The process of democratization requires the full participation and commitment of people from all walks of society. In this article, Mohamed Fadal reflects on the history of elections in the Somali region, starting from the first elections in the newly independent Somalia. One of the differences he highlights between the elections in Somalia in the 1960s and the series of elections in Somaliland since 2002, is that the particular democratic model emerging in Somaliland is one that has not been imposed from outside but has been nurtured by the people in Somaliland. This, he believes provides grounds for optimism for the future of democracy in Somaliland.

By Dr. Mohamed Osman Fadal

Director of SORADI

A Brief History of Somali Elections

Elections are the clearest sign of Somaliland’s advancing democratization. Holding, peacefully, a series of elections is a testament to the maturing political culture of people in Somaliland. Election campaigns often involve personal attacks on otherwise respected people that in ordinary situations would have been considered as slander could cause conflict between clans or demands for compensations to avoid retaliation. In Somaliland people are becoming more tolerant about what is considered to be part of the game.


The elections in Somalia in the 1960s were chaotic, violent and lacked any sense of the rules of the game as we know them today in Somaliland. Usually, they were organized and run by the government of the day and the opposition often suffered heavy-handed treatment from both the judiciary and the security forces. It was a kind of law of the jungle. That was why in the aftermath of elections, there was usually an air of bitterness in many sectors of society and a feeling that they were usurped of their rightful seats. These elections often left a legacy of conflict between clans, sometimes resulting in bloodshed or lingering animosities among communities, that otherwise had no problem living together side by side for centuries.

Some of the difficulties encountered with these elections were: direct fraud, where the elections are rigged through ballot stuffing, multiple voting, and the intimidation of party supporters, usually by the ruling party. Electoral laws were manipulated in favor of the ruling party, by adjusting district boundaries in its favor or altering the locations of polling stations. District Commissioners and the judges were invariably co-opted to deny the registration of political parties and credible opponents and to facilitate fraudulent acts during the polling day, the count and the declaration of results.

Another feature of those early elections is that the constituencies were not meaningfully involved in the selection of the candidates and so did not feel represented by the outcome of the elections. The voting system used was a combination of a party list and first–past–the–post winner-takes-all majority. The ruling party and incumbent government to manipulated the party list in their favor and the winner-takes-all was naturally their system of choice. For instance in Burco in 1968 all the seats were taken by Somali Youth League (SYL) ruling party. In Togdheer, the incumbent Prime Minister ensured the parliamentary seats of a group of candidates who were hand-picked by him without the consent of the constituency they were purported to represent. Such rampant abuse of power by the government and the consequent disillusionment of the public with the political system enabled the cunning military chief Siyad Barre to take power in a bloodless coup in 1969 without any resistance.

The leadership elections within the Somali National Movement (SNM) when it was fighting an insurgency against the Siyad Barre regime moved away from the predatory nature of elections that people had experienced to a more locally grounded system. Despite the fact that the SNM was heavily influenced by the socialist model of party structures predominant at the time in the Horn of Africa region, and despite the rudimentary nature of the movement, its leadership was democratically elected. The elections introduced a high level of accountability in the SNM leadership, to both the rank and file of the organization and to its general constituency. Unlike other Somali armed movements that later emerged and unlike the three regional governments, the SNM democratically changed its leadership at least three times in ten years. It was here where the hybridization of Somali tradition and modern political practices was incubated. The formalized role of elders in Somaliland’s post-war government as the Guurti, or House of Elders, was patented by the SNM.

In the Somali society, the notion of representation is an ad hoc and event-based concept, whereby a group selects some capable people among themselves to represent them in a meeting or to negotiate their interests with other groups. It is not the norm for a member of the group to campaign to be selected for such missions; individuals are usually appointed by elders ensuring that each subgroup is represented. There are also no hard and fast rules of accountability. Representation is based on trust, giving leeway for the trusted emissaries to perform their duty. It is not expected that the group will scrutinize and evaluate the performance of their representatives, but rather that they will automatically accept the outcome of their work. More significantly there is no expectation of individual remuneration for the job to be done, rather it is conceived as a duty with general expenses to operate sometimes, but not always, furnished.

