New Internationalist

Against all odds

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Somaliland voters recently braved terrorist threats against ‘the Devil’s practice’ and flocked to the polling booths. Stefan Simanowitz reports on elections in Somaliland, a country that ‘does not exist’.

On Saturday 26 June, across the length and breadth of the breakaway state of Somaliland, the rising sun revealed long lines of people snaking towards polling stations. Many of them had walked considerable distances and queued all night in order to vote in presidential elections that had been delayed by almost two years. They had also braved threats by separatists and by an al Qaeda-linked terrorist group who, on the eve of polling day, issued a warning to people not to vote, describing democracy as ‘the devil’s practice’. Despite the warnings, over a million voters came out to cast their ballot. But despite the high turn out and although the election was deemed free and fair by international observers, the result will not be officially recognized beyond its territorial borders. Indeed, in the eyes of the international community, Somaliland is a country that does not exist.

Somaliland, a nation the size of England and Wales, declared itself independent in 1991 following a brutal civil war and has enjoyed a level of peace and security that contrasts sharply with the lawlessness of neighbouring Somalia. However, recent security issues – together with bitter disputes over voter registration – caused a delay to last month’s elections that led to fears that the country’s nascent democracy might be under threat.

Transferring power

Polling day did see some disturbances. An attack on a polling station by separatist militia in the Puntland region left an election observer and three others dead and resulted in the closure of 34 polling stations. But the fears of attacks by the al Qaeda-linked group al-Shabab did not materialize. Al Shabab are thought to be behind the shooting of a policeman just before the elections. A fortnight before polling day 15 suspected Islamic terrorists, including six women, were arrested in possession of bomb-making equipment, and last October car bombs left 25 dead and dozens injured in Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa.

The Somaliland system of government manages to fuse Westem-style institutions with its own traditional forms of social and political organization

The election saw the defeat of President Riyale and the UCUB party, which has been in power since independence. The new President-elect, Ahmed Silanyo of the Kulmiye party, will be sworn in by 26 July and the country is expecting an orderly transfer of power. All parties have agreed to abide by the result and Somaliland is expected to renew its reputation as a ‘model’ to the Horn of Africa. ‘A successful free and fair election will have a huge impact on setting Somaliland on the right path to democracy, prosperity, and international recognition,’ believes political analyst Hussein Dualeh.

Political fusion

The Somaliland system of government manages to fuse Westem-style institutions with its own traditional forms of social and political organization. Its bi-cameral parliament reflects this with the Senate consisting of traditional elders, and the House of Representatives consisting of elected representatives. Over the years Somaliland has striven to replace clan-based politics with party politics. Somaliland’s original clan-based political system resulted in an under-representation of some clans and was replaced a decade ago with three non-clan-based parties. This reduced the extent to which clan allegiance affected the selection of candidates and voting behaviour and by forcing alliances between clans, integration and pluralism was encouraged.

A rusting Russian tank plastered with election posters is a reminder of Somaliland’s war-ravaged past and a symbol of hope for a democratic future

Although terrorism in Somaliland remains a concern, with an increasing number of radical clerics in the country as well as a porous border with Somalia, the predominantly Sufi form of Islam practiced in Somaliland does not lend itself to extremism. ‘Terrorists live in the seams between countries,’ says Michael Chertoff, former head of Homeland Security under the Bush administration, explaining why, like the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, the unguarded frontiers of the Sahel are attractive to terrorists. Stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, the Sahel is increasingly being seen as the new front line in the ‘war on terror’ but ironically, the growing problem of terrorism in Somaliland might present an opportunity. With its strategically important position on the Gulf of Aden and a deep water port in Berbera, Somaliland is positioning itself as an important ally in the ‘war on terror’. Whilst conscious that too close a relationship with the US might not be popular with its population, the government also recognizes the advantages that collaboration could bring in terms of finance, long-term stability and ultimately international recognition.

Recognition

As well as qualifying the country for aid and support from international financial institutions, recognition would also allow mining and oil companies access to the country’s natural resources. Large-scale extraction of oil, coal, gemstones and minerals could transform this country of 3.5million, where over 40 per cent of the population lives in extreme poverty. Hussein Dualeh is optimistic. ‘I firmly believe that Somaliland stands a good chance of being recognized as a sovereign state in the next five years,’ he says.

When the rains come in Hargeisa, 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 plastered with election posters is a reminder of Somaliland’s war-ravaged past and a symbol of hope for a democratic future. The success of the long-awaited elections offer a clue to what that future might look like.

Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist and political analyst. He has spent time in Somaliland as a journalist and as an international election observer.

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