Somalia’s Puntland State President Said Abdullahi Deni was seen as a quiet businessman without controversy. However, since last year, he has been raising dust in the nation’s local politics with decisions that have been objected to by donors, opponents and the federal government.
Somalia’s donors on Monday criticised him at a meeting in Nairobi. The meeting is a result of Puntland’s decision to act ‘independent’ from Somalia’s government, including boycotting meetings under an inter-governmental caucus known as the National Consultative Council (NCC) which is supposed to work on the country’s permanent constitution.
“We did explain why we are boycotting the meetings,” a dispatch from Puntland State House said this week, indicating that donors, including the US, UK, European Union and the World Bank discussed security and resource sharing too.
However, a statement from the US Embassy in Somalia said Puntland had been asked to get back to the NCC.
Deni boycotts NCC
“International donors met with Puntland President Said Abdullahi Deni and underlined the importance of Puntland engaging constructively in Somalia’s state-building progress, including thorough participation at the National Consultative Council (NCC),” the embassy said.
The NCC includes Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as chairman, flanked by his Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre and Deputy PM Salah Jama. Other participants included Somalia’s state presidents Ahmed Abdi Qoorqoor of Galmudug, Ali Hussein Gudlawe of Hirshabelle, South West’s Abdiaziz Hassan Laftagareen and Jubbaland’s Ahmed Mohamed Islam Madobe plus the governor of Banadir region-cum-Mayor of Mogadishu Yusuf Jimale Madale.
Since December, Deni has boycotted NCC meetings. He argues the state disagrees with federalisation of the judiciary and separation of the powers and wants to act independently until Somalia draws up a new constitution.
President Mohamud had earlier told an audience in Mogadishu that Puntland’s action is improper.
“As a federal government, we see all our citizens equal and the same applies to all our federal member states,” remarked the Somali president.
Puntland is the oldest federal state among the five. Established in 1998, it has had five presidents including Abdullahi Yusuf, who later became Somalia’s transitional federal president, Adde Muse, Abdirahman Farole, Abdiweli Gaas and now Deni.
Each of them had served a term, even though they were eligible for re-election. Deni has ambitions to break the jinx. Last year, he vied for presidency but lost to Mohamud. His ambitions have now proved divisive in Puntland, with some accusing him of delaying reforms.
Since he lost the vote in Mogadishu, he returned to Puntland to launch an "election plan" which he says will enable locals to vote in the first universal suffrage. His opponents argue that he wasted a year and a half seeking federal presidency, which should have been used to lay the ground for Puntland's governance.
Puntland's constitution actually says universal suffrage should be the model of voting, but it has often relapsed to indirect elections where special representatives vote in the president. Much of this was based on lack of sufficient resources, civic education and a capable electoral body to run the vote, as well as insufficient legal regime.
Deni, who is supposed to be in office until January 2024, has argued that Puntland can pull off one-person-one-vote, starting with local council elections in May and later the presidency.
His opponents argue the idea is to delay the vote because he is starting late in the day.
Horseed calls for intervention
Horseed Political Association, one of the oldest political movements, has challenged the move, arguing it lacks transparency.
“Horseed calls for international intervention for a fair election process,” it said in a statement on Wednesday.
It wants a pause on the election plan until stakeholders agree on modalities including the structure of the local electoral body.
Deni argues it will prepare the ground to a future one-person-one vote in Somalia. Opponents say it is a plot to lock them out. In May, Puntland will elect local councillors who in turn vote for mayors. Candidates must come from registered political associations from the state’s regions. After the local elections, the three top winning movements will register as political parties, eligible to front presidential candidates for the state in January.
“The people don’t trust the intention of the leaders in government. If Deni had begun this from the time he held a pilot phase of elections in the three districts and corrected the mistakes seen then, no one would doubt him,” argued Mohamed Farole, Deni’s opponent and acting chairperson of Horseed Association. He was referring to complaints of voter bribery, use of government vehicles to campaign and other malpractices that emerged in the 2021 trial phase.
“Previous presidents didn’t have the legal framework he has had. They, for example Abdirahman Farole, spent time establishing the institutions and when he tried the project, he was accused of trying to extend the term. His predecessor did not implement it in order to avoid the controversy Deni is walking us into,” he told The EastAfrican.
Although the electoral body decides which associations qualify, opposition groups argue the commission registered movements that didn’t meet criteria. There are at nine political associations in Puntland, four of which are leaning towards the ruling Kaah association.
When Puntland tried the universal suffrage for local council elections in three districts of Eyl, Ufeyn and Qardho in 2021, some of the associations boycotted it, citing malpractices. They included Horseed, Ifiye, Mustaqabal and Run associations. However, donors praised the pilot project.
Once the mayoral elections proceed, two things can happen. Elected representatives can decide when the next parliament can sit, technically giving it a fresh life beyond its last sitting in June, when its five-year term lapses. The parliament can then decide the date of elections for the president, which may be later than January next year, and granting Deni a longer stay in office.
Meanwhile, those who fail to win enough seats in May won’t front candidates for presidency.
Deni’s allies, however, say he is trying to establish institutions.
“President Deni is focused on establishing local governance system in Puntland state to have local council elections followed by a state-level popular vote,” argued Omar Hashi, a federal MP in Somalia.
“On boycotting NCC, he raised concerns on key constitutional questions on federalism particularly issues related to fiscal and power sharing between states and federal government. I think it’s good to listen to him. National consensus on such issues paramount,” Hashi told The EastAfrican.