The recent completion of parliamentary and presidential elections in Somalia, and the continued postponement of presidential elections in Somaliland, most recently scheduled for March 2017 and now to be held six months later in October, underscores the fragility and limitations of electoral processes in both polities.
Politico-security dimensions are often privileged in considering the question of electoral sustainability in countries in transition. Somalia is no exception, even as it is an outlier. It is striking that in the last decade, from Afghanistan to Iraq to the Central African Republic, all countries mired with persistent and unrelenting security challenges, comprehensive, near universal suffrage elections have been held.
Somalia has not joined these ranks. Its repeated recourse to ‘selectocracy’ demonstrates the persistence of the fragmented central state authority, nominally existing in Mogadishu, and how power continues to be contested in ways few other states still face. However, the comparative experience of the countries mentioned above also shows that complete security and consolidated territorial control is not necessarily a prerequisite to achieve comprehensive, participatory (if still deeply problematic) electoral processes.
The international community was keen to stress that Somalia’s 2016 electoral process was a step forward from that of 2012. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM), exclaimed that in the parliamentary elections “over a hundred times more Somalis will participate in this year’s process than was the case in 2012.” In an example of how creative statistics obscure rather than illuminate, in hard numbers this equates to 14,025 persons instead of the 135 individuals of 2012, not even the population of one district of Mogadishu.
With the goal posts shifted, hopes for a universal election now move to Somalia’s next vote, due in 2020. Any predictions of what will be possible in 2020 remain highly speculative. But the numerous reports of vote buying and illicit financial incentives offered to those limited few involved in the selection of parliament members in 2016, who in turn were recipients of the largesse of presidential candidates when it came for them to elect the head of state, should raise alarm, beyond the immediate credibility of the result, which in any case has been accepted by the principal contestants.
Corruption, of course, is not a new phenomenon in Somalia, and it surprises nobody that the electoral process was vulnerable to similar patterns of behaviour. Nor does it follow that Somalia’s first universal participation election, whenever it occurs, will be free of improper financial influence.
What should concern Somalis, and those seeking to affirm an electoral tradition in Somalia, is that a precedent has been set to spend vast amounts of money to steal elections – whether originating from public sources, clan resources, private and corporate donations or foreign governments. This risks a reconfiguration of the national political economy, towards further predation of the citizenry and the further entrenchment of vested interests. It is often suggested that the Somali culture is very democratic. While undoubtedly a simplification, any inherent societal tendency towards openness and transparency could easily be consumed by the leviathan that is the political economy of any electoral process itself.
Early warning from Somaliland
The experience of Somaliland already provides such evidence, and a warning.
In collaboration with Adan Y. Abokor, Haroon A. Yusuf, Amina M. Warsame, Muhammad A. Farah and Mohamed F. Hersi, I led a research initiative that resulted in the publication of the study, The Economics of Elections in Somaliland: The financing of political parties and candidates, which was designed in response to concerns raised about election financing in the aftermath of the 2012 local council elections, held across all of Somaliland’s regions.
Economics of Elections aimed to assess and map the sources of income and the principal expenditure made by candidates and political parties in the 2012 local council elections and, for comparative purposes, an earlier mass candidate election, Somaliland’s 2005 parliamentary elections. (We judged the 2002 local council elections to be too distant to Somaliland’s current circumstances, both political and financial.) 93 candidates were surveyed, 29 from the 2005 parliamentary elections (11.8 per cent of the 246 candidates in that election), and 64 from the 2012 local council elections (2.7 per cent of the 2,368 candidates in that election). Of these, 66 per cent were candidates elected in 2005, and 56 per cent were candidates elected in 2012. Those interviewed came from five of the six regions of Somaliland: Maroodi-Jeex, Saaxil, Togdheer, Awdal and Sanaag.
Relative to previous polls, the November 2012 electoral process appeared to show a sharp increase in spending on individual electoral campaigns as reported by candidates, political parties and political associations. Somaliland has a constitutional limit of three official political parties at any one time, but every ten years, via local elections, new political associations can be formed and vie for official party status on the basis of election results. As much as USD 50 million may have been mobilized for election campaign expenses in these elections. This sum far exceeded the costs of administering the election, at approximately USD 11 million from government and donor sources; it amounted to almost half of the country’s entire national annual budget, roughly USD 100 million, for 2012. Or, by a more recent measure, election campaign costs are nearly half of the emergency funding the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs called for in March 2016 to address humanitarian needs in Puntland and Somaliland.
The study also showed that political party and candidate financing were distinct and drew on different sources. Contrary to common perceptions, funding from the diaspora, while reported by some candidates, was not significant for most. The diaspora’s support was significant for political parties and associations, but only a small proportion of these funds found their way to individual candidates. Political parties also obtained significant support from businesses, but there is limited transparency in these relationships, and it is unclear whether such support was premised on the expectations of these financiers, and what those expectations were.
