Since 2002, people in Somaliland have held a succession of elections that have been conducted peacefully and have been judged by international and domestic observers as generally ‘free and fair’. Much credit for the success of the elections must go to the National Electoral Commission, the body charged with organizing and overseeing the conduct of the elections. In this article, Shukri Haji Bandere, a Commissioner in Somaliland’s first Electoral Commission, describes some of the challenges of managing the elections and identifies some lessons that need to be absorbed for the conduct of future elections.
By Shukri Haji Bandere
The Somaliland National Electoral Commission (NEC) is the body charged with the organization of Somaliland elections. According to the Electoral Law No20/2001 (article II), the Commission consists of seven members three of which are to be nominated by the President of the Republic of Somaliland, two by the House of Elders, and the remaining two nominated by the political parties.
All the nominations are also affirmed by parliament. The objective of the NEC is to manage the conduct of free and fair elections. Its statutory duty is to organize and manage all activities related to the election of district councils, the president and the parliament. The main functions of the NEC are to:
- Undertake the registration of voters;
- Set the dates of elections and set the number and the locations of polling stations;
- Appoint the staff of the central NEC office and those of the regional, district offices and polling stations;
- Conduct and oversee the elections;
- Conduct research into voting and elections.
This paper is derived from a meeting of members of the first NEC who oversaw the running of the district, presidential and parliamentary elections in Somaliland between 2002 and 2005. The meeting was convened to elicit lessons from their experience of planning and organizing elections in Somaliland, with a particular emphasis on voter operations.
Operational Plan and Budget
According to the former Commissioners of the first NEC, their first task was to draft a plan of operations in order to determine the time span for the election process and the resources required. After establishing these facts an operational budget was prepared. With this budget, the next step was to identify what financial resources could be obtained from the government and from external donors.
According to the Commissioners, obtaining external assistance for the election budget was time-consuming, because of the need to develop proposals and the lengthy communications between the NEC and donors.
Once the operational and financial analysis was done, detailed plans with strict timelines were drawn up for the implementation of activities. The team used to discuss and brainstorm what needed to be done each day and activities were defined, assigned, and executed accordingly. Decisions were never easy to make, but there was a good team spirit, and decisions were usually made by consensus.
In setting timelines for the implementation of activities, various factors were considered. For instance, if drought affected certain geographical areas or communities leading to mass migration, then the timing of NEC activities would be adjusted. Similarly, hot weather in coastal areas would affect the communities and the NEC’s work. Such factors needed to be kept in mind while developing operational plans.
Election budgets (especially external assistance) were rarely delivered on time due to the need to develop proposals and respond to the tedious and time-consuming comments from donors. Likewise, the Somaliland government often did not approve the budgets proposed by NEC, but used to cut them. These constraints affected the efficiency and quality of their work and the election timelines. For future elections, it is important to ensure the following:
- Donors have to be conscious of the importance of resourcing the budget on time, because the activity plans and timelines cannot be observed if the required financial resources are not in place.
- To avoid underfunding, the Somaliland government, and especially the Ministry of Finance, must commit adequate resources for election activities.
Various stakeholders were involved in election security: the Police Commander, the Ministry of Interior, and the Commander of the armed forces. In collaboration with these stakeholders, the NEC established a detailed security plan for the elections. This included the presence of members of the police force in all NEC offices around the country as well as at the polling stations.
They were responsible for ensuring that electoral materials were delivered in a safe and timely manner to all polling stations throughout the country and that there was a police presence during the receipt, storage and delivery of electoral materials. They also provided security escorts for international observers. These tasks proved to be huge and complex and required meticulous planning with the security forces.
