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Somaliland: Democratisation and its Discontents
Somaliland: Democratisation and its Discontents
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Somaliland: The Strains of Success
Somaliland: The Strains of Success
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Report 66 / Africa

Somaliland: Democratisation and its Discontents

Recent developments have made the choice faced by the international community considerably clearer: develop pragmatic responses to Somaliland’s demand for self-determination or continue to insist upon the increasingly abstract notion of the unity and territorial integrity of the Somali Republic – a course of action almost certain to open a new chapter in the Somali civil war.

Executive Summary

Recent developments have made the choice faced by the international community considerably clearer: develop pragmatic responses to Somaliland’s demand for self-determination or continue to insist upon the increasingly abstract notion of the unity and territorial integrity of the Somali Republic – a course of action almost certain to open a new chapter in the Somali civil war.

Somaliland’s presidential election of 14 April 2003 was a milestone in the self-declared, unrecognised republic’s process of democratisation. Nearly half a million voters cast ballots in one of the closest polls ever conducted in the region: when the last votes had been counted and the results announced on 19 April, the incumbent president, Dahir Rayale Kahin, had won by only 80 votes.

A former British protectorate in the Horn of Africa, Somaliland declared its independence from the rest of the Somali Republic in May 1991, following the collapse of the military regime in Mogadishu. Although unrecognised by any country, Somaliland has followed a very different trajectory from the rest of the “failed state” of Somalia, embarking on a process of internally driven political, economic and social reconstruction. Somaliland’s democratic transition began in May 2001 with a plebiscite on a new constitution that introduced a multiparty electoral system, and continued in December 2002 with local elections that were widely described as open and transparent. The final stage of the process – legislative elections – is scheduled to take place by early 2005.

The electoral process has met with widespread approval from domestic and international observers alike, but has not been without problems. The enlistment of government resources and personnel in support of the ruling party’s campaign, the disqualification of numerous ballot boxes due to procedural errors, reports of government harassment and intimidation of opposition supporters in the aftermath of the election, and the opposition’s initial refusal to accept defeat all marred an otherwise promising democratic exercise.

The next phase of the democratic transition will be the most critical: until opposition parties are able to contest parliamentary seats, Somaliland will function as a de facto one party state. Somaliland’s international partners can play a key role in assisting the National Electoral Commission to convene legislative elections with the least possible delay, while ensuring a level playing field. Constitutional and judicial reforms may also be required to ensure the integrity of the democratic process over the long-term.

Somaliland’s increasingly credible claims to statehood present the international community with a thorny diplomatic dilemma at a time when southern Somali leaders are meeting under the auspices of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) with the aim of establishing a new Somali government. Recognition of Somaliland, although under consideration by a growing number of African and Western governments, is still vigorously resisted by many members of both the African Union (AU) and the Arab League on the grounds that the unity and territorial integrity of member states is sacrosanct. Furthermore, the creation of a new Somali government emerging from the IGAD process that claims jurisdiction over Somaliland threatens to open a new phase in the Somali conflict.

Diplomatic hopes for a negotiated settlement between Somaliland and a future Somali government, however, are unlikely to bear fruit. A hypothetical dialogue on Somali unity would have to overcome mutually exclusive preconditions for talks, divergent visions of what a reunited Somali state might look like and incompatible institutional arrangements. Failing a negotiated settlement, any attempt to coerce Somaliland back to the Somali fold would entail a bitter and probably futile conflict. The question now confronting the international community is no longer whether Somaliland should be recognised as an independent state, but whether there remain any viable alternatives.

 Nairobi/Brussels, 28 July 2003

Residents of Hargeisa wear the colors of the flag of the Somalia breakaway territory of Somaliland during day celebrations in Hargeisa on 18 May 2011. AFP/Pete Chonka
Briefing 113 / Africa

Somaliland: The Strains of Success

Somaliland’s clan-based democracy has consolidated a state-like authority, kept the peace and attracted donors. But the territory now needs to reform its political bodies, judicial institutions and international engagements to protect itself from continued fragility in neighbouring Somalia – which rejects Somaliland’s independence claims – and civil war in nearby Yemen.

