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Somaliland’s Guurti Sparks a Crisis
Somaliland’s Guurti Sparks a Crisis
Somaliland: The Strains of Success
Somaliland: The Strains of Success
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Somaliland Independence Day celebrations, 18 May 2014. CRISIS GROUP/Claire Elder
Commentary / Africa

Somaliland’s Guurti Sparks a Crisis

The self-declared Republic of Somaliland – a de facto independent state formed from Somalia’s north-western regions – is often described as an island of stability in a sea of conflict. Much of the security enjoyed by its estimated 3.5 million people is attributed to a “hybrid” governance system marrying traditional authority with modern Western style democratic governance.

But Somaliland’s main donors have expressed concern over recent developments that beg the question whether its mixed political arrangements are robust enough. Claire Elder and Cedric Barnes from the International Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa Project discuss why a decision by the so-called Guurti – the Upper House of Elders – worries Somaliland’s international partners and risks causing a dangerous political and clan polarisation.

What is behind Somaliland’s current political crisis?

On 11 May 2015, the Guurti, announced – apparently without consulting the National Electoral Commission (NEC), government or political parties – a two-year extension of the current government’s term, including a further postponement of the presidential and parliamentary elections due this June. The announcement prompted widespread popular protests in the capital, Hargeysa, and in the cities of Berbera and Burco. Security forces detained thirty members of the opposition (though most were later released). President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud “Silanyo” needs to respond to the Guurti’s decision within three weeks, during which he might bring together the government, all political parties and Guurti members in a consultative forum, as Vice President Abdirahman Saylici has suggested.

What are the implications for the region and the outside world?

This is the latest in a number of developments that show Somaliland’s hybrid governance system is under strain – the move away from previously highly consensual politics (an inevitable casualty of modern state building) also hints at a return to the traditions of authoritarianism in the region. A strengthened executive could certainly secure short-term security gains – pleasing certain regional partners – but stronger institutions are also needed – which arguably the Guurti’s decision undermines. The present situation is the worst of both worlds, an unchecked executive further bolstered by a co-opted institution. This may prompt wider civil unrest that risks taking on clannist dimensions – especially between the politically dominant Isaaq sub-clans – even a possible return to their fratricidal conflict of the 1990s. Extremists like Al-Shabaab are also well placed to exploit instability and grievances to recruit and radicalise.

What precedent is there for the Guurti’s actions?

Guurti-led government-term extensions and poll-postponements are the rule rather than exception in Somaliland. In 2008, then President Dahir Riyale Kahin was granted a one-year extension; elections eventually took place in 2010. The second local council and municipal elections were finally held in 2012 after a five-year postponement. This time around, the reason for pursuing a two-year postponement is less clear, though most see it as a direct challenge to the NEC’s 3 May recommendation to delay the polls on technical grounds until 1 June 2016 – a decision widely supported by international donors. The ruling Kulmiye party, and the smaller of the two opposition parties, Justice and Welfare party (UCID), had bilaterally agreed to extend the government until 15 November 2016; this appears to have emboldened the Guurti to announce a further extension and poll postponement to April 2017.

What lies behind the Guurti’s decision?

The Guurti has the constitutional mandate (Article 83, paragraph 5) on security grounds. It cited insecurity in the eastern regions, but other factors, including the legality of NEC’s original pronouncement, some outstanding but not critical legislation, and even the weather, were also invoked in the 11 May “House Decision on Extension”. Even when taken together, these factors hardly justify a full additional year. Instead many Somalilanders recognise the Guurti’s decision as heavily influenced by Kulmiye’s internal succession crisis, ongoing tussles between the executive and parliament, and the divided opposition’s inability to agree on a common stance.

The Guurti’s role is to arbitrate and seek peaceful consensus where issues divide the political class and threaten peace. Their divisive decision adds to existing criticism, that it is partisan toward the incumbent president. The quid pro quo is likely to be their continuation as the only unelected “representative” institution in Somaliland; many members have served since the 1993 Borama conference established the current “hybrid framework”, others inheriting seats within “ruling” clan-families. The Guurti’s mandate has been extended four times (pushed from 2003 to 2006, then to 2009, 2011, and 2013) – a fifth extension (until 2018) will be automatic if the Guurti postponement is given the green light.

What has been the public response?

On 12 May, the government denied the main opposition Waddani party permission to hold “peaceful protests” following the Guurti’s announcement; demonstrations occurred anyway, leading to the arrest of at least 30 party members. UCID and Waddani have since come out strongly against the Guurti decision (and in support of a 2016 date). Waddani – increasingly strident in its criticism, especially after government tried to orchestrate a no-confidence vote in October 2014 against the party’s leader and speaker of parliament, Abdirahman Irro – has pressed for a “caretaker government” in the event of any election delay. Further protests were postponed until after 18 May independence celebrations. The president has 21 days to give his assent to the Guurti’s decision, enough time to hold a consultative forum as proposed by the Vice President Saylici (whose Gadabursi clan often serve as “third-party” mediators when the Isaaq sub-clans are in conflict).

What do Somaliland’s international donors think?

Somaliland’s status as a quasi-independent, unrecognised state complicates international reactions, as well as official responses – especially when its relatively successful democratisation has not brought the prize it hoped, state recognition. Yet, if an acceptable compromise is not reached it will jeopardise Somaliland’s special funding arrangement under the 2012 New Deal Compact for Somalia, to judge by strong statements and private démarches made by the EU, UK and others. The issue is especially sensitive since donors cannot acquiesce to an extension for Somaliland’s government when they are expected to take a tough line against calls for a mandate extension of the Somalia Federal Government and parliament’s mandate due to end in August 2016. Hard liners in Hargeysa feel that Somaliland’s long-term interests are being subordinated to international policy priorities in Somalia and are willing to call the donor’s bluff.

What might happen next?

National consultative talks planned to start on 20 May – bringing together government and political parties – have now been postponed until this Saturday, 23 May, to allow preliminary deliberations among all participating parties to address apparent divisions. If there is no agreement the opposition will scale up their protests. In the past, instances of political crises – especially over elections and government extensions – political and clan leaders have pulled back from the brink, but given Somaliland’s growing political and economic capacity, the spoils and stakes of power are now much greater.


Former Project Director, Horn of Africa
Former Consulting Analyst, Horn of Africa
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