International politics and public opinion aside, Somalilanders are still bound by an overriding common aspiration: the quest for an internationally recognized statehood. By Chalachew Tadesse
News of democracy and of free and credible elections is a rarity from the troubled Horn of Africa region. There is an unlikely exception however: the self-proclaimed de facto independent republic of Somaliland. On November 13th, citizens of Somaliland quietly elected their fifth president in a free, fair, credible, and peaceful election that was more than ever before closely watched by the international community. Subsequently, the presidential candidate of the ruling party Kulmiye Party, Muse Bihi Abdi, was declared winner by the independent electoral body, garnering fifty-five percent of the votes.
The de facto republic of Somaliland unilaterally broke away from Somalia when the latter descended into chaos in 1991. Since then, the parent state of Somalia is wrestling with unending brutal civil war, notably with among rival clan-based warlords and since 2007 al-Qaeda linked terrorist insurgency al Shabaab. Even amid massive international backing, Somalia is still a failed state. In a presidential election held earlier this year, Somalis, unlike Somalilanders, were denied a full franchise of “one man, one vote”. A few drawbacks aside, Somaliland, on the other hand, enjoys a functioning democratic hybrid system that combines modernity and tradition, whereby clans play a limited role in politics, notably through the upper house Guurti. In Somalia, by contrast, clan politics entirely supersede the fundamental tenets of democratic suffrage.
Somaliland has seen a peculiar trajectory, at least since the adoption of a democratic constitution in 2001. Many odds have stood on its path however. First and foremost, no country has officially recognized Somaliland, yet it meets all the requirements of statehood, saves the controversial issue of international recognition.
Secondly, Somaliland is situated in the Horn of Africa. Here, Sudan is a de facto military dictatorship. Uganda, Djibouti and Ethiopia are de facto one-party authoritarian countries. Eritrea– “Africa’s North Korea- is formally a personalized dictatorship. Kenya’s relatively vibrant democracy is also heavily tainted by state impunity and grave allegations of vote-rigging including the flawed poll of last August. Somalia and South Sudan are literally failed states. In this region, therefore free and credible election is a luxury so to speak. In contrast, Somaliland’s model of an enviable peaceful and democratic system is something that the neighborhood should somehow emulate.
Somaliland’s latest presidential election has also been characterized by some interesting features. Normally, the constitution allows presidents to run for two five-year terms. Nevertheless, the outgoing president opted not to seek a second term, clearing the way for a new presidential candidate. A courageous step, often unheard of in most of Africa, where incumbents often go for a constitutional amendment to scrap term and age limits. Unusually, the president also issued a decree, ordering the state media to give equal access to all contestants. Besides, he banned government officials from using state resources for election campaigns.
Holding its first-ever presidential live, televised debates, Somaliland has also proved it is far ahead of many African countries. Even in Kenya, this wasn’t possible during the bungled presidential election of last August. Contending parties also had confidence in the independence and efficacy of the national electoral body and in the electoral process, it put in place. This is in sharp contrast with most African countries where the issue of independence of election management bodies is a bone of contention, often resulting in disputed election results and post-electoral violence.
Moreover, Somaliland stunned the world by using a high-tech iris-scan biometric voting system, the first of its kind in Africa. Even many Western democracies, including the UK, use non-electronic manual methods. The extraordinary move was taken by Somaliland’s authorities to ensure a credible and transparent poll that meets international standards. This decision must be seen in light of serious allegations of massive vote-rigging that are often the hallmarks of elections in the continent. It is these allegations that trigger of post-election violence in many countries. Electronic technology can’t be entirely relied upon, however; undue human interference can still produce “computer leaders.”
Quite interestingly a team of international monitors, the Election Observation Mission (EOM) funded by the European Union and the UK, also observed the presidential poll. Like previous elections, the monitors lauded the integrity of the election. Apart from being a dominant part of their national political culture Somalilanders also see democratic elections as a means to an end. That is to say that they have a general consensus that free, credible and peaceful elections are the pathway to win the case for international recognition.
