Democracy comes of age in Somaliland

The rising sun reveals two long lines of people snaking towards a small concrete polling station in Gabiley, a town in rural Somaliland. Many of them have walked considerable distances and queued all night in order to vote in these, the first parliamentary elections held in the territory for nearly forty years. But although voters across the country have turned out in force, and although the election is deemed free and fair by international observers, the result will not be officially recognised beyond its territorial borders. Indeed, in the eyes of the international community, Somaliland is a country that does not exist.

Since it’s unilateral proclamation of independence in 1991, Somaliland, an area the size of England and Wales in the north of Somalia, has struggled to gain international recognition. Whilst neighbouring Somalia has all but ceased to function as an administrative, judicial and territorial entity, Somaliland has taken important steps towards creating a stable working democracy in one of the poorest and most dangerous regions of the world. A new constitution was adopted in 2001 following a referendum. In 2002 local elections passed off peacefully, and in 2003 free and fair presidential elections took place. Having thus laid the foundations of a functioning democracy, the parliamentary elections of 29th September 2005 were seen as the final step in the democratisation process and an important milestone in the transition from a traditional clan-based, single party–”dominated political structure to a stable multi-party democracy. Many Somalilanders also regarded them as the final prerequisite for international recognition. However, despite the fact that Somaliland may fulfil the requirements necessary for recognition as a sovereign state, the question of recognition will be determined by a number of external geo-political factors. These factors include the African Union’s position on the sanctity of colonial borders and Somaliland’s role in the so-called ‘war on terror’.


Somaliland was a British Protectorate for over 80 years during the colonial period. In 1960, it gained independence but formed a hasty union with former Italian Somaliland to create the Somali Republic. In 1969 Mohamed Siad Barre’s military coup brought Somalia’s flirtation with democracy to an end and planted the seeds of a secessionist struggle in Somaliland. This struggle culminated in a brutal three-year civil war in which 50,000 people were killed and half a million refugees fled. Between 1988 and 1991, Barre’s forces massacred civilians, laid over two million mines and reduced cities to rubble.

In 1991, the overthrow of Barre’s regime plunged Somalia into a state of anarchy from which it is yet to emerge. Somaliland, however, was quick to declare independence and, over the years, it has managed to establish itself as a model of stability, good governance and economic discipline. Rival militias have been demobilised, mines have been cleared and refugees have been repatriated. The war-ravaged infrastructure has been rebuilt and Somaliland now boasts modern airports, hospitals, ports, power plants and universities. There is a free press and the central bank manages an official currency with relatively stable exchange rates. An unarmed police force and independent judiciary maintain order.

What is most remarkable about this progress is that it has been achieved with virtually no external help. Whilst economic development has been heavily supported by Somalilanders in the Diaspora, lack of international recognition has meant that Somaliland does not qualify for bilateral aid or support from international financial institutions. This international isolation has not, however, resulted in isolationism. Lack of access to external aid has forced this country of 3.5-million people to become more self-reliant than many other African states. This self-reliance is reflected in what is perhaps the most significant of Somaliland’s achievements: its system of government.

Rather than having a Western democratic model of governance imposed on them from outside, Somaliland has managed to fuse Western-style institutions of government with its own traditional forms of social and political organisation. Its bi-cameral parliament reflects this fusion of traditional and modern, with the senate consisting of traditional elders, and the House of Representatives consisting of elected representatives.

However, with it’s history of ‘tribalism’ and internecine fighting, the key challenge for Somaliland’s new parliament is to try and replace clan-based politics with party politics. For its first twelve years, Somaliland had no political parties but instead followed more traditional clan-based forms of political organisation. Political parties were introduced during the presidential elections and it was hoped that the recent parliamentary elections would help to usher in a representative system without allowing representation to be overtly clan-based. Clearly, if clan loyalties were to take precedence over party loyalties, parliament would be seriously weakened. The traditional clan-based political system had resulted in an under representation of some clans and it was hoped that having just three non clan-based parties would reduce the extent to which clan allegiance affected the selection of candidates and the way in which people voted. A limited number of political parties would force alliances between clans to develop thereby increasing integration and pluralism.

In the traditional clan system it is the male elders who make decisions, and during the nomination process, many candidates were indeed selected by elders along clan lines. The male dominated nature of the selection process was reflected in the fact that only seven of the 246 candidates were female. There was also evidence that political parties often chose candidates based on their perceived popularity and support base. Whilst the absence of voter registration makes it hard to analyse voter patterns, it would seem from the results that there is some evidence that regional voting patterns reflect clan preferences. There is also evidence however, that alliances were sought between subgroups of different major clans across regions under the different party umbrellas. This would indicate that, although tribalism inevitably played some part in the election, it as been weakened. It will nevertheless be interesting to see how party loyalties will be negotiated against clan interests in the new parliament.

Election day

Lack of international recognition meant that that Somaliland was not able to access forms of governance support commonly received by post-conflict areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the elections were well organised and successfully conducted with over 800,000 voters turning out to the country’s 985 polling stations to elect 82 members of parliament. This represents a turnout of over 90 percent.

