Somalia is witnessing the revival of political parties, which vanished from the political landscape about fifty years ago when a coup d’état led by General Mohamed Siyad Barre took power in 1969. The coup prompted the demise of the established liberal multiparty system that had animated the scene since the 1940s and set the tone for the first 9 years of post-independence politics. This liberal experiment was considered highly democratic by some, and corrupt and unscrupulous by others.
This reintroduction of political parties occurs at a time in which Somalia is recovering from protracted internecine warfare, warlordism, militant Islamism, rampant lawlessness and disorder. Somalia has shifted from transitional to a non-transitional, internationally recognized government, and the rebirth of parties is intended to replace the accustomed 4.5 formula – a clan based power sharing apparatus adopted in 2002 during the Arta Conference – to ambitious one person one vote elections in 2020. If this goes to plan – and that is a big ‘if’ – this will proffer suffrage rights to eligible citizens for the first time since 1969, the last time a ‘democratic’ elections was held throughout Somalia.
The existence and effective contribution of political parties in a political system demonstrates the maturity, civility and tolerance of the populace of a given country and its political elite. Party politics is an attribute by which most modern states are characterised, and is often considered vital for representative democracy, economic growth, and the wellbeing of society.
Political parties are of paramount significance in connecting the government and people. They help incorporate citizens into a political system, makes the citizenry more informed about politics, hold politicians accountable for their performance through in-party and cross-party competition, and undertake other functions that are necessary to modern states.
Brief history of Somalia political parties
Somalia, like many other African countries, had multiparty politics that evolved from nationalist movements. These groups struggled to emancipate themselves from European colonialism. Among such nationalist movements was the pre-eminent Somali Youth League (SYL) in the Italian Trusteeship and the pioneering Somali National League (SNL) in the Somaliland British Protectorate.
Political movements in Somalia evolved from civil society organizations that first blossomed in Somaliland British Protectorate in the 1920s due to its proximity to Aden, and then steadily penetrated into Italian Somalia. These social organizations were driven by the desire to enhance education and betterment of lives of the indigenous peoples, goals that the colonial powers did not necessarily see threatening their oppressive rule.
Later on, these social groupings turned into political organizations through the encouragement of the British Military Administration that ruled the whole Somali inhabited territory, except Djibouti, after the defeat of Italy in the Second World War. The latter denied granting this right to the colonized people fearing popular resistance.
Although this move was hailed as a rare opportunity for Somalis suffering under oppressive colonial rule, the British Military Administration liberalization policy was not intended as a precursor for independence. Instead it imposed some safeguards on newly social-turned-political organizations to ensure they operated within the framework put in place by the colonial authority.
The clan factor
Among these parties were the Somali Youth League and the Hisbiya Dastuur Mustaqil. The nature of the political parties that were configured during that time and its aftermath reflected wider divides amongst the Somali people, namely through clan and lineage segments. This was similar to other African nationalist movements of the era, organised along ethnic or ‘tribal’ lines.
It is noteworthy that the SYL, the largest party, was the only party pursuing nationalistic objectives in Italian Somaliland. It derived most of its support from major clans – the Hawiye and the Daarood – in the south who traded leadership roles in the party between each other. The rest of the parties that sprung up across the Somali region were either purely clan or sub-clan associations or puppet entities established to further the interests of foreign states. This situation hindered efforts towards achieving total independence from colonial rule.
Multi-partyism did not help Somalia transcend narrow tribal allegiances or emphasise the common interests that united all Somalis. Instead, it further deepened tribalism. Parties were instruments used to set clans against each other by conspiring colonizers, and would go on to undermine stability in post-independence Somalia.
The demise of political parties
Somali political parties during the fifties and sixties unravelled and played a role in the destabilisation and polarization of the society. Political parties impeded the growth of the Somalia’s nascent democracy. They constantly squabbled, and conflicts took place among clans over power sharing. They mobilized and incited clan loyalty to gain political spoils, tainting the election process through rigging, and intimidation. There were constant defections from clan-based parties to the dominant SYL party, though many then formed small clan parties when elections approached.
