Somalia’s Clan Politics

By Yasin Ismail

Somalia had an eventful 2017. Though its international image is still defined by insecurity, the country in the Horn of Africa is slowly rebuilding after decades of conflict. International partners, including the United States and the European Union, have spent a fortune—upward of $2 billion—to facilitate this process. One significant element of the rebuilding effort is plans for a new electoral system.

On Dec. 3, 2017, for the first time in almost 50 years, Somalia’s National Independent Electoral Commission began to register political parties. Seven parties met the requirements for accreditation. This was a major step for the new government, which came to power in February 2017, as it prepares for the transition from an imperfect, clan-based system to a one person, one vote model in the 2020 elections. On Feb. 10, 2018, the government took another important step: Representatives from both the federal and regional levels agreed on a roadmap to implement a popular vote in 2020, and the prime minister was tasked with appointing a technical committee to write a proposal for a new electoral system. Reform of this system is key to creating a political structure that promotes national cohesion, legitimacy, and accountability.

The multi-party democracy that existed in the early 1960s offers some lessons for rebuilding political processes today. Hailed at the time as one of few democratic states as independence movements swept across Africa, Somalia soon fell into a divisive clan-party political system. Between 1964, the year of Somalia’s first national election, and 1969, the country’s next and final free election, the number of political parties rose from 21 to 64. Nearly all of the new parties represented a specific lineage of a clan or sub-clan. Almost 1,000 candidates contested the 123 seats available in the 1969 elections. The widespread public support behind a single party, the Somali Youth League, prior to 1969 was breaking down along clan lines. This electoral trend was halted, however, by a coup d’état later that year, followed by 22 years of military rule and a decades-long civil war.

Today, clans are again prominent actors in Somali politics. The current power-sharing structure, implemented in 2000 at the Arta Peace Conference in Djibouti toward the end of the civil war, is also clan-based: In the 4.5 system, the four main clans are given equal stakes in the government, while the minority clans together share the 0.5 stake. In the indirect elections of 2016, the first since 1969, 135 clan elders selected 14,025 electors, who in turn elected parliament’s 275 members. Clan politics will never be completely absent from the Somali political arena—after all, clans are the basic building blocks of Somali society. But in order to maintain the progress made in the post-conflict years, the forces that led to political fragmentation in 1969 must be kept in check.

Seeking a new system

The new electoral system will need to encourage cooperation across clan lines and incentivize political parties to seek broad national support. Every citizen’s voice should be heard, and under the new federal system, there should be a balance of power between the states and Mogadishu. Although the new requirements for political party registration—which include having at least 10,000 members, a main office in Mogadishu, and party branches in at least half of Somalia’s 18 regions—are a great start in moving from a clan to a party system, they do not sufficiently deter the creation of clan parties altogether.

There are many examples of ethnically diverse, post-conflict countries that have built new electoral systems, such as Iraq, Rwanda, and Afghanistan. Yet none exactly match Somalia’s tradition and history—or its current set-up as a federal republic. Other common electoral systems cannot provide much guidance, either: A winner-takes-all plurality system would invite back the clan-based politics of the 1960s, while other systems that could curb the influence of clan politics, such as proportional representation, are overly complicated for a post-conflict country struggling to hold a basic vote. A two-party electoral system comes close to providing an answer to the clan-party dilemma because it forces clans to form alliances within the two national parties competing in elections, but Article 1 of the Federal Constitution mandates a multi-party system. Therefore, the only solution to Somalia’s electoral challenge is a hybrid system.

Checking clan power

Such a system should meet three requirements: a winner-takes-all voting system at the district level, no cap on the number of political parties allowed to form, and a high national electoral threshold for political parties.

At the district level, a system where the candidate who garners the most votes becomes the winner is simpler than a proportional voting system—and less often subject to dispute. This hedge against controversy is crucial for a society that is still emerging from conflict.

Setting no limit on political parties ensures that every interest and minority group can feel represented, and the onus falls on the parties to win seats. This is especially important in a post-conflict federal society composed of autonomous regional governments with diverse interests. It also adheres to the spirit of multi-party democracy.

The allowance of unlimited party formation makes it inevitable that each clan or sub-clan will have its own political party. This is why an electoral threshold is so important. The threshold will have to be decided through a consultative process involving key stakeholders, but for the sake of argument I will set the number at 35 seats. (The actual number would likely fall between 25 and 55 seats, based on Somalia’s federal structure and distribution of clans.) A political party will thus be required to win 35 of the 275 seats in the house, or 12.72 percent, in order to stand alone. If it fails to meet this threshold, it must join a coalition—certified by the National Independent Electoral Commission—to reach 35 seats. Such a system deters clan parties without abolishing them. If a clan party cannot win seats outside its clan or geographical area, then its chances of influencing politics are limited. It is therefore in the interest of the parties to work together.

An electoral threshold of 12.72 percent would be the highest of any country. Turkey’s threshold is lower than this, at 10 percent, but it has been widely criticized because the votes are spoiled if a party does not meet the minimum tally. By contrast, in the Somali scenario, failing to meet the threshold would not spoil the votes, but instead encourage cooperation and incentivize political actors at the outset to seek national support rather than rely solely on their clans. This structure also gives power to minority political parties. While the current 4.5 system reduces the power of all but the four largest clans, an electoral threshold changes this dynamic. In most coalition governments, smaller parties gain influence when they decide which parties to ally with. This will be especially important when it comes to the election of the president, which according to the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote in parliament.

The need to answer to a coalition of parties would serve as a check on the power of the presidency, and would also bestow on the office the legitimacy and public confidence that has been lacking in Somali politics. The system as a whole fosters a culture of strong oppositional politics that transcends petty clan politics. Somalia was once the jewel of Africa’s democracies. With the country’s recent steps to rebuild after decades of strife, a lesson from history could definitively set Somalia on a path toward democracy, national cohesion, and stability.

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Yasin Ahmed Ismail leads GLAFPOL, a research, analysis, and consultancy group operating in East Africa and the Horn of Africa. Previously, he was an East Africa analyst at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) in Washington, DC. Find him on Twitter @YasinAhIsmail.

[Photo courtesy of UNSOM Somalia]

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