From experience, the Commissioners learned that the provision of security for elections is a huge task that requires tremendous effort. The initial number of security forces provided in the elections was insufficient and additional reinforcements were needed. Adequate risk management plans were not in place for areas that needed the special attention of security forces and funds allocated for security personnel were insufficient. In order to avoid these problems in the future, the following practical suggestions are made:
- Boundaries must be delineated before the elections, especially in areas disputed by clans as well as those districts disputed by Somaliland and Puntland. These areas need security management plans. If delineation is not done before the elections, it may be impossible to hold elections in those areas. In the parliamentary elections, polling in three districts was suspended because of security concerns.
- The numbers of security personnel must be increased in order for them to be more effective and meet expectations.
- Funds allocated for security forces must be provided on time.
- Vehicle movement during Election Day should be strictly controlled. But the arrangements for this must be prepared in advance because none of the parties adhere to the rule.
- It is important that presiding NEC officers should work closely with the security forces.
Staff Recruitment and Training
The first NEC hired thousands of election staff who were a crucial factor in the success of elections. The NEC organized and contracted the universities of Hargeysa, Amoud and Buroa and local NGOs to deliver a comprehensive training program for these staff, at the region and district offices as well as polling stations staff. The regional and district trainings were conducted in Hargeysa, Berbera, Erigavo and Borame, while trainings of staff from Togdheer and Sool regions were carried out in Burco. In addition, the political parties, candidates, local observers, and the police forces were also given training and the mayors and governors were sensitized about the importance of ensuring security for the elections. The NEC provided the training.
Overall, the level of competency of election staff was found to be satisfactory, especially as the entire electoral process was new to the country. Due to the difficulties in examining and checking the background of all election staff, there were tangible problems encountered, such as last-minute absenteeism and the disappearance of some staff on Election Day.
Furthermore, the recruitment process turned out to be gender insensitive leading to low female involvement in the process. Over the past three elections, the best election staff proved to be university students. To learn from past experience and ensure that potential setbacks are avoided, the following lessons should be considered:
- Since sufficient and qualified election staff is the backbone of voting operations, adequate time and resources should be allocated for their recruitment and training. In addition to this, the provisions for staff incentives, especially at the polling stations, should be revised since it is too low.
- On staff recruitment, priority should be given to those already trained for previous elections and with a good track record. Some of them did a very good job and having the service of those individuals will definitely enhance the management of elections.
- In order for the training to be fresh in the minds of polling stations staff, it should be conducted just before the election. That will also restrict the hiring of new people with limited experience.
- Swapping staff between regions, as done during the 2003 presidential elections, was very helpful, although it is time-consuming and costly and requires additional logistics.
Election Equipment and Materials
The materials and equipment required for an election generally fall into two categories: sensitive and nonsensitive materials. The non-sensitive materials, which include stationeries, were procured locally through competitive bidding by local contractors. The sensitive materials, which include ink, ballot papers and ballot boxes, were purchased from abroad. Unlike non-sensitive election materials, the procurement of the sensitive materials required much thought.
The planning, design, acquisition, and distribution of sensitive election materials and equipment proved to be a major focus of the first NEC. In procuring the equipment, the NEC had to consider:
- Whether they were appropriate for the Somaliland environment;
- Whether they met the security and transparency standards required ;
- Whether they were cost-effective;
- Whether they were easy to use and understood by voters.
The NEC has experienced several challenges in relation to the election materials. Local suppliers had difficulty in understanding the specifications and usually failed to deliver materials on time. Local suppliers were not familiar with the bidding process which created problems for the Commission as local suppliers claimed they lost money and demanded extra money.
Designing ballot papers was time-consuming because of the need to verify candidates and party symbols. At the same time, voter education about the ballot papers was limited. Therefore, in order to avoid similar challenges in the future, the following issues should be considered:
- Clear specifications (such as the required size, color, and in-built security features etc.) must be given to international suppliers. Constant checking should be made of printed materials, such as summary forms and tallying books. In addition, enough time should be allocated for proofreading of ballot paper samples.
- Separate warehouses must be prepared for the sensitive and non-sensitive equipment. Although both require attention from the NEC, sensitive materials require more.