It is true that democratic elections aren’t limited, however, to free and competitive elections and to government turnover. The regularity of elections is also a key prerequisite for a sustained electoral democracy. In this respect, Somaliland has repeatedly failed. Against the wishes of the electorate, the latest poll was held after the parliament repeatedly postponed it for two years, citing internal instability and a crippling famine. Besides, Somaliland has seen no parliamentary election since the 2005 general election, despite the constitutional five-year term. Since 1997, the Guurti also hasn’t been either elected or replaced. The other setback is that Somaliland failed to hold parliamentary and presidential elections simultaneously, even this year, presumably due to lack of technical capacity. Be that as it may, what is more, worrying is the further postponement of the next parliamentary elections to April 2019.
Even in human rights record, comparatively, Somaliland fares better than most of the region. Freedom House labeled the de facto republic as “partly free,” including its press freedom. True, Somaliland is no heaven for journalists. In 2015 alone, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the authorities detained 19 journalists. By and large, the media also isn’t critical. Amid criticisms the authorities also shut down social media during the past election week, citing fears of instability. Somaliland’s authorities, however, argue that this state of affairs must be judged against the de facto republic’s pervasive fear of external interference, notably from Somalia, against its unrecognized independence.
For close to three decades, a three-party competitive multiparty democracy and rule of law, cemented by a consecutive smooth transition of power from one party to another, has been the hallmark of Somaliland’s unique journey. To be sure, the republic’s legitimate social contract between the government and citizens has come of age.
Inarguably, Somaliland can now be labeled as a flourishing oasis of a vibrant moderate Muslim democracy, in the volatile Horn of Africa in particular and most of the continent of Africa in general. To quote the sympathetic The Economist, the de facto republic is “east Africa’s strongest democracy.” What can be made of a sustained democracy with a total of six free elections of which three are presidential polls? Fairly enough, the de facto state has also undoubtedly proved to be a “peaceful island in a turbulent sea.”
Obviously, this stark reality of Somaliland poses a great moral dilemma to the civilized world that denied it due to sovereign statehood recognition. When it comes to the birth of new states, the African Union and United Nations always involve the norm of upholding the sanctity of colonial borders enshrined in their Charters. The former’s fear is particularly more evident: the fear of opening of Pandora’s Box in Africa.
Here lies the main paradox, however. Somaliland had the experience of a recognized sovereign statehood, albeit briefly when it got independence from Great Britain in 1960 before its voluntary unification with the former Italian colony of Somalia. For Somalilanders, the 1991 unilateral secession was, therefore, nothing more than a legal and willful divorce. Isn’t this a compelling legal basis for granting Somaliland international recognition? Indeed, it is. Single-handedly, I think, Somaliland has won the moral and legal battle for international justice. Sadly, however, it is a victim of double standards, as the issue of granting recognition is by and large a political act rather than a legal one based on international law.
Perhaps without the consent of the parent and the claimant state of Somalia, Somaliland’s hope for international justice is generally slim. Since the political science adage “small is beautiful” doesn’t have much traction in the contemporary world. Somaliland is likely to remain in a deep conundrum.
In recent times, Western powers have been exerting pressure on Somaliland to join the federal state of Somalia, but the moral basis of this is questionable when it is weighed against the claimant state’s failed state status. As it stands now, Somalia’s federal arrangement has also little incentive to win the hearts of Somalilanders, who are deeply wary of reunification. Would it, therefore, be morally admissible to coerce a healthy child living independently to reunite with a mother plagued by contagious diseases? As it stands now, Somalia’s federal arrangement has also little incentive to win the hearts of Somalilanders, who are deeply wary of reunification. It must also be noted that reunification is reminiscent of the long bitter war Somalilanders fought against the Somali central government until 1991.
International politics and public opinion aside, Somalilanders are still bound by an overriding common aspiration: the quest for an internationally recognized statehood. In the past few years, the fact that the remarkable, untold, full story of Somaliland has begun to unravel in the international media also boosts the optimism of Somalilanders.
With this background, will the international community continue to turn deaf ear, holding the de facto state in the dark permanently? Or will one country take a courageous step in recognizing its sovereign statehood? Time will tell.
Chalachew Tadesse is an Ethiopian journalist and columnist. He has previously worked as a full-time journalist for The Reporter and The Sub-Saharan Informer English newspapers. He was also a columnist for the much-acclaimed Fact magazine before the Ethiopian regime closed it in October 2014. A political science student by training, he works as a university lecturer and is known for his sociopolitical commentaries on the Ethiopian private press.