Since Somaliland’s first district elections in 2002, the international NGO Progressio has played an important supportive role by organizing and facilitating international election observers. In this article, Dr. Adan Abokor and Steve Kibble reflect on the role and contribution of international observers to the elections in Somaliland. The authors also comment on some of the political challenges that Somaliland faces in establishing a democratic system that draws on indigenous and modern practices of governance.

By Adan Yusuf Abokor & Steve Kibble, Progressio

A Track Record of Free and Fair Elections

Free and fair elections are not just what happens on polling day when foreign observers jet in for a few days. At the same time, the presence of observers makes polling day the worst possible time for elites who wish to steal elections; someone is bound to notice ballot boxes being stuffed or lost on route to or from a count.

In this chapter, we describe the long and short-term processes that lead to free and fair elections. These general observations are derived from decades of experience in observing elections in Africa, Europe, Asia, and Somaliland.


In this paper, we do not confine ourselves to the technical aspects of elections, such as registration, equal treatment of parties, unrestricted access to voters, training of electoral support staff, voter education, and the like, but consider these technical elements in the context of the broader struggle for democracy and the obstacles to its achievement.

People in Somaliland have been engaged in building systems of legitimate and accountable governance since 1991. The proclamation of independence meant that there was an opportunity to break with past corrupt, military, and unrepresentative forms of government.

While the lack of international recognition has meant a lack of government support on the scale granted to many post-conflict countries, it gave people in Somaliland the opportunity to build a system suitable for their needs. [1]

For the first twelve years, this was a hybrid system, combining traditional institutions of clan governance with formal Western-style government institutions. In May 1999 the Hargeysa government approved a draft constitution that would move the country from a clan-based system to a multiparty political system.

Parties were to be restricted to three, were not to be based on tribal or religious lines and had to demonstrate support from all regions of Somaliland. Women were to be given the right to vote, although no women were consulted in drawing up the draft.

With the constitutional referendum in 2001, local elections in 2002, presidential ones in 2003, and the parliamentary elections in 2005, people in Somaliland are still assessing how these democratic gains and intentions are working out against the background of patriarchal clan and business interests and indeed some tensions emanating from political Islam. The multiple delays in the presidential elections since 2008 were also creating tensions.

Progressio and International Observers

Progressio has observed – with varying numbers of observers – Somaliland’s string of elections. To-date our biggest mission was coordinating a 76-strong team of international election observers (IEOs) that the National Electoral Commission (NEC) officially asked us to invite and help organize for the September 2005 elections to the House of Representatives.

In addition to IEOs from four continents, there were a number of Somalilanders from the diaspora and expatriate staff of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) who made up the team.

In the 2005 elections, some 800,000 Somaliland voters queued for up to six hours in the heat to vote, having spent hours walking to the polling stations.[2] Despite some major problems of resources, time and organization the NEC ran a good election, assisted by experienced consultants. International NGOs lent vehicles and radios to the international observer mission, which enabled us to visit over a third of the 900 polling stations.

There were some problems observed, related to the lack of a census and hence a registration process, a largely illiterate population and very complicated ballot papers with a multiplicity of symbols for the candidates, the use of official cars by government officers, and attempts at multiple voting. Transparency was rated more highly than the secrecy of the ballot.

The one issue that especially concerned IEOs as well as the Somalilanders we worked with, was the small number of female candidates in the parliamentary election (see the chapter in this book by Amina Mohamoud, writing on women and elections).

The 2005 elections were carried out peacefully, which contrasted with those in neighboring Ethiopia; the diaspora played a visible role and contributed extensive experience. The parties although combative and unequally privileged were disciplined. We declared the elections ‘reasonably free and fair’, but stressed throughout that this was not the end of the democratization process but in many ways its start.

The Practice of Government

Whilst the structures for consultation and consensus building and participation exist in Somaliland, the democratic nature of the government and respect for civil liberties and the rule of law have been called into question since 2002 by some high-profile legal cases, creeping corruption and an increasing investment in internal security structures.

