Elections alone do not make a democracy. A measure of Somaliland’s democracy will be the way its elected institutions function. Highly localized democratic practices have been a characteristic of Somali pastoralist society and balancing the centralizing forces of the state with the demand for a measure of localized political autonomy has been a challenge for all Somali governments. The creation of a decentralized democratic government was integral to the SNM’s vision for the country. Somaliland’s first district council elections in 2002 created an opportunity to establish a decentralized democracy. In this article, Suad Ibrahim examines the extent to which this has been realized, and suggests ways in which local democracy and public participation in government can be enhanced.

By Suad Ibrahim

Academy for Peace and Development


This paper begins with a brief background on political decentralization in Somaliland and how it has evolved over the last two decades. It then examines the challenges facing the process of local democracy since the 2002 district council elections and recommends how political decentralization in Somaliland can move forward. [1]


Decentralization and Local Governance in Somaliland

The experience of living under a highly centralized authoritarian rule during the regime of Mohamed Siyad Barre has generated widespread public interest in Somaliland in a decentralized system of governance more suited to the political culture of Somali pastoralists society (APD/WSP 2005). Decentralization was also a key element of the political program and constitution of the Somali National Movement (SNM) during its struggle against the dictatorial regime.[2]

On May 18, 1991, three months after the government of Somalia was overthrown, Somaliland declared its independence from the rest of Somalia. A two-year interim government headed by SNM Chairman

Abdirahman Ahmed Ali ‘Tuur’ was established. But, it never functioned because factional fighting within the SNM broke out in Burao and Berbera. Hostilities were eventually brought under control and meaningful peace was restored at the 1993 Borame peace conference where a new system of government was agreed upon (APD/ Interpeace 2006). The conference produced a National Charter which described the system of governance as a beel system, in which the power was shared along clan lines.

The Charter also identified decentralization as a key system of governance for the new administration.[3] Regions and districts were given the right to nominate their own councilors. This was later challenged by the Ministry of Interior which issued a decree stating that, if the regions and districts should not nominate their councilors within 45 days, then the Ministry would take the responsibility to nominate the local administrations officials at a request to the parliament (Apd/WSP 2005).

The Ministerial decree also defined clearly the structures of the region and district councils and their duties and responsibilities. This was passed to parliament to pass into law. However, it created debate within the House of Parliament as to what should be the nature and the form of decentralization (ibid). According to a former MP who was also a member of Central Committee of SNM, the whole issue was deliberately polarized by the Ministry of Interior in order to prevent the transfer of power to the local communities.

Although the general principles were reaffirmed by parliament,[4] amendments were made to Article 21 of the National Charter, which gave the central Government the authority to nominate Local councilors until the people were able to do so through elections (APD/WSP 2005).

Council nominations continued until the constitution was completed and passed by the parliament in 2000. The 2001 constitutional referendum then set in motion the process towards a new electoral system. This began with the formation of political organizations, followed by district council elections in 2002.

Until now, the consensus on the need for a decentralized system of local governance remains unchallenged. Many people, particularly those in the regions believe that decentralization is essential to fulfill their rights to political participation and that it enables communities to have better access to essential social services.

Somaliland’s Experience of Local Elections

In December 2002 the people of Somaliland went to the polls and exercised their right to elect their local leaders for the first time in more than 30 years. Around 300 local councilors were elected in 16 out of 23 electoral districts.[5]This was in itself a major achievement. However, the development of functional local government has become a struggle between the central and local governments.

Seven years after the local elections, the challenges of decentralization are numerous. According to earlier studies and research, these include a weak tradition of decentralized governance, a lack of clear laws and policies to guide the implementation, inexperienced councilors, and the lack of organized civic associations. Some of the major obstacles confronting the local governments and their institutions are as follows.

Administrative authority

Decentralization in theory involves the transfer of political, administrative, and financial authority to locally elected leaders. In practice in Somaliland, the local councilors have limited autonomy in decision-making. One of the major obstacles to political decentralization is the absence of a legal framework that defines the relationship between the central and local governments. The constitution of Somaliland clearly defines the political, administrative, and fiscal independence of the local governments.[6]

In addition to that, law no 23 of Regions and Districts serves as the administrative law of local governments. But the implementation of these laws is problematic at the local and central level and does not facilitate the development of a strong local government. Local government is granted only limited authority to pass local laws, regulations, and by-laws, as everything, including the by-laws, have to be approved by the Ministry of Interior.