Such a culture, while still having some influence, is changing because of the way in which representation is organized in modern state institutions. The formation of the Somaliland state is transforming the concept and culture of representation. Elections are becoming the norm by which a person is chosen to perform official functions, especially in the higher offices of the state. The peace conferences in Burco (1991), Borame (1993) and Hargeysa (1997)[1] established a way of combining the traditional practice of choosing a representative with the modern method of elections. In the Burco Conference, the election procedures were rudimentary. The subsequent two conferences raised the standard of the election procedures and had a far-reaching impact on the practice and idea of representation in Somaliland society. The delegates were chosen in a more structured manner, and debates were conducted more formally than was the case in the previous conference. Proceedings were recorded and resolutions meticulously worked out. In the Hargeysa Conference, the procedure to elect one of three competing candidates was done more orderly and transparently and hence did not result in a controversy, as happened in the 1993 Borame Conference. Therefore conferences were powerful learning experiences for the Somaliland people.

In the conferences, the skills of campaigning improved and election procedures were progressively formalized. Candidates campaigned to represent different clans, while the Shir-Guddoon (chairing committee of six distinguished elders) acted as a de facto ‘Electoral Commission’. The clan factor was omnipresent in all these conference elections and clans are not known to concede without a fight. In all these conferences, the traditional methods of negotiating a deal behind the scenes often overshadowed the modern practice of elections that took place in the conference halls. Yet, despite the shortcomings, the highest political office was filled through an election. There was no public vote and there were no political parties at the time, but delegates voted with a show of hands to elect a president and a vice-president from several candidates each running as an independent.

The Constitutional Era: tipping the balance towards the modern systems of elections

Although Somaliland society has a strong tradition of consultative and collective decision-making, especially through the shir (a meeting of elders), the method of selecting delegates to these important meetings has never been codified. The standard approach is to include representation from as many of the sub-clans as possible, which becomes difficult when the number of delegates is limited. This is further complicated by the fact that delegates may subsequently gain, financially or through employment from the engagement, which raises the level of interest and competition for membership, especially in recent times when state power sharing is involved.

The same was true in the clan power-sharing system of government that emerged in 1991 when the membership of the two of Houses of Elders and Representatives were first selected. The Guurti presidium transformed itself into an approval committee for screening parliamentary delegates, which did not go down well with the powerful leadership of many clans who wanted to assert their right to choose members of their own clan to represent them in the legislature. They did not look for approval of their choices from a group who, in their eyes, came from a competitor clan. The traditional system is not designed to accommodate the organizational needs of a state, but rather that of a clan and its relationship with other clans. Such contradictions would have reached a critical level and frustrated the evolving system of governance if the shift towards the constitutional-based government in Somaliland had not occurred.

The process of drafting of the constitution was itself a positive learning experience and an important contribution to Somaliland’s growing political maturity. At one point the two highest organs of the state each drafted their own version of the constitution; the Presidency drafted a presidential-style constitution and the House of Representatives a parliamentary-style one. A compromise draft constitution was produced from these competing drafts at the Hargeysa National Conference of 1997. However, the final version which was adopted by an overwhelming majority in a national referendum in May 2001 ended up giving the President sweeping powers and relegated the House of Representatives to the third position in terms of the powers of legislation.

The passing of the constitution provided the legal framework for the democratization of Somaliland’s political system and established the route by which the traditional institutions that had dominated the political developments in Somaliland thus far gave way to the formation of an array of modern institutions to accommodate the unfolding state-building process. The passing of Law No 14/2000, the Regulation of Political Associations and Parties Law,[2] was a landmark development signifying the political maturity of Somaliland. This law typically illustrates how Somaliland society and government have not merely adopted international political structures, as was the case was in the early 1960s, but are taking ownership of it and adapting it to their own needs and visions. This Law, for example, provides for the democratic practice of free political association, but to avoid the past experience where clan fragmentation reproduced itself in the modern political party system, Constitutional Article 9/2 limits the number of national political parties to three. However, that provision can be construed as limiting people’s freedom of association, as granted by constitutional Article 23/3. Hence there is a growing constituency that views it as incompatible with the current level of political maturity demonstrated by people in Somaliland and demands its reform.

