Somalia’s Crooked Route to Democracy

A war-ravaged nation’s first attempt at more-inclusive elections proves tricky

By Matina Stevis

BAIDOA, Somalia— Abdiweli Ibrahim Ali Sheikh Mudey reclined in his plastic chair inside this war-torn city’s fortified perimeter and cracked a smile behind his Ray Bans. He had just been elected, unopposed and unanimously, to Somalia’s new Parliament.

“I will do my best,” the former regional minister said, as ululating supporters whisked him away. He had secured the votes of a handful of delegates—in turn handpicked by clan elders—who cast ballots in front of a coterie of United Nations officials and journalists.

“We have elected the most handsome candidate,” a female delegate said triumphantly, draping herself on Mr. Mudey’s shoulder.

After nearly half a century of civil war, a jihadist insurgency, and tens of billions of dollars of Western aid, Somalia is for the first time attempting something like democracy—and it isn’t looking pretty.

Instead of the one-person, one-vote paradigm—deemed impossible given widespread insecurity and the absence of a census—135 clan elders handpicked 14,025 delegates, who convened in heavily fortified halls across the war-ravaged nation of more than 10 million to select representatives for Parliament, including Mr. Mudey.

After months of delays and accusations of bribery, manipulation and candidate intimidation, the selection of 347 lawmakers was completed in December. Parliament on Jan. 9 re-elected its speaker, signaling a likely second term for President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud —who is from a different clan—as the country’s top offices are traded off among top members of the most dominant clans.

The complex process, which in part aims to move Somalia closer to federalism, is being lubricated with more than $14 million from Western donors. Diplomats say bigger sums are coming in, covertly backed by other foreign powers—including Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates—who are jostling for dominance in the Horn of Africa nation and its strategic perch on the Red Sea.

But the specter of a second term for Mr. Mohamud has raised concerns among Somalis that little will change. Diplomats have widely criticized him for alleged corruption, though he has denied the accusations and hasn’t been charged formally. He is also seen as having failed to contain the Islamist insurgency.

The democratic experiment comes at a crucial moment for this failed state. After the start of the Somali civil war in 1991, the nation went for years without a government. A federal government was constituted in 2012, but even today it lacks key institutions like courts, and is bedeviled by conflict and an aggressive jihadist movement that has crossed into neighboring states.

In the past year, Islamic State has gained a small foothold here, bleeding into Somalia’s al Qaeda-allied al-Shabaab insurgency, and fueled donor determination to prevent Somalia from joining the caliphate or exporting terrorism.

Western diplomats concede that the vote is imperfect, but insist it is a necessary step forward, in particular to bolster regionally organized security forces against the jihadist threat.

While promoting some rules and linking them to further aid—for example, a 30% quota for women parliamentarians, which wasn’t met in this vote—Western donors have maintained that this election is part of their “Somali-solutions-to-Somali-problems” approach.

“Even though the structures are often weak and lack capacity, you’ve got something important going on,” said Michael Keating, the U.N. special representative to Somalia. “I don’t want to get too romantic or starry-eyed about it, but it is a positive development,” he added from the heavily fortified U.N. compound by Mogadishu’s airport.

As the process has unfolded, so have allegations of graft, feeding skepticism over how the experiment will benefit Somalis.

In Adado, a town in Somalia’s central region of Galgadud, 55-year-old schoolteacher Abdirahman Hassan Omar said the process was corrupt.

“There’s no reason I can trust a politician who bought a seat,” he said. “During this election, every person in Somalia was made to think about money because of the rampant corruption…It is only a win for the richest.”

The Somali administration acknowledges that funds are often embezzled and fighting corruption is one of its key areas of cooperation with the international community.

Without a functioning tax system or key economic institutions, and with a financial system that is still severed from that of the rest of the world, Somalia is one of the world’s poorest nations. Although there is no formal record of Somalia’s richest people, some have substantial deposits in international banks and own premium properties in Western capitals, diplomats said.

Reports of extensive vote-buying prompted the U.S. and U.K. embassies to issue a December warning that dual-nationality Somalis could be prosecuted under their antibribery laws, such as the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Another concern is how the election will alter Somalia’s political dynamics, empowering regional states that have long bridled at the concentration of power and money in Mogadishu.

Some donors and experts argue federalism is a necessary step, because deeply entrenched animosity and mistrust among Somali clans make building national institutions like a unified national army impossible.

In areas such as the coastal state of Jubbaland, and its capital and major Somali port, Kismayo, more independence from Mogadishu has been cheered. Leaders there want to determine how to sell rights to their local resources, including fish and gas, and keep much of the revenue.

Abdi Raghe, chair of Kismayo’s local electoral committee, said tough discussions about power sharing lie ahead.

“In the past we had a one-city nation,” Mr. Raghe said from a guarded electoral center in Kismayo. “We are very hopeful the coming government will speed up the process of entrenching the federalism project…We are not, up to now, in agreement.”

Others say Western-backed federalist structures could solidify and legitimize a key source of Somalia’s troubles.

Afyare Abdi Elmi, a professor at Qatar University, argues that cash funneled into the voting process by foreign donors is entrenching the country’s complex clan system, which is often blamed for the country’s extreme and violent fragmentation, and excludes the majority of its people. “This clan federalism project…is in fact creating more problems than it solves.”

Younger Somalis retain some hope that the country can hold a universal election in 2020. For 26-year-old university student Muna Mohamed, the vote was the first since she was born.

“This shows the country is going forward, not looking back to where we came from.”

This article originally was published in Wall Street Journal