President Said Abdullahi Deni spoke to the Puntlanders on October 13, 2023, two days after he returned from a trip during which he was out of the state for over 55 days. President Deni’s intention in that speech was to maintain the support of his followers, who seemed to have doubts about Puntland’s direction. His supporters witnessed the conference held by the opposition group on the same day the president arrived, where they discussed what was wrong with the democratization process that President Deni is planning to use to re-elect himself. The president was also out of the state for reasons that were not shared with the public.
The Opposition’s Concerns
There was disagreement among ministers regarding the conduct of local elections in which Bossaso city elected two different mayors. Other cities refused to hold elections when it became clear that the selection was not based on the number of votes that each party received, but on what selection would work in the district. With just over two months left before the scheduled election, the election had still not occurred in three districts in Nugal. The opposition group insisted that President Deni’s intention was to extend his rule by claiming that the Puntland Election Commission ( PEC) needed more time and that the Parliament would approve the extension. Many of President Deni’s supporters stated that they would not support him if he tried to extend his rule.
President Deni knew that he was in a tough position, but he had to buy time to defuse the momentum the opposition group was gaining. This forced the president to hide his intentions and insist that he was still on plan, adding at the end of his speech that he would always follow the rules of the state and would respect the PEC’s plan. This implied that his intent and what the PEC would decide could be different. At the end of the speech, many supporters did not read between those lines and continued to support the president, even though they doubted the possibility of the election happening as the president had planned.
One thing that all Puntlanders agree on is that for an election to take place, there should be a consensus agreed upon by all stakeholders and a level playing field on which every candidate would feel they have the opportunity to win, just as the president himself does. The election that President Deni is heading towards, set to take place on January 8, 2024, will not be an election in which all of the other candidates can participate because they do not believe they have a chance of winning when 11 out of the 12 Puntland Election Commission members are from the Kaah Party (7) and its association (4).
President Deni urged those who want to run for president to join other parties, including his party, Kaah. Who in their right mind would participate in an election where President Deni’s chances of winning are forecasted to be 90%, not because he has the support of the people but because he has set up the system in such a way that other candidates do not have a chance?
There are two possibilities that President Deni can undertake in the next two months, both of which will lead to disaster. President Deni could wait until the Parliament reconvenes in October, at which time the PEC would present its plan for an extension to the Parliament, which would then approve it. If the President gets an extension when the opposition group is not part of the discussion, contrary to the terms of the Constitution, Puntlanders would not recognize the extension, and that would be the end of the president’s term. Alternatively, the President could walk the talk that he would hold the election on time, meaning that the candidates would be only the president and his groomsmen competing for the presidency. The legitimacy of that election would not be accepted in the Puntland state.
The Path Forward
The solution is straightforward. Puntland has existed for over 25 years, and the only reason it has lasted this long is because its elections were transparent. The rules of the election were something that all the candidates agreed upon and accepted, knowing they could win. Every president wanted to remain in office, but when the time came, the previous president would compromise to hold an election perceived as fair.
No one is advocating that traditional elders selecting parliamentarians should be the only election method. People want to move forward with democratization, but democratization is not without compromise, and it should not be based on the president’s way or the highway. Democratization should be transparent, with all steps known in advance, and the Constitution should not be changed to benefit the president and his party after the election. It is clear that President Deni has failed to provide for the holding of a one-person, one-vote election on January 8, 2024, despite his intentions.
It is time for President Deni to come to the negotiation table and agree on an election in which all other candidates have the same chance, based on the Constitution and best practices that Puntland has used before. The president should not make the next election the only election when it will be between President Deni and his groomsmen. No president in Somalia was able to dictate his way ever since the central government collapsed. President Farmajo was the last president to attempt to extend his rule without compromising with the opposition candidates, but in the end, he came to his senses and held an election in which all opposition candidates participated, thus saving Somalia from collapsing again. The President Deni needs to act now.
By: Mohamed Abdiqafar Haji Hussein