The inherent evils of the system culminated in the demise of the pluralism that Somalia had previously been acclaimed for. This came about in the wake of the last election of 1969, which saw the participation of more than 62 clan-based parties advancing roughly 1002 parliamentary contestants for 123 seats in the national assembly.
The dominant SYL party came out victorious in this election, receiving the majority of seats through fraudulent measures and absorbing opposition members, pushing the country towards a one party system.
The disenchantment with pluralism led to the assassination of the late president Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke on 15 October 1969 and was followed by coup instigated by the national army just five days later. The country fell into the hands of military strongman, Mohamed Siyaad Barre, who ruled the country with an iron fist for 21 years. This was the destiny to which clannish multi-partyism brought the country.
Fifty years later: the revitalisation of party politics
After fifty years, political organizations are making a bid to move away from the clan politics that has marred the country since it plunged into civil war and state collapse. The resurrection of the multi-partyism began following the establishment of the National Independent Electoral Commission and the approval of the long awaited law governing the political parties by parliament on 7th July 2016 (although a number of political organizations had existed prior to these instruments put in place to regulate the operation of parties).
Political parties, new and old, face similar challenges. They lack the essential credentials such as ideology, institutional structure, established support bases, experience and the ability to be represent citizens regardless of their tribal affiliations.
The new political parties are emerging in a different situation. The country underwent a protracted conflict, social trust has been lost, regionalism is rife, religious sectarianism is a means to garner political advantage, and tribalism is more entrenched than ever before.
Furthermore, they do not qualify for political parties’ status because they are personalised around the founder(s), do not have offices beyond the capital city, and lack reliable funding sources and organizational capacity. They are ineffective in the mechanisms of elections and fade away as soon as this season is over.
Currently, the number of the political parties granted accreditation by the NIEC, albeit temporarily, exceeds twenty and others are on the waiting list to be recognised without satisfying the conditions embedded in the political parties’ law.
If the number continues on this course and is not limited, then this reflects the country may backslide into the failed experiment of the 1960s, and lead to conflict cycles more bitter than what we have had before.
Three political parties: a viable option for Somalia?
In the light of our past political history and anarchic present, I argue that the adoption of multiparty system is not suitable for the time being and will not help to heal past wounds.
I propose, adopting a limited multipartyism, which restricts the number of the political parties to three national parties with distinctive ideologies and political programs, and which between them can broadly represent all Somalis.
This does not imply that the political space is open to just three parties; political associations can continue to exist, though with a lower official status.
The three parties model can be realized through amending the articles in the current political parties legislation pertaining to the conditions of the registration of political parties. Further preconditions could be inserted to harden the formation of political parties and setting a percentile threshold to be garnered by every political organizations in local government elections preceding parliamentary elections.
The largest three parties that strike the target threshold will be recognized as national parties for a term of fifteen years, after which another contest will be held among political associations to determine which parties could be national in scope and then compete for parliamentary seats.
Hopefully, this paradigm will help ease the bitter clannish environment and compel politicians, erstwhile divided along clan lines, to create consensus and come together to achieve what otherwise would be difficult. Somaliland’s experience of a three party system also shows that this system can be replicated. This has been seen as being fairly successful and provides an example of a workable system in a Somali (and clan-based) social context.
Finally, the NIEC could impose safeguards to ensure that political parities comply with political parties’ law and do not propagate rhetoric intended to draw publicity and support but detrimental to national cohesion.
Likewise, the political parties and their leaderships should come up with shrewd foresight and creative ideas that help nurture the awareness of the citizenry. They should put public good over narrow personal interest, build consensus and condemn any language that reanimates the past memories of a conflict that still weighs so heavily on the population.
Farhan Isak Yusuf is a lecturer and the head of the department of political science of the faculty of political science and public administration at Mogadishu University.