Friday, June 09, 2023
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Federalism and Failed Democratization: The Case of Puntland

By Faisal A Roble

Established in 1998, the Puntland State of Somalia is often billed “the mother of federalism.”  In the last 20 years, Federalism as a system of governance has been debated by Somalis. Still, there is a lack of clear understanding and consensus about how it will be applied. Politically wedded  to the unfair 4.5-clan system of power sharing, both regional and national leaders made the implementation of the draft federal constitution more difficult. 

The essence of core-periphery discussion is to address regional inequality between the center and regions (Freedman, John, 1986). The recent history of Somalia necessitated federalism. It is born out of extreme power and wealth inequality that goes back to the founding of the Republic. 

Between 1960 and 1990, acute inequity was promoted between Mogadishu and the rest of the country. The paradigm of development, often referred as “import substitution” led to the creation of a consumerist cross-clan elite who made Mogadishu its home; a “tripartite elite” that ended up destroying the first republic of Somalia (Roble, Faisal, 2009) promoted non-negotiable inequity.

While the majority of Mogadishu residents were extremely impoverished, a small group of cross-clan elite was living in opulence: land grabbing, real estate development, national budget embezzlement, expansive consumerist taste in the form of luxury cars, importation of expansive vague apparels, and vacations to Europe and the Middle East were prioritized by the elite.

Inequity was the underlying cause of the 1990 civil war. The immediate cause was, however, a frustrated tripartite political elite that not only waged an armed struggle, but sought help from Somalia’s erstwhile enemy – Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Ethiopia. In short, the elite ended up destroying the very state apparatus it utilized for its own gains.

Like the proverbial Sphinx, Somalia’s federalism, therefore, rose from the ashes of pre- and post-civil war destruction. A powerful case for federalism as the potential solution to rebuilding the second republic was made as far back as the 1980s by a poignant and intellectually stimulating treatise delivered through the now defunct Radio Kulmis, a news outlet by the Addis Ababa based opposition groups. The program featured the late veteran journalist Mustafa Haji Nour interviewed by one Abdisalam of SSDF (Haji Nour, Mustafe, 1982). 

This fact puts to rest the false narrative that federalism was introduced, rather engineered, by Ethiopia in 2004 and thereafter. It is without exaggeration to say that even some well-meaning Somali intellectuals accepted this position uncritically.

The Debate

Where regionalists think that the center is egregious on sharing power and resources, critics of regional leaders also emphasise the lack of power devolution to districts. 

As the concept of federalism holds that societies “act locally and think globally,” Puntland intentionally reversed that concept. Its leaders have been skillful in using the constitution to check intrusive powers of the Somali Federal Government (SFG) but equally negligent on devolving power to districts or democratically representing different groups. 

In an article I wrote in November, 2009, “The Destruction of Somalia and the Question of Regionalism, WardheerNews” I argued that Puntland has neglected the devolution of power to regions and districts. That negation still continues and is on steroids solely because leaders of the region have thus far remained political opportunists. The last three presidents exhibited a lack of commitment to a democratic federalism.

As we stand today, there has been a wholesale migration of its executive body to join the federal parliament, thus emptying regional ministerial positions. Abandoning their services at the local government, with four ministers who have already joined the federal upper house and another 11 ministers to run for the lower house, prioritizing Puntland goals and objectives is relegated to the backburner. All this is done to help President Said Deni win the federal presidential seat now occupied by Mohamed Abdulahi Farmajo. 

This is reminiscent of how the former president, Dr. Abdiweli Gas, who all along rejected 4.5-power sharing and gave in at the last minute for individual political reasons. Today, Said Deni is the only regional president who on the record fought against abandoning 4.5-power sharing. The behavior of its leaders is indeed inconsistent with the label of Puntland being the “mother of federalism.”  

Nevertheless, while federalism is the system thus far sanctioned by the draft constitution, neither the Somali Federal Government nor federal member states practice it as prescribed in the document. The only time Puntland leaders like to invoke tenets of federalism is when they want to highlight the digressions of Villa Somalia; they have never looked inwardly and tried to remain true to the label of their state being the “mother of federalism.” 

While FMS seem to understand center and periphery relations and intentionally want to restructure said relationship, they opportunistically neglect the equity and democratization part of federalism.  Whereas Puntland correctly limits the intrusive powers of the federal government, it has regularly refused to refrain from interfering in the affairs of its weaker friend – Jubaland. And those behaviors are anti-federalist.

If it is right to limit the interference of the SFG in the affairs of FMS beyond what is mandated in the constitution, the same must apply to Puntland in its overreach on matters local to Jubaland.  After all, there are constituents in Jubaland that don’t sanction the extraterritorial rights Puntland enjoys in their state’s affairs.

Alternative Politics vs Political Stagnation

For many years, Puntland leaders promoted what was termed “alternative politics.” “Alternative politics” was meant to devolve power outside the power corridors of Garowe to the districts and to the empowerment of average citizens (Roble, Faisal 2009). However, the structure thus far established mimics that of Mogadishu of the 1980s where power and decision-making is concentrated in the hands of the few. 

There are positive developments in all the regional states, but more so in Puntland. The revival of the civil service system, a robouts educational system, and embryonic economic development with a touch of self-reliance, for example the development of ports, and an elite that made Puntland its base are all tangible progress worthy of praise. 

