Dreaming of Somaliland: Somalilanders are quietly and confidently concretizing their dreams of statehood – all with the wish of one day being recognized as a political entity in its own right.
The last few months of 2017 have been characterized by global debates in relation to statehood recognition and its consequences for global order and the expansion of citizens’ rights. From Europe to the Middle East and Africa, we are openly discussing, for example, what takes to recognize a new country; what are the political consequences of recognition in terms of socio-political and economic stability, inclusion and citizens’ rights; or what are the consequences in terms of prevention of conflict and sustaining long-term peace.
I think – just to name a few – of the political struggle in Catalunya, the independence referendum in Kurdistan, the continuous debate in relation to Palestine, renovated in times of Trump, and the on-going civil war in one of the newest and internationally backed countries, South Sudan.
Meanwhile, in Somaliland – north of Somalia, East Africa – Somalilanders, quietly and confidently, continued concretizing their own statehood dreams: over the last few months, Somaliland has organized its third presidential election, which took place on November 13, demonstrating the strength of its electoral, multi-party and hybrid political system. All with the wish of one day being recognized by the world as a political entity in its own right.
Twenty-six years ago, Somaliland unilaterally declared independence from Somalia and now enjoys peace and stability in a volatile and violent regional context. Nevertheless, Somaliland is not recognized by a single country. Overall these years, Somalilanders, step by step, have overcome the most complex of socio-political and economic challenges and, with little support from the international community, have co-created what is today considered a unique peace and state-building example, attracting the attention of many people like us who want to understand how local organized citizens can craft their own solutions to civil war, insecurity, poverty, environmental problems, and instability.
As members of Somaliland Focus UK, we accompany Somalilanders’ efforts. Recently, we co-organized the International Electoral Observation Mission (EOM) to the presidential elections. We also disseminate knowledge about this East African country, which is offering unique lessons to the world.
In this article, I present a brief account of the formation of Somaliland and its current achievements and challenges. We hope this is a small contribution to share information on what is certainly an example to the world. I will publish an extended research report early next year (together with Dr. Marta Fernandez, Brazil). The EOM will publish the final report on its observation mission in the first half of 2018.
Peace and state-building in East Africa
Somaliland is a successful example of peace- and state-building. Unlike some other African countries – still suffering diverse violent conflicts and intensive flawed and/or militarized international intervention – in Somaliland, local actors were and are the main stakeholders leading, creating and sustaining a legitimated political order.
The end of the civil war was possible because of the implementation of a locally led model of clan negotiation: a customary system of “social forgetting” which endorsed reconciliation and dialogue towards peace and constitution making. Since 1991, local clans organized and self-funded several “national” inter-clan peace conferences and grassroots local assemblies dealing with clan reconciliation, constitutional issues, and institutional formation.
All this follows local customs: a local- and indigenous-led conference lasted several months, implied a commitment to arduous consensus-building facilitated by local elders, entailing long discussions among citizens held under the acacia trees and inspired by ancient poetry. The scenery, and peoples’ predispositions, were the gateway to what is called “sympathetic attention” and mutual interest, two pre-conditions to generate collective agreements, new ideas, joint decisions and finally, create a country with its own constitution and new institutions – all achieved despite various challenges, including the outbreak of violence in between meetings.
Today, for example, Somaliland has its local councils, a bicameral parliament – including the “Guurti” formed by indigenous elders and an elected one – its executive representatives and institutions including various specialized ministries, a central bank and local currency, a budget financing national public policy (the National Development Plan and other policies) and several functioning international representations working abroad as “embassies”. Somalia does not recognize Somaliland’s self-declared independence. As a consequence, there is an ongoing dialogue process taking place, mediated by Turkey.
Legitimacy: a state created by and for citizens
Many studies evidenced the legitimacy of Somaliland peace and state-building process: “Somaliland had more success in legitimating the state in the eyes of its citizens at least because it was based on cultural notions that neither colonialism nor “scientific socialism” were able to eradicate… it could, indeed, be seen as a first indigenous modern African form of government which entails traditional forms of organization based on reaffirmation of lineage identity and territoriality within a democratizing framework containing an emphasis on self- reliance” (Kibble, 2001).
“Sympathetic attention” and mutual interest were two pre-conditions to generate collective agreements, new ideas, joint decisions and finally, create a country with its own constitution and new institutions.
