Despite its reputation as a lawless environment governed by loose clan structures, Somalia has had a federal government throughout most of the conflicts that have plagued the country since the mid-1980s. For much of that time, however, the government existed entirely outside of Somalia’s borders and had barely any power over the country. Somalia’s federal government returned to the country more than a decade ago, but it has not been able to extend its reach much beyond Mogadishu. Weak and decentralized political institutions have impeded the government’s efforts to develop the rest of the country, even as large swaths of it have been cleared of the militant group al Shabaab. The country’s long-awaited elections — now set to take place from Oct. 23 to Nov. 10 after repeated delays — are meant to signal the start of a new era in Somalia. In reality, though, the elections will not mark a significant achievement for Somali democracy.
After more than 30 years, Somalia is still engulfed in civil war. What originally began as a movement to overthrow the government of Mohamed Siad Barre in the mid-1980s quickly devolved into a complex clan war and eventually gave rise to Islamist groups such as al Shabaab. Though the African Union Mission in Somalia and the Somali armed forces have worked for nearly a decade to restore order to the country, their efforts have not been enough to enable a popular vote. Instead, the next Somali president and government will be chosen by a parliament selected through clan structures. Even after the elections, Somalia will be stuck with the same kind of transitional government that has reigned since Barre was unseated in 1991.
Nonetheless, some important achievements have been made. As part of the upcoming elections, the Somali parliament will adopt a bicameral system, introducing a brand new upper house in addition to a lower house structured much like the existing legislature. The upper house will consist of delegates from Somalia’s diverse substates, including Puntland, Somaliland, Jubaland and Galmudug, thereby promoting closer interaction between their governments and the one in Mogadishu. In these substates, the local governments have proved themselves much more effective than the federal government and have even contributed their own local forces to the security operations throughout the country.
The expansion of the federalist system in Somalia, and its incorporation into the parliamentary system, could be the country’s most notable political achievement since the federal government returned to Mogadishu, but it has not been easy. In pitting Somalia’s various clans against one another for representation, the system often results in a fractured government. Under President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, relative stability has prevailed in the ranks of the government. But the transition to a new group of leaders after the elections could usher in a new era of infighting and directionless governing.