However, such gains have lately been strained. More than any other sector, internal political progress has not improved to the satisfaction of many critics. As a matter of fact, the political conditions have been deteriorating for some time now. 

From Bossasso to Galkaio, from Badhan to Buuhoodle, a bright future has been replaced with bleak conditions of malfeasance, lack of consultation, and low quality government operatives. The current administration is the most opaque and inaccessible to consultation and input. It is also criticised to be the most autocratic rule since the establishment of the state. 

Some of these criticisms have taken a new height when Said Deni paraded  candidates for the selection of the upper house in front of an ineffective legislature body. There is a broad consensus that Said Deni will manipulate the process to line up even less qualified legislators for the upcoming selection for the lower house.

The net effect of Deni’s style of filling vacancies with his loyalists is a wholesale migration of the state’s executive body to join the federal parliament, thus emptying regional ministerial positions.

Abandoning their services at the local government, we know so far that four ministers have already joined the federal upper house and another 11 ministers are slated to run for the lower house. All these were handpicked by Said Deni for the sole purpose of winning the presidential seat now occupied by Mohamed Abdulahi Farmajo.

Three areas point to the political stagnation in Puntland. Since its birth, Puntland state’s power has stayed in the hands of a closely-related lineage to the exclusion of others who call this state their homeland. Unlike in Somaliland where a non-majority had run the region’s highest office for two consecutive terms, Puntland doors are closed to non-majority groups. With the exception of the late Mohamed Abdi Hashi, who was an interim President between October 2004 and 8 January 2005), following when the late President Abdullahi Yusuf became the president of TFG of Somalia, power stayed in the hands of a closely affiliated single clan family.

The second area where Puntland divorces itself from the concept of true federalism is its unparalleled marriage to the 4.5 formula. While 4.5 is not part of the Somali constitution, it sets in motion a political arrangement for regional presidents to hand-pick senators and also manipulate the selection of the members of the legislative house. The last two presidents of Puntland (Dr. Abdiweli and Said Deni) have taken political patronage to a new height. The practice of corrupting politics through what Alex Dewaal calls allocation of “political budget” has undermined equity and civic politics. 

In the last selection of senators, President Said Denni reportedly spent over $3 million dollars to line up 22 competitors.  About 11 candidates were nothing more than shadow personalities. One of the shadow personalities was not well coached and failed to read the Somali notes prepared for her. 

The third and most devastating aspect of Puntland’s federalism is the tokenism promoted within the constituent assembly. On paper, Puntland has a well-functioning house of legislators. The highlight of the house is often its televised session on and during the presidential election every four years. It does well and the elections take place in a credible way.

That was until October, 2019, though, when President Denni unceremoniously walked out of the 45th session of that region’s parliament (BBC, October 2019). No one at the time knew that President Deni had a mercurial temper, a behavior that had surfaced in his uncouth and emotionally-laden utterances several times. 

For example, he called the President of the Somali Federal Government a “liar.” While this is a new low of political insults by powerful elites, the reasoning of why President Deni behaves in such an irresponsible manner did not provide any cancellations.  In a response to why he walked out of a parliamentary session in 2019, his nonchalante response was “I got angry!”

The erosion of the credibility often reserved for the house of legislatures started with the invasion of the same house when conflict arose between President Deni and Abdihakim Doobo-Daareed, former speaker. The incident passed without any uproar either from Puntland’s elite or from the very institution that Abdihakim presided over.

A Way Forward  

1. Strengthen the commitment to bring into fruition a multi-party election for 2022 and put to rest the 4.5-based archaic power-sharing which is in total contravention to a democratic federal system stipulated in the draft constitution and the adopted regional Puntland constitution.   

2. Forge ahead with the proposed devolution of power, holding elections as a pilot project for the identified three districts, and also deliver services to all regions and districts. In the last 20 years, governance is largely limited to Garowe, Galkaayo, Bossasso, and Qardho, to the neglect of population centers in Sool, Sanag, Cayn, and elsewhere.

3. Call for suspension of President Deni’e grandiose dreams of seeking the seat now occupied by President Farmajo, and give a chance to those opposition leaders who feel betrayed by him. It is doubly in the interest of Puntland residents that President Deni completes his term and implements the goals he has already set out. 

4. Refill immediately the forbiddingly huge vacuum left behind by the exodus of 11 ministers whom President Deni schemed to send them to Mogadishu so he can fulfill his grandiose dream of becoming the president of the Somali Federal Government. The goals and programs set forth at the beginning of this administration will experience a debilitating setback in the execution of the State’s goals. The exodus of ministers from their posts is a blow to the federal system Puntland claimed to have pioneered.

5. Protect the integrity of the legislature from opportunistic political aspirants and limit outside infringement into the affairs of the house. It needs to reclaim its role and not remain a rubber stamp body. 

Faisal A. Roble
Email: [email protected]
Faisal Roble, a writer, political analyst and a former Editor-in-Chief of WardheerNews, is mainly interested in the Horn of Africa region. He is currently the Principal Planner for the City of Los Angeles in charge of Master Planning, Economic Development and Project Implementation Division.

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