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Three months after the presidential elections, where are we?

Somaliland's Hargeisa government 'will need to be far more clear-sighted and long-term in its vision to obtain not just outside support but sustained momentum for democracy and development', write Steve Kibble and Michael Walls, in an assessment of the first few months of the new presidency.

On 26 July 2010, Somaliland swore in its fourth president, Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud ‘Silanyo’, leader of one of the former opposition parties, Kulmiye, after an election declared free and fair by international and domestic observers. The decisive election result and the peaceful handover of power from the previous regime under ex-President Riyale marks an opportunity for Somaliland to take further its steps towards democratisation – and for many in Somaliland to gain the international recognition they crave and believe they deserve. President Silanyo visited the UK in late November and many supporters of Somaliland inside and outside the diaspora were keen to ask what the vision was to take Somaliland towards development, further democratisation and of course recognition as an independent sovereign state.

In 1991 Somaliland unilaterally declared the restoration of the independence they enjoyed for several days in 1960. This represented an end to the territory’s allegiance to a greater Somalia. In the late 1990s, Somaliland’s political leadership declared a commitment to representative democracy, and local body elections in 2002, a presidential election in 2003, and parliamentary elections in 2005 all contributed to this process, though not without problems and obstacles.

Somaliland held presidential elections on 26 June 2010. These elections were postponed on a number of occasions from 2008 onwards, but when an outside-brokered six-point agreement was signed on 30 September 2009, there was the basis for the appointment of a new National Electoral Commission (NEC), the establishment of a viable electoral timetable and the cleaning up of a corrupted registration system. This marked a major turnaround from before the agreement, when political infighting and NEC incompetence had made agreement on voter registration and an election date impossible.

The elections went ahead despite concerns over security, the relevance of which were graphically illustrated by a shootout between alleged political Islamists and police in Somaliland’s second city Burao in early June. That action appeared to have dismantled a well-planned anti-Somaliland operation. Just before election day, the Islamist organisation al-Shabaab based in (South Central) Somalia warned Somalilanders against voting – ‘advice’ Somalilanders ignored by turning out in large numbers. Security considerations had led some international organisations to adopt a ‘hibernation’ mode or to send staff out of the country. The bombings in Kampala a month later illustrated the fragility of the security situation, while also underlining the fact that, increasingly, Somali insecurity extends beyond Somali borders.

All parties stressed their commitment to respecting the verdict of the electorate and they explicitly repeated this commitment to the international observer mission. All parties stressed and observed the need for peace, as did many religious leaders and elders. Parties adhered to the Code of Conduct agreement that campaign rallies be held on separate days. The run-up to the election provided an opportunity for youth, and particularly young women who are otherwise more socially constrained, to enjoy the occasion, giving a carnival atmosphere.


Many African states struggle to reconcile traditional social institutions with the precepts of nation-state democracy within previously colonial borders. Somaliland offers similar contradictions, not least through clan politics, yet such contradictions also suggest possible resolution. Despite increasingly autocratic government moves until July 2010, socio-political norms that emphasise the importance of negotiation and compromise have averted a number of crises in recent years, while cautious and fully engaged external interventions have, in marked contrast to efforts in southern Somali areas, been successful in supporting this process. One can point to some successful interventions in situations where the dynamics of Somaliland have been understood and the complexities of who is an insider and who is an outsider have been at least partly comprehended.

The Republic of Somaliland unilaterally declared independence from Somalia in 1991, after a civil war caused the collapse of the dictatorial Siyaad Barre regime. While the southern areas of Somalia have endured endemic conflict, interspersed with unsuccessful periodic, peace conferences, the north-western territory of Somaliland embarked on a home-grown process of reconciliation and state-building, largely escaping the pressure of outside-brokered and lavishly-funded interventions aimed at establishing a government for the whole of the erstwhile Republic of Somalia.

Much of the process of democratisation has been enabled by an overwhelming public desire to avoid a return to conflict and an accompanying urge to win international recognition (although yoking the two has also proved problematic). The nascent state remains weak and poorly-funded, but has paradoxically enjoyed a degree of legitimacy exceeding that of many African and other governments. However, until the recent elections, the institutionalisation of a system that combines elements of traditional ‘pastoral’ male democracy in the context of the Westphalian and Weberian nation-state seemed to be starting to unravel. In its place a personalised ‘securocratic’ approach was gaining the upper hand, with a concomitant fear of debate and criticism. This intolerance of dissent is at odds with Somali tradition more generally and can be seen as a legacy of the Siyaad Barre regime. However, it remains to be seen how deeply embedded it is as we move into the era of a new government and a promised more open, transparent society rethinking its engagement with outsiders as well as internal policy.

