Somaliland: A step closer to International Recognition

Elections are not new to Somaliland and the most recent was the presidential poll that has been conducted peacefully on 13 November 2107. This election was interesting and kindled an ecstatic special interest for the outside world due mainly to the political maturity and the dynamics of democratic processes. The international press and media covered the proceedings extensively to the extent the political pundits described Somaliland as the strongest democracy in Africa in general and in East Africa or the Horn region in particular. The election demonstrated strong commitment, responsibility and political maturity of the institutions, national political parties and, not to mention, the people of Somaliland. The election has proven the mellowness of the vigorous democratic governance at work in Somaliland.

Since its withdrawal from union with Somalia in 1991, Somaliland has made significant advances in securing stability and security and Somaliland has been commonly signposted as an ‘oasis of peace’ in a region beleaguered by conflicts and political and social instability.


History of elections in Somaliland

Somaliland has a good track record of conducting peaceful credible elections and power transfers. Elections generally form a core part of the common understanding and practice of democracy. In more than two decades of building democracy in Somaliland, elections have become almost the most critical action of conferring legitimacy to Somaliland governments. In Somaliland democratic processes are never compromised and the credibility and legitimisation of electoral practices form the ritual methods and basis of electoral integrity.

Somaliland declared its sovereignty, independence and voluntary withdrawal from union with Somalia during the grand peace conference at Buroa in 1991 when Abdirahman Ahmed Ali (Tuur) and Hassan Essa Jama were elected as interim president and vice president respectively for a term of two years. At the end of President Ali’s term, Mohamed Ibrahim Egal was elected as the second president at the Borama peace and reconciliation conference in 1993 in a peaceful transfer of power process.

Egal’s administration oversaw the establishment of a model government and the kick start of the post-war rehabilitation, reconstruction and development of the country. The SNM was officially disbanded as a political movement and liberation front followed by successful programme of demobilisation of SNM forces. In 1997 an indirect non-partisan presidential election contested between the incumbent president, Egal, Suleiman Adan (a veteran politician) and Mohamed Hashi Elmi (a senior SNM leader/politician) was held. Egal was re-elected as president by the majority (over 70%).

During Egal’s term and as political maturity progressed and developed as significant progress of democratic initiations took place starting with the constitutional referendum which was held in 2001 as a plebiscite for revoking sovereignty from union with Somalia for which 97% of the public voted. From 2003 impressive list of polls have been recorded. Nevertheless, until 2002 no political associations or national parties existed. The first political party, UDUB (Union of National Democratic Coalition Party) was first formed by the late president Egal who died on 3rd May 2002. The vice president, Dahir Rayale Kahin, took over the presidency to complete the term (he chose Ahmed Yusuf Yasin). President Rayale immediately jumped on the band wagon of pluralism and multi-party system. Nonetheless, in accordance with the constitution only three political parties are allowed to prevail in the country at any one time but formation of political associations are allowed to be registered to compete for the top three national parties for a specific period. Therefore, six political organisations (UDUB, UCID, ASAD, SAHAN, KULMIYE and HORMOOD) were registered on 15 December 2002 to compete for the top three national parties. The first three that attracted sufficient support were UDUB, KULMIYE and UCID.

The first direct presidential election took place on 14 April 2003.
Dahir Rayale Kahin of UDUB party won the race. However, what remarkably deserves to mention is that, despite that the defeat of the opposition candidate Silanyo by the slimmest and the narrowest majority (by 80 votes only), Silanyo subsequently conceded defeat, a phenomenon that has never been in the African continent which is an indicative of political maturity and commitment to democratic pluralism in Somaliland.

A parliamentary election which was closely observed and monitored by international observers and contested by the three existing national parties (UDUB, KULMIE and UCID) candidates took place on 25 September 2001 to elect members of the Lower House of the parliament ‘Golaha Wakiilada’. The Upper House  or House of elders ‘Golaha Guurtida’ is un-elected.

