Youth inclusion and participation in Somali politics: challenges and opportunities

Somalia is a youthful country with a high fertility rate. Approximately 70% of the population is under the age of 30, and more than 60% of the population is under the age of 25. With this huge youth population, young people at working age suffer from the impacts of a high unemployment rate, which is estimated to stand at 60%; one of the highest in the world.

Another problematic issue for the Somali youth is the low literacy rate. The high unemployment and illiteracy rates are direct consequences of the lack of properly functioning public institutions that can harness the powers and direct the energies of the youth to the benefit of the common good.

These two factors combined have detrimental implications for the youth which expose them to vulnerability and exploitation from dangerous elements in society.

Youth representation in state-level politics

Somali youth are under great strain from different issues, but this doesn’t do be waning due to inertia in politics at both the national and state level. As progress in politics can translate into transformations of the lives of youth for the better, many more young people are now engaged in politics than ever before – though with different aims and ambitions in mind. To a large extent this has followed the devolution of power in recent years to Somalia’s federal member states.

Formerly, politics was a domain preserved for only the old who are financially able and well connected. Politics was often regarded as an end itself and an instant cash cow profession, not an avenue readily available to affect change for the masses. Even though the political process has opened up to the youth, the grim reality is that old egocentric habits that disfigured Somali politics still persist and are even entrenched with new blood injected in the politics at different levels.

Nevertheless, young people account for a significant number of members in the parliaments of the federal member states, which were forged between 2013 and 2016 (save for Puntland which has been in place since 1998). For instance, the current Galmudug parliament boasts of about 50% young legislators among its 89-members, of which three are young female MPs (in total, there are eight female MPs in the Galmudug parliament). In a similar fashion, youth constitute about 50% of the Galmudug executive.

Further, in the Jubaland state parliament, youth make up approximately 23% of the 75-seat member parliament, and women MPs are 6 in number. In Puntland, youth represent roughly 28% of the 66-member seat parliament, though only one woman is a member of its parliament, which has the lowest female representation compared to the other states. In South West state’s parliament youth constitute around 45% of the 97-seat member parliament between the age of 25 and 35. Youth female MPs account for 3% of the youth MPs percentage while the total number of the women MPs in the South West parliament is 13. Lastly, youth account for about half of the recently selected Hir-Shabelle parliament.

Of important note, youth are not only noticeably present in the higher echelons of state-level decision-making centers but often form the backbone of the states’ bureaucracies and are significantly employed as aides, advisors, and consultants either for senior state officeholders or mostly nascent state institutions.

Youth representation at national level politics.

Somali political space has been characterized as being open since the removal of the politics of warlordism that beleaguered the country for so long, although its vestiges remain. The entry barriers to Somali politics have been mild compared to the region and wider global state system, but constraints have increased as the fluid status of Somali politics inches towards stability. These limitations have surfaced due to a variety of reasons including – but not limited to – the monetization of politics, increasing number and influence of foreign patrons, and outright absence of universal suffrage elections, which would have offered youth an opportunity to elect and to be elected.

With these emerging challenges, youth threw themselves in politics. They appeared in the successive governments established since 2000 but at varying numbers. In the 9th Somali federal parliament (2012-2016), the youth had some representation although the exact figure is not available. Nonetheless, it heralded a new epoch for youth entry to politics and assuming roles and a much-needed space at decision-making tables.

Added momentum for youth was found in the 2016 indirect elections of the 10th parliament where a significant number of young contenders were selected for both lower and upper houses of the bicameral parliament by their respective sub-clans. Remarkably, youth account for about 14 percent of the current 10th parliament. Besides that, they are members of the executive but their representation at ministerial level is negligible.

Mogadishu electoral model: A death blow for the youth

After months of disputes between the FGS, some of the FMS and opposition groups over upcoming elections and electoral models, FGS and FMS leaders held consecutive conferences in Dhusamareb in 2020 to defuse the escalating election-related impasse.

The last round of Dhusamareb talks culminated in an electoral model, despite lacking the consent of Jubaland and Puntland state executives who boycotted the conference. Another conference completing the Dhusamareb efforts was held in Mogadishu, which brought together FGS and FMS leaders to cut all accented deal that will close the curtain over uncertainties on elections. At long last, the convened leaders signed an agreement on the electoral model named “The Mogadishu Model” on 17th September 2020.

The agreement was applauded however many of its terms were regressive and had many flaws. One striking element – which was disliked by many people – was the prohibitive fees demanded from candidates vying for elected offices ($10,000 registration fees for the House of the People candidates and $20,000 for the Upper House candidates). This inhibitive fee strangles and disenfranchises both youth and women who were already disproportionately underrepresented on the tables where decisions affecting their lives are determined.

