Once considered as a failed state by many, for the first time in half a century, the president of Somalia Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, announced the holding of elections which are due to replace the existing power sharing system. With many Somalis across the globe anticipating this historic moment, the coronavirus pandemic threatens the possibility of conducting one. Whilst some European countries including the UK and France have delayed local polls, and Ethiopia has postponed its general elections, Burundi pressed ahead and Malawi is due to do the same in the next two months.
In the case of Somalia, last month the Forum for National Parties (FNP) – which consists of six opposition political parties – demanded parliamentary and presidential elections to be held on time, perceiving coronavirus not to be a sufficiently important matter to merit a delay. In a joint statement provided by the two former presidents Sharif Ahmed and Hassan Mohamud, accused the federal government of ‘overlooking the urgency of implementing the multi-party system in the country, and saying those are tactics to delay the polls.’ Whilst this statement was provided in the beginning of April when the coronavirus cases in the country were about 7 cases, in recent weeks the numbers of cases have been increasing and the latest figures are estimated to be 1,976 cases with 78 deaths.
With its limited resources, the federal government of Somalia has taken precautionary measures to lessen the spread of the disease. Some of the steps that have been implemented include the cancellation of local and international flights, closures of schools and universities. However, with many Somalis struggling to maintain their living standards, people are still going out to work. Furthermore, religious spaces including mosques are still open and it’s hard to imagine how a poor health care infrastructure that is already failing is going to cope with the number of cases. Indeed, it is clear this could increase the number of cases, deaths and overcrowd hospitals that have inadequate resources. Thus, it is hard to imagine how elections can take please when the country is already struggling to cope with the spread of Covid-19.
With poor health infrastructure and not having the capacity to mass test, the number of cases currently reported could even be much higher in actuality. According to the head of office for United Nations for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Justin Brady, “the number of tests the labs in Somalia can processes is very limited”. Therefore, we need to be asking whether, if more developed nations are delaying their elections, Somalia should be following suit.
Of healthcare and elections
Countries affected by conflicts face challenges to build sustainable health care systems. In the last two decades the civil war in Somalia has destroyed the country’s health care and economic infrastructure. Covid-19 has further put pressure on the country’s healthcare infrastructure that is already failing to meet the basic health care demands. Furthermore, another statement put forward by the executive director of Wajir Development Association Aydrus Daar, is that Covid-19 could worsen the existing humanitarian condition in Somalia. With a vulnerability score of 9.1 out of 10 in the Index for Risk Management (INFORM), Somalia is in a weaker position to deal with the effect of Covid-19 in comparison to the rest of the world. As a response to the pandemic, the federal government allocated $5 million to combat the spread of Covid-19 but this is a tiny about for such a big issue and numerous challenges remain. With this crisis, the country is facing challenges to combat the spread of coronavirus and it is clear this could impact the holding of the upcoming elections.
So should the elections be delayed?
As Somalia has never held a one person- one vote, 2020 was anticipated to be a landmark year where the country progressed to free and fair elections. For that reason, opposition leaders are pressing for the polls to go ahead. But while it is important to note that the delaying of elections can lead to governments overstaying their mandate, as in the Democratic Republic of Congo under President Joseph Kabila, it is extremely difficult to hold elections in the context of social distancing although South Korea have managed to do so. One the main reasons why South Korea was able to forge with its elections relates to the fact that the country adopted special measures including a tracing system to effectively limit the number of cases. However, Somalia has not yet implemented similar strategies, and so it is hard to envision how social distancing will be take place during campaign rallies and public speeches.
The truth is that in fragile countries like Somalia with limited economic and health care infrastructure, it may not be feasible to both effectively deal with the disease and proceed with elections. So, where does that leave us? One option is for Somali politicians to be selfless and put their political self-aspirations aside and reach a consensus on delaying the elections just long enough to allow for the coronavirus crisis to be brought under control. But if this is to happen it will require concessions on both sides – if opposition leaders are to agree to a delay, they will want to be part of the decision making process and they will also want to have a say in when the elections should be held and how the country responds to the pandemic. This is only reasonable, but may not be achievable.
In recent years, the federal government and regional leaders have been in deadlock over political matters. As the lives of the people are in danger, Somali politicians should understand this is not the time to focus on political wrangling. Whether they will put aside their interests to take care of the people they govern, however, only time will tell.
Mohamed Abdi hold a BA in IR and an MA in African Studies from the University of Birmingham. He is interested in the areas of democracy, peace building and customary authorities in Africa.