Puntland Elections: Between Hope and History

Published: March 15, 2019

Semi-autonomous state in north eastern of Somalia is a region officially known as Puntland which established a local government in its territory in 1998, 7 years after the collapse of the central government in Somalia. Unlike its western border neighbor of Somaliland which declared self-proclaimed independent country from the rest of Somalia. Puntland was founded on two basic principles: to govern and stabilize its territories, and to recover and rebuild national central government together with the rest of the country. Somalia’s prolonged civil war has produced national tragedy and fraction of social fabric which has become extremely complicated mosaic pieces to re-collect together. 

In its 20 years of existence despite enormous economic and security challenges Puntland has survived from extremist groups, pirates, and border disputes.  In addition Puntland has had political challenges and stagnation of not moving beyond clan based politics which was the basis of its foundation in 1998 as delegates and political representation was nominated on clan basis from different districts. Currently Puntland needs desperately to reform itself from clan politics and move towards more inclusive and healthy political process where citizens have the rights to run and elect the leaders of their choice to political offices. 

Unpredictable presidential race was to unfold in Puntland in the beginning of this year as the state was set to enter its fifth election with unprecedented numbers of candidates running for the highest office of the state. This election were highly contested and followed closely not only in Puntland but all over the country and in the whole region and members of international community. People living in Puntland had a lot at stake as state was drifting and worn down, it badly needed capable leadership who can reenergize and give new direction to the state. 

Thirty-three candidates were running for the presidency – the highest number of presidential hopefuls in the state of nearly 4.0 million people. Unemployment, polarization, inflation and the continuing battle against extremist groups dominated the campaign but a lot more issues was at stake substantially ensuring regional stability and Puntland’s role and cooperation with the Federal Government of Somalia.

Spectacular elections 

Unlike previous presidential races in Puntland and elsewhere in Somalia these elections were the most spectacular elections in the whole country as presidential candidates were organizing big campaign rallies across the state and there were billboards ads in main streets demonstrating pictures and slogans of different candidates. Candidates held big town meetings delivering sugar coated speeches to their supporters while criticizing the administration on its shortcomings. Candidates introduced their political programs to the public and spread campaign ads on social media targeting citizens and decision makers online to influence public opinion. 

One of the major pitfalls of the presidential race was that candidates didn’t represent any political parties and debates between presidential candidates were not possible despite some efforts by independent committee named by civil society representatives PUNSA (Puntland Non State Actors) trying to arrange debates between the candidates but this was impossible because of the large number of candidates and some of the candidates being reluctant to the idea. Some presidential candidates formed a coalition called Puntland Focus Group to pressure the administration to constitute the election on time and to mobilize against government restrictions regarding the elections. Apart from that there was poor cooperation between candidates; the common shared concern amongst the candidates was the crucial need to change the status quo of the state and that reform was imperative. Women marginalization was also a big setback in the election as there was only one female MP in the parliament of 66 representatives, traditional leaders blocked women for meeting 30% quota because of deeply rooted clan politics and strong cultural and traditional values. On the other hand youth representation was at its peak in this election as 30% of the selected MP’s were from youth under 35 years. 

On 8thJanuary the atmosphere in Garowe was very tense as Puntland was set to enter its fifth presidential election and security was very high, electoral interference within the state and from other parts of the country was under tight scrutiny. The presidential race was unpredictable and only 66 parliamentarians had the decisive role in the final hours of the election. The first round votes was split between two most favorable candidates Said Deni (19) and General Asad Osman (17) , Fararh Ali shire was seated number three (9) as incumbent President Abdiweli Gaas got only (8) votes to drop out of the race in the first round. 

Three candidates qualified to round two, the two most favorite candidates split the votes again as General Asad Osman received 31 votes, Said Deni 29 and Farah Ali Shire 9 votes. Third round marked the end of bitter campaign between two frontrunners, Said Deni having an older image, experience and intellectual appeal, as General Asad having emotional appeal, new face in politics and good records of service in the security field. After the third round votes, the young General got 32 votes as the Said Deni got 34 votes becoming the states fifth president.

Diaspora engagement beyond politics

Puntland Diaspora was pro-actively involved in the elections, almost half of the presidential candidates coming back from Diaspora themselves and the other half was from the local. Diaspora communities have a significant impact and role in Somalia, Puntland has one of the biggest Somali Diaspora communities. According to Somali expertise Somali Diaspora’s contribution in remittance, humanitarian and development assistance is more valuable to the region than foreign donations. But the role of Diaspora taking lead in the politics became heated topic during recent Puntland election and many locals were opposed to the dominance of the Diaspora claiming that locals have better understanding of the country, culture and people and therefore should have the privilege to lead the state, but some other locals had different views acknowledging Diaspora’s efforts and contributions to the state.  

I was one of the Diaspora members to go back and participate in the run up for the election with other colleagues; we had a warm reception from different civil society groups. We participated in social forums advocating for social justice, democratization, accountability and political participation for youth and women.  

I think Puntland needs deeper Diaspora engagement in order to attract skills and investment from its Diaspora communities in different parts of the world. The primary focus should not be on who gets selected into different political seats, the exchange between the locals and diaspora should focus on promoting student internships, sharing  business ideas, valuable experiences/resources of the Diaspora to boost the development of the state. The current administration should focus on putting right policies and incentives in place to accelerate the economic and cultural development initiated by the Diaspora community to its full potential.   

Old ways of doing things is not anymore valid to current problems where you have profoundly alienated young people who feel left out and left behind, we need social programs to rehabilitate the youth.  Democracy and political participation, end of tribal posting, fighting corruption are essential steps to move away from the current discourse onto achieve political stability and security.

The only way we can find new perspectives, and actionable solutions to tackle complex problemsis to bring together policymakers, researchers, engaged citizens and Diaspora activists to discuss innovative solutions to transform our future and create sustainable and just societies .On conclusion Puntland Diaspora have to move beyond building relationships with politicians and leaders, we need to build stronger relationships with communities, we have to be willing to take ourselves into tasks and that requires a work from all of us. 

Hanad Boqor Abdullahi

The writer is BBA, freelancer and community organizer.

Email: Hanadb@hotmail.com

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