Democracy Up Close In Somaliland Reflections Of An International Election ObserverAfter visiting approximately ten polling stations over the course of the day, we returned to Salaxley to observe the close of the polls and the counting process. As we waited around, we once again witnessed our ‘interventionist’ SPU agent involve himself in a conflagration. Over the day, we witnessed various incidents of tension and chaos outside polling stations, although this particular incident occurred on the outskirts of town and appeared to involve a dispute about whether or not someone would be allowed to get onto one of the trucks ferrying voters between towns. I watched from a distance as two men yelled at each other and soon thereafter began hitting each other. The younger man, after being accosted with a cane, boldly drew a large knife from his side and began wantonly swinging toward the other man. This inevitably drew a large crowd of loud onlookers, and our SPU agent marched into the fray gun in hand and finger-on-trigger. The crowd, led by this SPU, quickly subdued the man, tied him by the hands, forced him to his knees, and began beating him, though with some (minor) restraint. After a few minutes of this, the agent – for reasons totally unbeknownst to me – marched the man by the hands to our vehicle, stripped him of several other weapons, and somewhat to my surprise, set him on his way. The confrontation was over, our security guards and driver found it all quite funny, and that was that. Such is the way here, I suppose.

Drama and excitement behind, we returned to the station we had started at eleven hours prior to observe the close of the polls. The chaos was elevated in the last thirty minutes of voting, perhaps because voters did not understand that if they were in line by the time the polls closed at 6 pm, the law mandates they must be allowed to vote. We required a security escort to push through the crowd into the tiny station, and once inside the swarm of people outside seemed likely to overrun the entire building. But, about fifteen minutes before poll closing, the ballots were exhausted. Each station had up to 1050 ballots or two books of 525. To my total surprise, the pushing and yelling crowd outside disbursed practically instantly and in total calm when the chair indicated as much, and the scene changed in the course of five minutes from one of total chaos to quiet and seemingly worry-free. At this point, it was dark and the station was illuminated with an LED lamp, one of which had been issued to every station as part of the election materials.

The polling station chair, young as he was, appeared well trained in his knowledge of closing the polls. In a very ordered way, the man directed the re-arrangement of the room so as to facilitate counting, making sure that everyone had a seat within view of the ballot box. He cut the seals on the box, laid out a series of clearly labeled envelopes for sorting ballots, filled out the appropriate reconciliation in the station logbook. And, in no time at all, the counting commenced. One by one, ballots were drawn from the box, unfolded, displayed to everyone in the room for verification, and sorted into the appropriate party envelope. This process was two-tier to accommodate district- and national-level tabulation, with the ballots first being sorted into party envelopes, and subsequently tallied for each candidate. In fact, the counting was so slow and transparent to be absolutely mind-numbing. After two hours, the bottom of the ballot box was in view, although we had not even begun the second-tier candidate tally: unfortunately, as I expressed my relief, someone pointed out that this was only the first – and smaller – of two full ballot boxes! As the process continued, our security escort finally lost patience insisting that the trip back to Hargeisa should not be undertaken at too late an hour. Considering that we had no desire to stay at the Mayor’s home, which was the only available accommodation, we were forced to leave before the counting was complete. As it was, we still did not get back to the city until almost midnight.



The drive back to Hargeisa was jarring. Our driver, unsurprisingly to me, got lost at one point, adding an hour to our journey. The landscape again reminded me of nowhere on this planet, empty, stark, flat, seemingly an endless expanse of desert, bush, and dust in every direction. When we finally got to the outskirts of the city, all remained eerily quite: the roads were still closed. But the whirlwind of a day was wrapped up. Observers from around the country were reporting back, though many from more remote parts of the country still faced a multi-day journey back to Hargeisa. The reports from all regions were remarkably similar: plenty of chaos, but nothing outside the norm; high participation from women; good quality polling staff and a transparent counting process; no major reports of violence, definitely a positive feature to be underscored. And, of course, there was the ink!

Dustin R. Turin has a Masters degree in Political Science from Northeastern University in Boston, MA.

Dustin is an editor for Student Pulse

Further Reading

  1. Bradbury, M. (2008). Becoming Somaliland. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
  2. Kibble, S., & Walls, M. (2012). Preparing for local elections in Somaliland: Plans, challenges, and progress. Retrieved from
  3. Lewis, I. M. (2008). Understanding Somalia and Somaliland: Culture, History, Society. New York: Columbia University Press.
  4. Lewis, I. M. (2010). Making and Breaking States in Africa: the Somali experience. Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press.
  5. Walls, M., & Kibble, S. (2011). Somaliland: Change and continuity: Report by International Election Observers on the June 2010 presidential elections in Somaliland. Retrieved from

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