According to the elected councilors, the government has limited their authority to the level of day-to-day activities. More often, it is the central government or the head offices of ministries in the regions that are responsible for leading the general policy of the region, implementing projects funded by central government and liaising with the other regions and districts.

Fiscal Autonomy of Local Councils Local revenue

The fiscal autonomy of the local government has been an area of major contention between the local and central governments. Law no 23 of Regions and Districts confers on local governments the authority to raise their own resources to support local services, such as health, education, security, and water. But in practice, none of these so far fall under the responsibility of the municipalities, with the exception of sanitation.

District councils have only limited authority to raise local revenues, which affects their ability to develop the fiscal capacity to provide and manage local public services. The absence of a legal framework that clearly defines tax jurisdiction between the central and local government means that the central government collects taxes which could provide local government revenue.

Many local authorities are therefore opposed to the way in which tax collection responsibilities are assigned. Some have attempted to introduce a taxation bill to correct this, but this was quickly dismissed by the central government on the grounds that it violated Law no 12 that Unified Taxation (APD/Interpeace, 2006).

The government does transfer money to all district councils in accordance with Law No 12,[7] but there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding this payment. One major problem is that it never arrives in time and when it does, it is not the amount mentioned in the law. There were also times when the central government diverts this money to other national needs, such as the elections of 2005 and the rebuilding of Sool region. This move and others have frustrated the councilors who think that the central government is not serious about the development of a strong local government.

In spite of these problems, local governments have established their own – relatively small-revenue base from, raising taxes on property tax, market fees, services fees, licenses and permits and rental income. Reforming the existing Taxation law would be helpful to the local governments as it would allow them to collect those revenues presently collected by the central government on their behalf. Many argue that this is a question of political willingness on the part of the central government, rather than a need to enact legal reforms.

Poor Revenue Management

Despite the obstacles posed by Law no 12 of Unified Tax to the growth of the local government’s tax base, other factors contribute to the lack local government revenue. Some of the main issues identified by the local councilors themselves include:

  • Lack of data: property tax is the biggest source of income for the local governments, but there is no proper assessment or existing register of the number of homes or other building, except the recent General Information System (GIS) established in Hargeisa with the help of UN-HABITAT.
  • Weak tax collection system: over the past decade the system of revenue collection has remained manual. A cash book and revenue collection register is the only financial documents available and this type of system is born to corruption and mismanagement.
  • Tax collectors: the majority of the staff recruited as tax collectors are unqualified and corrupted individuals. There are many stories told, particularly about the procedures used by the teams who move around the street markets on daily bases to collect local government taxes from the stalls.
  • The public perceptions of tax: there is a lot of public resentment about paying their taxes. This is due to a lack of trust, of information on how the money is spent, and the lack of citizen’s participation in budgetary planning and local government affairs.
  • Poverty and weak economy: this is the major problem for most of local municipalities, particularly districts in the regions. Somaliland is still recovering from the scars of war and does not have a strong economy that supports its citizens. With the high rate of unemployment, not many people can afford to pay their taxes.
  • Tax evasion: the lack of enforcement and incompetence of the local governments are also obstacles to the growth of local government revenue.

Weak Local Councilors

The local elections gave the public the chance to elect their leaders, but there is widespread dissatisfaction among the electorate about the performance of the elected councilors. This is partly attributed to the system of local elections.

In the local elections, people voted for the party, as the electoral system was based on the use of a party list. Many people saw voting for the party rather than the individual as ‘indirect voting’ and for that reason they are unable to hold the local councilors accountable for his/her actions.

The competence and the qualifications of elected councilors is also another problem. None of the local councilors had previous experience in local government work. During the run-up to the election, insufficient time was given for the public and the political Parties to select and nominate qualified and competent individuals. In addition, the Parties and the Electoral Commission ignored the selection criteria and did not properly screen nominated candidates in the run-up of the election.