The establishment in 2001 of the Committee for the Registration of Political Associations and Approval of Political Parties opened the gates for the formation of political associations. Over a dozen registered with the Committee and formed branches in different regions and districts of the country. This was not an easy transition, because there were various political tendencies among the public, some of whom favored the continued primacy of traditional institutions for Somaliland’s political development. There were also SNM veterans who felt that the SNM was the mother party that needed no registration. However, the tide was turning against those that stood in the way of democratization and political plurality. Deadlines to conclude the registration passed and extensions were made to accommodate dissenting voices, but in the end the national energy turned to follow the unfolding constitutional path.

A regime of Electoral Laws was introduced to facilitate the elections. The first law introduced in 2001 (Law #20/2000) was composed of 66 Articles, which set the tone for the conduct of democratic elections in Somaliland. It specifically established the rules and regulations for the election of Local Councils and the offices of the President and Vice-President. The House of Representatives Election Law (Law No 20-2/2005) further consolidated the democratization process by facilitating the first popularly elected parliament in Somaliland. The House Elders’ election/selection law is still pending.

Furthermore, the setting up of an independent National Electoral Commission (NEC) expanded the institutional base of the unfolding democratization process. It is worth acknowledging here, that the collective decision-making culture of Somali people had a clear influence in the modality for nominating the membership of the NEC. Most of the key political actors have a say in it: the President nominates three members, the House of Elders nominates two, the opposition political parties each nominate one member, and the House of Representatives has the final approval of each member. This method may look cumbersome, but it accommodates different clan and political group interests and hence enhances the legitimacy of the National Electoral Commission and its independence. This does mean that it is difficult to expel one member of the Commission or to disband it all together before its term ends. However, the precedent was set in November 2010 when strong public action and responsible actors forced the sitting NEC to disband because of its alleged corruption and incompetence. This demonstrated how, despite their clan-based divisions, the Somaliland people are prepared to hold public office holders to account, to safeguard their hard-won democratic gains and state-building achievements. In the same spirit, the Law governing NEC recruitment has also been amended to make it more effective and relevant to the ongoing democratization process.[3]

The First Elections

The Somaliland people went through three high-profile elections within a four-year period (2002-2005). The first election process combined the establishment of District Councils in the six regions of the Republic and the formation of national political parties. Both endeavors involved intense competition among the candidates and among the six political associations who fought the elections. The objectives were fully achieved in that first election – District Councils were established and three national political parties were certified.

The second election in April 2002 for offices of the President and Vice-President produced one of the greatest political challenges Somaliland has faced. The election went smoothly and peacefully. However, with the candidates of UDUB and KULMIYE separated by a narrow margin of 80 votes, Somaliland was put on the spot. Many observers thought that the Somaliland state was too fragile to face such a challenge. Again the Somaliland people demonstrated their resilience and capacity for conflict resolution. The backgrounds of the two candidates were also significant. Somaliland is a young nation and therefore a person’s role in the struggle for independence is respected. The fact that the people accepted the presidential candidate who has no liberation credentials against a long-term SNM leader further attested to the political maturity of the Somaliland people. The election of the House of Representatives in September 2005 was a landmark event boosting the confidence of the Somaliland people in the democratic culture. First, a compromise law was adopted to overcome the impasse on the allocation of a number of parliamentary seats to each region, which had arisen in the absence of a census or voter registration. When Somalilanders are negotiating such issues, the traditional and the modern cultures ethos clash. The clan interest comes to the fore and allocating numbers to different groups becomes problematic. In the intricate negotiation process, the key actors had to marry two formulas together: the clan and sub-sub-clan constituency interests with the modern national institutional laws and regulations.

