Ballots, Bullets and Building Blocks: State Formation in Somalia

Peaceful handover: Somalia's new president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud hold hands with former president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed 'Farmaajo' after winning the country's elections on 16 May 2022. Image: Reuters / Alamy

The conclusion of Somalia’s presidential elections marks an optimistic moment in the country’s history, but it may have exposed difficult trade-offs for wider stabilisation and institution-building processes.

Behind blast walls, sandbags and African Union peacekeepers, 327 Members of Parliament assembled in Mogadishu’s international airport – colloquially dubbed the ‘Green Zone’ – to select a ‘new’ executive. After three rounds of voting, this long delayed, attenuated expression of Somali democracy finally concluded with the return of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as president. Paired back from the universal suffrage originally pushed by donors, the process was both a testament to the resilience of electoral norms – acculturated within local clan conventions and security constraints – and a reflection of the contradictions and interdependencies between political and technical statebuilding.

That the ballot occurred at all is an achievement in itself: initially scheduled for December 2020, preparations were waylaid by disputes over scope, format and procedure, with the backing of former president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed ‘Farmaajo’ for ‘one-person, one vote’ branded a pretext for preserving power. Strands of the Somali National Army – more a hodgepodge of clan militiamen than a coherent entity – entered the capital in support of opposition candidates, exchanging gunfire with federal troops and precipitating clashes that displaced around 207,000 civilians in April 2021 alone.

Following eventual consensus over voting, and the adoption of the ‘Mogadishu model’ – an inflated iteration of the 2016/17 framework based on clan-centric electoral colleges – campaigning quickly became synonymous with corruption. The National ‘Independent’ Electoral Commission was subject to political pressure; regulatory mechanisms including the offices of the attorney general and auditor general were gradually weakened or co-opted; and parliamentary seats ‘auctioned’ amid circuits of graft and clientelism. Reports identified lawmakers on the president’s payroll, some ‘to the tune of $5,000 per month’, and intelligence services were accused of trying to stack the legislature. Against the backdrop of a ‘Tripartite Alliance’ between Farmaajo, Isaias Afwerki and Abiy Ahmed, fears of a coup by Eritrean trained paramilitaries ran rampant. Rather tellingly, the price of a standard AK-47 rose nearly 40% among local vendors in the lead up to May’s deliberations.

Despite these concerns, there is little evidence that bribery ‘played a decisive factor in the outcome’, and the final vote was conducted (almost) without incident, receiving praise from the likes of Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General. Farmaajo conceded defeat, embraced his successor, and publicly committed to a peaceful transfer of power, suggesting the system had not only the aesthetic but the underlying ethic of (indirect) democracy.

However, the experience also raises questions over the rationality of a process that has consumed so much energy, attention and political capital from external and domestic stakeholders in such a structurally precarious context. Coinciding with descriptions of ‘a lost year for Somalia’, recent interviews with practitioners and international policymakers acknowledged the disruptive impact of electoral squabbling on urgent statebuilding, humanitarian and development work.

Distraction and Disruption?

Roughly 38% of the country is hungry, with drought depleting grain yields and livestock, while the Ukrainian crisis has raised the cost of imported substitutes. Accentuated by a preference for erratic cash crops and soil erosion along the Shabelle and Juba rivers – Somalia’s erstwhile breadbasket – both subsistence and commercial farming have largely collapsed. Unfortunately, emergency measures such as the 2022 Humanitarian Response Plan seem unable to mitigate this calorific deficit, so far receiving only around 4% of the $1.5 billion initially requested by the UN.

Many statebuilding efforts are incremental and cumulative, benefiting from consistency or – at the very least – some semblance of predictability

Evidently, donor fatigue is partly to blame, as is their risk appetite and the structure and coverage of resourcing, which is often confined to Banaadir or major cities. A large proportion of external cash is also directed towards, or appropriated by, the upper layers of state bureaucracy, leaving it unclear how much support trickles down to actors on the frontlines. Although humanitarian funds are better insulated and usually channelled directly to international organisations or NGOs, the latter have been shown to collaborate more with government agencies than civil society in Somalia, relegating civil society organisations and local activists to the fringe of mainstream development networks.

Nevertheless, even if an adequate international aid package was available, delivery would likely have been hampered by elite preoccupations with the ballot box. Regardless of warnings back in 2019 and 2020, Amanda Sperber, a journalist, describes the federal government as failing to offer a ‘coherent response’ to the crisis, having only convened a national committee in February and neglecting cheap (albeit temporary) fixes like the purchase of water trucks. Linkages, coordination and information sharing between different tiers of government have long been fraught, leaving a ‘disassembled patchwork of public authorities and political entrepreneurs’ with little capacity or inclination to standardise policy. Electoral competition appears to have made this worse, exacerbating rifts between those domestic stakeholders – the federal government and ‘first-generation’ federated member states like Puntland and Jubbaland – with the necessary financial clout and administrative anatomy to actually make a difference. Instead, relief efforts have been held hostage to political brinkmanship, as encapsulated by the allegedly ‘deliberate’ grounding of ‘at least one plane’ bearing essential supplies in the same week the UN projected that 350,000 children were at risk of starvation.

The instability generated by the lead-up to May’s vote also exposes a discrepancy in statebuilding approaches. Many of these efforts, from security sector reform to public financial management, are incremental and cumulative, benefiting from consistency or – at the very least – some semblance of predictability. Yet this seems to run counter to the messy realities of the electoral politics that donors including the UK, US and EU have continually advocated.