Against this backdrop, Somali Public Agenda and Youth Peer Education Network (Y-Peer) in Somalia co-organized a forum that took place on Thursday, 12th November 2020 in Mogadishu under the theme “The role of the Somali youth in the upcoming Somalia parliamentary and presidential elections: opportunities and challenges’ aiming to debate prospects for young people and constraints they may encounter in this electoral cycle.

One issue that dominated the discussion and echoed by most participants was the hefty fees to be paid by candidates running for both Houses of the federal parliament. The increased fees will specifically disadvantage youth with political ambition but who lack the financial resources necessary to become involved in the process before and during election phases without relying on other sources for funds. This fee reduces and relegates them to mere passive spectators in the political process that invariably works against their interests, particularly in election model that does not involve universal suffrage, rather selections of candidates by electoral college delegates.

Accordingly, two of the three panelists of the discussion showed their concerns and argued that prohibitive fees will impede youth to independently run for seats in the two chambers. A female panelist and aspirant for a seat in the House of the People of the federal parliament raised the alarm and said: “I am a mother, and the income I earn can only pay the expenses of my family. To run for a seat in the parliament, I have to either solicit funds from other ‘sources’ or abandon the idea altogether’’. By the same token, a male panelist, concurs with the case made by the former panelist. He asserted that the high fees embody real restrictions to the candidates, particularly young people.

On the contrary, some argue and support for the increased fees for parliamentary candidacy and view them as an instrument to separate genuine candidates from bogus candidates who only want to derive fame from standing for elected office. For instance, another female panelist – an MP at the House of the People – was not bothered about the prohibitive fees charged on potential contenders for seats in the both houses of the parliament. She asserted that she previously advocated for raising the bar.

Challenges for youth engagement in politics

Somali youth face a myriad of hurdles that stand their way in effectively getting involved in politics, despite constituting the majority of the population. The following sample of youth challenges is the tip of the iceberg.

Lack of organization: Somali youth across the board lack necessary organizations that could mobilize youth energy and direct it for the common good. This would include putting pressure on the administrations at different levels to design and implement policies that benefit youth. Nevertheless, many of the organizations are shoddy or dormant that have no discernable effect on how politics works and how policies are made.

Divisive and clannish mindset: seeing and evaluating everything through the prism of clan can deprive youth from standing up for the advocacy on the issues that affect them and holding authorities accountable.

Indirect elections: back-to-back indirect elections are major limitation to the youth involvement in the political process. Due to the rather narrow political space, many of the youth end up being campaigners for other politicians. This might be the only option since politics is a reserve for the financially-able and well-connected. If there were universal suffrage elections, politically ambitious youth would have had higher prospects for winning seats since they are often closer to the local communities and lived realities on the ground.

Monetized politics: The unaccounted money that streams into Somali politics is detrimental to the political ambitions of the youth as they have little access to resources that allegedly come from external actors. Until there is an equilibrium and a level playing field, youth disenfranchisement will likely continue.

Prospects for youth involvement in the politics

The picture is not all grim, and there is light at the end of the tunnel. Somali youth have some opportunities that revive the dim hope of greater youth involvement in politics.

First, the diffusion of information and communication technologies among the Somali youth bodes well for gaining a grounded understanding of how other states function and how theirs performs in comparison. This creates pressure on the government to behave responsibly and meet the needs of its citizens. The increase of information due to the spread of digital technology allows Somali youth to be more informed, sensitive to their issues, check abuse of power by power holders and compel politicians to come to fulfil their rhetoric and promises.

Second, the number of those who enroll in schools and universities is gradually increasing urban centers, which spurs the civic and political awareness of the youth and forges a unified force to fight for their rights. The more the youth become politically literate, active and engaged, the more the youth disassociate themselves from identifying with clan identity and replace this with common, shared identity.

The way forward

To disentangle the many shackles that constrain youth, and to ensure strong and competent representation for the youth:

Somali youth should join forces and form effective and strong organizations that are truly representative, not self-interested and transcend clan lines that keep youth apart at state and federal levels. These youth organizations should lobby for youth interests and amplify their voices to be heard. These kind of youth organizations are seen as the most efficient mechanisms to pressure government and politicians to deal with the plight of the young people in good faith. They can also can be a place where youth resources and energies are mobilized and consolidated to support youth engagement in politics.

Somali youth have significant potential to bring about change and restore some sanity to the body politic only if they recognize their immense power and act collectively to ensure that public institutions are sensitive and responsive to their needs at the different tiers of the federal system. For this to happen, they should not heed the calls of the selfish and clannish politicians but create a sense among the youth that the time of fooling them is over, and that they are awake and more informed than ever thanks their access to information.

Youth should amass as much wealth of political knowledge, skills and experience as possible before venturing into politics. This will allow them to challenge myths about appropriate political practice (and the idea that it is merely a get rich quick scheme) and transform politics into an instrument of lifting the poor from despondency and better the lives of everyone in society.

Farhan Isak Yusuf is a researcher at Somali Public Agenda.

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