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In Somalia, voting under way but democracy delayed

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Baidoa (Somalia) (AFP) – With its security-sealed plastic boxes and cardboard polling booths, Somalia’s election –- under way since last month and still ongoing –- has the trappings of democracy, but few of the functions.

Last week in the western city of Baidoa, 51 handpicked representatives of the Reer Aw Hassan clan took an hour to vote unanimously for Abdiweli Ibrahim Ali Sheikh Mudey, a current minister and the only candidate to show up on the day.

Among Mudey’s backers were 15 enthusiastic female voters. “We selected the most beautiful man!” cheered one as Mudey smiled in his dark aviator sunglasses, a garland of purple tinsel round his neck.

Just 14,025 of the Somalia’s perhaps 12 million citizens are voting for 275 MPs, who will join 54 appointed senators in voting for a new president, in an election described as “limited”.

“It is a unique process and must be analysed within its uniqueness,” said Deqa Yasin, the deputy chair of the national election body, the Federal Indirect Election Implementation Team.

The voting process has been drawn-out and deadlines repeatedly missed, and it is unclear when the presidential stage will take place.

Somalis were promised a one-person, one-vote election.

But political infighting, backsliding and prevarication, combined with insecurity mainly due to Shabaab militants who control swathes of countryside and strike at will in Mogadishu and other towns, meant that plan was ditched last year.

Instead a complicated hotchpotch is in place.

It falls far short of a democratic election, but promises to be better than the last vote in 2012, when 135 clan elders nominated all the MPs.

– Clan control continues –

In the absence of parties, clans remain at the heart of the process. MP’s seats are divvied up according to region and clan, with candidates voted for by “electoral colleges” of 51 representatives selected by elders.

That makes it roughly 100 times more inclusive than 2012, as officials are keen to point out.

Often the vote itself is ceremonial, with the winner negotiated in advance followed by the ritual placing of slips in ballot boxes.

In another country the election might be dismissed as a sham, but Somalia’s long history of conflict means this is being counted as progress.

“My voice mattered in this election,” said Halima Suleiman, a 31-year-old woman who also voted for Mudey. Like her, many of those chosen to vote hail from Somalia’s international diaspora.

Mohamed Abdi Omar, an elder, said: “This is the first time we have seen people selecting their candidates.”

Somalis queued to vote in 1969 but since then civil war, government collapse, warlords and Islamist insurgents have ensured no election was held.

After 2000 a series of transitional governments were formed abroad until, in 2012, the current parliament was appointed in the capital Mogadishu.

Now voting is taking place in regional towns, strengthening the federalism that has built in recent years and is helping to defuse the zero-sum game for control of the capital.

For Michael Keating, the top UN official in Somalia, the goal of the process is “to figure out whether and how a peaceful transfer of political power is possible.”

He listed numerous problems with the election: “intimidation, candidates being prevented from putting their names forward or prevented physically from going to locations. There’s a lot of money changing hands.”

– Disputes, corruption, winners –

Mohamed Nur, short and sweating in an oversized dark suit and tie, was like Mudey the sole candidate for his Shambara clan’s seat in the southern port city of Kismayo.

“Before the election date had not yet approached we made consultations and the rest of the candidates have agreed to endorse my candidacy,” he said, surrounded by a gaggle of cheering supporters.

Elsewhere in Kismayo, others were still setting the stage for the democratic theatre to come, and elders from the Rer Hassan clan were angry.

There were rumours that over half of their chosen delegates had been replaced in an effort to rig the vote.

Dubadh Isaac Mohammed, a rheumy-eyed elder in a traditional hat, scarf, sarong and short-sleeved shirt –- all red like his henna-dyed goatee beard -– demanded to see the final approved list, accusing local election officials of “trying to steal our vote!”

Local election chief Ali Abdi Raghe angrily dismissed the allegation.

Like his counterpart in Baidoa, Mohamed Mursal, Raghe is a close ally of the regional president (“his right and left hand,” as one foreign observer put it) leading to suspicions that pre-existing power brokers are controlling even this limited electoral process.

“The important thing is that the delegates and candidates are from the region and are voting in the region,” Mursal said.

For now, politics remains an elite game to which most Somalis are not invited — and they will have to wait at least another four years for a more democratic election.

“It’s a legitimate question: what are they going to get out of this process?” said Keating. “It’s a tough one to answer.”

Briefing Room

Somali government introduces 5% sales tax to boost revenues

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The Somali government has launched an aggressive tax collection campaign. The administration has imposed a five percent sales tax as part of efforts to win billions of dollars in international debt relief. However there are concerns on whether the country’s powerful businessmen pay up.

