conduct much of its offensive operations without sufficient military helicopters, armoured vehicles, ISR capabilities or air mobile troops. Resources had been authorised in previous UN Security Council resolutions but were never delivered. This lack of sufficient military capability left AMISOM troops without the adequate means to stamp out Al-Shabaab, Somalia’s main security threat.
“[Lack of military equipment] enabled the militants to simply retreat before AMISOM’s greater firepower, while retaining the luxury of freedom of movement,” the report states.
Operations against Al-Shabaab, already hindered by poor military equipment, were said to be worsened by insufficient leadership, which created a fragmented form of governance incapable of addressing the kind of threat al-Shabaab poses.
“AMISOM’s force headquarters had command but no control over its national contingents in the regional sectors,” a senior AMISOM official said during a recent interview with Paul D. Williams, Associate Professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University.
The chaos present in AMISOM military operations also affected Somali’s army. The UN-AMISOM mandate includes the training of a prepared and skilled national armed force. However the current Somalia National Army was described in the report as “little more than a collection of clan militias without a functioning, centralized command and control structure.”
In its present state, the SNA cannot fulfill the job carried out by international troops and a lack of effective training is not the only factor undermining its capability.
Candyce Kelshall, Doctoral Fellow at the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies, believes that “Training alone is also not an answer. Training does not address a cultural mindset.”
She proposes an alternative to classical conflict resolution, which, “just stops the fighting but not the cause of the conflict. Conflict transformation addresses the base causes of conflict and this work, by definition, extends deeply into communities rather than only in training the institutions of government.”
Somalia is characterized by the presence of several tribes which coexist within a fragile political framework, and the presence of international forces in the country could actually do more harm than good, Kelshall says.
“Any governing structure must be recognised as legitimate and cannot be upheld only by the presence of external troops. Their presence in the country erodes the authority of indigenous armed forces.”
Foreign support in rebuilding the political structure of the country also raises a question over the real representative power of the new governing bodies. They have to be authorised by the population as a whole, which means its make-up must mirror the tribes it seeks to rule.
The issue of representation is one of the cornerstones behind the resistance to electoral participation. Two self proclaimed independent states pose an obstacle to the rebuilding process.
Somaliland, an autonomous region, does not agree with current political decision taken by the central government. Federal MP, Ibrahim Saleban, told the press that “they [the Somaliland population] will not participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections” because seats allocated for Somaliland don’t match its status and variation over quota composition.
The other obstacle that the country will face is the legitimacy of the soon to be elected government.
“The problem for the federal government,” says Williams, “was that although it was recognised as the legitimate sovereign authority by most external actors, it lacked the power to impose its preferred political outcomes on other regional actors.”
This internal division could lead to a confusing political situation which could hinder the whole election process and, consequently, the future stability of the nation. The need for a strong and united powerbase is essential to avoiding the type of vacuum in which Libya and other countries now find themselves.
Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, Somalia’s current prime minister, stressed this concept to Newsweek, saying, “We need to have an integrated national force that can really build the confidence and trust of our society. That is the main priority, to make sure that there is no vacuum, not only for [suppressing] Al-Shabaab. There is a lot happening in our neighbourhood—there is the Yemen conflict going on, ISIS, Al-Qaeda…”
The current military and political situation in Mogadishu does not suggest that Somalia is ready to renounce international aid. The country needs foreign troops and peacekeeping personnel to strengthen its military, rebuild its infrastructure and legitimise its government. Somalia is not ready to be left to its own destiny without a safety net, but it looks like that safety net is already unravelling. Consequences will undoubtedly have a wider impact on the whole Horn of Africa.