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Somali Elders Stall Political Transition Over Constitution Concerns

  • Gabe Joselow

Somali women wave their national flag at Konis stadium, in Mogadishu, during a ceremony marking the anniversary of Somalia’s independence, July 1, 2012.

Somali women wave their national flag at Konis stadium, in Mogadishu, during a ceremony marking the anniversary of Somalia’s independence, July 1, 2012.

NAIROBI — Time is running out for Somalia to end its long-running political transition and elect a new president in accordance with a U.N.-backed plan. But a group of elders is holding up the process due to concerns about the draft constitution.

Somalia's political leaders have a lot of work to do before August 20, the absolute deadline to end the transitional government.

The next step in the so-called "Roadmap Process" is for a group of 135 elders representing the various clans to select the 825 members of the National Constituent Assembly who will vote for a new parliament, constitution, and president.

The constituent assembly is scheduled to convene July 12, but the elders still have not presented the names.

Chairman of the Hawiye clan elders, Mohamed Hassan Haad, says the council first wants a chance to review the draft constitution.

It looks like there is some hurry to pass it, he says, and it is not something he says they want to do in a hurry, noting he believes there are some important corrections that have to be made.

Haad expresses particular concern about measures that guarantee women the right to run for office.

U.N. Special Representative for Somalia Augustine Mahiga says the elders have a right to express their concerns, but they do not have the authority to make decisions about the constitution, and certainly not to withhold the names for the constituent assembly.

"It would not be consistent with their responsibility and mandate to withhold or push," said Mahig. "Eventually it is the members of the constituent assembly, rather than the elders, who have to provide their 'yes' or 'no' vote."

According to Mahiga, the role of the elders is to represent the broad range of Somali clans and sub-clans, and to lend legitimacy to the process. That legitimacy has been put in doubt by some in the Somali community and media, who say some of the elders are actually impostors put on the council to push a political agenda.

The elder spokesman Haad says he could not confirm whether there are fake elders among the group, but says it is not unusual in Somali politics for someone to go to such lengths to gain influence.

Mogadishu Mayor Mohamed Ahmed Nur says he is most concerned that the Somali people may lose confidence in the process if it appears corrupted.

"The concern is there, the selection of traditional leaders is very important - but the selection should not be based on, 'I will select you and you will select me as the member of parliament.' It should not be that," he said.

An Elders' Arbitration Committee is supposed to validate the authenticity of traditional representatives, another procedural requirement that could slow down the transition.

Arguments are likely to continue in the constituent assembly about the nature of the draft constitution.

If approved, the constitution will only serve provisionally until a national referendum can be held. But many Somalis are upset with a draft they feel is being forced upon them by the United Nations and in particular, Ambassador Mahiga.

"He is involved and now he is signing our constitution; he does not have a right," said Asha Ahmed Abdalla, a member of parliament from northern Somalia. "If I say I am not happy with this constitution I have every right to say I am not happy with this constitution. This constitution belongs to the Somali people, not anybody else, not Ethiopia not Kenya not East Africa. I do not care who they are.”

Mahiga says the U.N, role is to ensure the constitution adheres to international standards, but he denies he has had too heavy a hand in the process.

"There was a choice of either standing as bystanders and letting the Somalis do it by themselves, which we tried to do. But always in this process you need a facilitator and you need a guarantor," said Mahiga.

Despite the last-minute wrangling, Somalia's political factions are under pressure from international donors to meet the August 20 deadline to end the transition, or else face sanctions.