Somalia's flawed attempts at change

The United Nations special representative for Somalia, Augustine ­Mahiga, talks to officials during an inauguration ceremony for members of the first Parliament in 20 years. (Stuart Price, Reuters)

The United Nations special representative for Somalia, Augustine ­Mahiga, talks to officials during an inauguration ceremony for members of the first Parliament in 20 years. (Stuart Price, Reuters)

Within days, Somalia will ostensibly have a new president, the culmination of the 18th such attempt at peace and stability in the troubled country. The process has been tainted by historical cynicism and allegations of intimidation, but buoyed by international optimism and Somali hope.

Although the rhetoric from candidates and the international community speaks of change, all the frontrunners have held office in previous administrations acknowledged to have been corrupt and ineffective.

Two prime ministers, former and current, are likely to go head to head with the interim president in the parliamentary election, which will be a race to the finish.

Rows of near-identical posters on street corners around the capital Mogadishu feature candidates in profile on a background of the sky-blue Somali flag – staring determinedly into the country's future. But Somalis know this is not their vote.

More than 200 MPs – the full complement of the 275-member house has not yet been filled – will make their choice in a secret ballot on Monday.

With more than two-thirds of MPs in Somalia's fledgling federal Parliament composed of new faces,  the international community is duly satisfied it has succeeded in chivvying the country's political elite along the road to democracy.
But as time ticks down to the ballot, there are accusations of vote-buying and intimidation.

One long-time Somalia watcher and political insider observed that the supporters of MPs who paid up to $25000 to get their candidates on the list for the inauguration will now want a return on their investment. There are whispers of votes in the ballot costing up to $50 000.

The bewildering field of more than 60 presidential hopefuls is not necessarily a reflection of a desire for the highest office in the land, but a numbers game played out on the chessboard of clan dynamics.

Somalia's unwritten power-sharing rules that divide decision-­making between the "4.5" – the four main clans and an amalgamation of smaller ones – has already removed one frontrunner, the former parliamentary speaker. And now a bitter rivalry between interim President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and interim Prime Minister Abdiwele Mohamed Ali has come to the fore.

A burly man whose stoic conformity to the United Nations line matches his build, Augustine Mahiga, United Nations special representative for Somalia, does not deny that the process has had its flaws. During the vetting process for MPs, he said "those with the means to intimidate, whether it is arms or guns, they have used it".

At the time, the president chided prospective spoilers, saying that despite allegations and counter allegations, the technical selection committee, the body vetting the MP candidates, had to be allowed to do its job. Despite the rhetoric, Sheikh Ahmed slammed the committee days later for failing to vet 14 of his key supporters after an assessment that aimed to ensure a literate, gender-representative Parliament, free of warlords and militia leaders.

His chances of victory have now been bolstered by those supporters accepted as MPs in recent weeks, after the Supreme Court overruled the decision of the committee.

Anti-corruption platforms
Sheikh Sharif, Mohamed Ali and former prime minister Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo are running on anti-corruption platforms and have all been named in a UN report from July, which says more than $7 of every $10 went missing from state coffers between 2009 and 2010.

All three also take credit for securing the capital and fostering Mogadishu's rebirth – but so too does Mogadishu's mayor, who allegedly took a seat away from a qualified prospective female MP in an effort to hang on to power by his fingernails.

President Sheikh Sharif has said he would accept another winner graciously, but he is the only candidate said to have the power and support of armed groups in the capital to kick-start unrest almost immediately.

As the African Union mission in Somalia claims military victories in towns and villages and al-Shabaab melts into civilian populations, other power dynamics will fill the vacuum of the good-versus-bad narrative.

Analysts worry about the increased likelihood of skirmishes between the contenders as well as between clans and warring elders, all of whom want their piece of the new Somalia.

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