Somaliland’s nation-state was demanded and co-created from the painful lessons of internal war, struggles after independence and divergent political options in Cold Ward times. In this context, Somaliland’s people deposited faith in the security and predictability that the kinship system could provide during state collapse and the long and painful process of post-independence politics and post-civil war reconstruction.
Because of this society-wide support for its young democracy, Somaliland’s nation-state is defended and nurtured by the vast majority of Somalilanders despite the lack of international recognition and existing differences between various clans and political parties. Against all odds, they are united in the common idea of sustaining their nation’s security and safety, while working hard to promote more development opportunities for all. It is noteworthy that respect for local dynamics and a politics of legitimation are prevalent in contrast to the sometimes short-term objectives and interests pushed by “international actors” actively engaged in other peace and state-building processes on the continent.
Third elected president and the future ahead
As mentioned above, in November 2017, Somaliland organized its third presidential election, efficiently coordinated by the National Electoral Commission (NEC). Three political parties’ candidates successfully ran their campaigns and the election resulted in the confirmation late in the month of Musa Bihi Abdi of the Kulmiye Party as a new president. Unlike in other African countries -where presidents stay in power for decades creating a suffocating political context-, in Somaliland, the incumbent President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud (Sillanyo), also of the Kulmiye Party, did not run for a second term.
In the days following polling day, tensions emerged between political parties and their supporters and the associated clans, from some perceived and real institutional challenges linked with running a well-organized and transparent election. Nevertheless, these disagreements were, again, eventually successfully managed by local leaders -from political parties, institutions, and traditional representatives- with the aim to “defend” peace, coexistence and democratic stability above all. Remarkably, the defeated candidate openly declared in a press conference days after the election: “I don’t want my desire to hold this post to destroy my country and shed my people’s blood”. As Edna Anan -one of the most recognized local social leaders- mentioned in one of the public meetings organized after election day: “above all, Somalilanders recognize that with democracy everyone wins”. On November 21, the election result was declared by Somaliland’s National Electoral Commission. On November 28, the Supreme Court endorsed the result, after no formal complaints were received.
Somalilanders in every country corner -from desert rural areas to busy cities- flooded schools and community centers to cast their vote. Young leaders -for example, a group of more than 600 local observers and hundreds of electoral staff, national police and political parties’ agents- worked tirelessly to, yet again, demonstrate their belief in democracy. It was moving to see social mobilization on such a scale to support the right to decide.
While traditional forms of organization are still very important, new generations are quickly entering into the public space, organizing initiatives to open up debates and provide increased transparency and public scrutiny to clan and political parties negotiations and practices. Youth and women-led organizations are working hard to change discriminatory, dangerous and unjust traditional customs.
For example, during this election period, “Inspire” a new youth-led social enterprise, organized the first national presidential TV debate: all candidates had to respond to concrete policy questions as the nation watched and openly debated the quality of the proposals and their options. Social media is widely used to share ideas and information, connecting everyone beyond any social, gender or clan distinction.
Somaliland might be the first African country to prohibit female genital mutilation (FGM) as per the promises shared by all presidential candidates. Many challenges still lie ahead: new investors and regional interests might need to think smart in terms of conflict prevention and national sovereignty. For example, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has signed an agreement to develop the Berbera port and open a military base nearby. Issues in relation to land prizes and management as well as the transparent management of resources are already causing concerns.
As soon as investments and development funds start coming to the country, Somaliland might need to reaffirm its commitment to put citizens and peace before everything, demonstrating solid human rights, anti-corruption and transparent development practices that distinguish it from other countries. Similarly, the country must start pulling together resources in the areas of education, health, infrastructure and small-scale development, overcoming years of mainly spending on security and some institutional building. It will be good to see if Somaliland can put human rights and citizens’ peace and dignity at the center of every future policy decision. This is the time to make the right choices.
In times when we face new questions in relation to secessionist and independence movements, Somaliland offers an example how citizens can come to organize their own socio-political processes, making their voices heard so as to create fairer social orders without much “international aid”. In all, Somaliland poses questions to the world: when and why to recognize the creation of a new country and how best this facilitates peace and security? What are the limitations and problems of international intervention – by action or omission – when the challenge is to understand and support socio-political harmony? Can this country become an example to the world in respecting human rights and citizens’ dignity? We hope so and we will stay close to observe and support.
About the author
Cecilia Milesi is an analyst on peace policies and facilitator of change processes from www.ceciliamilesi.com. She tweets @MilesiCeci