Why Elections matter in Somaliland – by Edward Paice

As news and analysis emerges from the second UK-Somalia conference in London, the absence of the government of Somaliland is noticeable. Somalia and Somaliland are bound by many longstanding ties, but over the past two decades their political trajectories have diverged. As institutions in Somalia have crumbled under the weight of protracted sectarian violence, Somalilanders have made considerable headway in building a functioning democratic system of government. While political developments in Somaliland should not be romanticised, they are worth examining and reflecting upon.

Elections in Somaliland have been an integral ingredient in establishing an inclusive system of representation. They are not mere formalities, conferring a thin veneer of legitimacy on a permanent incumbent; nor are they conducted solely as a sop to foreign donors insisting on greater democracy; nor is the prime motivation to further the pursuit of international recognition of Somaliland as a sovereign state.

For most Somalilanders, elections an essential component of internal peace and security. They present clans, sub-clans and individual voters with important choices and provide a forum for free expression of views. Elections involve complex reshaping of relationships between regions and groups.

The November 2012 local elections were of particular significance. Only the three political associations which attracted the most votes would win, or retain, legal status as political parties until the next local elections – which may not occur for another decade. The previous local elections, in 2002, had established UDUB, Kulmiye and UCID as political parties. Ten years on, it was by no means certain that two of these three would exist beyond the November polls.

By July 2012, many of UCID’s supporters and MPs had transferred their allegiance to the new political organisation Wadani, led by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Abdirahman Mohamed Abdillahi “Irro”. UDUB, the party of two previous presidents, was widely thought to be dissolving. New alliances were being forged, old ones were being redefined – and competition was intensifying daily.

It was against this backdrop that Africa Research Institute interviewed ten prominent Somalilanders, including the three Speakers of the House of Representatives, two government ministers, MPs, civil society activists and representatives of women’s organisations. The product of these conversations is published in After Borama: Consensus, representation and parliament in SomalilandThe accounts focus on how political stability has been maintained in Somaliland – and present assessments of representation, the role of political institutions and national development priorities in the country.

After Borama was launched at Africa Research Institute in London on 1st May. The event coincided with the 20th anniversary of the conclusion of Shirki Boorraama – the Conference of Elders of the Communities of Somaliland in the city of Borama, in western Somaliland. As described by Mark Bradbury in Becoming Somaliland, this was “not only a defining political event in Somaliland, but also an example of an indigenous popular peace-making process that has few parallels in contemporary Africa”.

Somaliland’s 2012 local elections were fiercely contested. Seven political entities competed for the right to contest parliamentary seats and the presidency in future elections. Despite the intensity, some violence, and a good deal of rancour in the immediate aftermath, the results were accepted. Kulmiye and UCID retained their legal status as political parties and were joined by newcomer Wadani.

As ever, lessons have been learnt. In an address to both Houses of Parliament in January 2013, President Silanyo acknowledged the need for a new voter register before the next parliamentary polls – to counter electoral malfeasance and the possibility of more serious outbreaks of violence. This will be no easy task. A previous effort proved extremely divisive and had to be abandoned.

Good electoral management and fairness are vital – but so too is inclusiveness. Women remain substantially excluded from formal politics in Somaliland despite their pivotal roles in society, the economy and in negotiating peace. For most pastoralists, central government is a distant – even irrelevant – entity.

The announcement by President Silanyo of a US$1.3m stimulus plan for Sool, East Sanaag and Buhoodle regions will be welcome, but much more needs to be done by government both within and beyond the main towns and cities. Economic and social development must be prioritised throughout the country.

Thorny and controversial issues confronting Somalilanders were raised at the launch of After Borama, as they are addressed in the publication. These include clan politics and the concentration of power, the management of elections, the consequences of the lack of a voter register, the campaign to secure a role for women in formal politics, the future role of the Guurti– the upper house of parliament, and the conduct of international donors.

With occasional lapses, Somaliland has been successful at maintaining peace for more than two decades. The country created a credible constitution, held a nationwide referendum on independence, has conducted a succession of largely free elections and has effected peaceful transfers of power. These experiences may not provide a blueprint– Somaliland has ploughed its own distinctive furrow through success and setback. But they do contain valuable insights for those interested in promoting long-term peace and stability in Somalia, and the wider region.

The publication After Borama and podcast of the event can be downloaded here.

Photos of the launch can be accessed here.

Edward Paice, Director