Somaliland’s hybrid system of tri-party democracy and traditional clan-based governance has enabled the consolidation of state-like authority, social and economic recovery and, above all, relative peace and security but now needs reform. Success has brought greater resources, including a special funding status with donors – especially the UK, Denmark and the European Union (EU) – as well as investment from and diplomatic ties with Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), though not international recognition. It is increasingly part of the regional system; ties are especially strong with Ethiopia and Djibouti. Given the continued fragility of the Somalia Federal Government (SFG), which still rejects its former northern region’s independence claims, and civil war across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen, Somaliland’s continued stability is vital. This, in turn, requires political reforms aimed at greater inclusion, respect for mediating institutions (especially the professional judiciary and parliament) and a regional and wider internationally backed framework for external cooperation and engagement.
Successful state building has, nevertheless, raised the stakes of holding – and losing – power. While Somaliland has remained largely committed to democratic government, elections are increasingly fraught. Fear of a return to bitter internal conflict is pushing more conservative politics: repression of the media and opposition, as well as resistance to reforming the increasingly unsustainable status quo. Recurrent political crises and delayed elections (now set for March 2017) risk postponing much needed internal debate. The political elites have a limited window to decide on steps necessary to rebuild the decaying consensus, reduce social tensions and set an agenda for political and institutional reform.
The stronger executive government has driven a shift from the government through clan-based consensus to ostensible democratization, but it has not widened participation of individuals (distinct from their clan-base) or developed strong institutional checks and balances. There is a growing perception that the Isaaq clan dominates, while its sub-clans jockey for primacy through control of particular political parties, government institutions, and big businesses. The government’s inclination to rely on a close-knit group of advisers identified with particular clans and regions rather than non-partisan state institutions feeds a growing sense of marginalization among certain constituencies both in the center and the peripheries. Poor public services and high unemployment (the few available jobs are obtained through patronage) leave the overwhelmingly young population, many of whom emigrate, vulnerable to religious extremism and criminality.
A militarized rule in the restive and previously lightly “occupied” eastern borderlands with Puntland (a “semi-autonomous” federal state of Somalia) – specifically the regions of Sool, Sanaag and southern Toghdeer – is not new but has become the default setting. The presence and degree of popular acceptance of a more conservative Islamist government and society have grown. The government’s soft approach to extremists in its midst is more evident following terrorist attacks with alleged links back to Somaliland in neighboring Djibouti and Puntland and the existence of a discreet Al-Shabaab presence across the country.
In the short term, especially now that elections are postponed, the government and its international supporters must find ways to support greater dialogue between political parties and key interest groups, particularly parliament’s upper House of Elders (the Guurti) and the business community, or risk further fragmentation of authority. This requires national consultation over the election (or reselection) of the Guurti, the parliament’s upper house; the 2001 constitution calls for its election every six years, but it remains largely unchanged since 1997. The over-used constitutional contingency clause that allows the Guurti to rule on election postponement in the interests of “stability” should be urgently reviewed.
The newly reformed judiciary needs public backing from the government, opposition, and the Guurti, especially respecting its constitutionally-defined responsibilities to support the institutions charged with delivering free and fair elections and to resolve disputes. Greater transparency is also needed, to prevent the further politicization of the small, fragile economy and increase government accountability. The House of Representatives should be free to exercise constitutional oversight of public-private development contracts and potential conflicts of interest.
Somaliland also needs to renew commitment to talks with the SFG, despite political risks, not least in recognition of the intimate clan and familial ties that still bind its elites and population in multiple ways to Puntland and the SFG as a whole. These include marriage, religious networks, clan treaties that manage peace and war, politics, business, and even extremist groups. Progress on security and economic cooperation and electoral preparations (2016, Somalia; 2017, Somaliland) require a better framework, including appropriate representation from Puntland, the region (potentially the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, IGAD) and wider international community (potentially the African Union and Gulf Cooperation Council).
Nairobi/Brussels, 5 October 2015