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Somaliland: time of trial
Somaliland: time of trial
Somaliland: The Strains of Success
Somaliland: The Strains of Success
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Op-Ed / Africa

Somaliland: time of trial

Originally published in openDemocracy

The Horn of Africa’s unsought status as one of the most volatile regions in the world is underlined by the deep-rooted conflict in Somalia and the endemic tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea. This makes even more impressive and welcome the progress of the self-declared independent state of Somaliland in creating a stable, rules-based government. However, an electoral crisis now threatens to derail this achievement. Somaliland’s political leadership has the main responsibility in solving it, but constructive support by the international community will be vital in ensuring that the territory continues to defy the trend of conflict that has damaged its neighbours.

Somaliland, a former British protectorate, declared its independence from the rest of the Republic of Somalia in May 1991, following the collapse of the military regime in Mogadishu. It remains unrecognised by any country in the world. Yet Somaliland has followed a very different trajectory from much of the rest of the “failed state” of Somalia.

A process of political, social and economic reconstruction has brought security and relative stability. Somaliland’s incipient democracy has drafted and approved a new permanent constitution; smoothly handed power from one president to another; and held three peaceful elections. Yet the democratic transformation is far from complete, and recent developments could see Somaliland slip back towards the kind of instability and lawlessness experienced in the rest of Somalia.

The immediate crisis stems from the failure to hold elections even with the expiry of President Dahir Rayale’s term in May 2008. The latest in a series of postponements came in September 2009, when the two opposition parties threatened a boycott over reported fraud that they charged made the official voter-registration list unusable. An escalation of the dispute was averted only by an agreement to delay the vote, revamp the discredited electoral commission and refine the list.

Behind these problems lies a persistent winner-takes-all political culture, in which wide-ranging attempts to manipulate the political process have corrupted governing institutions and undermined the rule of law. A failure to protect democratic institutions now could open the door to the remobilisation of militias and a violent conflict. This would be a tragedy for a polity that has done so much to avoid being drawn into the Horn of Africa’s maelstrom of war and destruction.

There is a double challenge here for Somaliland’s political actors: in the short term to resolve the electoral crisis, and in the long term to improve the political culture. It will require Somaliland’s political parties to democratise, and open up political space for other organisations to contest local elections; and its electoral institutions to be professionalised and depoliticised.

A regional example

The international community should lend encouragement to the Somaliland government as these processes take place. The British government in particular should make close monitoring of Somaliland a regular part of its policy towards the Horn of Africa.

There are also three immediate steps that European Union member-states can take to support Somaliland’s democratic process and help it find a way out of its electoral crisis.

First, Somaliland’s international supporters should provide technical assistance, financial support and political cover to the new national electoral commission (NEC) – which, though crucial to the process, lacks experience.  This would be invaluable in enabling the NEC to do its work effectively and resist political manipulation.

Second, the international community should dispatch international election monitors and help train additional local observers who can work in insecure rural areas, to ensure that the entire electoral process is free and fair.

Third, there is a profound lack of voter education and civic awareness, which highlights the importance of instilling democratic values in Somaliland’s younger generation. Here, international supporters can assist in the preparation of materials on democratic practices and election laws for schools and local communities.

In a violent region that has been the source of so much bad news Somaliland remains a place of exemplary if incomplete stability. It still has the potential to be a model for state reconstruction, and can play an important and progressive role in the fight against piracy and extremist Islamism. Somaliland must be given the help it needs to succeed.

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