Many look to the new government for the implementation of new approaches to overcoming the previous stasis in the arenas of justice, further democratisation and development. There are a number of questions that will determine fundamentally the ways in which traditional institutions interact with the norms of nation-state democracy. Clan will continue to play a significant yet dynamic role in the political realm, while external actors, from private, public and non-governmental sectors, must also expand their involvement.

On the first day of the new regime, they delivered on a pledge to abolish the unpopular security committees. Originally established to address urgent issues of security in the wake of the civil war, these committees had been permitted to imprison without trial and they lay outside any due judicial process. A new National Security Board has been established instead, with a mandate that embraces the security of the country, defence of its borders and the fight against terrorism.

There has as yet been no effect on other parts of the judicial system from this policy change. The judiciary remains ineffective and subject to executive pressure arising from its lack of independence. It is also alleged to be corrupt and non-professional with untrained clerks acting as judges. A seasoned observer described the system as ‘a hell of a mess which will take a lot of cleaning up. It’s still based largely on judicial practice under Siyaad Barre – i.e. who has the most money wins’.

The position of women has been another key element in the fight to further and deepen democratisation and Kulmiye has as well as its clan base, majority support among women, youth, civil society and diaspora. We spoke to key activists on the subject, and they cautiously welcomed the increase in female cabinet ministers from 5 per cent to 20 per cent but pointed out this still only means two ministers and an assistant minister. (We can note however that the cabinet has shrunk in size). There is also a woman commissioner on the Human Rights Commission. The new (female) minister for labour and social affairs is, unlike her predecessor, more open to dialogue with civil society. Women’s groups welcomed these developments, with the umbrella network Nagaad sending government an advisory paper on gender issues. However, women’s groups are also looking for much greater progress, which still appears distant. There is, for example, little noticeable movement on key issues such as proposed 30 per cent quotas for women in parliament.

There has also been movement on a much-improved relationship with civil society. A new NGO Act defining roles and responsibilities for non-governmental organisations as well as giving them legal protection was signed into being, while a number of new ministers have civil society backgrounds. These include one of the female cabinet members, Zam Zam Abdi, now minister of education and formerly executive director of the Committee of Concerned Somalis (CCS) and ex-chair of the human rights network SHURONET. The new minister of planning was himself a founding member of the NGO Somali Relief Association (SOMRA) in the UK in the early 1990s, and spent the past few years working with the private sector hawala (money transfer company), Dahabshiil. Early in his new ministerial role, he held his first coordination meeting with the UN and international NGOs and presented new guidelines for aid coordination. In addition, there is the promise of forums for domestic civil society to engage with government and to monitor performance, including input into the budgetary process.

Before the elections, the (then shadow) foreign minister spoke of taking a far more nuanced approach to Somaliland’s neighbours, including pursuing reconciliation with Somalia and Puntland, as well as with other Somali groups and neighbours in the Horn in general. This necessarily requires that Somaliland address specific sensitivities on the question of recognition, on which neighbours remain the key.

In a recent talk in London, one of the authors of this editorial floated the concept of ‘incremental recognition’ in which we suggest that Somaliland leaders engage in confidence-building measures, such as pursuing the possibility of greater engagement with regional bodies such as the IGAD forum (Intergovernmental Authority on Development). The premise is that this would allow Somaliland themselves to assume a more active and self-directing role in the pursuit of recognition, setting modest incremental objectives that are nevertheless achievable and should one day lead to a situation in which full recognition becomes a mere acceptance of an ipso facto condition. Such an approach would contrast with past tendencies to emphasise recognition as a one-stop solution requiring a single, substantial policy shift on the part of other nations.

Since taking office, there has been an unexpectedly positive presidential visit to Djibouti in which President Silanyo was awarded red carpet status as if he were a recognised head of state. The long closed Somaliland liaison office was also reopened, marking a shift from the rocky relations between Djibouti and the Riyale regime. It may be that this change is linked to the new fibre optic cable coming into Somaliland via Djibouti. A number of government advisers themselves have links with Djibouti, and there were accusations within Somaliland that the agreement had favoured Djibouti against Somaliland interests.

