Somalia had been calm and focused on Al-Shabaab militants until December 18 when an old problem re-emerged: When does a term of federal state president actually start and end? A common problem in all of Somalia’s federal states, this time it befell on South West state, one of the regions where al Shabaab is most endemic to in Somalia with blockaded roads and infiltrated sectors.
And State President Abdiaziz Hassan Laftagareen is fighting claims his term had expired, four years after he was elected. Mr Laftagareen’s presidential victory back in 2018 had raised a storm.
His opponent, former Shabaab leader Mukhtar Rubow was controversially put under house arrest over claims he hadn’t reformed well enough, allowing Laftagareen easy wins. Rubow is now Somalia’s Minister for Religion.
This week though, Laftagareen was facing mounting opposition to his gambit after an informal militia known as the Salvation Army of South West started showed up at public events wearing military fatigues, claiming they will take over as interim authority and force elections to be conducted.
“Anyone who wants to fight for South West should fight Al-Shabaab which is the threat to our region,” Laftagareen responded Wednesday.
“Parliament (of South West) has responsibility to amend laws of our federal state and we will go with the decision of parliament when that time comes,” he responded, threatening to crush the so-called Salvation Army of South West.
The source of the problem; elections of the state presidency must align with those of the state parliament. The latter’s polls are not due until March 2024. The term for each is four years as per the state constitution.
“Laftagareen’s move to cling to power beyond his term limit threatens the peace and the state’s fragile system. We are very concerned about the rapidly escalating political turmoil and deteriorating security in Baidoa and other parts of the state,” said a local caucus of politicians known as the Council of Presidential Candidates of South West.
“The overall country security hinges on the defeat of al Shabaab which controls significant territories in Southwest State,” it added, citing the infiltration by militants.
South West’s problem is not unique though. Puntland, Jubbaland and Galmudug have all had wrangles on presidential term limits. Somalia’s other federal state is Hirshabelle.
In most cases, a gentleman’s agreement solved the impasse. South West had in April 2020 extended the term of Laftagareen through a parliamentary motion, ostensibly to align their terms so the next polls are held at the same time. However, opposition groups now say the decision had no legal backing.
Omar Hashi, the Somali Federal MP representing Jubbaland state said the reasoning behind extending term limits may be noble, but it has been poisoned by perceived greed among politicians.
“The current driving factor is to harmonise the mandate of all [federal member state) presidents. There is disparity in their constitutional terms in office; for example, some four years, others have five years. So, they want to make it a uniform five-year term,” Omar said.
“It would have been good to propose and sanction such changes after elections and implemented in the subsequent terms. But it seems current office holders want to cut the coat according to their size. It is prudent to respect to constitutional term limits and allow peaceful transfer of power. Any changes must be done through a collective decision among all stakeholders.”
“There is no provision in the provisional constitution that allows federal member states to extend their terms, although I believe the Provisional Constitution needs to be reviewed,” Abdirahman Mohamud Farole, a federal Senator in Somalia and former President of Puntland state told The EastAfrican.
Farole admitted he hadn’t looked at all individual constitutions of all federal member states but cited Article 79 of the Puntland Constitution as specifically forbidding any term extensions of the state president.
“It is dangerous. Anyone who attempts to overrun the constitution by extending their terms is the one who wants to burn the country by way of stirring civil war,” Farole said.
“To my knowledge, the terms of the federal member states presidents have to be written in the federal constitution. That is the practice world over even in the US and Australia.”
For Somalia, the problem though could be which law to follow, or lack of a law to obey. In Puntland, President Said Abdullahi Deni’s term ends in January 2024. But he recently faced criticism from some quarters for seeking to implement direct local elections in all districts first, something critics say could delay the presidential elections plan.
Lack of clarity
Abdirisak Aden, a former Permanent Secretary in Somalia, now the Executive Director at Farsight Africa Research and Policy Studies, a Mogadishu-based think-tank, thinks the jitters are based on flawed elections in the past and a lack of clarity on the role of the federal government and federal member states in running elections.
Puntland’s constitution is older than the federal provisional supreme laws. And Somalia hasn’t reviewed laws to define powers, limits, tenures and relations between different levels of government.
The federal states operate semi-independent of the Villa Somalia, affected only by local political and security issues, he argued referring to the seat of the federal government in Mogadishu.
“There is also the question of the international community’s role and lack of clear unified agenda on elections Federal and FMS level,” he said.
With the federal government focused on fighting Al-Shabaab, “the FMS presidents have found a loophole and taken advantage of the distraction.
“The international community faces a dilemma in Puntland, for example. On the one hand, it supports Puntland’s journey towards democracy and organising 1P1V (universal suffrage) polls at the district level. But at the same time, this requires a wider political agreement within Puntland’s political stakeholders as a precondition to organise peaceful, transparent legitimate democratic elections.
“On South West, Galmudug and Jubbaland, a unilateral extension of FMs presidency will lead to political, and security turmoil this political conflict will jeopardise the fight against Al-Shabaab.
No matter the reasoning, some observers worry that the Federal government may watch over events and borrow a leaf to pad down its own nesting space.
“If the extension of regional state presidents’ terms goes smoothly, then the federal government will change the term of President and the parliament to five years, said Abdalla Ahmed Ibrahim, Director of think-tank East African Centre for Research and Strategic Studies.
“In my view, four years is not enough for both federal and regional states. Let them extend. However, this extension should be effective for the next government after the current terms end,” he told The EastAfrican.
He also speculated that federal states had timed the change knowing that the federal government in Mogadishu wouldn’t risk squabbling with state chiefs from whom it needs support against Al-Shabaab.