Constitution-making in Somalia – Afyare Abdi Elmi in e-International Relations

Afyare Abdi Elmi, author of Understanding the Somalia Conflagration: Identity, Political Islam and Peacebuilding (Pluto, 2011) has written last week for e-International Relations, a leading website for students of international relations. His article, entitled ‘Revisiting the UN-Controlled Constitution-Making Process for Somalia‘, argues that Somalia’s constitution-making process has been flawed from the beginning, because not enough value was ascribed to the process itself; too much to the desired outcome. As a result, the genesis of Somalia’s constitution has been shrouded, as Elmi puts it,  in ‘political expediency, secrecy and haste’.

We’ve reproduced the first section of this important essay below, but you can read it in its entirety on the e-International Relations site, by clicking here.


For the last three decades the Somali people have experienced multi-layered political, economic, and religious conflicts. A legitimate and Somali-owned constitution would help address or contain many of these problems. However, controversy surrounds how the UN has approached and controlled the constitution-making process of the country. The process is fundamentally flawed because political expedience, secrecy, exclusion and hastiness mar the mandate and selection of the commission members, the drafting of the document and the adoption of the draft constitution. Therefore, like the previous charter, the current draft-constitution has legitimacy-deficit. It does not express the aspirations of the Somali people, regulate individual and group conflicts effectively and peacefully, or prescribe context-appropriate institutions that are necessary for building durable peace and a functioning state in Somalia. This leads me to conclude that the constitution-making process that was employed when Somalia was under the Italian trusteeship in the 1950s was more inclusive and transparent than the process used now under the current de facto United Nations and Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) rule.

The Process: What is it?

When it comes to constitution-making, the process is as important as substance because processes affect the legitimacy of the outcome. Jill Cottrell and Yash Ghai (the Kenyan legal expert who helped draft the constitutions of Afghanistan and the Fiji Islands) identify several factors that make the process inclusive and legitimate.[2] The most important and relevant features are the initial definition of the project, the nature of participation, and the rules for decision-making. In other words, the mandate given to the people writing the constitution, the selection and composition of the team, the openness in the drafting process, the inclusivity of the different groups and the way the final outcome is adopted all matter. In addition, as Noah Feldman observes, imposed constitutions are limited in terms of their legitimacy and functionality on the ground.[3]

Mandate and Selection of the Commission

The process of Somalia’s constitution-making has passed through three phases: mandate and selection of the commission members, drafting of the constitution articles, and the adoption of the draft constitution. Political expedience, secrecy, exclusion and hastiness shrouded all three stages.

In August 2004, during the Ethiopian-controlled and Kenyan-hosted peace process, a committee was tasked to draft a new Transitional Federal Charter (TFC). As expected, constitution-drafting became so controversial that the committee broke into two groups. To reconcile the two groups, thirteen Somali experts, led by professor Abdi Samatar, were tasked to harmonize the two documents that these two groups produced.[4] Unfortunately, political considerations carried the day, thus forcing the recommendation of the harmonization committee to be abandoned. As a result, the faction leaders and warlords that had the support of Ethiopia and the hosting state of Kenya imposed their will and their version of the Charter through an illegitimate process. The TFC became the law of the land in subsequent years.

The consequences of this controversial process were threefold. First, the Charter has reflected the interests of the neighbouring countries.[5]Second, it could not manage the conflicts between Somali groups, institutions and individuals. For instance, because of political conflicts, there were two presidents, five prime ministers and months of political stagnation for the last seven years. Finally, and more importantly, Article 11 of the Charter has mandated a new ‘federal’ (three levels: national, regional and local) constitution that is based on the 2004 Charter to be written and ratified before the transitional government becomes a permanent government – even though Somalia had a democratic and legitimate constitution that had been ratified through referendum in 1961.[6]

Interestingly, Article 11 of the Charter[7] sets out a clear roadmap in which a ‘federal’ constitution should be made for the country. It calls for the government to establish an Independent Federal Constitution Commission (IFCC) which has to be ratified by parliament. The Charter then requires the IFCC to draft a ‘federal’ constitution, conduct public consultation and present it directly to the public. The Charter never conceived that politicians would be involved in any way other than appointing members of the IFCC. The intention was to keep the constitution-making process as far away as possible from the politicians.

