Surprise in Somalia! The perplexity of an analyst

Today, on February 8, 2017, the most corrupt and least democratic polls I’ve ever witnessed unexpectedly delivered victory to the least corrupt and most popular presidential candidate in the race: Farmajo. How did that happen?


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Nobody had expected this. Yesterday the New York Times published an analysis of the Somali electoral process as ‘a milestone in corruption’, and most analysts in and of Somalia could only agree with this. From the first step, where clan elders appointed delegates to elect MPs, rumours had been rife about large sums of money being exchanged for votes. The Auditor General of Somalia on 19 November (VOA interview) confirmed that candidate MPs were buying votes for sums between 5,000 and 30,000 dollars.

Only 14000 clan delegates participated in the election of the Lower House members, and senators were suggested by state presidents and elected by the state assemblies. One can say that only the clan elites of Somalia participated in these elections. Besides vote-buying, there were numerous instances of intimidation, fake (appointed) contenders, and blatant interference by the President’s office in the work of the electoral teams, to eliminate rivals and appoint allies.

The two contenders most likely to win the elections were the sitting president and his predecessor; both had embarked on trips to Gulf States, Turkey and regional powerbrokers, reportedly coming back with sacks of money to buy votes (anti- or pro-Muslim Brotherhood, anti- or pro-Salafist, anti- or pro- Ethiopia etc). It is ‘known’ (but not proven) that in 2012 Hassan Sheikh Mohamud paid 75.000 USD per MP vote to win the election, and it was supposed that prices had increased in the meanwhile.

Among the other 22 presidential candidates was Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, #4 on the list of most experts, after the current prime minister Sharmarke. Not being Hawiye like the two ‘front-runners’, not even being Majerteen like Sharmarke, and not disposing over unlimited cash reserves and generous foreign backers, he was given little chance. Farmajo was candidate for the presidency in 2012, and was defeated in the first round of voting. That he was fourth on the list came through his popularity.

Farmajo’s popularity stems from his brief stint as prime minister, from November 2010 to June 2011. He appointed a cabinet of newcomers and set about reforming the state, paying Somali security forces and having them biometrically registered, boosting the constitutional process, putting tighter financial and accounting controls on the ministries, and so on. His reforms were approved by parliament and massively supported by the population. When he was sacrificed as part of a deal between the President and the Speaker of Parliament and had to tend his resignation, there were demonstrations and riots all over Somalia and by diaspora in cities throughout the West. He then set up a political party but was defeated in the elections a year later, in a process marked by massive vote-buying.

How then could he win four years later?



Assuming that the ex-presidents Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Sheikh Sharif did indeed dole out large amounts of cash, and/or promises of future positions, to MPs and those behind them, why did 184 of the 329 members of the Upper and Lower Houses vote for Farmajo instead?

That is was at all possible was because of the strict ban on telephones or other recording instruments with which deals could be made or enforced in the election hall, and maybe because of the last-minute change of venue, from the police academy to a hall in the perimeter of Mogadishu International Airport. This allowed parliamentarians to vote freely. The UN, the Election Integrity Committee and the donor community should be commended for that. I heard one Somali say that ‘the international community won the elections’ and it is true that, obligatory neutrality notwithstanding, Farmajo was the favoured candidate because of his reformist and anti-corruption policies, and the statesmanship he had shown when stepping down at the pinnacle of his popularity. Being a US citizen and having long worked in New York State’s local government, the US probably had no issue with him.

This still fails to explain why 56% of the MPs voted for Farmajo, vs only 30% for Hassan Sheikh and only very few for Sheikh Sharif or Sharmarke. Of course it’s quite possible that many MPs never gave or accepted bribes and voted for the person they thought best. This may be particularly true of the 24% of women members of parliament, most of whom are not players in Somali power politics. It’s also true, however, that more than 50% of the members of parliament were newcomers, meaning that clan elders had given a chance to a new generation of political leaders (and to women).