To augment and consolidate the political maturity, a second presidential election which was strongly contested was held on 26 June 2010. Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud Silanyo of the opposition party, Kulmiye, won the race by a majority (49.59%). Interestingly, however, Rayale gracefully conceded defeat and officially handed over the power to the newly elected president on 27 July 2010 in a peaceful fashion, which is rarely experienced in Africa, made the world envy. So far in mainland Africa only three states (Benin, Senegal and Zambia) had their incumbent presidents stood down after being defeated in elections) without violence or political disagreements.

As pluralistic democracy matured further and gathered momentum, multi-party elections continued. In accordance with the 2011 electoral law, new political associations (UMMADDA, DALSAN, RAYS, WADANI and HAQSOOR) were officially registered to compete with the existing three political parties ((KULMIYE, UDUB and UCID) to choose the three top national parties. KULMIYE, WADANI and UCID succeeded to become the three national parties. On 28 November 2012 a local government election was held in which a total of 2,308 candidates from the three parties (including 140 women) contested for 379 seats. The election was witnessed by 50-strong team of international observers coordinated by Steve Kibble (Progressio organisation) and Michael Wallis (Department planning unit, UCL, University of London) together with Somaliland Focus and the international community that worked closely with the National Electoral Commission (NEC) to observe and monitor the elections. The election passed off largely in peace and Somaliland was congratulated for the lively and enthusiastic elections.

Yet another successful presidential election, the third presidential election and the sixth in a row since 2003, has been held on 13 November 2017. This election has been the most dramatic one. It was different from the previous elections in a number of ways. A new technology (iris-recognition biometrics) was introduced replacing the old fingerprint biometrics voter registration system. That made Somaliland the most technologically sophisticated state in the African continent and in the world, to use iris-recognition technology. The technology was chosen because of its reliability, flexibility, and standardization. It also boosted the confidence and trust for its capacity to protect fraud and repeat voting. The election was preceded by a three-week campaign with a series of well-orchestrated rallies taken in turns by the contesting parties. The first ever televised presidential debate in Africa was held in which the candidates engaged in a town hall-style debate as the event was live–streamed from the capital, Hargeisa whereas the media openly covered and allowed to scrutinise the candidates’ policies and performances.

The election has been observed by a 60-strong team of international observers from 27 countries together with international partners (UK, Denmark, USA, Belgium, Demark, Finland, the EU, France, Germany, Holland, Norway, Switzerland, and Sweden). On the day of election, a high level delegation from the international community and the international observers visited 350 polling stations in Hargeisa and witnessed the opening, the voting, the closing and the tallying procedures at stations. The Chief Observer and the chairman of the international observers, Michael Wallis, praised and congratulated Somaliland for the smooth conduct of the voting and the peaceful manner in which the people exercised their rights to vote. The NEC has also been commended for their vital responsibility of managing and coordinating a peaceful conduct of the election. Musa Bihi Abdi and Abdirahman Abdillahi Saylii, won with majority (55.1%) as the president-elect and vice president respectively. The results have been acknowledged and accepted by the opposition candidates.


Winds of change

Elections are means to ends. Through this election Somaliland strongly affirmed and consolidated a consistent pattern in democratisation fascinated by the outside world. It has taken a step further close to de jure recognition. The Scandinavians particularly Sweden, one of the first EU nations to recognise Palestine and one which has also been toying with the recognition of Western Sahara, have emerged with enthusiasm in eying on Somaliland’s independence and recognition in the near future. This election has acted as a major step forward as it has exposed an encouragingly positive signal to the rest of the world and that it could bolster a strong case for international recognition.

The political stance of Somaliland is in stark contrast to those of most African countries and especially with its neighbours. The 2016 presidential election in Somalia has been blemished with controversies, fraught, pervasive corruption, sales of votes, and reliance on abundant external funding and support coupled with instability and insecurity from Al-Shabab. Even the one-person-one-vote principle envisaged in 2012 remotely became a day-dream as voters were hand-picked employing 4.5 clan code system that undermines the recognised principles of democracy. Somalia and South Sudan have been described as failed states; North Sudan as a dictatorship and Eritrea, Rwanda  and Ethiopia as police states; Isaias Afwerki, first president of Eritrea came to power in 1993 (same time as the second president of Somaliland, Egal) is still in power. In Uganda, Yoweri Museveni has been on the saddle of the power uninterruptedly since January 1986, while Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe has been in power for about 30 years since 1987 as president until he was recently (2017) forced out of office under pressure. Even Kenya, once the East African region’s most vibrant and competitive democracy, clearly struggled in the last two elections marred with violence, re-election and political disagreements. In other African countries (Liberia, Cameroon, Chad, Gambia, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Chad to mention some among others) elections have been disrupted by flare-up of violence and even with military interventions.

