This paper examines the new democracy in the Horn of Africa. Somaliland’s tentative steps towards democratization raise questions about the gerrymandering and succession of ‘freely’ elected leaders. The authors note that the future challenges for democratic renewal in Somaliland include the shift from clan-based forms of political representation and competition to one based on political parties as forums of political representation and competition in a predominantly rural society. Somaliland is often seen as a mono-ethnic society and as such able to avoid the exigencies of politics in multi-ethnic society as the rest of the continent.

By Stig Jarle Hansen with Mark Bradbury

With a constitutionally-based and popularly elected government, the Republic of Somaliland, which broke away from Somalia in 1991, has a democratic system matched by few other countries in Africa and the Middle East. However, Somaliland’s independence has not been recognized internationally. Moreover, developments in neighboring countries suggest that people in Somaliland will face serious challenges in entrenching a democratic political system.


This article takes as its point of departure Georg Sorensen’s (1998:3) definition of democracy. His definition is employed, together with the history of elections in the region, to explore the challenges people in Somaliland face in establishing a democratic political system, in this sense the article aims to explore the challenges of the future, rather than analyze the processes of the past. These include, among others, the shift from a clan-based form of political representation and competition to one based on political parties as forums for political representation and competition, the urban-based nature of political discourse in a still predominantly rural society, and the absence of a strong independent media.

In 1991 the Republic of Somaliland broke away from Somalia. With a constitutionally-based and popularly elected government, the Republic of Somaliland has a democratic system matched by few other countries in Africa and the Middle East, although Somaliland’s independence has not been recognized internationally. However, the history of the region indicates that the Somali political system faces several challenges. In order to understand these challenges, one has to establish an analytical framework, a definition of democracy that could provide some guidance to what such challenges can consist of, and which specific areas of the political structure to examine.

The term democracy comes from a combination of two Greek words: demos (people) and kratos (rule). Accordingly, democracy has been defined as ‘rule by the people’ (Sorensen, 1998:3). A demand for ‘rule by the people’, although seemingly straightforward, requires a definition of who ‘the people’ are and an agreement on mechanisms for their political inclusion or exclusion. For example, should émigré or diaspora communities have political rights in their country of origin, and should there be age restrictions on political participation? What is the most appropriate form of popular participation, and how can the rights of minority groups be accommodated?

Moreover, democratic systems vary and these variations are the result of a number of factors. First, the form they take can be influenced by a country’s stage of capitalist development and pre-existing institutions. They may, for example, be a result of elites attempting to hold on to their power, as in the case of the Upper House of Parliament in Great Britain where the elite sought to entrench their powers by creating an institution that is not subject to democratic elections. Popular participation also varies between democratic systems. It can take a restricted form, where the citizens’ role is limited to influencing their elected representatives to whom they have delegated full powers (Schumpeter, 1976), or may take a more comprehensive form with an emphasis on individual rights (Held, 1987). In such systems, citizens are free to determine their own lives, as long as they do not negate the rights of others.

Another form of democracy – described by Arndt Lijphart (1984) as the ‘consensus model’ and practiced in Scandinavian countries – is based on an expectation that the elected leaders will strive to achieve the greatest degree of consensus amongst the citizens and political parties.

Second, forms of democracy can also be influenced by culture. Claude Ake (1993) outlines an ‘African model’ of democracy based on African traditions of political participation. However, as African political systems take many forms, it is difficult to conceive of a single model of democracy in Africa. In Somali society – a society famously described as a ‘pastoral democracy’ (Lewis, 1961) and influenced by Arab and African culture1 – traditional political institutions and practices have, as we shall see, been particularly pertinent to efforts to establish a liberal democracy in Somaliland.

While being conscious of the various models of democracy that exist, it is helpful to establish some basic criteria to distinguish a democratic political system from a nondemocratic one. In his classic treatise ‘On Democracy’, Robert Dahl (1988) argues that in a democratic system there must be three fundamental elements: effective participation whereby all citizens must have an equal and effective opportunity to make their views known on the formulation of public policy; voting equality, whereby every citizen must have an equal and effective opportunity to vote, and that all votes must be counted as equal; and an enlightened understanding, whereby, within reasonable limits, every citizen must have an equal and effective opportunity to learn about relevant policies and their probable consequences (Ibid. p. 9).

Few, if any, of the existing states in the world actually fulfill the requirement of one person, one vote.2 Some electoral arrangements, such as the majoritarian system of the United Kingdom, can result in the party with the largest popular vote gaining a larger number of elected representatives than is actually proportionate to their vote. Moreover, the principle of one person one vote is often unfulfilled due to age restrictions, the use of quotas for underrepresented minorities, traditions, and the variable size of constituencies. As will be seen in Somaliland, in some societies, the introduction of a majoritarian system of one-person-one-vote can if employed rigorously, restrict the representation of women and minority groups in a country’s political institutions.

Sorensen (1998:12) takes Dahl’s, Schumpeter’s, and Held’s models as a point of departure and establishes more flexible criteria. He asserts, first, that a democratic system requires that all positions of effective authority in government – both parliamentary and cabinet positions – must be open to meaningful and extensive, and non-violent competition amongst individuals and organized groups (or political parties) at regular intervals; second, democracy also requires a highly inclusive level of political participation in the selection of leaders and policies; third, eligibility for public office must be broadly defined ensuring that no social group is excluded; and fourth, there should be a high degree of civil and political liberties, including freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom to form and join organizations. One could add to this the right to alternative sources of information.

In the rest of this article, we use these criteria to examine the challenges facing Somaliland in institutionalizing a democratic political system. These criteria are used only as points of departure for the analysis of the process of democratization in Somaliland rather than to make a judgment on the existing political system. In this sense, the criteria are rather to guide our focus than an analytical framework employed rigidly to evaluate if Somaliland is a democracy or not. This also allows the article to focus on some of the very cases- and region-specific factors influencing the political system in Somaliland. Following Tilly (2003), this allows us to examine democracy as a process and, additionally, to take into account non-western Somali democratic practices.

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