While the world was rightly fixated on the new President of Somalia Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s election, al-Shaabab’s attempt at his assassination, and his inauguration over the last few weeks, another electoral process began in Somalia’s semi-autonomous northern state of Puntland; and it’s not off to a good start.
Political Competition in Puntland
Members of the Puntland Electoral Commission began a campaign on the 22nd of September to raise public awareness about the new electoral law and the beginning of registration for “political associations” for the upcoming district-level elections.[i] Yet Puntland’s opening toward multipartism was overshadowed by a provision in the recently passed constitution which extends the President’s term for a fifth year. This inspired hundreds of protestors to greet the Electoral Commission in the city of Gardo with a large demonstration. The protestors set fire to tires, carried banners and chanted “No 5 Years” throughout the city centre, eventually closing businesses and clearing the streets. Just a day later, the government responded by closing a clan elder’s office in Puntland’s commercial capital of Bosaso, after the five major clans of the Bari province released a statement also condemning the President’s extension. A military police convoy confiscated all the office equipment, including computers and furniture, and shut down the gathering space for elders and community leaders.[ii]
The source of discontent, the new state constitution, was passed through a referendum exercise by 500 chosen elders and civil society leaders on 18 April 2012. While the document does include some progressive improvements, and allows for multi-party elections for the first time in the 14 year history of the state, the fifth year for the presidency was solely seen as a political manoeuvre. Especially, as President Abdirahman Mohamud Farole and his four year term was set to expire on the 8th of January 2013.
Some observers see the extension “as [a] nonissue,” necessary for the implementation of recent reforms, and believe the protests were simply an attempt of Farole’s political opponents to foment instability. The President himself indirectly addressed the protests and the “new era” of multi-party politics, but rejected the right of the opposition to instigate civil unrest. Although the protestors certainly tried to test Farole’s patience for political competition, the President’s recent behaviour has raised some additional questions regarding his broader political ambitions and plans for Puntland state.
Puntland’s Agenda in Mogadishu
Puntland was a major player in Somalia’s recently concluded end of transition roadmap[iii] and possessed a great deal of leverage to drive the process, as a relatively stable governing entity with plenty of independent capacity. As hosts of the two constitutional conferences in the state’s capital city Garowe, the Puntland delegation was primarily responsible for the strong federalist system built into the Somali provisional constitution and the decision for delegates of member states to be represented in the Upper House of Parliament. Both these issues were extremely contentious, and will be up for debate in the newly elected Federal Parliament.[iv] How they are interpreted by the national legislative body will ultimately shape Puntland’s relationship with the government in Mogadishu.
Unlike its neighbour to the West, Somaliland, Puntland has so far not expressed its desire to be independent. However, the night before Hassan Sheikh’s election in Mogadishu, the government did release a statement threatening secession if the process lacked fairness and if it allowed failed politicians of the past to be elected. During the final days of the Hassan Sheikh’s selection process for the new Somali Prime Minister, there are even reports that the autonomous region is demanding that a Majerten (the most dominant sub-clan in Puntland) be chosen, with the consequences undefined. To perhaps address this issue, President Hassan Sheikh’s first national trip will include a stop in Garowe.
Puntland has also taken a variety of unilateral steps to build its own governing capacity, without any real consultation with its partners in the central government. The President negotiated oil contracts and begun drilling without a national oil law determining how revenue is to be distributed, and created the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF) to rid the coast of piracy. This particular initiative was funded and armed by the United Arab Emirates, trained by South African-linked Sterling Corporate Services and various military contractors, and was in complete violation of the United Nations arms embargo.[v] Despite its actual effectiveness in tackling the piracy threat, its creation further displays Mr. Farole’s independent spirit and personal initiative, a problem for a Somali state desperate for national unity.
Given that the initial attempts at oil have come up empty, and the funding for the anti-piracy program has been cut following international condemnation, it is likely that the Puntland state would struggle to stand alone. Yet these setbacks do not necessarily limit Mr. Farole’s role in broader Somalia, as he still maintains the capacity to manipulate outcomes in Mogadishu, and interfere in the constitutional reform and statebuilding processes.
But while Puntland looks able and ready to define and protect its place at the national level, Mr. Farole would be well advised to monitor his situation at home. Neglecting those in his own state could make his efforts in Mogadishu obsolete, even with the protection of his constitutional mandated one-year extension. The protests are just the latest challenge to his legitimacy, and the establishment of a more vocal opposition is simply one of the many consequences of multi-party politics. Time will tell if President Abdirahman Mohamud Farole can handle a little local competition.
[i] After registering for a “political association”, the top three groups following the district vote will become Puntland’s official political parties, and represent their constituents in the state’s representative bodies for the next ten years. The other registered associations will be eligible for only district level seats. See Josh Linden’s reflections from the Center on Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown for greater detail: http://www.democracyandsociety.com/blog/2012/08/10/puntlands-democratic-transition-new-electoral-laws/.
[ii] This decision was especially significant as clan elders play a major role Puntland’s legislative process. In addition to helping solve local disputes within the community, the traditional council of elders had previously nominated the candidates for the Puntland House of Representatives.
[iii] When the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was unable to complete its transitional tasks by August 2011, the international community agreed to a one-year extension, but required that it accept a detailed framework and timeline for establishing a new government. The “Roadmap to End the Transition” was signed on 6 September 2011 by six Somali politicians (the former TFG president and prime minister, speaker of parliament, Puntland and Galmudug Regional Presidents, a representative from the armed Sufi group Ahlu Sunnah Wa Jama’a) and the UN Special Representative.
[iv] The Provisional Constitution for Somalia was entered into force on 2 August 2012 in Mogadishu, but all of its articles will be up for debate by the Federal Parliament before being presented to the Somali people in a national referendum for final approval. See the United Nations Political Office in Somalia’s (UNPOS) Guidebook on the Provisional Constitution for further details regarding this evolving document.
[v] See Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 2002 (2011), UNSC S/2012/544, 13 July 2012, pp. 21-23 and Annex 5.3 for the full extent of the allegations.