Like all elections in infant democracies there were some inevitable some teething problems of a practical, administrative and logistical nature. The absence of a census and voter register meant that a decision was made to allow voters to vote in any of Somaliland’s six regions: the only requirements for voting being that voters were 16 years of age and spoke Somali. Inevitably, this lead to widespread attempts at underage and multiple voting. Due to the tradition of women decorating their hands with henna it was decided that invisible ink (and black lamps) should be used instead of indelible ink. This generally proved an effective barrier to multiple voting however punishment for those caught varied. In some polling stations those attempting to vote more than once were merely turned away, often only to rejoin the queues. In other polling stations people had their shoes and belts taken away and were made to sit outside the polling station awaiting detention by the police. Whilst the fact that 30 percent of the population are nomadic makes a census taking and voter registration more difficult, there is confidence that both will in place before the local elections in 2007.

With illiteracy rates as high as 80% and with many people having had little or no experience of voting, substantial voter education was attempted prior to the elections. In addition, ballot papers had symbols beside the name of each candidate to make it easier for those that could not read. On the day however, many voters, not knowing even which way up to hold the ballot paper, chose to announce their choice to the local chairperson, who marked the paper for them. Whilst this compromised the secrecy of the voting process, it did not seem to bother voters who were generally eager to talk about who they had voted for.

Shadow of terror

The shadow that hung over the elections and continues to darken Somaliland’s future is that cast by the threat of terrorism. On 25th September the atmosphere in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s impoverished but relaxed capital, changed. With the elections only days away, several suspected Islamic militants were arrested following a shoot-out with police. The following day a cache of arms, including heavy anti-tank weapons, was discovered in the city. According to Interior Minister, one of the men arrested was a senior al-Qaeda operative allegedly in the region to organise attacks on local leaders and foreigners. This incident heightened fears of violence especially as it coincided with the arrival of 76 international election observers including potentially high profile targets such as parliamentarians from South Africa and Europe as well as a former US Ambassador. It also provided a stark reminder of Somaliland’s precarious position in the global war on terror.

Whilst Somaliland has managed to avoid the violent lawlessness and extremism of Somalia, the discovery of Islamic militants in Hargeisa does not come as a great surprise. Over the last two years, extremists have murdered four foreign aid workers in Somaliland. Although the predominantly Sufi form Islam practised in Somaliland does not lend itself to extremism, concerns have been raised by the presence of an increasing number of radical clerics as well as the porous nature of the border with Somalia. Mogadishu has become something of a haven for al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters and Somalia was used as a transit point for the terrorists who carried out the 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as the 2002 suicide bombing in Mombasa.

Whilst the threat of terrorism is clearly a problem for Somaliland, it also presents an opportunity. Ironically, the discovery of Al Qaeda operatives in the territory might do more to make Western governments take notice of Somaliland than the free and fair conduct of their elections. Somaliland is strategically positioned on the Gulf of Aden and is also home to what could be an important navel base in Berbera. Currently the only location in Africa where the US has a military base is neighbouring Djibouti, and it is Somaliland seen by the Americans as a potentially important ally against the spread of extremism.

Somaliland is conscious that too close a relationship with the Americans might not be popular with its population, but it also recognises the advantages that collaboration with the US could bring in terms of finance, security and long-term stability. By promoting itself as a non-threatening strategic partner in the ‘war on terror’, Somaliland it could fast track its entry into the international community.

Recognition and beyond

Even if the US were to support Somaliland’s right to self-determination, it is unlikely that they or any other country will recognise Somaliland without the approval of the Organisation of African Union. One the OAU’s central principles is that African colonial borders should not be redrawn. This is based on a well-grounded fear that recognition of ‘separatist’ states could cause the continent to descend into chaos. However, there is a strong argument that by breaking a union that it had entered into as an independent state, Somaliland would be reverting to, rather than redrawing its colonial borders. It is also worth noting that despite its reluctance to acknowledge secessionist states, the OAU has recently recognised the newly formed nations of Eritrea and Western Sahara. It is also important to not that thirty new countries have been internationally recognised since 1990, although most of these emerged from the dissolution of the USSR and Yugoslavia.

Despite OAU intransigence, Somalilanders remain optimistic about the possibility of recognition and the benefits it will bring. As well as giving Somaliland access to bi-lateral aid, recognition would finally give access to the mining and oil companies eager to exploit Somaliland’s proven natural resources. Large-scale extraction of oil, coal, gemstones and minerals could transform this country where 43 per cent of the population living in extreme poverty. Whilst international recognition is not a panacea that will lift Somaliland out of poverty or eradicate its problems with health, education, food insecurity, water supply, and HIV/AIDS, it would undoubtedly speed development.

Whilst there is still a distance to travel, Somaliland’s accomplishments are impressive. It has created effective institutions of state and attained a level of political maturity well beyond its years. Somaliland provides a useful model of democracy that offers lessons to us all. It reminds us that democracy is not static, prescriptive system but a living idea that is constantly adapting and taking new forms.

In Hargeisa, reminders of how far this small nation has come are all around. When the rains come, a mass grave beside the river is exposed. Bones protrude from the red earth, some still tied at the wrist. Beside the airport road, a rusting Russian tank is plastered with election posters: a reminder of Somaliland’s war ravaged past and a symbol of hope for a democratic future.