- Comprehensive safety and control guidelines must be prepared for warehouses and NEC staff and security personnel must be adequately trained on such guidelines. The safety guidelines must be strictly adhered to by all relevant parties and any violations must be accounted for.
- The planning, design, acquisition, and distribution of sensitive election materials must be given serious attention. In order to avoid any unplanned setbacks to the electoral process, all materials (sensitive and non-sensitive) must be procured well before election date. Sensitive materials should be in place at least three weeks before the scheduled election.
Logistics and Transportation
Logistics planning is a critical role of the NEC. The aim is to ensure that equipment, staff, and communications are all in place in time for the Election Day. Logistics planning has to be both flexible and thorough and consider all possible contingency arrangements. Logistics involves a juggling between an immovable polling day, on one side, and delivery constraints from suppliers on the other.
Managing election logistics and transportation was an enormous task which had many constraints and challenges. The main challenges were to do with warehouse operations and transportation. The absence of good local transportation companies, inadequate planning for inaccessible districts, poor communication facilities and poor road infrastructure were the main challenges the NEC faced during first three elections. The following issues should be given special attention in order to minimize logistics problems in the future:
- The use of old vehicles or vehicles that are not in good condition for transporting election materials and equipments should be avoided. Such vehicles break down and fail to make deliveries as planned and therefore undermine logistical operations.
- Transport should be organized in convoys and be escorted. This is important because in previous elections, the NEC found that when a vehicle broke down, it took some time before the election authorities became aware of it. It is equally important to have a contingency plan in place.
- In planning logistical operations, special attention must be given to certain inaccessible polling stations, such as on the Makhir coast. In addition, vehicles transporting materials to polling stations in coastal areas must be carefully and appropriately selected.
The focus of all the planning, recruitment, training, materials production and equipment acquisition, system testing, and the other preparatory activities is to ensure that operations on voting day run effectively. No matter how good the planning and the pre-testing efforts are, efficient implementation on polling day is critical to the success of the election.
In the days leading up to the polling day, and on the morning of the day itself, the final preparations are put into place. Wherever happens, on the night before the election, the polling stations and the following personnel should be in a state of total readiness: NEC employees, party agents, local observers, police officers, subordinate staff and the Integrity Watch Committee members.
The setup, level of security and quality of polling stations as well as the competence and integrity of the station staff who are managing them are a key factor in the success or failure of the entire election processes. If, at the end of the day, things run smoothly at the polling stations, then the whole election process will be in good health.
On the other hand, if the opposite is the case, it means the whole process is tainted. In the first elections, the NEC encountered numerous constraints and conflicts in relation to the management of polling stations. In order to improve on this for future elections, the following steps must be considered:
- Necessary preparations must be made well in advance. Polling stations should meet the correct standard in terms of polling station capacity, location and accessibility, and facilities as required by the electoral law.
- The polling stations staff have to ensure that voters strictly follow voting procedures. This can only be realized if tremendous efforts are made in voter education before elections. Voters must be educated on the consequences of violating voting procedures.
- The environment around the polling stations must be calm in order to avoid distracting of voters and election staff. The physical security of the polling premises and election materials as well as the personal security of voters and staff must be ensured.
- The integrity of voting must be maintained and election-related fraud must be prevented. For example, the illegal extension of polling time (open-ended voting) must be avoided. This requires commitment from NEC staff on the ground and security forces. From past experience, it is important that individuals assigned as polling station manager demonstrate integrity and credibility in relation to his or her duties.
Counting the Votes
Vote counting is one of the most crucial stages in the election process. Failure to complete the count and transmit results in a quick, transparent, and accurate manner can jeopardize public confidence in the elections and will directly affect whether candidates and political parties accept the final results. Frequently, the importance of detailed planning, training, and organization of counting is overlooked or considered to be of secondary importance.