The security mindset of the Siyad Barre era (and the presence in government of personnel from that period) means the use of due legal process rather than arbitrary political action, such as use of security committees, has not been understood by all ministers and parts of the government. The same attitude has applied to the government’s relationship with the media.

Iqbal Jhazbhay has argued that, “Somaliland illustrates the efficacy of internally-driven, culturally-rooted, ‘bottom-up’ approaches to post-war nation building: the success of this approach in reconciling indigenous cultures and traditions and modernity; and its success at achieving relative stability.”[3]

This, he argues, challenges the assumptions elsewhere in Africa of the need for strong, centralized post-colonial states; a model that is influencing choices of state architecture in Eritrea and South Sudan.

Kibble and Walls, have argued that the process of democratization in Somaliland has been facilitated “by an overwhelming public desire to avoid a return to conflict and an accompanying urge to win international recognition…”[4]

They acknowledge, like Jhazbhay, that the process of state building in Somaliland has not followed a simple template, and needs to be understood in terms of local specificities and the dynamic interplay between a variety of historic and contemporary international and local forces.

They argue, like Jhazbhay, that the resilience of Somaliland has been built on pragmatic accommodations between tradition and modernity. However, they suggest that it has become increasingly difficult to maintain a model of governance “that combines elements of traditional[5] ‘pastoral’ male democracy in the context of the Westphalian[6] and Weberian[7] nation-state[8].”

They question whether this interplay between tradition and modernity has sufficient capacity to resolve present and forthcoming problems where elders, for example, once a key element in the hybrid form of state have become incorporated into state structures.

People in Somaliland they suggest must face up to fundamental questions about how traditional institutions can fit in with the norms of modern democratic state. Clan, for example, continues to play a significant role in the political party-based system of democracy, and a decision is increasingly urgent on the system of election or selection for membership of the House of Elders or Guurti.

Given these extremely delicate and complex internal dynamics, poorly considered external interventions are, not surprisingly, sometimes perceived as malign. However, the importance of outsiders in providing technical electoral assistance, and especially observation, has frequently been stressed by people in Somaliland, including the government. We now move to what this entails.

Civil Society Election Observing

Election observation can broadly be defined as: ongoing, organized action which is impartial, non-partisan and aimed at ensuring adherence to the ethics, laws, regulations and codes of conduct governing the electoral process. The mandate of observers is derived from both domestic law and international human rights law.

Observing differs from monitoring in that it is limited to noting and reporting matters of concern to an internal or external authority. Civil society observing is also different from monitoring by political party agents, electoral authorities, or representatives of foreign governments or multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations and the African Union. It also differs from other kinds of technical assistance. IEOs need to understand the purpose and broad principles of elections and their role as observers.


Elections are a legitimate means of changing power in a democracy. The lack of a participatory system of government lies at the heart of many intrastate conflicts. Elections can enable members of society, without discrimination, to participate fully in political, economic, cultural and social life.

They can provide a mechanism for reconciliation and for preventing or mitigating violent conflict in polarized societies. But, there are no guarantees that elections solve problems. Indeed, elections can exacerbate tensions and encourage uncompromising attitudes, including the ‘tyranny of the majority’.

Normally, however, holding elections is much better than no elections, although given the violence that often accompanies elections, such as in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia or Kenya this assertion can certainly be challenged.

International human rights conventions support electoral laws by upholding the right of all citizens to participate in their government, as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 21 (3)), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR) (Article 25b), plus regional protocols including the Banjul African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights 13 (1).

International human rights standards protect basic human rights crucial to the electoral process, such as freedom of expression, opinion, peaceful assembly, association, movement, and organizing trade unions. Conventions against gender discrimination such as the Convention on ending all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) also uphold women’s rights to political participation.