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Hunted and hated, Somali tax collectors gird for battle

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MOGADISHU, Feb 16 (Reuters) – Ahmed Nur moves through the Somali capital of Mogadishu with a bodyguard of six men, a pistol in the waistband of his baggy trousers. He speaks of his work in whispers; seven of his colleagues have been killed in the last three years. But Nur is no intelligence operative. He’s a tax collector.

Now the central government’s imposition of a five percent sales tax last month, part of its efforts to win billions of dollars in international debt relief, have put him at the heart of a showdown with the country’s most powerful businessmen.

So far, the government’s efforts have been slowly working; domestic revenue was up to $141 million in 2017 from $110 million in 2016, said Finance Minister Abdirahman Duale Beileh.

But much more is needed before the government is self-sufficient, a key step toward accessing about $4.6 billion in international debt relief. The final amount is still being assessed.

Somalia has been wracked by civil war since 1991, and the cash-starved, U.N.-backed government in Mogadishu is desperate to claw in the revenue it needs to pay staff and provide services like security.

The military, which is supposed to fight al-Qaeda linked insurgents, is in tatters and a combination of corruption and cash shortages mean soldiers rarely receive their $100 per month paycheques.

“People ask for security services prior to paying tax. But the government cannot deliver the required services to the public unless tax is collected,” Nur confided to Reuters in a restaurant, glancing over his shoulder. “It is like the egg and chicken puzzle.”

Some progress was made last year: tax agreements have been reached with airlines and telecoms companies, and an income tax exemption for parliamentarians has been reversed.

“These are important measures and show the strong commitment of the authorities to reform,” said Mohamad Elhage, who leads the International Momentary Fund’s Somalia work.

Debt forgiveness would give the government access to credit that could be used to fund services, binding Somalia’s often quarrelling federal states closer together.

It could also wean the government off cash from donors such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which often have diverging agendas that can destabilise Somalia’s fragile politics.

“Increasing our revenue is a very important benchmark for the road map to clear the (debt) arrears,” said Beileh. “Our objective to cover our expenses is very important.”

Achieving that will depend, in part, on men like Nur.
TAX COLLECTION ON THE FRONTLINE

Somalia’s al Shabaab rebels are known for their ruthless efficiency at collecting tax and spy networks that track profits. Businessmen misstating their profits are likely to get a terse reminder to pay the difference or face a bullet; tax collectors who cheat the movement could be executed, a former al Shabaab enforcer told Reuters.

Al Shabaab were not available for comment.

As an agent of the U.N.-backed government, Nur cannot dole out amputations or executions. If a businessman refuses to pay up he can theoretically be arrested, if he has no powerful friends to protect him. But often, they will simply prevaricate, said Nur.

That’s what many businessmen are doing in the face of Somalia’s new tax. Mogadishu port has not unloaded a commercial vessel for nine days, port authorities told Reuters on Wednesday, as businessmen refuse to pay the new levy.

Trader Aden Abdullahi complained that he was already paying for port services and customs, and paying the Islamic tax of zakat to the poor. He can’t afford another five percent, he said.

“We see this idea as intentionally or unintentionally direct economic war on Mogadishu traders,” he said, shaking his head in disapproval in his wholesale grocery shop.

“The other problem is that the rebels tax us and I am sure they will also raise tax if the government raises tax.”

Some Somalis also say they are reluctant to pay up to an administration that many consider corrupt and inefficient. Almost all of Somalia’s budget goes on paying its politicians and civil servants; ordinary citizens see little being spent on improving public health, education or infrastructure in their bullet-scarred city.

“We pay various taxes by force. There is no beneficial return from the government. We do not even have roads and I have been paying these taxes at gunpoint for the last ten years,” 40-year-old minibus driver Hashi Abdulle said, referring to money extorted at government-controlled roadblocks.

But Minister Beileh says that criticism is outdated and citizens are confusing private extortion with public taxes. The government is putting reforms in place, he said, like trying to work out how to issue individual tax numbers and empowering the ministry of finance to take the lead on tax collection.

“People are used to dealing with … individuals, individual offices, individual soldiers, illegal tax collectors who did not belong to government,” he said.

“Changing that culture is also becoming a challenge … We are trying to close all the loopholes.”

(Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld; writing by Katharine Houreld; editing by Giles Elgood)

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Briefing Room

Somalia Foreign Minister Wants IGAD Open Borders After The Government Rejected

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Looks like Somali Foreign Minister didn’t get the memo when he was talking to Africa 24 TV.

Minister Ahmed Awad agrees with IGAD Free Movement Proposal “We’re comfortable (with the open border) in fact we encourage it, we welcome the region’s borders to be open, the economy of the countries in the region to be integrated. Somalis & Somalia will benefit very much from such open border” Foreign Minister Awad said, while last Monday Somalia said it would not sign a deal with IGAD member countries that will allow free movement of citizens.

 

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