Comment & analysis

Democratisation in Somalia: reflections on 2016 and beyond

4 April 2017 Oliver Chevreau

On 6 March 2017, Somalia South Central Non-State Actors (SOSCENSA), Puntland Non-State Actors Association (PUNSAA) and Saferworld held an event in Nairobi, Kenya, to reflect on the 2016-17 electoral process in Somalia and the preliminary findings of the Domestic Election Observation Mission (DEOM) carried out by the three partner organisations.

The conference brought together Somali authorities, electoral management bodies, civil society and representatives from international organisations to look at key challenges and successes of the 2016 process, and to share some of the lessons learnt. Participants also discussed key questions around future democratisation. Ulla Tørnæs, Danish Minister for International Development Cooperation, gave a keynote speech, in which she highlighted that while elections act as a vehicle for the peaceful transfer of power, it is important to be cognisant of the risks associated with them.


The 2016 electoral process saw a relatively peaceful transition of power from the previous Somali Federal Government (SFG) to the new one, with results that were widely accepted within Somalia. The electoral model included a stronger role for Federal Member States (FMSs), had a much larger electorate than in 2012, and adopted standard international practices such as secret voting.  The election also engaged many more women and young people than in previous cycles, as candidates, electors and electoral management body officials. Given the tight timeframe, security arrangements for the election were generally well handled and coordinated. The result of these successes was a presidential and parliamentary electoral process that increased women’s political participation, was seen as transparent, and created a sense of optimism around the country.


The 2016-17 electoral process was beset by a number of challenges. Firstly, the process and the bodies that oversaw it lacked a constitutional basis and had unclear rules and regulations. Although planning began as far back as 2012, the timetable leading up to the elections was unrealistic, causing a number of lengthy delays. The process was also marred by tensions between the federal government and FMSs over the electoral model and how parliamentary seats would be allocated. The role of parliament was also undermined as the electoral model and regulations were determined by the National Leadership Forum (NLF), a decision-making forum that was created to address FMS-SFG disputes but lacked any constitutional basis of authority. These electoral arrangements were then enforced by presidential decree as opposed to parliamentary approval. The Electoral College, while expanded from 2012, was still too small to provide meaningful electoral representation.

Another challenge was the tensions between the mandates of electoral institutions at the state and federal levels. Many Somalis felt that the dispute resolution mechanism, which was meant to mediate between these groups, was set up too late and was ineffective. There were difficulties in applying a 30 per cent women’s quota to the complex electoral model. Candidate fees were also a major obstacle for some candidates–reaching $5,000 for men and $2,500 for women to register for a seat in the House of the People, and up to $10,000 and $5,000 respectively for the Upper House. Allegations of vote buying, corruption and harassment of women further plagued the voting process.

Key lessons

Conference participants noted that Somalia’s constitutional review process, which was suspended during the electoral process, needs to be completed and a new constitution needs to be ratified by popular referendum. Once the constitution clearly articulates an electoral model for both federal and state elections, the federal parliament needs to complete legislation for future elections. This will jumpstart preparations for the next elections, including crucial elements that will allow voter registration to begin, such as the demarcation of administrative boundaries.

While preparations for universal elections (expected in 2020-21) need to start immediately, timelines need to be realistic and understand that a transition towards democracy in Somalia is likely to be gradual.

The National Independent Electoral Commission (NIEC) needs significant financial and technical support to be able to deliver universal elections. There needs to be clarity on the mandates of NIEC and state level electoral management bodies. Significant efforts are needed to ensure that political parties are developed ahead of universal elections. It will also be crucial to ensure security so that all Somalis are able to take part in an accountable, democratic election. An effective judiciary and constitutional court will be essential for electoral disputes to be addressed. A considerable investment in voter and civic education is also needed to ensure meaningful participation in future elections.

In the afternoon session, participants reflected on key questions for the future of democratisation.

  • What will “one-person-one vote” elections mean in 2020-21? Will Somalia be ready for this? While universal elections are seen as important for Somalia’s security and development, completion of the stalled constitutional review process is a crucial precursor, as is the establishment of functional institutions for electoral management and oversight.
  • How can Somali politics be made more gender-inclusive, and how can women’s participation be increased by 2020? Women’s equality should be enshrined in the ratified constitution and they should be given leadership roles in the new government. While women’s full and equal participation is likely to take generations, the new government needs to prioritise and champion this cause if there is to be short-term progress.
  • In terms of democratisation, what needs to happen at the Federal Member State level by 2020? Firstly, ongoing national political reconciliation and trust-building efforts among clans is imperative. Federal Member States need to complete the process of border demarcation and define their role in the electoral process in order to avoid overlap with federal institutions. Political parties also need to be formed at the state level if clan dynamics are to be overcome. Lastly, a census and voter registration should be completed to facilitate state-level elections.
  • How can Somalia reach agreement on a new electoral framework for 2020-21? How should electoral systems design be carried out and what different electoral systems should Somalia consider? When reviewing the Provisional Constitution, the government should outline the model and timeframe for future elections. These discussions should also address contentious political issues, including the powers of the president and prime minister and harmonisation of federal and state level elections. Once this is in place, a legal framework can be completed that will allow for elections to take place.
  • How can Somalia’s electoral management bodies be improved and strengthened for 2020-21? The NIEC needs a strategic plan and a clear legal and constitutional mandate. It must be strongly supported by the government of Somalia.
  • What role should civil society play in Somalia’s democratisation process in advance of 2020-21? Civil society has a critical role to play in advocating for the completion and ratification of the constitution as well as the development of a legal framework for elections. Civil society organisations can also take on a leading role in civic and voter education, promoting women’s participation, ensuring the government adheres to the electoral timetable and strengthening relations between the government and Somali citizens.
  • What areas of support should the international community prioritise, and how can international aid for democratisation be made more effective? The international community can play an important role in supporting efforts to review and finalise the constitution. They can also provide financial and technical support for the development of an electoral model, the establishment of electoral institutions, civic and voter education and political party strengthening. Donors should coordinate efforts and ensure that funds are spent strategically.
  • How can Somalia facilitate the emergence of issues-based political parties to represent people’s interests and concerns? Political parties will be instrumental in the transition from a system based on clan affiliation to one based on democracy and the rule of law. This will require significant capacity building to develop an effective parliamentary system.

Read Somalia's 2016 electoral process: preliminary report of the Domestic Election Observer Mission.

Read about Saferworld's work in Somalia.

“ It will also be crucial to ensure security in 2020-21 so that all Somalis are able to take part in an accountable, democratic election.”