Having initially viewed the new Somaliland government with suspicion, Ethiopia also hosted a Somaliland delegation led by Mohamed Abdullahi Omar, the new minister of foreign affairs. In so doing they indicated a willingness to work with the new administration. Hargeisa has also seen a visit from the new UN envoy, apparently at the invitation of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

However, relations with Puntland have continued to be tense, with the contested sovereignty of areas of Sanaag and Sool complicated by recent accusations from Puntland that Somaliland was harbouring and indeed promoting the ‘terrorist’ Mohamed Said ‘Atom’. Puntland forces had clashed with Atom in the mountainous area of Galgala, and accused Somaliland variously of sending militia to fight alongside him and of sheltering him when he fled. The Somaliland account inevitably differed from this, with senior politicians declaring Atom a terrorist and insisting that the two territories were cooperating over terrorism. These claims were repeated to us when we spoke to the Somaliland president and the minister of foreign affairs in London in November, who suggested that the dispute was essentially between the Puntland administration and local clan groups.

There were some early disagreements between the incoming Somaliland government and the media, with the most high profile being suspension of the right of the popular Somali cable broadcaster Universal TV to work in Somaliland. The reason given was that Universal had consistently ‘treated Somaliland unfairly’. Much more recently, the chief editor of YOOL daily newspaper was threatened by ministers and security personnel for unfavourable coverage. The editor of the daily newspaper ‘Waaheen’, which belongs to Ahmed Hussein Essa (a long-time politician with good insider knowledge but with a combative past inside Kulmiye), was arrested for publishing articles that accused some of the government institutions of nepotism, although he was released on bail after a few days. So far, the new administration has not resorted systematically to the measures of the prior regime, which had a tendency to lock up perceived opponents including journalists. To this point, the government has shown a willingness to discuss disputes, helped by the fact that the new media spokesperson is an ex-journalist. However, there is a significant need for work on fully institutionalising the freedom of the media.

Despite this recent activity and some promising moves, commentators and people on the streets see little evidence of a unifying vision behind the new government. In the five months since taking power the concentration appears to be on reshuffling the institutions and getting rid of supposedly corrupt civil servants, while creating new agencies such as the Anti Corruption Commission. Essentially some charge that Kulmiye did not have a plan for governing. This line holds that they concentrated too hard on winning the election on an anti-government platform and, despite the high expectations of the population, they are now weighed down by the day-to-day job of governing. A popular joke asks whether ‘change’ meant ‘change of ministers and staff’. One commentator opined that the president seems to be overwhelmed and that he lacks the stamina for the job, relying instead on others to do the work for him.

It is still too early to tell whether such criticism is well-founded. The early months of the presidency have seen considerable advance as well as areas of disappointment.

There is nevertheless ample evidence of general donor goodwill. In September, the US assistant secretary of state for African affairs announced a new policy on Somaliland that would see ‘aggressive’ engagement with the administration there, as well as that in Puntland. This is part of a ‘dual track’ strategy which will see the US continue to support the Mogadishu-based Transitional Federal Government, but which will also result in an increase in direct aid to Somaliland. The British ambassador to Ethiopia, a Danish minister, the Swedish ambassador and the UN envoy to Somalia all also confirmed increased aid to Somaliland and there has been some talk of direct budget support for the Somaliland government. If implemented, this would mark a significant shift in donor engagement with Somaliland, contributing materially to the process of incremental recognition mentioned above. However, these discussions are yet to result in action.

Finally, Somaliland has a significant potential opportunity at the present time given the impending expiry of the mandate of the Transitional Federal Government in the south. With the TFG representing an obstacle if Somaliland is to extend the depth and breadth of its formal engagement with the international community, negotiation over their future offers a leverage opportunity for both Somaliland and those amongst the international diplomatic community who would like to see a change in the nature of that engagement.

The new Hargeisa government will need to be far more clear-sighted and long-term in its vision to obtain not just outside support but sustained momentum for democracy and development. Civil society too can play a material role in seeing that Somaliland continues down a road in which the transition from discursive to representative democracy continues to advance the needs of the wider population, not just of a political elite.


* Steve Kibble (Progressio) and Michael Walls (UCL) were joint coordinators of the 26 June 2010 international election observers in Somaliland.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.