Puntland is a tiny semi-autonomous region in eastern Somalia, the only and first administration under the new federal government in Somalia. It is roughly a third of the country, and has a population of 3.5 million, enjoying relative stability in the better part of the 20 years of civil war in the country.
The region will hold presidential elections on 8th January: 66 members of the parliament picked by the clan elders will elect the speaker of parliament, the president, and his deputy.
Attempts had been made to hold a nationwide election in July 2013, but they were cancelled the day before polling booths were set to open, as it was feared that it might spark violence. “It wasn’t possible at all, because of internal political structure and cultural things, we’re used to a clan system,” Hawa Ahmed, a member of the Puntland diaspora told me.
“We are happy with this process despite the fact that we are not voting, but we believe in our elders, they will pick the right person to lead us,” she said.
Far from the diaspora community, the election process is at the fever pitches in Garoowe, Puntland’s capital city. Here, security has been tightened and posters of more than 17 candidates vying for the president seat on Wednesday’s elections, flooded streets.
One pamphlet read: “Justice, development and equality. Elect Ali Abdi Aware, Puntland spiritual leader.”
Ali Abdi Duale is an editor of a local newspaper, Puntland Post. He was here in Garoowe for the last election: “This is a benchmark of Puntland’s maturity, we had no such abuzz last election, but now, it is totally different.
“We are mature now. You can understand it from the way people are following the election, people are talking about presidential candidates as if they are the ones who are voting,” Duale said, comparing the last election campaign in 2009 with the ongoing build up.
Women empowerment have been one of the most unflattering aspects in Puntland, only one female representative have been selected in the new parliament. Asha Mohamed Nasir works in a tea shop in Garoowe, and she said: “We can marry a man from another tribe, we have been seen as non-committed members to the clan interest. That’s why we are overlooked in the political process.
“But my message remains peaceful election, it’s not important who wins, it’s important how we carry one with the peace that we have enjoyed.”
Flaw in the election process
Former Somalia Prime Minister, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, is one of the biggest rivals of the incumbent president, Abdirahman Farole. He fears that the incompetent policies under Farole’s administration could lead the region in to a social and economic collapse.
“It’s a financial mismanagement what lead to the government workers unpaid for eight months. Its foresightedness and incompetency of the current administration to see this despite the adequate resources that we have in this region,” Ali said.
Farole labeled the criticisms as slanderous, accusing Ali of being a traitor to the Mogadishu-based Somali Government, and that he slowed down development in the region during his reign as a Somalia prime minister. “Do we ask people funded by Mogadishu administration to decide our future?” Farole said, referring to Ali.
“They are funded by Mogadishu only to create mayhem in our region,” he added.
Puntland’s has attempted to transition from clan-based representation to directly-elected government before, but progress has been slower than hoped. The cancellation of local elections in July 2013 underlined the challenges of reconciling competing clan interests with a democratic constitution, a report released by the International Crisis Group (ICG) suggested.
“Cancellation pragmatically averted violence, but societal tensions remain unaddressed,” the report stated.
There is no independent judicial system in the region, and the opposition politicians believe that the election process is in favour of the incumbent president. They refused to recognise an election vetting committee that the current president nominated. This vetting committee will examine eligibility of the parliament members, presidential candidates, as well as oversee the election process.
International Crisis Group also warned about the process of the election saying that “Weak political and judicial institutions will struggle to mediate, risking involvement by partisan arms of the state.”
It said: “Direct elections are no panacea for reducing the conflict risks, but hard-won incremental progress on the constitution and local democratization must not be abandoned.”
Exacerbating clan rifts
Farole’s political rivals accuse him of not honouring his 2009 election campaigns. Solving territorial dispute with the self-declared Republic of Somaliland was chief among his election campaigns then, but he has so far failed to secure the return of the contested borderlands of Sool and Sanaag from Somalilland.
“People have been oppressed and divide politically. They should be reunited, a policy that this administration failed to do,” Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, who was also a former university professor, said.
However, ICG report said, the electioneering is affecting Puntland’s fragile clan-consensus. “Elections bring these complex territorial and political issues to the fore, exacerbating clan cleavages and providing opportunities for extremists, as surely will be the case in many other parts of Somalia as well,” the ICG report said.