Main Image Credit Women in Somaliland holding their Voter ID cards. Courtesy of Jim Haylebroek/Wikimedia Commons
Spotlighting an African rarity: a poor but democratic nation.
A dirty white, bullet-pocked house, without electricity and running water, does not merit a second glance in the town of Burao high in the east of Somaliland. Yet this former colonial governor’s residence, shaded by a giant acacia, was the site of the Grand Conference of the Northern Peoples in Burao, held over six weeks, which concluded with the declaration of Somaliland’s independence from Somalia on 18 May 1991.
Since then, the Somalilanders have stuck with a winning formula, despite the absence of international recognition and the tepid democratic enthusiasm of much of the Horn of Africa. In the immediate region, only Somaliland is ranked as ‘partly free’ (with a score of 42/100) on Freedom House’s political rights and civil liberty rankings. Ethiopia (22), Djibouti (24) and Somalia (7) all rank as ‘unfree’, and the same is true for Uganda (34), Rwanda (21), Burundi (14), Egypt (18), Sudan (17), South Sudan (2) and Eritrea (2) in the next regional ring. Only Kenya (48) to the south also enjoys ‘partly free’ status. Somaliland uses democracy to keep its people together. Its steady democratic performance and progress are a breath of fresh air in a continent where democrats are facing an uphill struggle. Only seven countries of 49 in sub-Saharan Africa are currently in the ‘free’ category. This is the lowest figure since 1991, with under 10% of the population of the continent living in countries classified by Freedom House as ‘free’.
Somaliland also shows that you don’t have to be rich to be democratic. Despite a tiny national budget of just $250 million for its 3.5 million people (according to Minister of Finance Saad Shire) and a tough geography and hostile climate, Somaliland is showing the way for much richer countries to follow. ‘A place that has made something out of virtually nothing’ is how former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo has described the progress made by Somaliland. His trip there in May 2019 was the first by an African president, current or former, since the territory re-declared its independence in May 1991.
Heavy Historical Baggage
Somaliland gained its initial independence from the UK in 1960. Five days later, it made an ill-fated decision to join former Italian Somaliland in a union that was envisaged ultimately to include French Somalia (now Djibouti), the Somali-dominated Ogaden region of Ethiopia (now Region 5) and a chunk of northern Kenya; this was the origin of the five-pointed star on the Somali flag.
In the centre of the capital, Hargeisa, is the independence memorial, comprising a MiG-17 fighter-bomber erected on a plinth. This commemorates the event when, having lost control of the province, Somalia’s then-ruler Siad Barre ordered his air force – operating from the local airport – to bomb the city, which had been briefly captured by local Somali National Movement (SNM) liberation fighters in May 1988. With the planes flown by Rhodesian mercenaries, among others, the air raids resulted in thousands of civilian casualties.
By the time of Siad Barre’s fall three years later, the main cities of Hargeisa and Burao had been razed to the ground. Not for nothing was Hargeisa known as the ‘roofless city’ after systemic looting by Mogadishu had stripped it of roof sheeting and even doors and their frames. Since then, Somalilanders have sought stability on the principle of maximum ownership and the reality of minimum resources.
Peace did not require vast external financing. There was none available anyway at the time, save for remittance flows to Somaliland families, totalling an estimated $500–900 million annually by 2019. In fact, the absence of outsiders may be precisely the reason for Somaliland’s success, at least compared to its southern neighbour, Somalia, which has lurched violently from peace conference to initiative, peacekeeping mission to external military intervention, and failing government to fragile coalition, seemingly with little discernible progress. In Somalia, ‘conflict entrepreneurs’ have fed off both the fighting and the talking in a top-down process financed by donors, mostly taking place outside the country.
By contrast, Somaliland’s peace conferences were managed and financed by locals, bringing their own food and shelter. The last conference in 1993 was held over five months under the trees in the western city of Boroma. Such dialogue, long a feature of Somaliland society, was organic and bottom-up rather than top-down. Somalilanders concentrated on achieving peace, not on acquiring comforts or financial benefits for delegates from a peace process. Despite its obvious dysfunctionality, Somalia somehow refuses to countenance Somaliland’s right to a divorce, clinging chauvinistically to the notion that the marriage can be repaired. And the rest of Africa blindly stumbles on with hopes for reunion and fears of the impact of accepting the current two-state reality.
Somaliland’s recovery since the 1990s has similarly demanded persistence and the principle of inclusion. The former UK protectorate has developed a stable, democratic system of politics, merging modern and traditional elements. In 2002, Somaliland made the transition from a clan-based system to a multi-party democracy after a referendum in 2001, formalising the Guurti as an Upper House of Elders, which secures the support of traditional clan-based power structures.
