Somalia Presidential Election: February 8, 2021 (indirect – postponed indefinitely)

Somali members of Parliament line up in the Mogadishu Airport hangar to vote in the indirect presidential election on February 8, 2017. Photo credit: Flickr/Ilyas Ahmed, UN (public domain)

KEY FACTS
Freedom House Rating

Not Free
Government Type
Federal Parliamentary Republic
Population
11.8 million
UPCOMING ELECTIONS
Presidential Election (indirect)
February 8, 2021 (POSTPONED)
PAST ELECTIONS
Parliamentary Elections (indirect)
December 2020
Presidential Election (indirect)
February 8, 2017
Local Elections
June 29, 2016

Somalia was supposed to hold an indirect presidential election on February 8, 2021, following indirect parliamentary elections in December 2020. However, the elections have been delayed, and the current president’s term has expired, leaving Somalia in a political and constitutional crisis.

Although some had hoped for direct elections, it didn’t work out this time, and these elections will continue to use the clan-based delegate system to choose parliament, which will then choose the president. 

Political Context

Somalia faces many challenges, not the least of which is establishing a functioning state. Al-Shabab, an Al-Qaeda-backed terrorist group, continues to wage an insurgency, and has carried out attacks throughout the country. It controls large swaths of territory. However, even in territory the UN-backed government does control, it has trouble executing its policies. That is to say, in real terms, the federal government controls almost nothing outside Mogadishu. Furthermore, corruption runs rampant. In that vein, the NGO Transparency International ranks Somalia the most corrupt country in the world. 

The current president is Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, better known by his nickname, Farmajo, a cognate to the Italian “formaggio,” apparently related to his father’s love of cheese (Somalis love nicknames and many politicians are widely known by them). A former diplomat, Farmajo became a refugee in the United States in the late 1980s, and eventually became a U.S. citizen and government employee. He has since renounced his U.S. citizenship, but his situation is not unusual in Somali politics. In fact, one third of parliament have foreign passports – as did 16 of the 24 presidential candidates in 2017.

Farmajo won in an upset in a contentious indirect election in 2017, unseating then-incumbent Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. The election was marred by extensive vote-buying and other abuses of the process. Nonetheless, Farmajo’s popularity with the younger generation and the diaspora, as well as his experience with American democracy and cross-clan support, inspired hope among many Somalis. However, many challenges remain, and some are disappointed in Farmajo’s performance.

Cancelled Plans for Direct Elections

Somalia has not held direct elections in 50 years, but the government had hoped to change that. To that end, Farmajo signed historic legislation in February 2020 enshrining direct elections for parliament. However, in August 2020, following a further delay of the elections, Farmajo brokered a deal with regional leaders that abandoned the idea of direct elections. The agreement also installed political newcomer Mohamed Hussein Roble as prime minister, following the removal of Hassan Ali Khaire, who lost a no-confidence vote partly due to his failure to present a plan for elections.

Tensions Between Mogadishu and States and Disputed State Elections

Somalia consists of five federal states (Galmudug, Hirshabelle, Jubaland, Puntland, and South West) which each have their own governments. Somalia also claims Somaliland, which operates as a de facto independent (though imperfect) democracy, with its own political system that is markedly different from Somalia.

Tensions persist between the central government and the regions. Farmajo has sought to bring more power to the federal government, but has not had resounding success on that front. For example, in late 2018, all five federal states cut ties to the federal government (although since then, the federal government has improved its relations with South West and Hirshabelle states, and is trying to bring Puntland back into the fold). Furthermore, in 2019, the federal government rejected the results of Jubaland’s elections.

Clan Politics

Politics – and conflict – throughout Somalia is largely based on clans. The current parliament was chosen based on the 4.5 formula, devised in 2004, which gives equal seats in parliament to the four major clans (Darod, Dir, Hawiye, and Rahanweyn) and reserves a smaller number of additional seats for the country’s other clans. However, efforts have been made to move toward a politics based on political parties. To that end, Somalia began registering political parties in 2017 for the first time in 50 years, and there are currently more than 80 parties registered.

2021 Presidential Candidates and Political Parties 

Farmajo is running for re-election. The current parliament is split between members who support him and those who oppose him. Farmajo founded the Tayo (“quality”) political party.