Take the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) ‘decision point’ confirming Somalia’s eligibility for debt relief, a status initially contingent on a suite of technical benchmarks around revenue collection, budget design, accountability and a new ‘Poverty Reduction Strategy’. As the ballot drew closer, Joakin Gundel, a regional specialist, describes a compulsion among donors to dilute their thresholds and expedite the process as a means of insulating a prospective ‘success story’ from the mounting threat of violence. By doing so, they arguably compromised the fundamental purpose of their own reforms, leaning on ‘fabricated data’ and superficial financial controls in lieu of resolving the country’s underlying problems. Momentum for oversight has subsequently diminished, creating opportunities for politicising the Somali judiciary and ramming through unconstitutional appointments to the Justice Service Commission and Anti-Corruption Commission. While some of these abuses may be reversed by the incoming regime, there is little incentive to contain or contradict the prevailing logic of what Alex de Waal terms the ‘political marketplace’, where authority is heavily commoditised, enmeshed within and defined by webs of patronage that cross-cut Somalia’s political economy. In the absence of appropriate safeguards, any large-scale grants or development financing are therefore susceptible to elite capture. For all its moral and symbolic value, the truncated process framing the HIPC ‘decision point’ could simply enable new variants of cronyism at the expense of long-term transparency and capacity building.

Electoral uncertainty likewise has direct implications for stabilisation and security provision. The African Transition Mission in Somalia and external peace enforcement is set against the framework of Somalia’s Transition Plan (STP), which dictates a phased transfer of responsibilities to national forces by 2023. As previously argued by this author, recent STP updates seem to lack sub-federal input, resulting in arrangements largely shaped by the preferences of Farmaajo’s cabinet. A turnover in leadership throws these commitments into question, creating ambiguity for donors and troop-contributing countries as they try to push ahead with massive structural reforms. Without strategic forecasting or durable domestic partnerships, the timeframes and milestones prescribed under the Plan could quickly become untenable, raising existential concerns over the viability of statebuilding more broadly.

Confusion and volatility also present problems at an operational level. Due to the fragmented disposition of Somali officialdom and the informal, clan-based configurations that condition real political influence, policy delivery routinely depends on the personal networks and brokerage of specific individuals. Typically, they are political appointees, susceptible to rotation or replacement. This itinerancy – generally heightened during elections – is therefore liable to disrupt what limited services are already available, especially given the lack of institutional memory throughout the country’s federal superstructure. A corollary of removing the former prime minister, for instance, was the sacking of various coordinators and deputies housed in his office, and by extension the loss of essential skills, connections and leverage.

State formation needs to be organic and participatory, offering opportunities for constituents to opt in and fashion their own governing bodies

Poor functionality in turn provides space for rival forms of governance, a vacuum often filled by Al-Shabaab’s Wilaaydaha or protostatal project. Packaged in an extreme ideological rubric, much of its appeal stems from supplementing ‘coercive security’ with basic goods, order and (comparatively) robust administration. Described by Tricia Bacon as ‘part terrorist organisation…part shadow government, and part mafia’, the group offers ‘little solutions’ to the grievances and daily toils of communities bereft of alternatives. Although still corrupt, clannised and dependent on the whims of municipal strongmen, Maktab departments are widely seen as more effective and reliable than their federal government counterparts. Al-Shabaab courts are similarly a preferred mechanism for civil arbitration, even among some members of the Somali police. Additionally, the militants can extort and sway those living in territories outside their direct control, with protection rackets regulating local markets and setting the terms of commercial transactions. In short, their institutional depth, pseudo-civic largesse, and near monopoly of violence not only drives public acquiescence but draws a clear distinction with the ‘inefficiencies and elite complexion’ ascribed to politicians in Mogadishu.

Despite potential limits to the scalability of Al-Shabaab’s model, there is consequently a pressing need to boost the capacity, authority and reach of the internationally backed state, which is vulnerable to delay or distortion by democratic competition.

Statebuilding Without a Social Contract?

However, it is also clear that ‘depoliticised’ technocratic methods may reproduce weak ‘shell structures’ starved of legitimacy or local relevance. This is symptomatic of long-running tensions within contemporary development, which has sometimes been accused of conflating ‘form and function’. Akin to ‘isomorphic mimicry’, where there is a tendency to replicate cosmetic versions of outside systems and practices, donor approaches also display patterns of ‘institutional monocropping’, imposing Western templates incongruent with local realities. While such efforts have led to gradual improvements in the capability and breadth of government services, this is neither sufficient nor sustainable.

Circling back to famine relief, it is true that much of the coordination work is conducted through national offices; however, it is often nominal at best, drawing on ‘ghost ministries’ or incipient agencies that lack experience of cross-departmental collaboration, and contributing towards a dysfunctional ‘culture of humanitarian impunity’. IT and monitoring infrastructure installed through the HIPC debt relief process likewise gives the illusion of greater accountability, but it is immaterial if cash flows simply skirt these formal systems altogether.

In this context, the appearance of bureaucracy and institutionalisation is not enough. State formation needs to be organic and participatory, offering opportunities for constituents to opt in and fashion their own governing bodies, otherwise it risks amounting to a Potemkin showcase. Yes, the country’s electoral experience has inflamed social tensions and hampered vital development work. But some expression of civil engagement and political buy-in – however imperfect and parochial it may currently be – is essential to the long-term stability, efficacy and sustainability of any nation-building process.

As one interviewee summarised, the vote’s conclusion has shifted Somalia from ‘acute to chronic crisis’, but in doing so it has at least helped strengthen the normative tissue necessary for reform. The question is whether this stretches beyond the confines of Mogadishu.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Michael Jones

Research Fellow

Terrorism and Conflict

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