In what can be considered a massive achievement, a region of conflict-ridden Somalia elected a new president on Tuesday. Puntland, an area which has historically been notorious for piracy and Islamist militants, elected Said Abdullahi Deni to a five year term – a candidate who has promised a hard line against Islamic State. The former planning minister promises strong leadership and is to take over from the Gass administration which was heavily accused of graft, nepotism and corruption. The peaceful way in which the vote was carried out is also encouraging for the international community and may signal that Somalia may be transitioning to a more stable and democratic future.
Deni won 35 out of 66 votes from the region’s lawmakers, defeating 20 other candidates in the process. In his acceptance speech, Deni proclaimed, “A new chapter has opened for this region, a chapter of unity and brotherly relations among Somalis.” His rhetoric and the democratic way he came to power is certainly encouraging, particularly if a coordinated effort is to be made to combat Islamic State in the region. Indeed, Matt Bryden, head of the Nairobi-based think tank Sahan Research said, “he has campaigned as a reformist, promising to strengthen government institutions, fight corruption and stabilise the economy.”
The new president is widely known and respected for his role in education in Puntland, establishing many schools and universities. Reuters analyst Abdiqani Hassan noted that this may improve relations between Puntland and the central government in Mogadishu, which expelled U.N. Special Representative Nicholas Haysom last month. If the way things have played out in Puntland can be replicated in the upcoming elections in Somalia’s other regions, then Somalia as a whole will experience a more stable and effective government.
This week’s transition of power can therefore certainly be considered a fantastic outcome, but it also highlights just how much there is still to be done in Puntland and the rest of Somalia. Much of the country still lives in abject poverty and many citizens live under the constant threat of violence, either from the central government or Islamic State. It is important to note that Puntland has yet to achieve universal suffrage, something which will surely have to change if the regional government is to be accepted as fully legitimate.
However, Somalia has shown signs of improving the safety and wellbeing of citizens over the past five years, something which can be evidenced in the efforts to combat piracy. Al Jazeera described Puntland as a hotbed of piracy and crime just a few years ago, but a combination of increased maritime patrols and stronger security protocols mean that attacks on ships are increasingly rare. These efforts are encouraging first steps but whether other regions will follow Puntland’s lead is doubtful at best. Puntland has the highest average income of all Somalian regions and, being located in the north of the country, escaped the worst of the decades of lawlessness experienced by the rest of the country. While it may not be highly likely given conditions in the rest of the country, other regions in Somalia must build upon the momentum created by Puntland as well as work with the international community afterwards to let to the U.N. monitors back in.
Puntland sits at the very tip of the horn of Africa and considers itself a semi-autonomous region under the central government. Relations with Mogadishu have often been tense since Puntland was recognised in 1998 with the military occasionally being sent to suppress demonstrations. Power in the region has been obtained through violence many different times, but this power transfer was by far the most peaceful. The main challenge that Deni will face beside managing the region will be in repairing and improving relations with the central government. Puntland’s existing connections with the United States could be used to initiate a more productive dialogue with the central government and push for change.
The way in which these elections in Puntland have been conducted offer hope for the rest of Somalia, but it will take a lot more effort to capitalise on this momentum. First and foremost, Mogadishu must be convinced to allow outside assistance and monitoring back into the country. Only then will there be a fighting chance of both stable government and alleviation of the poverty experienced by millions.
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