Somalia Provisional Constitution: Discussions of Politics, Religion, and Women
In August 2012, Somali delegations in the capital, Mogadishu, overwhelmingly approved the country’s third constitution since its independence in 1960. The atmosphere at the time was festive and full of hope, looking forward to peace for a country that has suffered so much hardship. Today, after more than eight years, Somali leaders still have not agreed on the completion of clauses and the date of the popular referendum for the 143-article constitution. Critics describe this stagnation as resulting from the immaturity of Somali politicians, and political turmoil, including the controversial decision to extend President Farmajo’s mandate by two years.
Despite the slowdown in the political process around the constitution, public discussions are still ongoing. In a January 2017 poll of 1,422 Somalis over the age of 18, 95% answered that they were aware of the new constitution. The debate is split between politicians: liberal, open-minded, and more focused on constitutional issues related to power, influence, and wealth sharing; and the general public: closer to the conservatives and more focused on issues of religion and women.
On the political dimension and the reasons for not completing the articles of the constitution, legal expert Mohamud Abdi, who lives in Mogadishu and whom I interviewed over the phone, suggests, “The dialogue with Somaliland has stopped because it is still officially part of Somalia and the constitution should address its interests and concerns.” A second reason, he says, is “The power struggle between the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) and Federal Member States (FMS) and the lack of agreement on wealth sharing formulas, which has been postponed under the constitution to be solved later.” However, in my opinion, the underlying cause is worse than that: it is the failure of society to hold politicians and lawmakers accountable, not to mention the absence of checks and balances among government branches.
As for the issue of the political role of women, the source of the controversy is that the provisional constitution gives women equal rights in most areas, except for matters of inheritance which are determined by Islamic law. Most of the discussion centers on constitution articles confirming women’s membership in government branches and committees. A bill approved by Somalia’s lower house in June of last year stipulates a specific quota for women in parliament, which is 30% of its members. It is a quota that has not yet been attained in full: for instance, as of the last parliamentary elections through the federal-state legislators, female members were at 24%.
Nevertheless, conservatives believe that the principle of the female quota has cultural and political implications, including women’s ability to pass their agendas if they can obtain another 30% of the votes of men. Conservatives also challenge why the quota of men in parliament is not regulated to 70% so that they are not marginalized in the future. In response, Sundus, a third-year university student whom I interviewed on campus in Galkayo, says that “These are flimsy arguments and are based on an ideological structure that considers women as receptors and refuses to consider them as participating and active members of society. The denial of women’s political rights gradually ends with the denial of all their rights, because human rights are indivisible.” The question is which one is more expensive for society: women’s participation or lack thereof? And from a moral point of view, is it fair to silence half of Somalis? Where will Somali women express their opinions and defend their rights if not in the field of politics?
Another ongoing debate is about Islam versus the constitution. Somalia is a Muslim country that wants to combine religion and modernity. Although the Somali provisional constitution includes what are academically known as Sharia Guarantee Clauses or SGCs, some clerics are still skeptical about the entire constitutional process. Sheik M, a lecturer of Islamic studies at a local university in Galkayo, who preferred not to mention his name, approached me with this question: “Why is the constitution needed if Islam is itself a constitution?”
The same question is often repeated in many Islamic countries. Muslim constitutional experts usually answer that the idea of a constitution does not contradict Islam, as the articles of the constitution are technically based on an Islamic rule known to Muslim scholars, which is “to bring good and ward off evil whenever possible,” and are dependent on each society, its era and its conditions. However, in Sheikh M’s opinion, “The articles of the constitution which are stipulating that Islam is the religion of the state and that everything that violates the Sharia becomes null and void, are actually nothing but deceptive matters aimed at attracting people and then pushing other agendas.” Although the sheik has not given examples of the alleged deception, this idea still arouses enthusiasm for some. But the clerics were among the delegates that approved the constitution. Why did they approve it if they doubt it today? Rather than rejecting the entire constitution, would it not be more useful to present their concerns through legal means?
The bottom line is that there is a need for national leadership by all stakeholders to pull the country out of instability and complete the constitution. Continuation of a constructive dialogue with Somaliland is necessary to ensure unity and reactivate the constitution’s progress, as well as to promote civic culture and the active participation of community members.