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Although not recognized internationally, the self-declared republic of Somaliland holds its sixth competitive elections on 13 November. Almost all Somaliland’s politicians are directly involved in clan-based politics, which is a threat to the nation’s fragile democracy.

When Jamal Ali Hussein, the former CEO of Citibank Tanzania and a Harvard alumnus, decided to directly engage in Somaliland politics six years ago, many Somalilanders were hopeful and believed that his positive impact would be visible in a short period. He later managed to be nominated as the presidential candidate of the Justice and Welfare Party, also known as UCID. He was accompanied by his vice presidential candidate Abdirashid Hassan Matan, another young educated but novice politician. However, Hussein’s and Matan’s political inexperience came to light soon.

They not only assimilated into the clan-based political system in place, but also failed to alter or properly play by its rules. Moreover, they could not even secure their positions as presidential and vice presidential candidate when the infamous, untrustworthy and unpredictable chairman and founder of the UCID party, Faysal Ali Warabe, questioned the legitimacy of their positions and later, surprisingly, defeated them. As a result, desperate Hussein and Matan had to join the other political parties, hoping to acquire another opportunity to realize their political dreams, if any.

In late 2016, Jamal Ali Hussein joined the ruling Kulmiye Party, the same party he always criticized for failing the country. In an attempt to justify his decision Hussein said that “after consulting with my supporters and my people, I have realized that I share camel with Muse Bihi [the presidential candidate of Kulmiye Party]”. This was, simply, another way of saying “he is my clansman”. The justification of the Harvard alumnus was a shock to many.

Likewise, Matan initially joined the other opposition party – Waddani – and again recently resigned from that party. In an exclusive meeting organized by his sub-clan, Matan said “[I resigned from Waddani because] I could not find both the interest of the region [Awdal] as well as the interest of my sub-clan in the party”.

Almost all Somaliland politicians are directly involved in this clan politics which is a threat to the fragile democracy of Somaliland but Hussein, Matan, and likes are to be blamed as they are the ones who were supposed to fix this old-fashioned, defective system. Nobody anticipated them to base their crucial political decisions on clan politics and rely on it. They were also an inspiration to numerous educated youth who wanted to join politics and contribute to the decision-making processes and development of their country.      

Somaliland, though unrecognized by the international community, is considered as the only democratic country in the Horn of Africa. It is surrounded by three authoritarian countries, namely, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Eritrea. It is also bordered by Somalia, where a one-man-one-election is unattainable in the near future and, thus, weak governments established by the international community have been in power over the last two decades.

This presidential election planned to take place on 13 November 2017 is going to be the sixth democratic election to be held in Somaliland. Previously, two presidential elections (2003 and 2010), two local council elections (2002 and 2012) and one parliamentary election (2005) were held. Whilst clan politics was active since the inception of the multi-party system in Somaliland, its impact skyrocketed during the last local council election of 2012. Given that seven political organizations competed in qualifying to be political parties, as the constitution permits only three political parties, each organization had to find a candidate from each sub-clan. Consequently, sub-clans were divided into lower level clan families and then candidates had to contest on this basis.   

To share my personal experience, back in 2012, being a last-year student at the University of Hargeisa, I was recruited by the Somaliland National Electoral Commission as a polling station staff and then deployed to Odweyne District of Togdheer Region. Keep in mind that our recruitment was sort of national service instead of proper employment, and university students are targeted to minimize the cost of the election. In my polling station, Jeenyo Laaye, the majority of the voters voted for the candidates from Waddani and Umadda political organizations. The only reason was, apparently, that the two leaders of these organizations had the same clan affiliation with the inhabitants of the area.

Any candidate who wants to run for president must first secure the votes of his clanspeople, then he will be eligible to seek support from the other clans. This inevitably leads to the establishment of clan alliances since no clan has an overwhelming majority. Alliances between clans often rely on clandestine agreements or, sometimes, a gentleman’s agreement. These agreements lead to the “equal” sharing of both burden and benefits by the allied clans.

For instance, politicians from the two main clans who were allied in Kulmiye dominated the main cabinet positions after their victory in 2010. Similarly, the presidential candidate of Waddani and his clan had to give up the chairmanship of the party to another politician so as to secure the votes of the new chairman’s clanspeople. He even went further to create a new groundless position of “the party leader” in an attempt to acquire another clan’s support. Obviously, the rules of clan politics work in a weird way and eventually end up as patronage politics. For every victorious party, the major clans in its alliance have privilege while the rest are marginalized.

The aim of adopting the multi-party system in Somaliland was to replace the traditional clan-based system, which failed to acclimatize to the modern politics. We, unfortunately, followed our footsteps in reverse and returned to pure clan rivalry. The intended competition between political parties (separated by ideologies and principles) turned into a competition among clans.

Rift Valley Institute (2015) estimated that the 2012 local council election campaign expenses were as high as $50 million. Astonishingly, over 60 percent of these funds were financed by khat. So, if there is no clean democratic contestation, is it rational to spend this huge amount to compete among clans?  

The voter turnout of the upcoming election is predicted to be lower as the number of voters registered by the electoral commission has fallen. This decline can be attributed to two main reasons. Many people lost faith in the current active politicians. Others lost faith in the clan-based political system in place, a system that my former teacher Abdi Ali Jama, who is now a government official, described as “playing a soccer ball with no rules, no referee and no goalposts”.     

We either compete as parties or as clans; we either adopt a multi-party system or a multi-clan system. We have to choose.    

* MUHUMED M. MUHUMED (Khadar) is a graduate student and researcher based in Istanbul, Turkey. [email protected]



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