It is possible to have elections that are free but not fair (which is why phrases like “generally acceptable” have come into use). Free is a broad concept involving freedoms being observed in general, but also involving the freedom to register, vote, stand as a candidate, have access to information, be elected. Fair refers, more narrowly, to the process of the election, including the impartiality of the government and its officials, equal resources and equal access to media for the parties before and during the actual polling day.

The roles of IEOs:

There are various reasons for having international observers a presence at the presentation. International election observing can help prevent or mitigate conflict by providing unbiased observers to work with others to ensure that domestic electoral laws are respected.

IEOs should aim to be present throughout the pre- and post-election period and ensure process is transparent from registration through to the counting and the announcement of the results. In order to carry out their work the observers need freedom of movement and access to all parts of country.

In the pre-election period observers should assess whether appropriate structures are in place for the government to organize free and fair elections and for political parties to be able to contest elections.

They need assurance that there is an effective and objective electoral administration in place, with qualified staff, that is insulated from political pressure. Observers need to assess whether legal norms exist that approximate to international standards and are accepted by the public and whether there is adequate judicial independence and ability to adjudicate on electoral matters.

They need to assess whether there is equal suffrage, in gender terms, but also that constituencies are of equitable size and there is equality of access to polling stations. They need to be assured of the fairness of voter registration and that there are adequate provisions to prevent double voting.

They need to assess whether there are unreasonable restrictions on participation or campaigning and whether there is agreement among the parties in terms of the form of ballots, design of ballot boxes, voting booths, manner of voting, proxy voting, and whether adequate procedures are in place to handle cases of disputed voting rights.

Observers can also assess the extent of civic and voter education and seek assurance that it is objective and nonpartisan.

Monitoring the media is also an important role that observers can play, to assess whether there is equal access to the media and an absence of government censorship.

A key role of election observers should be to assess whether constitutional rights, international human rights standards, and civil liberties have been respected, including freedom of expression and association; that the political parties have operated within the law; the parties have not faced arbitrary restrictions on public campaigning or access to the media; that government is not misusing public resources; that all parties and supporters have been ensured equal security; that the public have been able to vote without fear or intimidation; the secrecy of the ballot has been maintained and fraud and illegality avoided.

Some key questions for observers to ask to elicit this information include questions of citizenship, the eligibility of candidates, the ability to challenge procedures, freedom to the campaign (especially in strongholds of opposing parties), accessibility of polling stations, adequate security, and whether voting and counting procedures being followed by all.

Observers should interact with as wide a variety of organizations as possible both those directly concerned with elections and with wider issues. They should liaise with the Electoral Commission on the management of the elections, including civic and voter education activities, media activities, and domestic and international observation.

Election observers also need to consult with local stakeholders – political parties, NGOs, CBOs, religious leaders, lawyers, etc. – about their concerns regarding the political process, the role and freedom of the mass media, and whether all parties have agreed to abide by the outcome of the elections. They should consult local organizations being trained as domestic observers and others. Observers also need to liaise with influential donor governments who are sponsoring the elections.

The legitimacy of an election will, in the end, depend on the local population’s views of the proceedings.

Election observers need to elicit a consensus rather than unanimity in making judgments about the outcome, answer to answer questions such as whether the outcome reflected “the will of the people”.

The observers should report their findings to the voting public as well as influential governments and to the international media.

Reasons for election observing

  • It provides an independent, impartial evaluation of the whole process
  • It encourages acceptance of election results
  • It builds voter confidence
  • It ensures the integrity of the process
  • It encourages observance of international electoral standards
  • It assists with the protection of human rights and the strengthening of democracy
  • It can help resolve electoral and other disputes
  • It indirectly supports voter and civic education
  • It can help to give voice to all parts of the population
  • It can enable weak domestic institutions to gain confidence

Capacity-building for domestic observers groups should be an important part of the preparation for elections. This builds structures that by virtue of being in-country can observe the entire electoral process. It can help build civil society confidence, mitigate against electoral fraud, and ensure local knowledge of elections is retained and that lessons learned can be carried forward to subsequent elections. Domestic observers can also provide a link to external observers.

