Britain’s Ambassador to Somalia Ben Fender said that it’s up to Somalis to decide on the leader they want, the time of upcoming elections and the model to use, a marked departure from his country’s earlier position calling for “timely elections” in the country.
“We respect Somalia’s sovereignty. Who leads Somalia and its election arrangements are for Somalis alone to decide,” said Fender on Wednesday in a two-minute video message posted to his Twitter account.
Somali political leaders have for months now been at loggerheads over when and how to hold parliamentary and presidential polls due Dec. 27, 2020 and Feb. 8, 2021 respectively. Opposition groups, including regional chief administrators, insist on a timely and indirect vote, while the national government advocates universal suffrage that critics say is a ploy to extend current administration’s term by two years.
The electoral body asked for more time and $70 million to organize a popular vote that was different from the 2016-2017 indirect, bribery-marred elections in which a group of selected elders elected lawmakers who in turn elected the current president of the Somali Republic.
The UK ambassador, who is known for speaking his mind, said he had decided to share his country’s position on Somalia’s upcoming elections after receiving “a lot of questions asking where the UK stands on events” in the Horn of Africa nation.
Aware that both the government and opposition figures are closely watching his words, he skirted the weekend ouster of Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire in a no-confidence vote for falling to timely and properly prepare the nation for a popular vote, among other issues.
Fender’s clarification is crucial. Just a day earlier, 21 countries, including the UK itself and four international organizations, called for “timely elections”, a phrasing construed by opposition groups as a clear warning by the international community about any attempt to engineer a vote delay.
Fender opted this time around to focus more on Somalis’ need for dialogue and compromise and less on the time of upcoming elections.
“It’s vital there should be inclusive political dialogue taking forward and building on the process agreed in Dhusamareeb,” he said, referring to the July 22 agreement in the northern city between President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” and regional chiefs.
That agreement called for holding a “timely election in the country that satisfies all” and for setting up a technical committee whose work is to come up with recommendations on best electoral models for Somalia.
“I call on everyone to embrace that fully and in spirit of compromise,” Fender said of the Dhusamareeb agreement.
Last year, Fender annoyed many when he openly faulted the much-vilified election in the coastal city of Kismayo that granted Ahmed Mohamed Islam, popularly known as Ahmed Madobe, a second term as the chief administrator for three southern regions.
Fender dubbed that election’s process “deeply flawed.”
At the time, he also broke away from his government’s earlier position enunciated in a joint statement with the UN, the EU and 13 other countries that welcomed a deal signed by Ahmed Madobe and three of his former rivals who initially rejected his win.
“It’s good to see old rivals reconcile but truly inclusive politics – local and national – requires more,” he said in a message on Twitter, referring to that agreement on April 29 this year.
In his video message Wednesday, Fender urged Somali leaders from the national government, the regional administrations, parliament and the opposition to “avoid unilateral or provocative acts.”
“Everyone benefits if political issues are resolved cooperatively around the table,” said the UK ambassador.
He said Somalia’s “long time stability depends on strengthening the rule of law.”
“Nothing will be worse than instability,” Fender said.
“Remarkable words thanks, without respecting the rule of law there will be no progress at all,” said Othman A. Farole, a researcher at International Centre for the Study Violent Extremism, in a tweet responding to Fender’s remarks.
But another Twitter user urged the ambassador to keep off Somalia’s internal affairs.
“Most Somalis don’t want foreigners talking down on them. Most Somalis want UK to stay out of Somalia’s politics,” said Waabari.
In a speech Fender gave last year to celebrate the Queen’s 93rd birthday and the UK and Somalia partnership, he said that “some” might say that UK “at times” is a challenging partner. “But,” he added, “that’s because we are true friends, who want Somalia to be the best it can be.”
Fender, in the same speech, said that one of the things he loved “most about Somalis” is their “robust democratic spirit,” something he witnesses everyday on Twitter, but is not “always comfortable.”
Fender worked in Iran, Afghanistan, France, China and Israel before being appointed to Somalia last February.
He claims to have a decades-old poster in his room promoting “Somalia as a tourist destination” that reminds him “not to think of Somalia as a place of troubles, but as a place of unspoiled beaches and of rock art, of poets, of frankincense, of camels and of spicy tea.”
“It reminds me that the sad events of the last few decades do not – must not – define Somalia,” he said in his speech last year. “Somalia was not like that then and will not be in future.”
The ambassador expressed hope that Somali leaders would make “wise choices” to resolve their dispute over elections because their “friends want to go on supporting its reconstruction, as we have on security and debt relief. “
“I hope,” he said, “leaders will find progressive solutions that strengthen our remarkable partnership, which has already achieved so much.”