Puntland president Abdiweli Mohamed Ali Gas said in his election campaign for Puntland presidency in October 2014 that, “Puntland is like a very nice, pretty, clean young woman who unfortunately happens to marry alcoholics”. The analogical argument could not have been any more relevant than today. That pretty young woman is married to him and people are getting to notice the relevant similarity of his statement to the present situation and his own failure to look after this beautiful and homely young woman.
President Abdiweli’s presidency and power is currently at its lowest ebb. It is widely accepted that the decline of his popularity started early in his tenure and preceded the recent economic, social and political upheavals in Puntland. His low approval rating stems from his lack of leadership skills, real stature and charisma. It became conspicuous in his controversial, staged charade opposition to the Federal government’s 4.5 electoral representation system back in 2016 and the ensued fallout from his hypocritical decision and at the eleventh-hour change of heart to support that pernicious formula.
Abdiweli’s laissez-faire approach to the presidency, his vacillation, his lethargic and dreadful handling of political, financial and security crises in the region for the last three years are some of the examples his detractors use to depict him with some justice as a weak, timid, indecisive and unreliable political pygmy. They argue that he lacks vision, a sense of direction, political experience and traditional authority. They are so incensed by the way he surrounded himself with inexperienced unimaginative flag-waving individuals who care less about the sense of indignation, anguish and alienation felt by many segments of Puntland society.
The recent protests and the increasingly all-out attacks on his personality, integrity and leadership do not auger well for the remaining 17 months of his term. All that said, president Abdiweli might have had his chips but he is hell-bent on clinging to power in every way possible. If he resorts to the use of force and intimidation tactics to silence dissent, the game will be all but over for him.
Impending economic disaster
President Abdiweli’s economic schemes, particularly his decision to coerce businesses to accept Puntland government printed counterfeit Somali Shilling bank notes and at the same time to collect taxes in US Dollars, have met with popular backlash and discontent. The scheme is worryingly causing huge damage and disruptions to the fragile economy of the state and serious hardship in the livelihood of many people in Puntland. It was a bizarre decision; one which defied any legal and logical reasoning. As the result, small businesses have refused to pay taxes in US Dollars and closed up shops and stores in big cities. Inflation is spiralling out of control and the Somali Shilling has hit all-time low against the US Dollar at 35,000 Sh.So/1US$, leading to crippling shortages of money to buy food and other necessities. Even more peculiar was his decision to instruct the regional governors to enforce this outrageous and terrible scheme. This scheme and the revolt of the businesses portend an impending economic disaster, in a scale we have not seen in recent years.
The business owner’s acts of defiance, the growing boldness among opposition movement and the blunt condemnatory public outpouring of dissension over the president’s political and economic policies – if not managed sensitively – would precipitate inevitable domino effect of more public anger, unrest and his eventual downfall and early departure from office.
Corruption, corruption everywhere
Somali is ranked the most corrupt country in the world for 10th year running. Puntland has seen countless corruption scandals since its formation in 1998 but the perceived level of mismanagement and rampant embezzlement of public resources under president Abdiweli’s leadership is unparalleled. It is estimated that Puntland State loses around US$10 million annually to corruption and all fingers point to the avaricious President and his inner cycle. It is alleged that the president embezzled, mismanaged and squandered the meagre public revenues on his opulent lifestyle, foreign trips and bribes.
President Abdiweli is alleged to have solicited bribes from foreign and domestic companies in exchange for contracts and concessions but his daylight blatant bribery of members of Puntland parliament in July 2017 is considered to be the most despicable and highest level of sleaze ever in the state. The president is accused to have paid US$2 million kickback to Puntland MPs to buy their vote on passing agreements he had entered with various foreign companies. The money was part of concession payment of US$15 million granted by DP World to secure the takeover of Bosaso Port management for 30 years.
Puntland people, the real victims of this sleaze, were flabbergasted at this unashamed pillaging of donor money in what amounts to be not only a serious criminal offence but a total disregard of all semblances of human decency. They find it very painful to see those who were entrusted with public office and purse are the real perpetrators.
