HOW do you hold an election without registering voters? That is the question confronting Somali politicians—as well as hordes of diplomats, NGOs and other international hangers-on—trying to create a functional government in Somalia, a country of 10m people which has been effectively stateless since the fall of its military government in 1991.
Somalia has been attempting to build a government since 2007, when an African Union peacekeeping force occupied the country (it was invaded by Ethiopia in 2006). In 2012 a provisional constitution was drawn up, and Hassan Sheikh Mohamud (pictured), a former academic and aid worker, elected president of the transitional government. The process is supposed to culminate in an election next year to create a Somali government with support across the whole country.
To the surprise of almost no one involved, Mr Hassan announced in July that a one-man, one-vote election next year will not be possible after all. He cited the ongoing fight with the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab and the need to maintain national unity. That the government has no capacity to actually conduct a vote in most of the country presumably also figured.
Now that a traditional election has been ruled out, the most likely compromise, says Matt Bryden, a Nairobi-based analyst who was the coordinator of the UN’s Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group until 2012, will follow the “4.5” formula. Elders from the four main Somali clans plus various minority clans will act as representative electors. That was roughly how Somalia’s parliament was appointed in 2012–a group of 135 clan elders selected 275 MPs, who in turn elected Mr Hassan. A possible tweak, says Mr Bryden, will be to involve representatives of the Somalia’s 10 “federal member states”, which were also created by the 2012 constitution. The idea is to give anybody with any power a stake in the government’s success.
So far, however, Mr Hassan appears to be dividing Somalis more than uniting them. In August, almost half of MPs attempted (unsuccessfully) to impeach him, accusing him of corruption and incompetence. Relations between the central government and the states are just as fraught. Mr Hassan did turn up to the inauguration of the state president of Jubaland, in the southern tip of the country, on September 12th, to the surprise of some. But state leaders cannot be forced into supporting the government. The autonomous region of Somaliland in the north, which is peaceful and in practice, independent, will ignore the entire process.
While negotiations go on, the 22,000 troops deployed by the African Union (AU) have been fighting a costly war with al-Shabab. The militants have now mostly been kicked out of urban areas, but they maintain support in large parts of the countryside, and remain capable of launching brutal, guerrilla attacks. At night “they roam half of Mogadishu”, says Cedric Barnes, of International Crisis Group, an NGO. On September 1st, al-Shabab fighters briefly overran an Ugandan AU base, killing dozens of soldiers and taking more captive (the exact number of casualties remains disputed). That attack was just the worst of several that have occurred in recent months. In July, a hotel in Mogadishu popular with diplomats was suicide bombed, killing 13 people. This week, a car bomb at the presidential palace killed at least four.
Western diplomats argue that political instability helps to fuel al-Shabab’s violence, and they are openly frustrated with the slow progress of negotiations. On September 8th, America opened a new embassy for Somalia (albeit in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital). But they have few levers to force agreement. Pulling back the AU forces—and the UN spending that helps sustain them—is the only chip the international community has, and with al-Shabab still strong, few would want to do that. Instead, the discussion goes on, forever.