The Second Cycle of Elections and the Consolidation of Democratic Achievements

In Somaliland, the realization is slowly but firmly sinking in that building a democratic society is not a goal to be achieved with a few successful of elections, but rather is a work in progress. It might have been easy to start democratic institutions from scratch, but nurturing them to ensure their effectiveness and internal cooperation and to operate in the spirit of the constitution and democratic principles is becoming a challenging experience. In the last few years the Executive branch, the House of Elders, the House of Representatives, and the Judiciary, have acted as standalone institutions with no interest to work together and in disregard of the constitutional spirit from which they all draw their mandate.

The way their roles are generally perceived by the citizens is for the House of Representatives to produce laws and to oversee the way the Executive is running the country; the House of Elders is expected to play a less politically charged, back-seat role to accommodate the tradition and to uphold the peace and play the role of mediator in government affairs; the Executive is mandated to run the affairs of the Government, but needs to work closely with all other three branches. The Judiciary need to play a proactive role in the democratization process, and should not create a gap for other non-mandated actors to do the job it is mandated for. For instance, the mediation roles played by civil society and even the international community during periods of political crisis is seen as a consequence of the Judiciary neglecting its national responsibility to lead in mediating the legislature and in interpreting and upholding the Constitution.

The Role of the Civil Society

Civil society in the context of Somaliland can be defined as the non-state, privately organized social groups, which include formally structured NGO, umbrellas, academic and research institutions. In addition, there is also a wider community of civic activists, which organizes itself in response to critical events, so as to mediate in political crisis, or to fundraise for public projects.

Civil society political activism in Somaliland swells and ebbs, depending, at least in recent years, on the tolerance levels of the incumbent government and the leeway it is prepared to give to civil society. Government cracking down on the human rights organization – Shuronet in 2007 – signaled a period of tense relations between the authorities and organized civil society in Somaliland. However, since early 2009, civil society’s space for participation in the national political process has been growing. The impetus came from the Independent Scholars Group (ISG) think-tank forum. This is a loosely organized forum which analyses the current burning political issues, the roles and relationships of different key actors, and the emerging political trends and monthly meetings sponsored by the Social Research and Development Institute (SORADI).

The group issues a ‘situation paper’ which provides a reliable objective analysis and recommendations for the Somaliland public and other internal and external actors who are engaged in the Somaliland democratization process. The paper has been widely covered in the local and international Somaliland media in both Somali and English. Through the ISG civil society is gaining opportunities to have its voice heard. This was demonstrated in the proactive stance it took in unseating the incompetent NEC, the support and fruitful partnership with the NEC,’ and the support to ensure the success of the Voter List Display and Card Replacement initiatives, and the efforts to hold the second free, fair and peaceful presidential election on June 26, 2010, in Somaliland.

Somaliland civil society has always worked closely and in partnership with the NEC. Two advisory bodies from civil society support the NEC to implement election-related activities, such as Voter Education, and the training and deployment of conflict resolution units, local monitors, and international observers. The conflict resolution component is a new initiative undertaken jointly by NEC and the civil society advisory group. The main purpose of this program would be to supplement and support the security forces with special conflict resolution skills. A core of 60 people was recruited to be trained in Hargeysa, who later trained another 540 people in all regions of Somaliland giving a total of 600 people trained in conflict resolution persons. The group were recruited from a wide spectrum of society including professionals, youth, women, and non-titled elders. The conflict resolution teams were active in the card collection and display centers, attending to conflicts arising in the queues and vicinities of these centers. They are identifiable by their distinctive dress of a white cap, teeshirt, and a jacket bearing the insignia of the NEC and Mediators. The conflict resolution units will be deployed to the polling stations on election days.

The Voter Registration as a Process

Voter registration has been a controversial issue since 2005, when the outgoing parliament passed a law, with a strong majority that set conditions for national voter registration to be created before the first parliamentary election. This move was interpreted at the time as a devious ploy by the sitting parliament to block the election, given the time needed to implement such a demand. However, specific articles of that Law No. 202/2005 mandating voter registration were waived by the Supreme Court and the election took place in 2005. From that day on voter registration became an issue. The second presidential election was postponed several times in 2008 and 2009 due to problems arising from the voter registration process. The first attempt at voter registration was botched by an incompetent NEC and overzealous political parties and incited clan competition.

