The Horn of Africa’s unsought status as one of the most volatile regions in the world is underlined by the deep-rooted conflict in Somalia and the endemic tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea. This makes even more impressive and welcome the progress of the self-declared independent state of Somaliland in creating a stable, rules-based government. However, an electoral crisis now threatens to derail this achievement. Somaliland’s political leadership has the main responsibility in solving it, but constructive support by the international community will be vital in ensuring that the territory continues to defy the trend of conflict that has damaged its neighbours.
Somaliland, a former British protectorate, declared its independence from the rest of the Republic of Somalia in May 1991, following the collapse of the military regime in Mogadishu. It remains unrecognised by any country in the world. Yet Somaliland has followed a very different trajectory from much of the rest of the “failed state” of Somalia.
A process of political, social and economic reconstruction has brought security and relative stability. Somaliland’s incipient democracy has drafted and approved a new permanent constitution; smoothly handed power from one president to another; and held three peaceful elections. Yet the democratic transformation is far from complete, and recent developments could see Somaliland slip back towards the kind of instability and lawlessness experienced in the rest of Somalia.
The immediate crisis stems from the failure to hold elections even with the expiry of President Dahir Rayale’s term in May 2008. The latest in a series of postponements came in September 2009, when the two opposition parties threatened a boycott over reported fraud that they charged made the official voter-registration list unusable. An escalation of the dispute was averted only by an agreement to delay the vote, revamp the discredited electoral commission and refine the list.
Behind these problems lies a persistent winner-takes-all political culture, in which wide-ranging attempts to manipulate the political process have corrupted governing institutions and undermined the rule of law. A failure to protect democratic institutions now could open the door to the remobilisation of militias and a violent conflict. This would be a tragedy for a polity that has done so much to avoid being drawn into the Horn of Africa’s maelstrom of war and destruction.
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There is a double challenge here for Somaliland’s political actors: in the short term to resolve the electoral crisis, and in the long term to improve the political culture. It will require Somaliland’s political parties to democratise, and open up political space for other organisations to contest local elections; and its electoral institutions to be professionalised and depoliticised.
A regional example
The international community should lend encouragement to the Somaliland government as these processes take place. The British government in particular should make close monitoring of Somaliland a regular part of its policy towards the Horn of Africa.
There are also three immediate steps that European Union member-states can take to support Somaliland’s democratic process and help it find a way out of its electoral crisis.
First, Somaliland’s international supporters should provide technical assistance, financial support and political cover to the new national electoral commission (NEC) – which, though crucial to the process, lacks experience. This would be invaluable in enabling the NEC to do its work effectively and resist political manipulation.
Second, the international community should dispatch international election monitors and help train additional local observers who can work in insecure rural areas, to ensure that the entire electoral process is free and fair.
Third, there is a profound lack of voter education and civic awareness, which highlights the importance of instilling democratic values in Somaliland’s younger generation. Here, international supporters can assist in the preparation of materials on democratic practices and election laws for schools and local communities.
In a violent region that has been the source of so much bad news Somaliland remains a place of exemplary if incomplete stability. It still has the potential to be a model for state reconstruction, and can play an important and progressive role in the fight against piracy and extremist Islamism. Somaliland must be given the help it needs to succeed.