A new dawn in Puntland: What to expect from the President-elect?

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Last night was once again a momentous night! It was Puntland time which comes once every five years – time to see the experimentation of democracy at the local level. For that reason, I stayed up until 1 AM to watch live all the electoral proceedings, where the residents democratically chose a new President, Mr Said Abdullah Deni, through a proxy house of 66 clan representatives consisting of mostly men of all ages. The administration of the event was completed without any screeching sound.

The icing on the cake was the marshalling of a group of high calibres as candidates – many of the candidates exhibited rich in work experience, a good understanding of the technicalities of governance, and years of working in the private sector. To rise like a sphinx out of a crowded field of over 20 candidates was trying; however, you knew right away that the one who gets the top spot will command our collective respect; that distinction went to Said Abdullahi Deni as the clock ticked towards 1 AM my local time.

The new parliament of Puntland proved to be not so kind to the former president, Dr Abdiweli Gaas; his first defeat came when the House overwhelmingly rejected his hand-picked candidate for the speakership. As if that was not enough, Gaas himself was denied garnering enough votes to go beyond the first round. However, like his predecessors, he took the defeat with strides and with dignity.

It is always a pleasant moment to be virtually part of the Puntland experiment from afar. The elimination of Dr. Abdiweli Gaas and several of my good friends from the race so early in the process was streamed and was a done deal by 11 PM. By the second round, only three strong candidates, Farah Shire, General Asad and Said Deni, were announced to have advanced to round two.
A little after midnight, the current president-elect Said Deni was declared the winner with 35 votes as opposed to his competitor’s 31. That result, although helped crown Said Deni, indicated General Asad’s bright future in the politics of Puntland.

Pidresent-elect Said Deni, with whom I have had a long and productive discussion in July of 2018 in Nairobi, is a businessman with a streak of gentleness. Soft-spoken, but firm and clear on what his goals are, president-elect Deni right away took decisive action – he issues an executive order to curtail all financial withdrawals from the Central Bank of Puntland or from Hawals in the name of his administration. Whether this decisive action will lead later in his administration to go after looted resources by current leadership remains to be seen. Nonetheless, it is a necessary step.

In my brief encounter with Mr Deni, we talked about two major areas: his strong belief in the existence of Puntland which makes part of his political philosophy. In that regard, he is adamant and comfortable to protect the integrity of the statehood of Puntland while adhering to the principles of federalism. Minimizing political confrontations between the state and the fed while enhancing collaboration could emerge as his working modus operand.

He is equally committed to jobs creation. As a successful businessman himself, president-elect Deni fully understands that prudent public policy and good governance are the basis for enhancing and expanding the economic sector of the region. And that would require of him to prioritize jobs generating programs.

While all that is good and dandy. challenges await him.

First, there is a dire need for a reconciliation conference for Puntlanders. The vacating president promised in 2014 to hold such a conference but never delivered. Of course, there is no open conflict, but society has lost esteem, coherence, and confidence for the last few years. The invasion of Garacad by Al-Shabaab while President Gaas was touring North America, the wishy-washy policies towards the 4.5 formula and the vain promises to get Puntland to one-person-one-vote by 2019 collectively eroded public confidence in favour of a wide-spread political apathy.

If president-elect Deni can do a small percentage of some of the recommendations contained in the moving sermon delivered at the opening of the election by the grand mufti of Puntland, Sheikh Dahir Ahmed, Puntland and its people will be in a better place a year from today.

The second issue involves cabinet selection. President-elect Deni needs to reflect on that historical slogan popularized by one of Somalia’s most honest politician’s who happens to come from Puntland: I am referring to the late PM Abdirazak Haji Hussein’s “Maxaa taqaaan, oon ahay ayaa taqaan,” or hiring people based on “what they know, not on who they know.” In a sense, to the extent possible we expect Mr Deni to move away from the current nepotism and head the age-old but never pale slogan we inherited from one of Somalia’s founding fathers.

That phrase was relevant then (in the 1960s) and it is equally relevant now. I will offer to president-elect Deni a piece of modest advice I gave in vain to Prime Minister Omar Abdi Rashid in March 2015 when he was putting his cabinet together. I gave him a formula where he can kill two birds with one stone that satisfies both the notorious 4.5 formula of cabinet selection and qualification. This is what I then wrote to him thinking that the PM was a serious individual only to discover that nothing bothers him.

My recommendation was for PM Omar Abdirashid to ask every pressure group, read every clan that is entitled to receive a cabinet position, to give him the resume of three candidates of their respective choices. From that list as a PM, he will choose the most qualified individual that also shares his vision. In that way, he can satisfy the clan pressure and qualifications needed to do the job at hand.

Mr President-elect, please do something a bit different from the yawning clan-based stale quota system that is making good governance a dream pipe in Somalia’s stalled recovery. Puntland deserves better than what we have seen in the last five years. Also, remember: where Puntland goes so goes the rest of Somalia.

The third and unsettling challenge is finding a way to deal with the problem of Sool, Sanaag, and Cayn [SSC]. Muse Bihi, a former military man in the Somali National Movement, not only exhibit dictatorial tendencies, but he shows proclivity towards handling conflicts through a military means. He may pose challenges for the new administration in Puntland. To effectively deal with threats coming from Somaliland, President-elect Deni needs to closely work with the federal government and with the residents of Sool, Sanaag and Cayn.

My last point is the timing of this new presidency. Mr Deni is coming to office at a unique period; Villa Somalia is disconnected from key regional governments. As a matter of fact, there is an undeclared war between Jubbland and Villa Somalia. Galmudug has no real relationship either. Hirshabelle’s president in no uncertain terms insinuated his capitulation for fear of losing financial support from Mogadishu. And the Southwest fiasco, including the death of about 30 Somalis in the hands of Ethiopian soldiers who are members of AMISOM, is less comforting and put a stain on Villa Somalia.

A related issue, which the new president of Puntland must immediately get engaged, is the aftermath from the fallout of Villa Somalia kicking out Mr Nicholas Hysom, special envoy of the UNSOM. Is Puntland going be part of the solution so that it can carry out constructive engagement with the UN and help ameliorate the conflict between the two, or seek to revive the now-defunct dual-track policy of donors of bygone days? Will it use its good offices to mediate not only between the UNSOM and Villa Somalia but also between Villa Somalia and federal states?

A lot in the form of leadership is expected from Puntland; With all these challenges at hand, we all expect of the new administration as we have had in the past to show maturity, use diplomatic skills and political astuteness to mediate between Villa Somalia and the federal entities and between Villa Somalia and the UNSOM. Puntland is strong when Somalia is united, and Somalia is united when Puntland is strong.

This symbiotic relationship between Garowe and Mogadishu is not only necessary but something the residents of Puntland and Somalis at large expect. As Mufti Sheikh Dahir said in his opening sermon, Puntland is expected to serve the downtrodden as well as bring all Somalis together. That is our threshold to evaluate Mr Deni and his administration. Good luck Mr President.

By Faisal Roble

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