After two years of senseless political turmoil, the newly installed NEC took control of the situation, and in partnership with all key political actors, devised a system of replacing the VR cards in an attempt to weed out cases of multiple registrations. The NEC resorted to this method after various efforts to clean the voter registration list using the latest available technology failed. However, this new initiative can only work when all key actors are prepared to acknowledge the illegal nature of multiple registrations and to stamp it out, and help the NEC to produce a clean voter registration list. If that commitment is not there, then it is obvious people will claim fraudulent cards in whichever way possible and for as long as the political parties aid and abet such illegal practices. The result of the display and replacement process held on 13-30 May 2010, was mixed and can only be judged after the election takes place. State building in a post-conflict country is not an easy process and Somaliland has enough experience of imperfect first trials. Populating the two Houses of Parliament after the Borame conference in 1993 was an imperfect disorganized process, which resulted in certain major clans completely boycotting it. Today, less than two decades later, Somaliland can boast to have one of the most vibrant democratically elected parliaments in Africa and the Middle East. The process of selecting the President in Borame in 1993 as well as in Hargeisa in 1997 both had shortcomings. However, by 2003 the people of Somaliland successfully held a presidential election.

Somaliland’s efforts to overcome the problems of voter registrations are no different from the above. We need to continue improving them as we go along. Somaliland state-building is a process of learning by doing, and we are learning fast and we will learn how to fix the imperfections of our voter registration system.


This article was an attempt to put into perspective the shortcomings of state-building and democratization in Somaliland and to highlight the fact that Somaliland has come a long way since May 18, 1991. It was not an easy process, because it involved, as expected, dealing with serious challenges of trust-building among communities and spending tremendous energies to quell violent conflict situations that inevitably arose from a decade of civil war. It also involved a single-mindedness to build a Somaliland state which is democratic and excellent negotiating skills to steer a process in a country where individual allegiances are often focused on clan instead of the evolving national institutions. It was remarkable for the elders to have succeeded in establishing a government based on a clan power-sharing formula, something that had never happened before. But it was even more important to succeed in convincing clans and elite interests to give up their power and transfer their allegiance to a national constitution. The rest has been a learning process on how to build a democratic society and the Somaliland people and elites have been good students at that considering what they have achieved so far. Somalilanders are not simply adopting systems and institutions, but are adding value to them to make them their own and to be able to mend the system when it cracks, without expecting others to fix it for them. With all their imperfections, the peace-building, the state-building, and the democratization processes all have their own local trademark, made by the Somaliland people.[4]


Mohamed Fadal, 2009. Institutionalizing Democracy in Somaliland;

M. Ali; K. Mohamed; M. Walls, 2008. The Search for Peace: An Indigenous Approach to State-building, Ibrahim Hashi – Somaliland Law:

Louise Wiuff, 2008. Towards Alternative Precepts of Statehood in Africa: The role of traditional authorities in reconstituting governance and state in Somaliland; Stellenbosch University.


[1] See Mohamed Fadal (2009) Institutionalizing Democracy in Somaliland., pp 3; Mohamoud Ali; Koss. Mohamed, Michael Walls (2008) The Search for Peace: An Indigenous Approach to State-building, APD/Interpeace, pp 35.

[2] Ibrahim Hashi Jama, The Somaliland Constitution.

[3] See Ibrahim Hashi Jama, Electoral Laws; 2009, 2010 Amendments to Presidential and Election Law 2002.

[4] Louise Wiuff (2008) Towards Alternative Precepts of Statehood in Africa: The role of traditional authorities in reconstituting governance and state in Somaliland, Stellenbosch University. p 53

About the author

Dr. Mohamed Osman FadalDr. Mohamed Osman Fadal is the Director of the Social Research and Development Institute (SORADI) and the coordinator of the Independent Scholars Group in Somaliland. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Economy. He is a specialist in participatory research and post-conflict recovery programming, public policy, and institutional development, especially in the contexts of Somaliland and Sudan.

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