Observing the vote is a key role of observers. This should involve the widest possible coverage of polling stations. Observers should be present at the opening of polling stations, check whether sufficient quantities of voting materials are available, whether there are checks on double-voting. Observers should not interfere with the polling process unless their assistance is requested by the authorities. Serious problems should be reported to election authorities.

Observers should also witness a sample of counts. This requires them to be present at the closing of the polls, and ensure that counting is open to official observers and representatives of political parties, that all issued ballot papers are accounted for and that there is a free and fair process for counting, verification, reporting of results, and retention of official materials.

After the count, the main role of observers is to determine as quickly as possible to determine the freedom and fairness of the poll. This may require liaising with other observers. The observers should feedback on their observations to the public fora. But no premature statements should be made to the media on freedom and fairness until all procedures have been completed. They should avoid passing judgment on the outcome of the elections and restrict their reporting to observations and suggestions for improvement.

Key actors

Elections involve multiple actors who can all influence the outcome and all have a role in ensuring the legitimacy of the elections.

  • NEC: The National Electoral Commission has the most important role in administering an election. The legitimacy of the election largely rests on the NEC being a neutral, independent, transparent and accountable body.
  • Government: The government is responsible for using its authority fairly and ensuring the political parties have equal access to public funds, the media and transport during the campaign and preparation for elections. The government has a responsibility to ensure the rights of its citizens and politicians are secure in competing in the elections. It is the government after all which will take credit for organizing free and fair elections.
  • Political parties: Political parties must compete freely and fairly and educate their supporters about their civic duty to vote in order to ensure the country has the right leadership to achieve prosperity and development
  • Media: The media has a key role in achieving fair and free elections. It has a role in monitoring the distribution of public funds, and in ensuring proper campaigning by the political parties. It also has an important role to play in civic education and the participation of marginalized constituencies, like women, youth, the disabled and minority groups.
  • Independent monitoring bodies: An independent monitoring board, comprising elders, religious scholars, and women and other respected figures, has an important independent monitoring and mediation role prior to, during and in the postelections period.
  • Donors: Donors should attach conditions on free and fair process of the elections. Besides providing financial support, they can also provide technical assistance to support and advise the NEC and political parties, including exposure visits to other countries.
  • Security forces: Security forces are crucial to protect the public from terrorists threats and enemies of Somaliland, peace, and stability
  • Traditional structures: The role of the traditional structures, notably through the House of Elders (Guurti), has been highly visible and effective in maintaining stability and reconciliation since independence and during the elections. The Guurti, however, is an unelected legislative institution. As people in Somaliland experiment with multi-party politics, they will be challenged to maintain and incorporate those positive attributes of a pastoral democracy – consensus building, mediation, arbitration – within the system of government, while minimizing its negative influences.
  • Parliament’s Upper House is a unique institution that has been at the heart of clan-based power sharing and consensual politics in Somaliland, linking modern political institutions to the traditional political organization and, by extension, inter-communal politics to national politics. The public recognizes the role that it played in mobilizing the population in the war against Siyad Barre and in shepherding Somaliland through the minefields of post-war politics and state-building. There are many sources of legitimacy and authority in societies and although the authority of the Guurti is not based on a popular vote it is no less legitimate for that.[9] That said, the Guurti has been criticized for becoming too institutionalized and reliant on the government to be able to act as the objective mediator in national politics that it was supposed to be.
  • Civil society: Civil society has been busy organizing itself in terms of gender representation, provision of social services, tracking budgets, and human rights practices. It is also the main source of domestic election observers.
  • Women: Women in Somaliland can claim to be making progress in the representation of women in politics, albeit slowly.


The declaration of Somaliland’s independence occurred during the second wave of democratization in Africa in the early 1990s. Arguably Somaliland has been more successful than others in legitimizing the state in the eyes of its citizens because its system of governance was based on a well-understood and a historically strong social contract between pastoral kinship groups.