Other candidates include former president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. In late 2019, Ahmed formed the Forum for National Parties (FNP, or Madasha Xisbiyada Qaran in Somali). Former president Mohamud, Ahmed’s one-time rival (he defeated him in the 2012 presidential election), is also part of FNP. Both are from the Hawiye clan, which dominated federal politics for along time. In contrast, Farmajo comes from the Darod clan, which has its base in the north.

Delayed Election and Subsequent Protests

Somalia did not meet the February 8 deadline for holding the presidential election. Therefore, Farmajo’s term has expired. As a result, the opposition has staged a series of protests, some of which have led to clashes. The UN has called on Somalia to hold the election as soon as possible.

Geopolitical Context

The terrorist group al-Shabab remains a menace.

Somalia has also become another battleground for the Gulf states, with Turkey and Qatar on the one hand competing with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for influence and access to strategic ports. The UAE in particular has exacerbated divisions between the central government and the federal states.

Regional powers Kenya and Ethiopia also compete in Somalia. For example, Jubaland, rich in natural resources, became a flashpoint between Kenya and Ethiopia when Kenya backed incumbent Ahmed Mohamed Madobe for state president, and Ethiopia, which has grown closer to the government in Mogadishu, backed a rival. Jubaland borders Kenya, and Kenyan soldiers led the action that ousted al-Shabab from Kismayo, the state’s capital city, in 2012. Both Kenya and Ethiopia themselves have significant Somalia populations. 

Curated News and Analysis

Abdullahi Boru Halakhe, Al Jazeera (February 23, 2021): Why the result of Somali elections are crucial for the region

AFP (February 22, 2021): UN calls for Somalia elections ‘as soon as possible’

Abdi Latif Dahir and Megan Specia, New York Times (February 19, 2021): Gunfire at Mogadishu Protest Intensifies Somali Election Impasse

Max Bearak, Washington Post (February 19, 2021): Clashes in Mogadishu throw Somalia’s political crisis into dangerous new phase

Matt Bryden and Theodore Murphy, European Council on Foreign Relations (February 16, 2021): Somalia’s election impasse: A crisis of state building

Lynsey Chutel, Foreign Policy (February 10, 2021): Will Somalia’s Missed Election Lead to Chaos?

Mohamed Sheikh Nor, The Africa Report (February 4, 2021): Somalia’s delayed presidential elections: Top 7 issues to follow

Otieno Joel. The East African (November 16, 2020): Why Somali polls are critical for the country and Horn of Africa

Abdulkadir Khalif, The East African (November 12, 2020): Somalia’s electoral calendar rocked by controversy over poll team

International Crisis Group (November 10, 2020): Staving off Violence around Somalia’s Elections

Abdulkadir Khalif, The East African (October 2, 2020): Somalia sets election dates, doubles candidates fees

Abdi Sheikh, Reuters (September 17, 2020): Somali president names newcomer Roble premier as elections loom

Abdi Guled, AP (June 29, 2020): Somalia to delay elections by 13 months, says official

Harun Maruf, VOA (June 28): Somali Elections Won’t Take Place on Schedule

Fred Oluoch, The East African (June 6, 2020): Somali leaders vow to hold elections

Mohamed Sheikh Nor, Bloomberg (May 30, 2020): Somalia says elections set for early 2021 despite coronavirus risk

International Crisis Group (May 8, 2020): COVID-19 in Somalia: A Public Health Emergency in an Electoral Minefield

Ilya Gridneff, World Politics Review (March 31, 2020): Somalia’s Historic Elections Bring Hope—and Despair—for Elusive Democracy

Mohamed Olad Hassan, VOA (February 21, 2020): Somali President Signs Historic Election Bill Into Law

Taylor Gee, Politico (February 19, 2017): How an American Bureaucrat Became President of Somalia

21votes does not necessarily agree with all of the opinions expressed in the linked articles; rather, our goal is to curate a wide range of voices. Furthermore, none of the individuals or organizations referenced have reviewed 21votes’ content, and their inclusion should not be taken to imply that they endorse us in any way. More on our approach here

Updated February 23, 2021

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