Somalia took a step toward true democratic government today, when its leaders adopted the country’s first new constitution in more than half a century.
A gathering of 645 nominated community representatives, politicians, and elders approved the new law with a 96 percent majority, paving the way for more inclusive administration and greater human rights.
Islamic law is taken as the basis for the new constitution, but the widespread practice of female circumcision is banned and abortions are allowed to save the life of the mother. Wednesday's move is one of three key milestones on a “road map” to peace that includes a deadline of Aug. 20 for all of the current transitional government bodies to hand over power to permanent successors.
“Today I am announcing that Somalia has a constitution and the transitional period is ended,” said Abdiwali Mohamed Ali, Somalia’s prime minister.
“I thank all Somalis, the international community, and anyone who helped us to approve our constitution. Today is a historic day for the Somali community and our country, today is the end of piracy and terrorism.”
The constitution, the prime minister added, would “restore peace and the law of the country.”
In a sign of the country’s continuing challenges, two suicide bombers tried to force their way into the meeting, and were only stopped when repeatedly challenged by security officers.
One of the men then detonated his explosives, dying instantly and injuring four police officers. Soldiers then shot the other man dead.
“Today [Al Shabab] sent us two fighters to blow up themselves here but our security forces killed them before any problem,” said Hussein Arab Isse, Somalia’s defense minister.
“We call again for our forces to secure the security of delegates and government leaders against these militia, who always try terror actions, but they know we will catch them.”
Somalia’s last nationally approved constitution came into force after independence from Italy in 1960. A 1979 replacement was discredited as it banned democratic elections and enshrined the power of the military.
A later attempt in 1990 failed when the country descended into anarchy after the collapse of the last government in 1991.
The Transitional Federal Charter, written in 2004, had stood in for a formal constitution until Wednesday’s vote, and governed the actions of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government and its ministries.
Aside from agreeing the new constitution, Somalia’s leaders must before then also select a new 275-seat parliament and elect a new president.
However it will be years until national popular elections can be held, and analysts pointed out that the parliament would for some time be “selected rather than elected.”
“The new constitution is a major milestone in terms of the deadline of Aug. 20,” said Abdirashid Hashi, Somalia analyst with the Crisis Group’s bureau in Nairobi.
“But in terms of a true, good and democratic government for Somalia, it’s very far from that. Essentially, it’s handing over from one interim authority to another, from one transition to another.”