Corrupt members of parliament and the judiciary officials turn blind eye to these illegal activities in return for bribes. These institutions are very weak and dysfunctional, lack any regulatory framework and authority to fight corruption and operate in an environment of lawlessness. The UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) demands states to fight corruption and bribery but the question is how could corruption be fought and trampled when it is perpetuated by the highest office in the state? There is no authority in Puntland to turn for help to deal with this destructive corruption. Likewise, there is no hope that the Federal government will take any action against president Abdiweli and his government as it is marred by the same corrupt practices and lacks the moral and legal authority and resources.
In Somalia, there is a need for a UN led independent and powerful anti-corruption authority with representatives from Somali civil society groups and Somali’s international partners. President Abdiweli is a dual Somali US citizen and is obliged to abide US anti-corruption laws. Puntland people would hope to see action by the US State Department to investigate him extraterritorially under US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, Anti-Bribery Provisions for soliciting, taking and paying bribes as well as his failures to prevent bribery. If he is found to have breached US laws on anti-bribery, he could face criminal indictment in the USA.
Dictatorship in Puntland
Puntland president, the head of the executive branch of Puntland government, is elected by the 66 members of the parliament once every five years. The other two organs – (the parliament and judiciary) were designed to be separate independent entities to check and balance the executive. It became the norm in Puntland that once the president assumes office, he inherits unlimited power and the ultimate legal authority to govern the state without oversight. The disproportionate power and influence in the president’s office turns Puntland into tyranny and oppressive regime characterized by presidential authoritarianism.
There is a need to review and amend the president’s power and authority in Puntland Constitution so that his actions could be checked and his despotic tendencies curtailed. Until independent, effective and fair judiciary system is developed in Puntland, nothing could be done to stop the abuse of office and flagrant corruption we see today.
Puntland Election Year 2018 and the imminent political crisis.
Since 2016 opposition voices could be heard in the background, albeit kind of subdued grumbling and apathy to the president’s policies. All that will change in January 2018 when the state is immersed in the election year campaigns and fervent hope of change in the lead up to the presidential elections on 8th of January 2019.
President Abdiweli has intentionally held back the democratisation process in Puntland for the first three years of his term. Transitional Puntland Electoral Commission (TPEL) was officially established in this year. The commission has called Puntland politicians to establish political associations to participate in 2019 elections. Puntland people are resisting the call for multi-party elections because they believe that it is part of a ploy by President Abdiweli to either extend his term in office for one year or organize fraudulent and rigged elections to see him return to office. There is a growing fear that Abdiweli will finally decree the elections to be conducted in the old system of the 66 members of parliament nominated by the traditional elders.
Opposition political leaders, academics and Intellectuals believe that an improved, more democratic, transparent, representative and fairer electoral system can be adopted in Puntland. They call for the president to listen to opposition politicians, prospective presidential candidates and other sections of the civil society such as women and youth. The president needs to take the people’s perspectives into account and ensure the development of an electoral model which can take the state a step closer to democratic one-man one-vote multi-party electoral system.
In March 2017 while speaking to Puntland diaspora in Toronto, president Abdiweli remarked that, “only the paupers and the uneducated remain in Puntland”. These un-called for comments and his occasional rhetoric about his phantom achievements is a clear manifestation of a president detached from reality and afflicted with deluded self-confidence and pretentious arrogance. His improper use of power and public resources sets a disturbing trend for Puntland in the coming election year 2018. The gathering political storm heralds more trouble for Puntland and there are genuine fears of a return to the political haggling and impasse which brings Puntland to the brink of lawlessness in every election year.
Deteriorating relations between Puntland and the Federal government
President Abdiweli is on a collision course with the Federal government of Somalia. Puntland government’s recent declaration of support for Saudi – UAE led alliance against Qatar is going to strain the relations with the Federal government.
The Federal government has taken nonalignment neutral position in the crisis. There is a question of whether the Federal government consulted with the Federal Member States on its position or not. There is also a bone of contention of whether Puntland is legally entitled to voice its position on foreign affairs when its interests are affected.
Opposition groups in Puntland trenchantly criticise president Abdiweli of hypocrisy and opportunism. They accuse him of treachery ad that his decision was based on narrow financial gain and an invitation to the Hajj Pilgrimage over the Somali national interest and unity.
Finally, one can conclude that president Abdiweli’s woes have yet to come, given the political intrigue and surprising twists in store for the political drama of Puntland election year 2018.
By Mohamed Abdullahi, a veteran columnist based in Garowe, Somalia.