The military coup in Somalia in 1969 and subsequent two decades of despotic rule deformed its political culture. The military regime injected two demons into national politics: Corrupt authoritarianism and political tribalism. This toxic cocktail led to the complete collapse of the state.
n 1968, the Ghanian writer Ayi Kwei Armah published a pioneering political novel called The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. Long before others, he foresaw the ineptitude, lust and cruelty of many post-colonial African leaders. He scathingly described that this crop of politicians “were senile before they were born” to underscore their covetousness no matter how injurious their deeds were to our people.
Armah could not have imagined the Somali political purgatory. The magnitude of corruption in the ongoing Somali national election for parliament and the presidency, and the degradation of people’s lives is off the charts. This essay illuminates how the Somali political elite ensnared its people in bottomless political squalor.
From Africa’s first democrats to a political wasteland
Somalia was not always the hellhole it has been since 1988. It started its post-colonial life as the most democratic country on the continent and remained so for the first decade. It led the continent in holding successive parliamentary and presidential elections which earned the country the honour of being Africa’s first democrats.
Although signs of political decay were apparent at the end of that decade, the military coup in 1969 and subsequent two decades of despotic rule deformed the political culture in the country. The military regime injected two demons into national politics: corrupt authoritarianism and political tribalism. This toxic cocktail led to the complete collapse of the state, ushering in three decades of warlordism, political thuggery, misery and hopelessness.
Fifteen years after the collapse of the Somali state, leading international actors, such as the AU, UN, EU and US organised a conference in Kenya to put the Somali “Humpty Dumpty” back together. They used political tribalism, one of the drivers of the calamity, as the organising political formula in an arena dominated by warlords.
The outcome of this was the formation of a federal system of government based on tribal identity rather than political ideas and ideals. Since then, Somali political leaders and public servants are all “elected” or employed based on their tribal identity. Such a system has stymied the development of civic bonds among the people and the emergence of a civic-oriented political/professional class. Further, political tribalism produced intensified fragmentation among communities and turned public institutions into inept rent havens and tribal fiefdoms that are unable to provide even basic security for the population.
Al-Shabaab, the terrorist group, is estimated to have about 5,000 lightly equipped fighters in southern Somalia. In contrast, the AU military force, in the country since 2006, consists of 20,000 well-armed troops from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya and Ethiopia; while the Somali Defence Force is estimated to have about 15,000 troops. Despite the numerical and resource superiority of the latter forces, al-Shabaab dominates much of southern Somalia and can hit its targets almost at will. The military ineptitude of the AU contingent and Somali forces mimics the dysfunctional political syndrome in the country.
Election 2021-22: A farce
Two things distinguish current Somali politics from those of any other country in Africa. First, there are no political parties and no ideologically distinct agendas between candidates. It is as if every candidate is against everyone and none have a national vision.
Second, the Somali people are not taking part in the polls due to the absence of security in much of the country, including the capital. Instead, tribal elders and Bantustan-like regional potentates are the kingpins who select the small number of voting delegates who pick MPs, who in turn elect the president. This process has been profoundly corrupt and supremely divisive.
Parliamentary and presidential elections were supposed to occur late in 2020 and in February 2021 respectively. But the alliance between the incumbent president and three regional governors that he virtually appointed, gerrymandered the process by appointing most members of the election commission. In addition, the president unilaterally declared a two-year extension of his term of office when his tenure expired.
This combination of events infuriated the fragmented opposition and nearly precipitated a new civil war in Mogadishu as armed factions came face to face around the presidential palace in May 2021. Such confrontation and the pressure of the international community forced the president’s climb down on the two-year extension.
The methods of selecting senators and MPs for the two houses of parliament have been a perfect model of corruption. Regional assemblies were supposed to select senators from among competing candidates, but the process was usurped by regional governors who single-handedly picked the winners with only one partial exception in the Hirshabeele region. Not a single candidate for the senate who was not endorsed by the governors won a seat.
The exception to this approach was the selection of senators from the renegade region of Somaliland. Here, in the absence of a regional assembly, the tribal elders and one companion each constituted the voting delegates. Just like other election venues, cash was king. Except in two or three seats, the highest bidders, supported by the president, were the winners.
Similarly, the selection process of members of the lower house was profoundly fraudulent. One hundred and one voting delegates were to be selected for each seat by the “traditional elders” and two members of “civil society”. But this process has been thoroughly captured in the provinces and reflects the wishes of the governors. This procedure has produced three types of MPs: those who are clients of the president and his three governor allies, those beholden to two oppositional regional governors, and finally, a small group of “independents” who miraculously escaped the grip of the political predators. Thus, ordinary Somalis have no illusion that this “election” will reproduce anything but the same national mediocrity.
The Somali people have suffered gratuitously for more than four decades because the country’s rapacious elite first destroyed the state and has subsequently avoided rebuilding it. Statelessness has produced unimaginable human misery and widespread fatalism. Very few Somalis I have met over the past few years think that the elite has learnt from the country’s catastrophe and would change course. Political tribalism, corrupt money and resistance against accountability and fair political play constitute the DNA of the problem.
But what is even more dispiriting is the widespread despair among Somalis who believe that there is no promising future under the tutelage of these predatory and tribalistic regimes. This combination of factors makes Somalia the gutter of African politics.
By Abdi Ismail Samatar
Abdi Ismail Samatar is a Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria and Professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota.