The Way Forward for Elections in Somalia

Somali Flag
Elections in Africa have always been contentious. They sometimes result in violence. At other times, leaders refuse to step down. We have rigging of elections and some leaders have tended to support their kinsmen at the expense of the nation. That’s expected considering that the nation states we have today are not authentic. Their borders were drawn by western colonialists who were ignorant of ethnic affiliations. If creating nation states whose members were unaffiliated is not enough, today we have western experts who export their ideas of representative democracy to African states whose structures and ways are not individualistic but communal. The division continues.


As an undergraduate I wrote a dissertation on Inter-Ethnic Violence and Elections in Kenya (1991-2008) and one of the recommendations I had made was for Kenya to have a system where individuals would not engage in voting for a national leader. Voting in areas heavily represented by members of one ethnic community could be based on the system of one person one vote but it is only the elected representatives who can vote for a national leader. Such a proposal has been made for Somalia in the provisional constitution. The rationale of my conclusion was that when members of an ethnic community only have their own to choose from, dividing people on the basis of ethnic tribe is almost impossible. This is assuming that the electorate is able to choose a good leader (in the context of the western state) which in may cases is not true. The idea of free and fair elections is foreign. In this context, free and fair might mean the election of fools, especially when parties are not based on any ideology. When traditional values and leaders are trampled upon and we have new ones are defined by the western state, people do not know where they are going, they disregard the guardians of morality. However, that’s a discussion for another day.

Governance based on ethnic grouping is not a recipe for ethnic violence as many would think. It has the potential to develop the cultures we love to praise so much. In Kenya’s case ethnic violence was a result of having an ethnic leader as a national leader. In order to get legitimacy the ethnic leader served his community’s interests hoping they would reciprocate by returning him to power. In his mind he was the leader of an ethnic grouping, not a state. This led to unequal allocation of resources considering the fact that in Kenya’s case the national leader was in charge of the development of the whole nation (what a big task to bestow on one person) and policing (through provincial administration) Kenyans who might want to cause trouble or overthrow the government. In effect rewarding sycophants and punishing others who dissent. We had an emperor not a president. In cosmopolitan areas, members of other ethnic groups would be chased away so as to ensure that those who voted were from the dominant ethnic group. There was no way an outsider could rule over those who belonged there. This might still present a problem in future elections. Encouraging people to live anywhere is good and speak a national language is good but it is better to encourage people to acclimatize to the area they live in if they want to attain positions of leadership because the reality is that, Kenyans like each other, only elections divide them. The rest we can leave to societal evolution.


As Somalia is looking for alternatives to the one person one vote elections in 2016, I have put my thoughts together on the situation. In Somalia’s case I see a system where tradition is highly valued and the leaders chosen are not those with the popular vote but those who are of integrity as far as the clan elders are concerned. It is in this light that efforts to address human rights can be achieved with minimum interruption to society. This is by encouraging elders to reflect over some unacceptable practices; they can do that, they are wise and have the interests of their people at heart. Such an approach might also tame the Al Shabaab who seem not to be pleased with the current idea of the nation state. Elders are a respected authority and rather than try to diminish their role, this is an opportunity to build a nation state where the leaders already have legitimate authority, not one where legitimacy is destroyed and then efforts are made to rebuild it. The question of legitimacy in Somalia is not about who gets the most votes. That’s a western import. The nation state might also be illegitimate in peoples’ and communal leaders’ eyes but it doesn’t have to be. What matters is selecting wise leaders in the eyes of the community. Those people must hold the values of their people dear or else we’ll have leaders with no moral compass or understanding of their people. We’ll have leaders who exist to build the western idea of a democratic state and its secular values. Wise leaders are capable of knowing what is good for their people. With that in mind all else will be possible.


If every clan is represented and minority groups also represented, everyone will be happy. This doesn’t have to be done through a one person one vote kind of system even though this can be considered in the future. As I had suggested for the Kenyan situation, the electoral system must not be a cause for division or electoral violence. Further, the organisation of leadership must be respected and governance devolved to fit the respective units. Like in Kenya’s case, unequal distribution of resources occurs when we have a centralised system of government. We do not want a government that is too big to cater for the development of its people and neither do we want a situation where development is only possible by having a member of one’s clan as a national leader.


When people understand that their way of life is not under threat, they become flexible and do not operate on warrior mode. As always, before embarking on any major changes among a people, one must seek to understand them. We must understand the Somali people and with their help craft systems of governance that respect their traditions and structures a swell as authentic human rights. The Somali people have been a resilient and one of the few African communities that have managed to keep their communal traditions visibly alive. They have capable leaders who if managed well can transform the lives of their people. This will ensure peace in the long run.

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