There have since been regular elections and a frequent turnover of power between the main political parties. The 2003 presidential election was won by Dahir Riyale Kahin by just 80 votes in nearly half a million against Ahmed Mahamoud Silanyo. The tables were subsequently turned in 2010, with Silanyo winning 49% of the vote to his opponent’s 33%. In November 2017, Muse Bihi Abdi, a former SNM fighter who had earlier served as a Soviet-trained fighter pilot in the Somali Air Force, was elected president. He received 55% of the vote, becoming the country’s fifth president and cementing a tradition of peaceful handovers of power rare to the region.
On 31 May 2021, around the 30th anniversary of Somaliland’s independence and the 20th anniversary of its multi-party democracy, the parliamentary and local district elections went off smoothly – despite the coronavirus pandemic – with 1.1 million voters registered by the National Electoral Commission (NEC), and the establishment of 2,709 polling stations countrywide.
Unlike Somaliland’s previous six elections, which were mostly funded by outsiders, 70% of the $8 million budget was financed internally. And despite delays in the elections – caused by a standoff between the presidency and opposition parties over the nomination of members of the NEC, as well as challenges with the iris biometric voter registration system – these were the most competitive yet, with 246 candidates for 82 parliamentary seats and 966 for 249 district municipality posts across the six regions.
Critics say that Somaliland’s democracy has been facilitated by the dominance of a single clan, the Isaaq, unlike Somalia, which has to balance the competing interests and ambitions of four major clans and several smaller ones. But this argument understates the differences between the Isaaq’s sub-clans and sub-sub-clans, ignores the internal violence that accompanied the country’s birth process – which had to be resolved – and overlooks the tremendous hard work that went into that process.
The focus on the relative integrity of the clan system, President Abdi contends, also underestimates the impact of the democratic culture of the SNM. ‘For 10 years’, he says from his offices in Hargeisa, ‘the SNM was struggling for democracy, refusing the dictatorship of Siad Barre. The democracy we now have was also based on the constitution of the SNM, which was very democratic, in which there were regular elections every two years, and in which the central committee operated like a parliament’.
He cites the example of former President Silanyo, who was removed in the 1989 SNM elections, and yet accepted the change. ‘We have a tradition of accepting results and changing power, and accepting leadership even outside of the SNM, which is very unusual’, he points out, ‘among African liberation movements’.
Donors have helped in sponsoring the local civil society group that provides election oversight: according to the Somaliland Non-State Actors Forum (SONSAF), in 2021, the EU was the principal contributor to its $2 million budget. SONSAF deployed nearly 900 monitors countrywide and ran an Election Situation Room in Hargeisa staffed by 16 operators, collecting and collating countrywide incident reports between April and July 2021. This is how donors can spend money wisely in support of local governance initiatives and the cause of peace and stability.
Of course, as with any democracy, there are challenges of consolidation. Delays to the election process have resulted in officials serving well beyond their original mandates, while journalists face problems of access and pressure from authorities. There are instances of minor clans being subject to political and economic marginalisation, and violence against women remains a serious problem in a highly patriarchal society.
We observed the 31 May elections in Sahel region, including Burao, the former colonial capital of Sheikh and the villages of Ina Dhakool and Qoyta – the latter of which was the site of a casualty clearing station during the civil war. For all of its diplomatic isolation, Somaliland is strongly globalised. The link with the diaspora is evident in the names of Burao’s suburbs, including Xaafada London, Abu Dhabi and Jarmalka (Germany).
Yet Somaliland remains synonymous with grinding poverty and dirt-scrabble hardship. A high percentage of the population is illiterate and required assistance at polling stations, many of which were run by university students. The slow pace of voting was accompanied by constant grumbling on a high Somali volume setting. Regardless, the enthusiasm was palpable, not least among the very old and young. Preference was patiently given to disabled and female voters. A voting age of 15 might seem low, and a cynical way of vote stealing, but it serves as a deradicalising mechanism for the largest demographic: 70% of Somaliland’s population of 3.5 million is under the age of 30. The younger generation sees democracy as a means of diluting the impact of the clan system.
Democracy demands and creates a high-trust and transparent environment. Assisted voters – about one-fifth of those in our area of observation in 46 polling stations – were asked their preference which was filled in by the presiding officer, and then shown immediately to the agents representing the three parties in the station. These practices help to ensure votes are respected. The crowds were not voting just for political parties; they were voting for nationhood and to show their pride in self-determination.
Somaliland’s commitments to improving democratic norms and standards, and its regular change of leaders at the polls, have made it a regional democratic superpower. Its progress should shame those much richer African countries where incumbents are rolling back democratic progress because it threatens their power and financial privilege.
Those African leaders – of governments and oppositions alike – who are committed to democracy should recognise Somaliland’s undoubted progress from war to peace.
The authors were members of the international election monitoring team convened by the Brenthurst Foundation, and were based in the Sahel region in eastern Somaliland.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.