I. Overview

Somaliland’s hybrid system of tri-party democracy and traditional clan-based governance has enabled the consolidation of state-like authority, social and economic recovery and, above all, relative peace and security but now needs reform. Success has brought greater resources, including a special funding status with donors – especially the UK, Denmark and the European Union (EU) – as well as investment from and diplomatic ties with Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), though not international recognition. It is increasingly part of the regional system; ties are especially strong with Ethiopia and Djibouti. Given the continued fragility of the Somalia Federal Government (SFG), which still rejects its former northern region’s independence claims, and civil war across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen, Somaliland’s continued stability is vital. This in turn requires political reforms aimed at greater inclusion, respect for mediating institutions (especially the professional judiciary and parliament) and a regional and wider internationally backed framework for external cooperation and engagement.

Successful state building has, nevertheless, raised the stakes of holding – and losing – power. While Somaliland has remained largely committed to democratic government, elections are increasingly fraught. Fear of a return to bitter internal conflict is pushing more conservative politics: repression of the media and opposition, as well as resistance to reforming the increasingly unsustainable status quo. Recurrent political crises and delayed elections (now set for March 2017) risk postponing much needed internal debate. The political elites have a limited window to decide on steps necessary to rebuild the decaying consensus, reduce social tensions and set an agenda for political and institutional reform.

Stronger executive government has driven a shift from government through clan-based consensus to ostensible democratisation, but it has not widened participation of individuals (distinct from their clan-base), or developed strong institutional checks and balances. There is a growing perception that the Isaaq clan dominates, while its sub-clans jockey for primacy through control of particular political parties, government institutions and big businesses. The government’s inclination to rely on a close-knit group of advisers identified with particular clans and regions rather than non-partisan state institutions, feeds a growing sense of marginalisation among certain constituencies both in the centre and the peripheries. Poor public services and high unemployment (the few available jobs are obtained through patronage) leave the overwhelmingly young population, many of whom emigrate, vulnerable to religious extremism and criminality.

Militarised rule in the restive and previously lightly “occupied” eastern borderlands with Puntland (a “semi-autonomous” federal state of Somalia) – specifically the regions of Sool, Sanaag and southern Toghdeer – is not new but has become the default setting. The presence and degree of popular acceptance of more conservative Islamist government and society has grown. The government’s soft approach to extremists in its midst is more evident following terrorist attacks with alleged links back to Somaliland in neighbouring Djibouti and Puntland and the existence of a discreet Al-Shabaab presence across the country.

In the short term, especially now that elections are postponed, the government and its international supporters must find ways to support greater dialogue between political parties and key interest groups, particularly parliament’s upper House of Elders (the Guurti) and the business community, or risk further fragmentation of authority. This requires national consultation over the election (or reselection) of the Guurti, the parliament’s upper house; the 2001 constitution calls for its election every six years, but it remains largely unchanged since 1997. The over-used constitutional contingency clause that allows the Guurti to rule on election postponement in the interests of “stability” should be urgently reviewed.

The newly reformed judiciary needs public backing from the government, opposition and the Guurti, especially respecting its constitutionally-defined responsibilities to support the institutions charged with delivering free and fair elections and to resolve disputes. Greater transparency is also needed, to prevent further politicisation of the small, fragile economy and increase government accountability. The House of Representatives should be free to exercise constitutional oversight of public-private development contracts and potential conflicts of interest.

Somaliland also needs to renew commitment to talks with the SFG, despite political risks, not least in recognition of the intimate clan and familial ties that still bind its elites and population in multiple ways to Puntland and the SFG as a whole. These include marriage, religious networks, clan treaties that manage peace and war, politics, business and even extremist groups. Progress on security and economic cooperation and electoral preparations (2016, Somalia; 2017, Somaliland) require a better framework, including appropriate representation from Puntland, the region (potentially the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, IGAD) and wider international community (potentially the African Union and Gulf Cooperation Council).

Nairobi/Brussels, 5 October 2015