Because of the prevalent reality on the ground in 2008-2009, there was a new political agreement between the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS) in Djibouti. Although a new government led by the former ARS chairman, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, was elected, the Charter was largely kept as it was in 2009. However, the new government doubled the membership of the IFCC by adding fifteen new members.[8] Moreover, in 2011, the Somali government created a nine-member Committee of Experts,[9] under the leadership of a legal specialist Mohamed Jawari, in order to assist the IFCC. Besides leading the process, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and United Nations Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS) have provided financial and technical assistance to the IFCC and the Committee of Experts (CoE). Members of the Commission have visited many capitals in order to learn from other countries that have had similar experiences.

The mandate given to the IFCC was restricted to writing a ‘federal constitution’. This restriction reflected the preferences of the neighbouring countries and faction leaders that imposed their version of the Charter in 2004 during the peace conference in Kenya. Neighbouring countries have been pushing their proxies to accept clan-federalism because this served the long-term interests of Ethiopia and Kenya. These two countries have had issues with what they call ‘Somali irredentism’ or united Somalia. For this reason, it is no secret that Kenya and Ethiopia wanted to install a weak and divided Somalia. As such, Ethiopia has been championing the ‘building block approach’[10] while Kenya is determined to create a buffer zone in the Juba regions of Somalia. Both countries have troops in Somalia. The IFCC, therefore, did not have the opportunity to debate the type of system that would be suitable for the context or advance the interests and aspirations of the Somali people, at least in this case.

With regards to the selection of members for the IFCC, neither former President Abdullahi Yusuf nor the current President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has taken seriously the competency of the members they were appointing. Although a few are competent, such as the chair, Dr Abdullahi Jama, most of the members could not comprehend the tasks required. One expert who was assisting them observed that many IFCC members did not have the capacity to understand and then apply the experts’ advice. The selection was based on the simplistic 4.5-clan power-sharing system where the four ‘major’ clans get equal number of representation and the fifth clan would get one-half. Politicians, therefore, considered the membership of the IFCC as an employment opportunity for some of their supporters. Somali politicians and the international community realized this later and perhaps this is why the Committee of Experts was established in 2011.

Restricted mandate and arbitrary selection of the IFCC members have had serious implications for the constitution-making process of Somalia. For more than six years, Somalis have been locked into an emotional debate on the suitability of a federal system. The irony here is that most Somalis have similar goals and interests when it comes to dealing with this issue as there is a universal demand from communities in every region for electing their representatives, accessing basic services close to home, and getting their fair share of development projects. A discussion based on interests and reason is yet to begin among Somalis. As of now, the issue remains highly controversial and will continue to be so for a long time to come. In fact, the Istanbul Gathering of the Civil Society in late May 2012 (which brought together traditional elders, academics, religious scholars and many from civic/political and women’s groups) recognized the contested nature of the issue and recommended further discussions among Somalis until a consensus of some sort emerges.[11]

Moreover, the selection of unqualified members for the IFCC has negatively impacted the quality of the constitution that the Commission produced in 2010. In other words, competent commission members, with an open mandate for producing context-appropriate institutions, would have helped to legitimize the process.

To continue reading, please go to e-International Relations.

Understanding the Somalia Conflagration

Identity, Political Islam and Peacebuilding

Afyare Abdi Elmi

Explains the multiple dimensions of the conflict in Somalia and points the way to a peace-building consensus.

“Elmi’s contribution is most effective when it examines the Islamic awakening and historicizing Islam. … [the book] provides useful understanding of an important area.” – CHOICE

“A timely, topically urgent and well-written book that adds much to the literature on Somali studies. It should benefit students and researchers in all areas of the social and educational sciences, and it could influence policy development in the Somali context, and by extension, perhaps other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.” – Ali A. Abdi, University of Alberta

£17.99 only £16.00 on the Pluto site

One thought on “Constitution-making in Somalia – Afyare Abdi Elmi in e-International Relations

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