COVID-19 in Somalia: A Public Health Emergency in an Electoral Minefield - Africa Briefing N°155, 8 May 2020

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The coronavirus pandemic could pose a huge challenge to Somalia. To manage the crisis, the federal government should reach out to and coordinate with political rivals. It should avoid a unilateral postponement of elections due in November, which could trigger a violent backlash.

What’s new? Somalia is highly vulnerable to both the COVID-19 virus and the socio-economic dimensions of the crisis. Its first cases of infection have also appeared at a time of heightened political tension over forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

Why does it matter? Opponents of the president worry that he might exploit virus fears to put off elections, as a way of staying in office past his term’s expiry. Any attempt to reschedule the contests without consulting the president’s rivals would meet with heated objections – and possibly violence.

What should be done? The president’s administration should take no unilateral step regarding the planned elections. Instead, it should seek to reach consensus with both opposition politicians and regional officials on electoral timetables and procedures.

I. Overview

With one of Africa’s most fragile health care systems, millions of internally displaced people and a bureaucracy still recovering from state collapse and civil war, Somalia might be less prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic than almost any other country in the world. The coronavirus’s onset risks undermining Somalia’s recent progress toward debt relief, and it could also tempt the Al-Shabaab insurgency to step up attacks. To make matters worse, the virus broke out at a particularly inopportune time in Somali politics: tensions are running high among the central government, opposition groups and the country’s semi-autonomous regions, or federal states, including over preparations for elections (parliamentary polls are due by November 2020 and a presidential vote by February 2021).

The Somali government should take care not to add a political crisis to the public health emergency. The authorities should resist the temptation to unilaterally extend the electoral calendar or amend voting rules, steps their rivals would almost certainly contest, perhaps violently. Instead, they should forge consensus on how and when to conduct the vote and call a truce in their other disputes with federal states.