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Somaliland: The Strains of Success
Somaliland: The Strains of Success
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Briefing 67 / Africa

Somaliland: A Way out of the Electoral Crisis

The stalled electoral process has plunged Somaliland into a serious political crisis that presents yet another risk of destabilisation for the region. If its hard-won political stability collapses under the strain of brinkmanship and intransigence, clan leaders might remobilise militias, in effect ending its dream of independence.

I. Overview

The stalled electoral process has plunged Somaliland into a serious political crisis that presents yet another risk of destabilisation for the region. If its hard-won political stability collapses under the strain of brinkmanship and intransigence, clan leaders might remobilise militias, in effect ending its dream of independence. The political class must finally accept to uphold the region’s constitution, abide by the electoral laws and adhere to inter-party agreements such as the electoral code of conduct and memorandum of understanding signed on 25 September 2009, so as to contain the crisis and permit implementation of extensive electoral reforms. International partners and donors should keep a close watch on developments and sustain pressure for genuinely free and fair general elections in 2010.

President Rayale’s third term of office should have expired on 15 May 2008. The election that was to have been held at least one month earlier has been rescheduled five times, most recently for 27 September 2009. The new National Electoral Commission (NEC) has yet to set a sixth date.

The latest delay was ostensibly caused by the unilateral decision of the previous NEC not to use a voter registration list tainted by massive, systematic fraud. This prompted both opposition parties to declare an election boycott and suspend cooperation with the commission. The resulting impasse triggered yet another crisis. Publicly the political elite sought to blame the NEC, its technical partner, Interpeace, and each other, but the crisis was one largely of its own making.

The recurrent rescheduling of elections and the fraud-tainted voter registration process are symptoms of deeper political problems. While President Rayale and his ruling party have benefited most from more than a year and a half of additional time in power, all the political stakeholders are in some way responsible for the selection and continuation of an incompetent and dysfunctional electoral commission, rampant fraud during voter registration, frequent skirting of the constitution and failure to internalise and institutionalise democratic practices.

The crisis was defused in late September, when the parties – under strong external and internal pressure – accepted a memorandum of understanding (MOU) agreeing to a change in the NEC’s leadership and composition, use of a “refined” voter registration list and delay of the elections to a date to be determined by the NEC, with input from independent international experts. The MOU brought the parties back from the precipice, but it is a vague document that must be complemented by additional measures to prevent new crises.

Somaliland has made remarkable progress in its democratic transformation, but political wrangling and wide-scale attempts to manipulate the political process have corrupted governing institutions and undermined the rule of law. Democratic participation, fair and free elections and effective governance need to be institutionalised and made routine, or non-violent means to resolve political crises could be replaced by remobilisation of militias, with significant risk of violent conflict.

Improving the political culture will necessarily be a long-term, internal process, but as a start the institutions that manage elections – the NEC and the office of the voter registrar – need to be professionalised and depoliticised and the electoral laws and agreements adhered to strictly by both political parties and voters. International partners should encourage and support the government and parties to do the following:

  • Civil society and international supporters must shield the new, inexperienced NEC from political pressure as it organises the presidential elections, and the NEC itself must actively resist succumbing to manipulation. The new commissioners must focus on preventing electoral fraud, working with international experts to develop a calendar for the vote, identifying problems with the current voter registration list and developing solutions for extensive duplicate registrations. The NEC also should be given the resources to hire adequate staff.
  • All parties have agreed to the need for a revised registration list. The problem is that the list clearly still contains too many duplicate records and is not trusted by the political parties. Priorities for the new NEC should include hiring a competent, impartial permanent registrar and complementing the list with alternative methods and mechanisms for voter verification and fraud prevention, such as using indelible ink to identify those who have voted, limiting polling hours and imposing driving prohibitions to prevent parties and clans from transporting people to multiple locations. The emphasis should be on improving the process of updating the database and transferring the capability to do so to the Somaliland staff.
  • Because of concerns for its accuracy, the registration list should not be used to determine the number of ballots and ballot boxes for particular areas, since that could lead to ballot stuffing where there was greater registration fraud. Agreement is needed on the number of boxes and ballots to be sent to the polling stations.
  • Unconstitutional extensions of mandates must stop. Separate elections should be held for both the House of Representatives and district councils in 2010. More contentious will be renewal of the Guurti, presently the non-elected, clan-nominated upper house of the parliament. The constitution provides its members should be selected every six years, but does not stipulate how. Renewal has not happened since 1997, and the procedure needs to be defined urgently.
  • The constitutional provision limiting the number of political parties able to compete in legislative and presidential elections to three has resulted in the monopolisation of power by the parties and leaders who were in place when the constitution was adopted. A new law clarifying how these three parties are to be chosen and permitting changes, coupled with a permanent system for the registration of new and independent political associations, should be adopted to encourage competition and accountability in political life.
  • The new NEC, with donor support, should identify established, reputable local NGOs to prepare pre-election voter education and civic awareness campaigns. Materials should be developed for schools, and the education ministry should require classes on democratic practices. Clerics should be enlisted to raise awareness of election laws.
  • Local NGOs, with foreign technical aid, should help train party and civil society observers to detect fraud, resist political and clan pressures and carry out nationwide election monitoring, partnering where possible with international monitors.


Nairobi/Brussels, 7 December 2009

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