The explanation must therefore be sought in the clan elders, who selected caucuses of delegates (51 per parliamentary seat) that were somehow representative of the clans; these delegates then elected MPs that represented contemporary tendencies in Somali society, and these MPs have now elected Farmajo. Either they were insensitive to bribes, or they pocketed them and later found out that they could vote freely for the candidate of their choice, thanks to the secret ballot.

Voila. But the point is: nobody had foreseen this. Not in Somalia – Somalis who expressed hope that Farmajo would win the elections were seen as naïve – and certainly not among foreign experts like myself.



This must be a lesson about democracy, about how the popular will can impose itself on political processes that do not take it into consideration, but also do not actively bar it from expressing itself. For, unless some unexpected news emerges that Farmajo actually bought those votes, we can assume that his election was an expression of the popular will. His election victory was met by outbursts of joy everywhere throughout the country and its diaspora, including in Nairobi’s Eastleigh. My Somali friends are as happy as they’ve ever been.

The election of Trump – my regrets to my American friends that deeply oppose him – was also such an expression of popular will. Until the night of the elections all observers, noting the whole American establishment seemed against him, thought he must lose. Yet 19% of the American people managed to put him in power. And the Brexit was equally unexpected. If this trend continues, we can predict a victory of Macron in France.

It is also a lesson about electoral processes. The secret ballot and efforts to isolate the MPs on election day from any external influences was, as seen above, an essential ingredient of Farmajo’s victory. But the rest of this highly contaminated and very restricted electoral process fell far short from any standards of free and fair elections. Nevertheless, a candidate evidently hostile to and presumably disadvantaged by this system won through it.

I remain puzzled and wondering what, if any, use all the political theory and international expertise has in making sense of the world we’re living in. How can we incorporate the element of surprise, can we achieve peace with a discipline that cannot at all predict but somehow help understand, can the field be opened to, for example, the factor of intuition, and don’t we need to rethink the fundamental principles of democracy? Move away from this technical focus on elections and other institutions?

But, for the time being, let me congratulate the Somali people, and the clan elders and delegates and MPs, on the results of the election. I wish Farmajo all the strength and luck to implement his program of reforms, pray the international community will support him, and hope that the tide has finally turned for the Somali people: that from now onward perspectives will open to achieve peace, prosperity and development in their homeland.


No time for the Blues

Trump’s victory at the polls makes me feel optimistic. The wake-up call can no longer be ignored, now that a beast has ascended the throne of world power. It is time to act.tarot-devil

I’m not worried that this revolting man will unchain the apocalypse or so. His America will not be substantially different from Obama’s, and the powerful institutions of the US state will mostly stay on course. Trump’s initiatives, if he even takes them, will be doggedly resisted by the US civil service and will mostly come to nothing. He would be mad to take on the state machinery and try to swing it around to implement his daft ideas. But I don’t even believe he will try. He will now cozy up to power and want to gain acceptance at Davos and fly around the world in his 747. I’m not sure his ambition even goes beyond sitting in the oval office with his feet on the desk and some hot chicks around.

Forget about Trump. His presidency will be another good reason to avoid watching TV. His face, anyway, is a more appropriate one for the neoliberal US military-industrial complex than Obama’s. His was too nice, too civilized, and thus misleading. I was sucked in by the hype and let down by Obama when he failed to close Guantanamo Bay and embarked on targeted assassination drone campaigns around the world. That was stupid of me and I knew it, because with the best intentions there was not much Obama was going to be able to change in US policy. The state is an oil tanker that hardly responds to the leaders which come and go; predictably the one will want to steer it a bit to the left, and the next to the right, so it has its own habit of just heading straight forward (without any clue where it’s going, because the State is just a machine). Trump has no interest in steering it, I believe, and will focus on revamping the captain’s quarters to throw sex parties there. So let’s all just please ignore him.

