Somalia: A shot at stability
This election is a crucial turning point that could 'seal the deal' or see Somalia slide back into chaos.
Somalia's Parliament stands on the crest of a hill in the middle of Mogadishu. Its weathered frontage stares resignedly over the Gulf of Aden; its leeward side offers a vista over thousands of makeshift domed shacks of twigs and plastic bags, a camp for thousands of the country's displaced inhabitants.
A sun-faded Lady Liberty triumphantly breaks out of her chains on the wall of the second-floor amphitheatre, beneath a muted sky where the roof has been blown off. Goats graze in the deserted corridors. But now, broad white pillars sit on either side of a grand new entrance. Garish, proud and defiant, its clean lines are a sharp contrast to the wreckage of the building's core.
Parliament's new façade – paid for with Turkish aid money – has been tacked on to the battered shell of government, roofless and desolate. This attempt to put a new face on old institutions is a quiet corollary to the slowly turning cogs of Somalia's political transition.
As the end of the country's troubled transition approaches, the process seeks to appoint a 275-member Parliament, which will appoint a speaker who will preside over a presidential appointment, providing the country with its first attempt at stable government in more than two decades. Some seasoned Somalia watchers say the composition of decision-makers is unlikely to change in a process that is more selection than election. At the heart of this attempted transition from war and lawlessness to order and legitimacy are the country's king-makers: 135 elders who, in the vacuum of functioning national government, have risen to power.
Numbers govern politics at Villa Somalia, the makeshift seat of decision-making. Members of Parliament suggest names, and a committee of 27 Somalians and nine international observers vet their lists. They are given a tick or a cross according to their ability to measure up to three criteria: their level of education and literacy, whether they are female (the country's provisional constitution demands at least 30% of members of Parliament be female) and their history of crime or violence. Unconfirmed rumours doing the rounds that one of the elders is a commander for Islamic militants al-Shabaab could somewhat dilute the last provision, which is designed to keep notorious warlords from office.
The process has taken a year longer than its original 2011 deadline and may perpetuate an ongoing power tussle between the placeholder administration's current speaker, Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan, and the president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. It has manifested in fights in the dilapidated Parliament building, replete with plastic chairs in the blue and white of the Somali flag flung between angry opponents.
Campaigning has been a little more sedate. Women draped in turquoise and ochre quietly line Mogadishu's streets, clutching placards proclaiming their faith in Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. The Chinese whispers of the country's political elite suggest that many decisions are made under tables with the aid of fat brown envelopes. That is hardly a surprise in a country documented as one of the world's most corrupt. A July United Nations report spoke of less than $3 out of every $10 making it into state coffers between 2009 and 2010.
The previous month, the World Bank found that 68% of 2009-2010 government revenues were unaccounted for, and the UN report suggests a further $40-million from 2011 could be missing. The president and parliamentary speaker are among leaders named in allegedly corrupt deals. Allegations of nepotism and buying votes float around the air-conditioned bureaucracy of civil service officialdom. There are suggestions that nominations could cost up to $25 000 a pop, in some cases allegedly paid for with pirate money and cash from Middle Eastern backers.
Peter de Clercq, the earnest safari suit-wearing second-in-command at the UN's political office for Somalia and observer on the vetting committee, said it was a crucial turning point for the country and they were "giving it their best shot". But he admitted that those tasked with confirming selections have received threatening phone calls, text messages and death threats.
The African Union's Mission for Somalia has condemned this intimidation outright, with all the clout that comes with a formal statement.
The mission's deputy special representative, Wafula Wamunyinyi, in his shipping container office, remained adamant that the mission was on course with the country's road map to peace, but said – like the capital's thoroughfares – there were "potholes along the way".
The map of Mogadishu stuck to his office wall with packing tape bears the familiar names of districts associated with war, which the AU insists have now been "liberated" from al-Shabaab.
Wamunyinyi said the political process would either seal the deal or slide the country back into chaos. "Those not selected into Parliament, we don't know how they'll react," he said ominously. But there was a "contingency plan", he added vaguely, which would cover all situations and eventualities.
Square brackets surround many of the contentious parts of the country's fledgling constitution – especially the rhetoric around sharing power and resources.
Minister for Constitutional Affairs and Reconciliation Adburahman Hosh Jibril is honest about the document, which he describes as a "mishmash" of competing ideas. It is a provisional constitution for the time being, approved last week with suicide bombers at the gate.
In a country where Jibril said "everyone has a narrative of pain", progress hinges on the legitimacy of its emerging government – and in the coming week, that is what is at stake.