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How Coronavirus could checkmate Somalia's electoral plan

Editorial

EDITORIAL | For more than 30 years, Somalia was used to things like war, drought, displacements, and floods. Then came the novel coronavirus disease, also known as COVID-19.

Globally, it has killed more than 90,000 out of more than 1.5 million people infected. In Somalia, it had infected eight people by Thursday night, killing one.

Except there is a problem: COVID-19 didn’t start in Africa, or Somalia, as those who like to vilify the Horn of Africa country may have expected. It began in Wuhan, China. Now it is killing more Americans than anywhere else on earth.

If Americans sneezed, Somalia had caught a cold, this time in terms of COVID-19 and attendant problems.

On Thursday, for example, Somalia’s Health Minister, Fawziya Abikar was telling journalists how one official known as Mohamed Mohamud Bulle had reportedly diverted public health funds amid the virus spread. He was arrested, she said.

The arrest or infections in Somalia may have little connection with what is happening in the US, where more than 462,000 people were infected and 16, 444 killed by the virus. But it tells you of what Somalia should worry about: the capacity to handle the disaster should number rise.

Abdirashid Hashi, the Director of the Heritage Institute in Somalia argued Somalia was facing a threat it had never experienced before, and has no capacity to even counter it.

“Since Somalia and its economy face clear and present danger if not an existential threat posed by COVID19, it’s vital that the Federal government, Federal States, opposition parties, the business community, and civil society forge now a common survival strategy.,” he wrote on his Twitter page.

“Time is of the essence!”

That ‘common’ strategy had been lacking in Somalia as it hurtles towards elections later in the year. The question now is whether a different kind of emergence can force creativity out of leaders.

“We should start this conversation right now. An overwhelming number of Somali people live in a condition that makes it so hard to follow the standard procedure that the world is practicing now. So we should think of a way to help ourselves to minimize the catastrophic impact it can cause,” said Sagal Bihi, a Somali Federal MP.

Somalia is weak and different because it has faced 30 years without a strong government able to run services across the country. In the past eight years, successive governments were more stable, but they also faced the continual threat of al-Shabaab.

When coronavirus began earlier in the year, few hoped it could reach the shores of Somalia, even though everyone had hoped it didn’t due to Somalia’s vulnerability: five million displaced, more than half the population illiterate and a similar number considered bone-poor.

In fact, for years, Somalia’s 40 percent of the 15 million population entirely depended on remittances from abroad to survive. Annually, the diaspora sent in $3 billion. With coronavirus, a paper published last week says those remittances have halved because banks and wiring services have either been shut or affected by lockdowns.

In fact, the very diaspora who often sent in money from the comfort of countries with better medical care now has the very problem they would naturally be keen to help relatives back home.

“A COVID-19 pandemic is an event of radical uncertainty: we don’t know the dynamics of the pandemic in different contexts (especially in Africa), nor its wider economic impact,” researchers at the London School of Economics and Political Science said in a joint blog last week.

“We don’t know if this shock will compound other stresses afflicting Somalis (such as war and food insecurity), or whether the resilience shown by Somali communities in response to those shocks will also serve them well under the pressures of the pandemic,” they wrote after a meeting organized by the Rift Valley Institute and facilitated by the Centre for Humanitarian Change.

For anything to be done, however, the experts argued it would depend on politics: What Somali leaders think is best for the country, or whether the leadership in donor countries think it wise to send donations when they themselves are fighting to survive. It is only in April that Somalia began its local testing for COVID-19. Previously, samples could be shipped to Nairobi for analysis.

So how will COVID-19 affect the political scene? A report by the Somali Public Agenda, a think-tank in Mogadishu warned that the virus spread could almost halt anything else in the country.

“If a major outbreak occurs, then it is highly likely that this will affect planning and preparations for Somalia’s electoral transition in 2020/2021,” said a report titled the Road Ahead to Somalia 2021 Elections.

Coronavirus has demanded a ban on international flights, controls on public gatherings and strict social distancing. But this is a country that needed to sit down for dialogue so stakeholders can determine the electoral calendar.

Before the virus arrived, the Federal Parliament had created a committee meant to prepare regulations on how to allocate special seats as well as the fate of the Benadir region. That Committee can no longer sit now, yet its 45-day mandate is still running.

Whether to delay elections or extend the term of the current administration, however, remains a hot potato, even in the middle of the pandemic.

One senior senator allied with opposition coalition Forum for National Parties told Garowe Online he did not expect that the virus will force a postponement. But he did say the group was opposed to any delays anyway.

“Coronavirus or no coronavirus, any extension is illegal,” he argued on Thursday, requesting to remain on the background as he is not the official spokesperson for the coalition whose patron is ex-President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.

A controversial article 53 in the current electoral law gives a legal loophole for parliament to decide its own fate if elections can’t be held in time. When the law was debated in parliament earlier, FNP had opposed it. It passed anyway.

Yet some of the political contenders think delaying will need the approval of stakeholders.

“In the absence of a political deal by key stakeholders including the FGS, political parties, federal states, and civil society, it will remain unconstitutional and will generate political uncertainty,” said Idd Bedel Mohamed, who wants to contest for Presidency in the upcoming polls.

Whatever will happen next may not be known now. But It appears every plan in Somalia will depend on how COVID-19 behaves in the country.

GAROWE ONLINE

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