The process of counting votes needs accuracy, speed and security in order to maintain public confidence in the process. In past elections, many challenges emerged in relation to counting. In fact, the most serious challenges to the elections occurred when party agents, the polling station manager and the secretary had complete the tallying. To learn from past experience and ensure this last and crucial stage of election process passes peacefully, the following issues should be addressed:
- The counting process should be given serious attention by relevant stakeholders, especially party agents. This is necessary because the electoral law clearly demands that all party agents and heads of polling stations sign their endorsement of the final results. In some polling stations, the NEC found that one or two party agents deliberately left the station before signing the results and thereby sabotaged the process.
- The national electoral law also demands that if any party agent declines to sign the final result, he or she must fill in a complaint form at the polling station, a rule ignored in the past by parties and which led the cancellation of some boxes. If a party agent does have complaints regarding the final count, he/she must write a complaint immediately and sign it. In doing so, he/she complies with the law and the court settles the dispute. If that does not happen, the procedure of having the signatures of all party agents should be revised to avoid future abuse.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Somaliland is a new nation and new to the process of democratization, including the organization and management of democratic elections. Despite technical and financial constraints, the country has managed to set up government institutions, write its laws and constitution and hold a referendum and three successful and credible elections since 2002. These were held without any significant security incidents.
This does not mean things were perfect or everything went as planned. In fact, according to former election Commissioners, there were numerous challenges and constraints. As explained, the challenges were enormous and had technical, logistical and resources dimensions, from which important lessons can be drawn. According to first Commissioners, attention needs to be given to the following issues in relation to upcoming elections:
- Institutionalization of NEC: The organizational capacity of the Commission as an institution must be strengthened in order to make it more effective, viable and independent. To achieve this, comprehensive internal rules and regulations must be established and maintained. The regular and technical employees of the Commission have to be empowered as they are the permanent and future resources of the institution. Building an electoral culture within NEC is critical. This essentially means making everybody aware of the importance of elections within the general context of institution-building and the promotion of democracy, so that everybody acts to defend the electoral process whenever it is threatened.
- Political parties: Similarly, the national political parties need to be developed institutionally. Once the legal framework is developed and adhered to there is no doubt that the entire election process of the country, including voter operations, will improve. In turn this will contribute strengthen the democratization of Somaliland.
- Trust building: Building trust among major actors is key to the success of the elections. The government, political parties, and all other stakeholders must have confidence in the role and work of the Commission and recognize its authority.
- Neutrality: Once relevant players (government as well as political parties) have trust in NEC and deal with it as a neutral, independent institution, the work of the Commission will be much easier.
- Staff recruitment: Priority should be given to those people already trained for previous elections and who have a good track record. Having the service of those individuals will definitely enhance the proper management of elections.
- Election security: Delineation of boundaries and increased presence of security forces are the key for ensuring election security and should be given top priority. In past elections, the elections were canceled in three districts because of clan disputes and because there was no electoral boundary delineations done in advance.
- Stakeholder relations: Throughout the election process, the NEC should maintain a close working relationship with all relevant stakeholders, including the government and political parties. Issues related to security, budget, and delineation of borders as well as addressing complaints need to be coordinated with the government.
- Electoral law: From experience, the former Commissioners have identified several deficiencies in the electoral laws. These must be immediately addressed and the different electoral laws need to be harmonized.
- Moral authority: The political parties and government both do things that can damage the election process. The commission must have the moral authority to challenge the actions and behaviors of the political parties and the government that may undermine the election process. The NEC cannot be indifferent to any action that may harm the public trust and confidence in the elections.
 Source: ACE project – Administration and cost of elections, voting operations index and Bridge project/Building Resources in Democracy, Governance and Elections.
 source: Bridge project, building resources in democracy, governance and elections
About the author
Shukri Haji Ismail Bandere, is the Director of the NGO Candlelight since it was founded in 1995. She served as an Election Commissioner in Somaliland 2001-2007, is an active member of the Somaliland Independent Scholars Group and other civic organizations such as NAGAAD. She is trained in the midwifery profession and majored in Business/Hotel Management.
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