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Lessons derived from Somalia polls

Mohamed Guleid
Monday February 13, 2017

It is an understatement to admit that our neighbour to the North East, Somalia, is dynamic. Though classified as a failed state, Somalia epitomises the endurance of the human spirit. The people of Somalia have been to hell and back.

They have existed (some still do) in some of the most abhorrent human conditions you can ever imagine. For a quarter of century, these people have been killed and murdered, humiliated, abused, tortured, promised false hope. New beginnings have become false dawns.

It all started with the fall of the regime of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Somalia degenerated into a free fall. Sometimes it has looked as if Somalia is turning the corner then bang, something just happens. So much effort has gone into trying to rebuild Somalia from the rubble yet it is the wisdom that lifting Somalia out of the abyss ultimately depends on Somalis.

A lot of them though have taken courageous steps to get their country back on its feet. Yet those efforts get undermined as often as they are made. To many Somalis, Donald Trump’s travel ban on seven mostly Muslim countries including Somalia is the latest of a string of this humiliation. Some of them are eager to pick up their belongings and leave the burning house behind. When that door closes in their faces, only them know what pain that causes.

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But something significant happened last week; the election of the new President Mohamed Abdullahi popularly known as ‘Farmajo’ (Italian for Ice cream; probably he liked ice cream when he was a child) offers Somalia another dose of hope.

Actually, there were no real elections. Somalia uses an Electoral College system to elect their leaders. Some 14,000 elders from different clans are selected at the grassroots and they in turn choose members of parliament who in turn elect the President. It is a perfected form of negotiated democracy. It is however a system most Somalis agree to and are happy with; something similar to the Greek democracy during the times of Socrates.Since some form of order has returned to Somalia mostly in the capital Mogadishu under the watchful eyes of the African Union troops (Amisom), the Somali people have managed to elect four different people to become president. The President of Somalia also has very little powers. He controls the capital. The rest of the country is under the control of mainly Al-Shabaab and a few other equally powerless regional governments.

Somalis all over the world couldn’t hold back their celebration over the election of President Farmajo. In Eastleigh (referred to as Mogadishu ndogo) residents burst into jubilant celebrations. Around the world, Somali diaspora organised celebration activities to welcome the new President. The organisers of the London bash have invited me to give a speech later in the week.

The expectations are high for Mr Farmajo who under a previous administration served briefly as a prime minister. During his short tenure Mr Farmajo tamed Al Shabaab and demanded for the withdrawal of AMISOM. This demand did not go down well with the neighbouring countries that contributed to the AMISOM forces. Consequently, it led to a motion that forced him to resign. But it is his nature that is more celebrated. He seems a man capable of moving things around.

The lesson for Kenya is the way in which the Somali people accepted the change of leadership. All the Presidents elected under this electoral system have been one term presidents. The Somalis have simply refused to extend their terms reflecting their impatience and their desire to see quick change.

There was little violence. Surprisingly even Al Shabaab did not attempt to disrupt the presidential elections, something they have attempted to do in the past. Surprisingly, one faction of Al Shabaab announced their intentions to join the Farmajo government if invited. Does this mean a change of times in Somalia where even a dreaded group wants to give the new leadership some space?

Make no mistake despite the homogenous ethnic configuration; Somalis are deeply divided along clans. The maturity of the way such elections are handled indicates that they are more open to change than us. Is this because of the daily trauma of violence in their midst? Does this mean some form of violence at times is good for the long term good? The Somalia case seems to support the Hengelian view (from Martin Hengel) that the norm must be disrupted to create room for new norms. The perpetuation of the status quo may not be a necessary good all the time. Some form of disruption is needed to bring about changes.

Back home, the August elections are fast approaching. One thing is for sure, the fear of violence is creeping back. The fear that politicians will incite the people to reject the results if they don’t go their way. From the sentiments I hear, we might see a repeat of 2008. God forbid.

But I think our country must get shaken to break from the norm. Not necessarily through violence, but the ballot. The reason we are not able to defeat vices such as corruption, nepotism and impunity is because we like to keep the order as we have known it or as we found it. We need to learn from Somalia; that elections can also upset the norm but still bring hope and optimism.

Even if our party and candidate loses the election in August, that is okay. Nothing should cause Kenyans to fight. It might just be that much-needed shake up from the norm that could bring in a more responsive and widely accepted government. It does not really matter.


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