Our research showed that personal and family financial resources were the leading source of candidate finance, in common with most other developing democracies in sub-Saharan Africa. But spending priorities varied: the biggest single campaign expense reported by candidates was to purchase qat [the leaves of an Arabian shrub, which are chewed as a stimulant], and far exceeded the comparable category of expense made in other sub-Saharan African countries in terms of direct benefits to voters. Candidates were split over whether spending on qat is an effective way of securing votes, and voters confirmed it was not necessarily effective, with people often admitting they would take whatever qat was on offer but vote as they had originally intended.
Vote buying was commonly reported and expenditure by candidates suggests it was more widespread than first realized. Many electors reported that they had been paid to vote multiple times, and sometimes explained that multiple voting allowed for differing social obligations to be fulfilled: one could vote both for the voter’s preferred candidate and the rival candidate who had offered an incentive to the voter. There are suggestions that social controls that once limited the scope of electoral fraud and malpractice have weakened over time; the increased monetization of elections appears to have exacerbated a problem of voter fraud.
One of the most interesting aspects in conducting the survey was the openness with which candidates, political associations and parties responded to the subject. Far from concealing or downplaying the problem, or shying away from admitting malfeasance most respondents spoke openly and acknowledged the economics of these elections as a real challenge to the continued legitimacy of the political process in Somaliland.
When the study’s findings were presented in Hargeisa, the reaction was similar. Senior political figures attended, and largely accepted the study’s findings as legitimate. In terms of policy outcomes, conversations were frank and everything from qat bans to rigorously enforced spending limits was discussed.
Another casualty of the drought
The research study, and the presentation of our findings, was of course completed well before the recent announcement of the election delay in Somaliland. But the question of sustainability now looms ever larger. While election delays in Somaliland are so common as to be unsurprising – historically, presidential, parliamentary have been repeatedly delayed – the rationale for delay this time is unprecedented. On the grounds that severe drought continues to afflict Somaliland (and significant parts of Somalia), the President of Somaliland, the leaders of the three political parties and the National Electoral Commission (NEC) collectively agreed presidential elections cannot proceed as planned, and will now be held in October 2017. Parliamentary elections will be held a year after the presidential polls, in October 2018.
An estimated 5 million people have been affected by the drought, a million of whom live in Somaliland. And yet there is little indication that the upcoming elections will be any less financially competitive than those of 2012; despite the findings of Economics of Elections, little has so far been done to amend the electoral or legal framework, or more fundamentally address the culture of electoral competition that initially gave rise to the rapid increase in election campaign costs. The future stakes will only be greater.
Beyond politico-security sustainability
Politico-security sustainability is thus no longer the sole paradigm in which to assess Somaliland’s electoral process. As the drought sadly shows, environmental sustainability is also, sadly, now relevant. Donors will continue to front many of the costs for the technical delivery of the elections, but these sums will be dwarfed by campaign expenditure, in 2017 and, most probably, again in 2018. While much remains uncertain in Somaliland, the coming presidential and parliamentary elections are likely to again be competitive, and therefore expensive. How expensive remains to be seen, but some in the opposition will see their chance to retake the presidential office. The incumbent president, Ahmed Silanyo, may very well choose to not stand again due to ill-health, raising uncertain questions about whom his party will nominate to stand instead. At the same time, the drought, which has displaced many Somalilanders towards the western parts of the country, may harm the opposition parties who traditionally count on support from voters in the east. These citizens, driven by the imperative of survival, may not have returned home by the time the polls are held. Their votes may be even more vulnerable to purchase or corrupt influence in a weakened economic context.
Somalia should not ignore these lessons in electoral sustainability, even if its electoral processes are some way from resembling those of its northern neighbour. Antipathy or reluctance to consider Somaliland’s experience is short-sighted, and while technical, political and security considerations are always going to preoccupy the Somali political class and its backers, the economic dimension should not be consigned to the shadows. The money will continue to matter, and risks corroding whatever achievements are made.
Aly Verjee is a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. He observed the 2005, 2010 and 2012 elections in Somaliland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @alyverjee.
 United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) (2016). “Fact Sheet on Somalia’s 2016 Electoral Process” Available at: https://unsom.unmissions.org/fact-sheet-somalia%E2%80%99s-2016-electoral-process
 Verjee, Aly, Adan Y. Abokor et al. The Economics of Elections in Somaliland: The financing of political parties and candidates. Rift Valley Institute: 2015. Available at: http://riftvalley.net/publication/economics-elections-somaliland#.WKYRQ2QrL-Y
 UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (2016). Somalia: Call for Aid – Drought and El Niño (March 2016) Available at: http://reliefweb.int/report/somalia/somalia-call-aid-drought-and-el-ni-o-march-2016
 UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (2017). Somalia: Humanitarian Snapshot Available at: http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/somalia_humanitarian_snapshot_-_january_2017.pdf