By Mohamed Abdiqafar H. Hussein
On January 8, 2024, the Puntland election, initially speculated by observers to potentially extend the president’s term, finally took place on the day President Said Abdulahi Deni’s term was set to expire. With 11 presidential candidates, President Deni emerged as the leader, overwhelmingly elected in the third round, as anticipated by many familiar with Puntland politics.
This anticipation stemmed from the irregular way in which parliamentarians had been selected, bypassing the proper procedure in which each parliamentarian should have been submitted to the selection committee by traditional elders. Instead, it was reported that President Deni personally handpicked 44 out of the 66 new parliamentarians.
Here’s a closer look at the dramatic events that unfolded during this consequential electoral battle.
Opposition’s Initial Stand: Safeguarding Constitution
At the outset, over 16 opposition candidates were seen as promising contenders, raising hopes that one of them could unseat President Deni. They underscored their commitment to the constitution and campaigned against elections lacking transparency and a fair competition environment. They were critical of the one person one vote (1P1V) concept, asserting that it wasn’t genuinely 1P1V since a closed list system was used, where political associations submit the list of preferred candidates, and only the top names from the list chosen by the party leaders have the greatest chance of being elected, rather than the public.
The opposition candidates also criticized President Deni’s decision to sever ties with the federal government, attributing the move to personal issues and interests. They highlighted that, despite occasional strains, previous Puntland governments had never prolonged the period of severed relations with the federal government. The opposition accused President Deni of turning the federal government into an enemy, all the while claiming to safeguard Puntland’s interests.
Notably, it was well-known that President Deni supported Hassan Sheikh for the presidency over President Farmajo. The opposition candidates pledged that, if elected, their foremost priority would be the implementation of the 1P1V system in line with the Puntland constitution. Some candidates even declared that they would not seek another term, believing it would be inappropriate for the current president to manage an election in which he was a participant. Others expressed their intent to engage with the federal government and restore a beneficial relationship between the federal and Puntland. Many Puntlanders perceived the opposition as champions of safeguarding the constitution.”
President Deni’s Strategic Moves Unveiled
Contrastingly, President Deni pledged to execute a strategy to secure victory in the election, whether it followed the 1P1V system or the traditional system where traditional elders selected the 66 parliamentarians. Following his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in Mogadishu, President Deni was reportedly planning to run again for the Somali presidency in 2026. It was believed that he considered winning the upcoming Puntland presidency crucial for his prospects in the Somali presidency.
The strategy involved creating an enemy—the federal government—and positioning himself as the sole defender against this enemy. Immediately upon his return, he restarted an election process that had been in limbo. President Deni altered the constitution to favor his party, Kaah, and those supporting him, stacking the Puntland Election Commission with a majority from his party. However, this election hit a deadlock, facing opposition from the speaker of the parliament, the vice president, and the majority of parliamentarians.
Realizing the impasse, President Deni implemented his plan B, accepting the opposition’s demand to revert to the traditional election process used for the past 24 years of Puntland’s existence— the same process that led to his own election. Many Puntlanders welcomed the president’s move, perceiving it as a compromise, even though he seemed to face obstacles. However, as the president started selecting parliamentarians instead of allowing traditional leaders to make the choices, many Puntlanders sensed that President Deni had not genuinely compromised but was continuing with his plan B, ensuring his reelection by any means necessary.
Opposition candidates also sensed that the president had not changed his attitude toward holding a fair election and that he planned to corrupt the old system, just as he corrupted the 1P1V. They maintained their stance on safeguarding the constitution. Reports emerged that the selection committee had accepted individuals as parliamentarians who lacked the signatures of their traditional elders.
President Deni announced that the upcoming parliament would consist of 66 members, even though the SSC Khadumo traditional elders had declared days earlier that they would not participate in the Puntland election and would not recognize anyone claiming to represent them without their signatures. In response, the opposition candidates reunited and issued a statement, declaring their refusal to accept the list of parliamentarians if it included SSC Khadumo members and those without traditional elders’ signatures. Many politicians agreed that the opposition had the right to reject the list if they were not involved in the process and they should maintain their position.
Days later, the list of new parliamentarians was released, including 17 members not selected by SSC Khadumo and others. The chairman of the selection committee stated a day later that the list released by the president was not the same list he had been working on, leading him to leave the committee. Traditional elders came forward, asserting that the members they submitted were not on the list of the new parliamentarians.
Opposition’s Dilemma: Changing Stance and Falling into Trap
Despite all this information circulating on social media, to the surprise of Puntlanders, opposition candidates suddenly changed their stance and welcomed the new parliamentarians. People were shocked, wondering how the opposition candidates believed they had a chance of winning in an election in which, out of 66 parliamentarians, 44 were said to have been handpicked by President Deni himself.
The opposition candidates, however, saw a light at the end of the tunnel that no one else saw. They believed they could bribe these parliamentarians after the parliamentarians approached them, convincing themselves that these individuals were sincere and would abandon the president, just as the federal parliamentarians who President Deni had selected from Puntland had left him during the election in Mogadishu. Essentially, the candidates, similar to the president, valued winning the election through corruption more than safeguarding the constitution and ensuring a fair election.
Due to a shift in stance by the opposition candidates, they unwittingly walked into a trap orchestrated by President Deni. He directed the newly elected parliamentarians to approach the candidates, feigning sincerity about their intent to vote in their favor. The president explicitly conveyed that the legitimacy of these parliamentarians for the next five years hinged on their ability to persuade the opposition candidates to participate in the election, believing they stood a chance of winning against President Deni.
Parliamentarians followed President Deni’s instructions, convincing each candidate that they had substantial support. A survey suggested that there were over 200 parliamentarians instead of the known 66. This meant that each parliamentarian was telling at least four to six other candidates that he was on that candidate’s side. Money was collected not only for the first round but also for the second and third rounds of voting, in amounts estimated to be between 70,000 and 120,000 dollars for the first round and between 40,000 and 20,000 dollars for the second and third rounds.
However, the night before Election Day, some candidates realized they were trapped. Parliamentarians who had collected money were nowhere to be found and were later discovered waiting in a secure location with their phones off until they were transported to the election hall the next morning. Candidates entered the election hall aware of their fate.
The election result didn’t surprise those following Puntland politics. To many, it seemed inexplicable that candidates who had fought hard to safeguard the constitution suddenly abandoned their stand. The conclusion was that they prioritized winning the election over protecting the constitution, similar to President Deni. If they had insisted on protecting the constitution, President Deni might have reconsidered and allowed a fair election. The opposition candidates missed that opportunity.
Deni’s Future: “My Way or the Highway” vs. Rule of Law
On Election Day, parliamentarians faced a choice for the presidency: President Deni, known for his corrupt management of Puntland affairs, or opposition candidates from whom they had collected and who might exhibit similar behavior. The parliamentarians opted for President Deni for the next five years.
Now, the ball is in President Deni’s court. Even his supporters acknowledge that if he maintains his leadership style of a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude, the future of Puntland appears bleak. Some skeptics doubt that the president will ever change, expecting more constitutional amendments that could allow unlimited presidential reruns. On the other hand, there are Puntlanders who hope for reconciliation, emphasizing the importance of the rule of law. Nevertheless, President Deni’s future actions remain to be seen.”
Mohamed Abdiqafar H. Hussein
Email: [email protected]
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