Somaliland’s approach to rebuilding society and the state from communities upwards, gradually widening the arena of political agreement and political consensus, works, according to Ioan Lewis, in societies that are highly fragmented and decentralized, and do not conform to assumptions about the universality of civil society and Western multiparty democracy.[10]

How well does this model fit with the ideas emanating from civil society which are often influenced by their time in the diaspora and other (more Western) forms of democracy? It appears that some of the key actors are beginning to favor a change from the hybrid form of government in order to reflect more clearly developments in Somaliland, such as in women’s groups, urban youth, and the business sector. How will the more traditional elements react to such movement after the elections?

There is unlikely to be a linear path or indeed binary opposition between ‘so-called progress’ and ‘tradition’. But, we believe that how the elections integrate with the wider democratization process will be vital to the next phase of Somaliland’s development. The key challenges will involve how to negotiate the difficult relationship between traditions of consensus-building politics with traditions of centralized, rational states.

We have also pointed to other worrying authoritarian possibilities. It is our hope, as democrats, that best practices can be followed and that both domestic and international observation can help in this. However, as ever, the task remains one for Somalilanders themselves to achieve.


Adan Yusuf Abokor, Kibble, Steve et al. 2006. Further Steps to Democracy: The Somaliland Parliamentary Elections, September 2005 (London: Progressio,).

Bradbury, Mark 2008. Becoming Somaliland. James Currey in association with Progressio, African Issues

Max Weber 1958. The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism, New York Scriber.

Mohamoud Mamdani (1996): Citizen and Subject, Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Steve Kibble, Walls, Michael, ‘Tradition and Modernity in Somaliland: Beyond polarity: negotiating a hybrid state’ for the conference on ‘Democratization in Africa’ University of Leeds 4-5 December 2009.


[1] Bradbury, Mark (2008) Becoming Somaliland. James Currey in association with Progressio, African Issues.

[2] Adan Yusuf Abokor, Kibble, Steve et al. Further Steps to Democracy: The Somaliland Parliamentary Elections, September 2005 (London: Progressio, 2006).

[3] IJ p 19.

[4] Steve Kibble & Walls, Michael, ‘Tradition and Modernity in Somaliland: Beyond polarity: negotiating a hybrid state’ for the conference on Democratization in Africa University of Leeds 4-5 December 2009.

[5] We are also aware that ‘tradition’ can be an invented modern concept used by government to divide and rule with the British Empire and contemporary Zimbabwe providing examples.

[6] The Westphalian state emerged as a seventeenth-century European concept of nation-state sovereignty based on two principles: territoriality and the exclusion of external actors from domestic authority structures.

[7] Max Weber examined the rationalization and bureaucratization of the (European and indeed Protestant) state which he defined as an entity which claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.

[8] Mahmood Mamdani in his book, ‘Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism’, has talked of the bifurcated state under one hegemony that is organized differently in rural and urban areas.

[9] Bradbury op cit.

[10] Ioan M. Lewis (1999) A Pastoral Democracy: A Study of Pastoralism and Politics among the Northern Somali People of the Horn of Africa International Africa Institute/ James Currey. Oxford

About the authors

Dr Adan Yusuf Abokor is the Progressio Somaliland Country Representative. Progressio is a technical assistance organization which supports civil society organizations in the areas of participation & governance, HIV and AIDS, and a sustainable environment. Dr. Adan was the counterpart for the coordination of IEOs for the Somaliland parliamentary and presidential elections.

Dr. Steve Kibble is the Progressio policy and advocacy coordinator for Africa, Middle East & Asia (AMEA) region. Currently, he is committed and strongly advocates for Somaliland as a member of the Somaliland Focus (UK). He also played an important role in the joint coordinating team of IEOs during the Somaliland parliamentary and presidential elections.

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