But we cannot ignore what his victory says about the world we’re living in, and particularly the USA. I’m reading a lot of strange analyses. That Americans voted out of fear. Pardon? The safe option was obviously Hillary, who stood for more of the same. Trump stands for the wild unknown; it takes more bravery to vote for him than for Hillary. That Americans are fascists. To the contrary, they are probably the people least inclined to fascism (what does that word even mean?) on the planet. The Americans are truly and thoroughly democrats; they’ve been at it for more than two centuries without a glitch. It’s precisely because they are democrats that they voted against Hillary and the almost unshakeable establishment she stands for (the same people who are now hastily embracing Trump, pretending they liked him all along, saying sanctimonious things about ‘respecting the voice of the American people’). Voting for Trump was a way to signal your rejection of that establishment. The only way, in fact, because voting for one of the two small candidates (the libertarian Johnson and the green Stein), with more interesting political programs, was tantamount to letting Hillary win. So it had to be Trump. If somebody could wreck ‘the system’ and upset ‘the establishment’ it was him.

Many commentators compare this election to that of Hitler in 1933. But this comparison is based on the rewriting of history that happened after World War 2. The Germans in 1933 did not vote for starting the second world war and exterminating the Jews. They did not vote out of fascist sentiment. They voted for the National Socialist Workers party because they wanted an end to the mess they were in, and because Hitler seemed the most capable of bringing socialism to Germany. Which he did; he brought not only order and industry, but also social housing, public infrastructure, paid annual leave and an end to the misery of the poor. This is what made him strong enough to embark on his expansionist policies from the late 30s onward. I don’t see Trump doing that, and the situation is very different in the USA of 2016. So exit the comparison with Hitler and 1933.

The victory of Trump is above all a kick of the American people against the establishment. Americans voted for Trump because of his anti-establishment discourse, because he dared say things that this establishment hated hearing. A considerable number of voters probably were swayed on election day to vote for Trump, for the sole pleasure of proving wrong all those smug commentators on CNN etc who were banking on a clear win of Hillary and parties on Wall Street to celebrate it. In that sense the US vote is similar to the UK vote for the Brexit. An interesting fact is that it is precisely in the two countries with the longest democratic tradition, the UK and the USA, that voters have delivered this blow against their ruling elites.

In 2016, ‘democracy’ seemingly leaves no other chance for the people to make their voice heard than by delivering a blind kick against ‘the system’. As a result, many people the world over are taking this electoral result (and the Brexit) as evidence that democracy doesn’t work. This point of view expresses the fear of the ‘stupid, brutal masses’, the so-called ‘tyranny of the majority’ which has always worried the educated elites that feel entitled to rule. Accordingly, we would now have to go ‘beyond democracy’ and some analysts are already preaching the benefits of an enlightened autocracy.

Whoa, STOP! First of all, is this democracy? The chance to vote every four years, to choose between two candidates that will apply more or less the same policies? Or that make promises for change which we know they’ll break once in power, with no accountability mechanism other than kicking them out at the end of their term, knowing that the next elections will deliver similar leaders and results?

No, this version of very limited, ‘representative’ democracy that was developed in the West in the 18th and 19th centuries is not democracy. It can at best be called democratism, i.e. an ideological construct which pretends to be democratic. It was designed as a manner to allow very limited input by ‘the population at large’ into government, and more importantly to secure the buy-in of that population into the policies decided by experts and other entitled people (the wealthy, the educated, the old ruling families).

It’s amazing that we still apply the 19th century forms of democracy today, in the age of internet, which offers a myriad of new and easier ways for people to directly participate in democratic decision-making, instead of through electing a representative. Isn’t it time for democracy 2.0? Direct, instead of representative democracy?

In my travels I have encountered societies that are much more democratic than our Western ones (which are so hierarchical and class-based). Not some small community of native Amazonians, but Afghans, Kurds and Somalis, for example. Societies where every man and woman is used to having her or his say, to being heard, and where there’s much easier access to power than in the Netherlands. Where young people don’t feel flustered when speaking to the President because they are convinced of the equality between him and them as human beings. These are societies without elections, without formal institutions of democracy, even without a guaranteed freedom of association and expression; but intrinsically more democratic than the West. Because they have no principle of delegation of democratic rights to a representative, which is the principle Western democracy is built on. See for example some posts on this site about Rojava, the Kurdish self-governance experiment of ‘stateless democracy’ in Syria, or the movie I made about the first electoral process in post-Taliban Afghanistan, the Loya Jirga.

