Puntland holds municipal elections as opponents cry foul

somalia elections

A Somali polling agent (R) explains the voting procedure to a voter before she casts her ballot in Baidoa.

Photo credit: Simon Maina | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Puntland, the oldest Somalia’s five federal member states, is holding its first full scale local councillors’ elections since it was formed in 1998. But this has been marked by controversy.

Puntland, one of Somalia’s five Federal Member States, started local municipal council elections across the region in the northeastern portion of Somalia on Thursday, in spite of calls to delay them to build consensus.

On Thursday, people started queuing for voting in 30 of the planned 37 districts while voting in three districts, including Garowe town, the capital of Puntland State, some 1000 km northeast of the Somali capital Mogadishu, was postponed. Officials cited security reasons.

No reason was given for other four districts, however, whose voting is not being held. 

Abdirizak Ahmed Said, the Chairman of Transitional Puntland Electoral Commission (TPEC), the local electoral management body, announced via the local media that, “The one-person, one-vote have started in 30 districts to enable citizens to elect their preferred local leaders.”

The municipal elections here have been controversial and their planning was clothed in controversy. A senior adviser to Puntland President, Said Abdullahi Deni, circulated a memo about the state’s upcoming one-person one-vote election.

Deni called on the people to take advantage of the opportunity and all those who registered for the voting to get ready to queue at the ballot centres on May 25 to elect the municipal counselors for 37 districts.

“The semi-autonomous northern region of Puntland, perched on the tip of the strategically important Horn of Africa, is about to hold its first one-person one-vote elections in more than 50 years, marking the first popular elections since 1969,” the memo stated.

It added, “The vote will pit incumbent President Said Abdullahi Deni's KAAH party against challengers from another six parties, leading Puntland transforming itself from a pirate haven and hideout for the Islamic State to a beacon of democracy in one of Africa’s toughest neighborhoods.”

Puntland, the oldest of Somalia’s five federal member states, is holding its first full scale local councillors’ elections since it was formed in 1998 but this has been marked by controversy.

A coalition of politicians known as Madasha Siyaasadda Puntland (Puntland Political Forum or the Forum) issued a statement on May 17, criticising the manner in which the election process is being handled, including the government of Puntland deciding to amend the state constitution’s article 46 so that the number of political organisations becoming official political parties rises from three to five.

Puntland is projected to hold two levels of elections, the municipal counselors on May 25, for 37 districts, and the presidential election in January 2024. 

The state held three pilot elections in December 2022 for three districts, namely Qardho, Ufayn and Eyl, predicting a total of 40 districts with fully elected municipal councils.

The last time the whole of Somalia had general, municipal and parliamentary elections was March 1969.

Since then, no elections were held due to the Horn of Africa country’s power being in the firm grip of military dictatorship or overwhelmed by years of civil war and challenges from extremist militants hindering state-building efforts.

Puntland’s election process seems arranged in a systematic manner that includes registering seven political organisations including Prez Deni’s KAAH and Horseed led by Abdurahman Mohamed Farole a former Puntland President who is currently a senator at the Upper House of Somalia’s parliament.

If the seven political organisations contest in the upcoming municipal elections, the top five that gain the biggest number of counselor seats will become the state’s official political parties, provided the constitution is amended as proposed by Deni’s Council of Ministers on May 4.

Ahmed Isse Awad, Somalia’s former foreign minister and one of those who declared their presidential candidacy, urged the Puntland parliament to refrain from amending the stated Article 46.

Awad told The EastAfrican that Article 46 remained intact, recalling the text, “In the first District Council election, of all the political associations, the three who receive the majority of the votes shall be authorised as official political parties.”

The path to elections is not always smooth and is often littered with broken glasses. On May 15, a heavily armed confrontation had taken place at the outskirts of Garowe town, about 1000 km northeast of Mogadishu.

Clashes affected a Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF) escorting ballot boxes, reportedly causing the deaths of three PMPF soldiers and injuries to nine others.

It was the most seriously armed confrontation directly related with the election process, overshadowing other encounters that occurred here and there, perpetrated by armed units unhappy with the government’s push for an election that is not uniformly accepted.

The government qinuickly associated the armed skirmishes with the opponents of Prez Deni.

With 48 hours of the armed encounters, Puntland’s Prosecutor General, Ahmed Mohamed Taaran, issued warrants for the arrest of four prominent members of the opposition. Former Putland Finance Minister Hassan Shire Abgaal; Khadar Abdurahman Farole, a Somali president adviser; Mohamud Shiddo and Mohamed Jama Farah were to be arrested over the armed clashes near Garowe’s Hassan Abshir International Airport.

All four politicians distanced themselves from any association with the event. Indeed, former Somalia FM Awad told the media the following day that the armed forces in Puntland were not a unified entity.

“Clashes between armed groups had occurred in the past with deadly consequences. The recent Garowe town incident should not be considered unique,” remarked Awad, blaming the government for lack of sameness.

Indeed, Awad questioned lack clarity of the election process, including the presidential election that must take on 8th of January next year, being the source of hullabaloo.

“President Deni must clarify what will happen on 8th of January 2024,” Awad told Nation on Friday, insisting that a peaceful presidential election is cure to all maladies.

Even some sections of the Puntland government like the region’s Interior Affairs Minister Abdi Farah Juha believe that multiparty election should only be limited to local council election while the modality of holding the presidential election be reached consensus by the government and other stakeholders.

“Opening the constitution of Puntland to accommodate changes can lead to unsolvable problems,” remarked Juha, anticipating that despite the general public wish to have the constitution of Puntland reviewed it is not the right time for a parliament (the 64-member House of Representatives) or a presidency whose term in office is to end in a few months.

Despite all the opposition from various circles including members of the powerful Puntland Political Forum (or the Forum), armed units and some of the pivotal traditional clan leaders, Prez Deni is optimistic that all three steps will be taken: Local municipal election, constitution amendment and the presidential election via the 5 most popular political parties that will emerge from the local council election.

Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre, members of Puntland Political Forum and other political stakeholders have expressed concerns that that an unpopular political process may ensue if people do not agree with it.