Beyond short-termism: why Somali presidents should serve one term only

Somalia is due to undertake nationwide parliamentary and presidential elections in late 2020 and early 2021 respectively. Despite the enormous political, security and financial challenges, politicians have already started to prepare. Political parties are expected to compete for seats, and the National Independent Electoral Commission has already registered over 20 political parties.

The incumbent president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed ‘Farmaajo’, was elected in early February 2017; he has been in office for 20 months now. Nonetheless, the country is already in an electoral mood. The former president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has been selected as the leader of a new political party that brings together various opposition politicians. The activities in Mogadishu recently have sent a clear message to the incumbent federal leaders who are surely also preparing for an intense battle.

Although ‘one person one vote’ parliamentary elections will be difficult to achieve given the inadequate electoral infrastructure in place and security situation, the members of the parliament represent the public and are expected to be elected by the citizens. According to the constitutional arrangement, the parliamentarians elect the president who appoints a prime minister of his/her choice to lead the council of ministers. Both the parliament and the president have a four year mandate.

Short-termism

The challenges faced by the current leadership are many. Somalia has been in a state of chaos for years, and nascent public institutions remain weak. Each president and government has to focus on key pressing issues including security, decentralization of governance, economic revitalization, delivery of public services and access to justice among many others. But the mandate to deliver and meet these pressing demands is short.

Short-term goals mostly deviate the focus of the leadership away from these public priorities. The seeking of re-election is among these short-term distractions. History has shown that presidents invest a lot of time and resources in getting re-elected. Somalia’s provisional constitution does not specify the number of terms that a sitting president can compete for office. Each president’s desire has been to extend their years in office and to mobilize resources to achieve that.

Another form of short-termism involves pleasing the patrons that supported the incumbent president during the elections. Appointment of supporters and friends and the dismissal of others is an observable practice, especially in the first two years. New team members, some of whom may not be qualified enough to handle the responsibilities of public offices, are given the opportunity to govern. It is often clearly simply a reward for the efforts they made for the president during the campaign period.

Furthermore, the embezzlement of public funds for personal interests is another short-term objective for the ruling cliques. The period that the president and his aides will likely be in power is limited. Therefore, misappropriation of financial resources for either re-election or satisfying personal desires is another short-termism that comes with the limited mandate of the government.

Little improvement without long-term plans

The satisfaction of short-term personal gains means that the government often neglects the improvement of the delivery of public services, economic development and strengthening state institutions, all of which require long-term strategies, plans, and actions.

For citizens to get access to better public services, the government has to invest in public schools and hospitals; reform the recruitment and training of bureaucrats; build professional security forces that can handle the security; and establish transparent and competent judiciary regime among many others. These aspirations cannot be achieved in just four years.

Likewise, economic recovery is another long-term endeavor. Developing human capital for each productive sector; investing in physical infrastructure; undertaking grand investment projects and creating an environment that attracts investment; subsidizing local products and increasing exports require long-term plans and commitments. A president and government with a four year mandate and seeking re-election simply cannot facilitate the economic recovery that Somalia needs.

A one term, six year presidency?

Somalia’s context is complex and multilayered. A reform of the president’s term and mandate alone cannot be the solution to Somalia conundrums. However, the president is an epicenter of the national effort, and amending the presidential term could be an integral part of the solution.

Complex challenges require creative solutions that are not necessarily the modus operandi of modern nation-states. In order to improve the public service, revive the national economy and build the public institutions, the term of the president should be reviewed and amended in the constitutional review process while consulting with the different stakeholders.

Given the status of the provisional constitution (and ongoing review process), the current four-year mandate of the president could be increased to six years. This is an amendment that should be debated and be taken seriously by those undertaking the constitutional review. This increase would give the president the time and space to think of a longer-term state-building agenda. It could also provide a mechanism to avoid a power vacuum as the mandate of the parliament and president ends in the same period.

This should only be considered alongside a clear constitutional prohibition on an incumbent president standing for re-election. The constitution should clearly state that any presidential candidate who wins the contest in 2021 (and any subsequent election) will not be eligible for re-election. This second condition would be an assurance that the president will not become an authoritarian ruler who stays in office for period beyond his/her clearly defined mandate. Furthermore, this would help the president concentrate on national priorities with the six years mandate.

These are not a radical or unprecedented constitutional amendments. Looking at the wider world, other nations have similar arrangements. Mexico, Kyrgyzstan and Philippines have all one six-year terms for their heads of states. It is an arrangement that can be replicable to Somalia. And if agreed and ratified, Somalia would be the first African country to have one term limit for its head of state. South Korea, Paraguay and El Salvador heads of states have one five-year term, while Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras have a four-year, one-term limit for their head of states.

The proposed single six-year presidential term for Somalia does have its limitations. Firstly, a six year term may create concerns about ousting sitting presidents that are unpopular. If it is clear that there will be an opportunity to change the situation after four years, opposition politicians may be more patient than they would in six years. Secondly, there is a risk that a limit to one term would also incentivize large-scale misappropriation in the final period of the president’s term. However, strengthening accountability and judiciary institutions could help avoid such a possibility. Third, the president could also try to amend the constitution before the end of the six years mandate to allow for re-election.

Also, some of the structural institutional issues and conflicts that have plagued the Somali political system (constitutional order), namely overlapping executive functions between the President and the Prime Minister, resulting in the frequent dismissals of the latter by presidents in the past, is not resolved by this solution.

Nonetheless, the question of the four year mandate needs to be revisited as recent history has repeatedly demonstrated that it is not conducive to the long-term state-building efforts that Somalia needs. This proposal could be a Somali solution to Somalia’s unique challenges. It is realistic because no president has won re-election in Somalia history, despite their attempts. It is also reasonable because it discourages incumbent presidents to invest time and resources for re-election, at the expense of prioritizing genuine national reconstruction efforts. Furthermore, it gives the president an additional two years to follow through on policy making that would not be possible without re-election.

With the Somali constitution still under active review, this is a creative, significant (but not unprecedented) proposal for amendment that can and should be seriously debated in an open forum.

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