Elections, a fundamental mechanism of democratism, actually suffocate the democratic spirit. No, we should not delegate our right to participate in collective affairs to someone else (an MP), once every four years. We should exercise that right ourselves, directly; the more often the better. As experience points out, active participation in collective decision-making rapidly improves people’s understanding of issues; it also makes them more responsible, conscious citizens, aware of differences in society. Direct democracy has the exact opposite effect of representative democracy, which ends up making people cynical and nihilistic (and then they vote for Trump).

This is why I feel optimistic today. Democratism is cracking, revealing its true nature (oligarchy, plutocracy, global police state: it has different faces). There’s now a true chance to explore new forms of democracy. And it will not be only a few marginalized dreamers who are interested in this, but large parts of the population, especially in the US, where people who truly believe in democracy – unlike us cynical Europeans – will be seeking alternatives for the system that brought Trump to power, and that otherwise would have brought the wife of an ex-President after the son of an ex-President (how democratic is that?).

There are a few good options around already. The impressive result of the Pirate Party in recent elections in Iceland (they came second) is largely thanks to their successful practice of direct democracy; the Leap Manifesto in Canada points an interesting way forward, and the Dutch artist Jonas Staal’s New World Summit has been developing a radical global practice based on inviting groups that are expelled from democracy or that explore novel forms of democracy, in settings that propitiate better democratic exchange. There are many similar alternatives sprouting up around the world – the most mind-blowing one remains, for me, the revolution against the patriarchical state in Rojava – and it’s time to join forces.

In fact, we may not have much time left.

(11/11/2016, for my daughter Ariana)


Article about Jonas Staal in Syria


Closing ceremony of the New World Summit in Derik, Syria

I published this article in the December 2015 edition of The Art Newspaper – with first a ‘news’ story on page 3, and then a feature on pages 58-59.  Continue reading

The Rojava Revolution

Syrian Village

A unique experiment in ‘stateless democracy’ and effective armed resistance against ISIS in Northern Syria is led by Kurdish women. Could their innovative model for social organization, which has brought peace, stability and progress to their region over the past three years, provide a way out for the crisis in Syria and other minorities in the Middle East? A personal account of a ‘political tourism’ visit to Rojava.

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Art and Soft Power in the Gulf

Article published in Issue #47 of Afkar / Ideas published in October 2015 by the European Institute of the Mediterranean in Barcelona / French version / Spanish version

Ahmad Angawi: Ottoman Map of Mecca (detail), 2012

Ahmad Angawi: Ottoman Map of Mecca (detail), 2012

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The 5th edition of the New World Summit opened today in Derik / Al Malikiyyah in northwestern Syria. The Dutch artist Jonas Staal and his team, in tandem with the authorities of the autonomous canton of Cizire, drew full audiences with a thorough, two-day discussion of ‘Democratic Confederalism’ by international delegates and local specialists. Continue reading

Life and death in Rojava

Day 2 in Northwestern Syria

Commander Axin and soldier Haifa talking with our delegation

Commander A… and soldier H… of the YPJ talking with our Filipina delegation member Ilena, with our translator Nahla in the midst

Today we were confronted more squarely with the war being fought in Syria, and the intensity of life and death in a beleaguered war zone; although we also got the chance to visit the 4000 year old archaeological site of Urkesh, one of the earliest cities.

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Can we still believe in revolution?

Day 1 in Northwestern Syria

Street scene in village between Derik and Qamishlo

Street scene in village between Derik and Qamishlo

My first impression in Rojava, the autonomous Kurdish area in northeastern Syria, is that everything seems quite normal. For a small region still engaged in the fight against the Islamic State (although only three people die on the front per day, as compared to 20-30 a few months ago) and in the stranglehold of Erdogan’s Turkey, the area is remarkably quiet, and even seems prosperous, with shops full of goods and the fields and herds well-tended to.

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