The turnover of Mayors is another problem. Within the first two years of the election, 15 mayors had been changed in five major districts causing widespread public frustration. In every district, with the exception of Erigavo and Hargeysa, mayors have been changed two to three times. Personal interest combined with unclear divisions of duties between the councilors and the mayors are believed to be the reasons of the high number of impeachments of mayors.

To address the problem, the Ministry of Interior issued a decree banning the impeachment of the mayors for 18 months (APD/ Interpeace, 2006). But, a few months later the ban was lifted by the Ministry and the problems started again.

Lack of Public Participation in Local Government Affairs

The engagement of the public in local government decisions such as the annual budgeting, revenue collections, resource distributions, and land use can build trust between the local government and its citizens. It can help to improve decision-making, reduces opportunities for corruption, and builds consensus on critical community issues.

In Somaliland, however, the public is neither engaged nor aware of decisions made by the Local Council. This is partly due to the legacy of a highly centralized system of governance, a lack of understanding about their rights to participate in local government affairs, and the absence of open space for discussions and consultations.

Although they are elected by the public, the Councilors have shown little commitment to interact with their constituencies. Most people say that these Councilors are not accountable to the public, to the government or to the political parties (APD/Interpeace, 2006).

By contrast, the mayors have to answer to the demands of local councilors who threaten to impeach them if they do not address their needs. The lack of formal public participation in local government affairs is also rooted to local leaders’ disinterest in promoting it, underdeveloped civil society groups that do not reflect the composition of the community and uniformed and disorganized citizens that cannot mobilize themselves to hold their local leaders accountable.

In recent, however, years the interaction between the local councilors and the public has improved through the establishment of districts development committees, and because some of the community development issues addressed require collaboration and community contribution.

Although it is not widespread, some organized neighborhoods and communities and local NGOs do work with the local governments on specific projects. In some regions, there have been several neighborhood-driven initiatives in which the city officials and committees representing these communities have collaborated in building or repairing roads and further activities are planned to build on these successes.

Elsewhere, local governments have established ad hoc committees representing different communities and regularly consult with them about municipalities’ services. These developments are positive steps in terms of promoting public participation, but there is a need to broaden the approaches and institutionalize them. And, importantly, public participation in local government budgeting and planning has to become established practice.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The 2002 local election was Somaliland’s first opportunity to introduce meaningful decentralization. It is now widely accepted that these local elections did not fulfill the promise of decentralization because the accompanying legal and administrative reforms required establishing the proper structures, relationships, and responsibilities among central and local governments, were not put in place.

A high degree of control is still being exercised by the central government over local governments. Overcoming these challenges will require comprehensive legal and administrative reforms and long-term capacity building for the local government staff to ensure that they are more transparent, accountable, and responsive to those who elected them.

Elements of the reforms that are needed include developing a national policy on decentralization, a review of the law on regions and districts, and of secondary laws. It is also essential to expand local revenue-generating capacity. This similarly requires comprehensive legal reform that clearly defines the local government tax base and the authority to levy tax, as well as building the capacity of local municipalities for the collection of local revenue and raising public awareness of the importance of taxation and what it can do for their respective communities.

Local government financial systems also need to be improved. This requires a thorough review of local government financial policies and systems, improved financial control mechanisms, and long-term training for local government staff in financial management. Finally, public participation can be enhanced by taking steps to institutionalize it, by establishing organized structures such as specialized committees, and through civic education.


[1] This paper is taken from a report of APD/Interpeace’s work which will be published in the near future.

[2] It mentioned in the constitution of SNM as well as its political program

[3] Article 21 of the National Charter underlines the importance of a decentralized system of governance.

[4] The previous parliament reaffirmed the general principals of decentralization in the constitution.

[5] No elections took place in 7 districts which were awaiting approval by parliament.

[6] Please refer to Arts 110,111 and 112 of the Somaliland constitution

[7] The money is called a local government subsidy and the amount allocated for the local governments in Somaliland amounts to $ 2 million per year (APDxxxxx)

About the author

Suad Ibrahim AbdiSuad Ibrahim Abdi is a senior researcher with the Academy for Peace and Development where she has worked since 1997. She is a specialist in participatory research with a particular focus on women empowerment issues and local government in Somaliland. She has been the Chair of the Board of Directors of NAGAAD and now is an active member of the Independent Scholars Group. She holds a law degree.

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