12/12/2016 10:44 GMT | Updated 13/12/2017 05:12 GMT

Democracy In Somalia: Overcoming Insurgency To Provide A Lasting Peace

While the world has been fixated on the American presidential race, Somalia, once the epitome of a failed state, is holding its first elections since 1969 after a quarter-century of internal conflict. However, the country is still under serious threat from terrorist group Al-Shabaab, including factions with allegiance to the Islamic State, who according to the Somali Prime Minister could be the "reality of tomorrow" in Somalia if action is not taken quickly.

In recent months, the group has attacked civilian and government targets and dismissed the legitimacy of both the Federal Government and the elections. The newly formed government must establish its credibility with the Somali people and counter the violent extremist movement of Al-Shabaab if the elections are to provide the stability Somalia so desperately needs.

Although Somalia's current Federal Government was established in 2012, security concerns and logistical difficulties prevented elections from taking place. When it took power, the government promised it would hold 'one person, one vote' elections in 2016, ushering in universal suffrage. However, the government has since decided that an electoral college of just 14,000 (<0.1% of the national population) will be responsible for selecting the parliament.

Seats are also divided between Somalia's main clans -- a major setback for those who have struggled to overcome the country's entrenched tribal politics. Regional power is devolved to the federal member states but their constitutional role is poorly defined and many still dispute their territorial borders. Most recently, the presidential election has been delayed for the third time since August when it was originally due. The Somalian democracy is still very much a work in progress.

Looming over all of this has been the persistent threat of Somalia's home-grown insurgency, Al-Shabaab. In the run-up to the election, they have intensified their attacks on civilian and government targets, especially around Mogadishu, where the Federal Government has been struggling to keep the insurgency under control. The government has the support of 22,000 troops from The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and robust backing from U.S. forces. However, Al-Shabaab is growing more ambitious and has made worrying gains on the ground despite their opponents' military superiority.

The Federal Government is now better established than it was a decade ago, largely thanks to the help of its foreign allies. But one fact that these allies have consistently failed to recognise is that the most important asset in the long term is not weapons or troops, but legitimacy. Limited presence outside of Mogadishu, their reliance on AMISOM's security forces and the continued support they receive from the African Union and the United States are all factors undermining the government's credibility.

Although the government has regained territory from Al-Shabaab, they have left a political vacuum in their wake causing state-building efforts to stall. Corruption, a chronic lack of services and the presence of foreign actors with their own agendas, has allowed Al-Shabaab to pose as an alternative to the unpopular and seemingly ineffectual Federal Government.

Al-Shabaab's emergence in 2006 was driven by their fierce opposition to Ethiopian forces following their invasion of Southern Somalia. Today, they are classified as a terrorist organisation more in line with Al-Qaeda than the nationalist resistance movement they began as. This is mirrored in their current modus operandi -- they now prefer to attack strategic targets rather than attempt to hold territory and since 2011 have expanded their operations to Kenya. However, the group still views their early nationalist agenda as giving them greater credibility over the government whom they denounce as illegitimate 'daba dhilif' (foreign puppets).

For now, the government has support from the federal member states, and consensus among the clans. Reforming the system to centralise power in Mogadishu and reducing the reliance on clan alliances could put this stability in doubt. But in the long term this course of action may be the only one that can give the fledgling government some kind of traction with the 11 million people it intends to govern.

Although they are an important step, the 2016 elections will not be the litmus test for Somali democracy. The fate of a future Somali state rests on whether the central government can effectively unite and rebuild the country without falling prey to clannish or regional favouritism. They will also need to create an inclusive security force that can successfully tackle violent extremist groups like Al-Shabaab, without reigniting the same divisions that led to their emergence.