Therefore, Somaliland stands out of the pack of African states. Somaliland’s performance in nation and peace building has often been on shoestring. Somaliland currently ranks high in terms of the indices of democratic performance and could act as a model inspiration for East Africa and wider Africa.

The winds of change for Somaliland’s political prospects are blowing stronger. Two main political parties in Sweden (the Christian Democrats (KD), a centre-right party and the Swedish Democrats have instantly responded with optimism to the news of elections in Somaliland. The KD Party express eagerness in Somaliland’s recognition and that should be done in in cooperation with the other EU member States and that it is teaming up in cooperation with another three national Parties (Moderates, Conservative Democrat, and the Volks Party or Liberal party) to bring about a motion to the parliament whilst the Swedish Democrats Party has taken the extra mile by voicing a radical approach in support of Somaliland’s recognition as it meets all the requirements that a government should have to be a recognised as a country. Additionally, a Swedish journal, ‘Varden Idag’ commented: “Somaliland’s recognition would serve as a good example of what can achieved when conflicts are resolved with dialogues rather than violence”, a Swedish political activist, Michael Torstensson, vehemently articulated that Somaliland’s prowess in fighting terrorism and establishing a functioning and the most peaceful state in East Africa merits recognition while Professor Paul Wrange (University of Stockholm) stresses that there are no logic obstacles to Somaliland’s recognition and independence.

UK is the strongest partner of Somaliland acknowledging and supporting Somaliland’s efforts in commitment to democratic ideals. UK, a long standing friend of Somaliland, has a major stake in the success of the elections in Somaliland investing a significant contribution to the planning, preparation and delivering the biometric voter registration used in the 2017 election. Jeremy Carver, a British international lawyer voiced that Somaliland satisfies all legal criteria for its independent statehood and how it conducted success of elections make it deserve to be recognised. Another British politician, Zac Goldsmith (the Conservative Party, East Midlands), has recently remarked in the British parliament in tribute to the election: “With recent events in Zimbabwe and total chaos in Kenya now, will the Prime Minister join me in celebrating the hugely successful elections this week in Somaliland.” David Concar, another British politician and diplomat (Ambassador for Somalia and Somaliland) unambiguously pointed to the evidence of Somaliland’s impressive records of democratisation and pluralism and congratulated the people of Somaliland and the president-elect, Musa Bihi Abdi on winning the contest. James Carver (MEP and UKIP party) forcefully remarked on the recognition of Somaliland in a debate at the EU parliament at Brielle’s and indicated that there are precedents [(the dissolution of the UAR between two independent states between Egypt and Syria; the dissolution of the union between Senegal and Gambia (Senegambia)].

“Somaliland has taken the path of democracy”, Edna Aden Ismail adds. Somaliland deserves international recognition.

Somaliland has proven to be a symbol of peace, security and stability in a region affected with political turmoil. This year’s laudable successful election conducted this year offers food for thought for the African continent in general and for East Africa in particular.


The challenges

Somaliland’s diplomatic isolation defies it from international recognition and the newly-elected president has no illusions about the complex challenges facing Somaliland (Financial Times, 28th November 2017). The president-elect, Musa Bihi Abdi vows to serve all Somalilanders alike in justice and pledges to broaden development, strengthen and consolidate peace, security, stability and extend democratisation; improve the economic headwinds and pillars of the economy, resources and endowment; seek foreign direct investments; provide basic needs of the society (health care, education, clean water, youth employment etc.). The centrality of international recognition is high on the agenda. The new president stressed the importance to reform the presently sterile talks and negotiations with Somalia and the need for international neutral witnesses and mediators from the international community as well as change the modalities of the negotiations. I wish the best of luck for the new president and his administration.

Dr. Hussein M Nur, Consultant (International Development, UK)