A date with democracy? Somaliland’s presidential election is set (for now)

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything from Hargeisa. Life in the de facto (but unrecognized) independent Republic of Somaliland has been very quiet and the democratic deadlock affecting overdue presidential elections has continued. Is no news good news here? An absence of the oft-reported (if little fully-understood) blights of southern Somalia – piracy, conflict, terrorism, religious zealotry – in the northern breakaway republic can only be described in positive terms. On the other hand, doubts and ambiguities remain as to the smooth or timely progress of the presidential election and the effect that this will have on the breakaway republic’s hard-won stability.
    Word on the street, filtering out from the electoral commission, has it that the election will take place in June. The next word on the street has it that this may be a bit optimistic, though this now seems to be the timeframe emphasized by the electoral commission and its external supporting agencies. Interpeace, the leading facilitating international organisation has returned to Somaliland after their ignominious expulsion last year and is insisting that progress is being made to bring a democratic voice to bear on the prolonged tenure of President Rayaale and his UDUB party.
    With a holiday being called in the national universities for voter registration purposes and plane loads of new registration cards arriving in Hargeisa the clock is most certainly ticking.
    Political tensions which have bubbled beneath the surface in Somaliland are already showing some signs of eruption and two incidents have highlighted the potential for violence which exists when the three political parties flex their mobilizing muscles. Most recently violence has flared in Ceerigaabo in the east of Somaliland when groups of supporters from the president’s UDUB party and the opposition KULMIYE party clashed and pelted each other with rocks. One man was killed by gunfire coming apparently from the local police force (Saxafi News, May 8).
    Around a month ago in Hargeisa a rather bizarre incident occurred between the government and the KULMIYE opposition when the minister for sports declared a football tournament organized by the party to be illegal and ordered its immediate halting. Players and supporters, ignoring the order, descended on the stadium and clashed with the police force. After the ubiquitous stone-throwing, one man was shot and wounded by the police. The local media reported the incident and a newspaper printed a copy of a letter apparently written by the Somaliland Football Federation authorizing the KULMIYE competition (Haatuf, April 13).  This strange incident illustrates the undercurrents of tension which remain in a divided political system. Violence of this kind strikes a nerve in Hargeisa where the memories of the repressive force of the previous southern-based regime of Siyaad Barre are still important in the political discourse. Members of the other opposition party, the UCID, evoked this very history in condemning the steps taken by the sports minister and the wider Rayaale government (Saxansaxo, April 14).
    It can be very easy to despair at the ‘democratic’ process in Somaliland especially when one considers the clan dynamics which define the party political landscape. Manifestos printed in the Hargeisa newspapers (which themselves generally refrain from even mentioning clan, thus giving a somewhat misleading impression of politics here) show little ideological or practical difference between the three sanctioned parties. Perhaps that isn’t a million miles away from the recently run-through British major party political spectrum although a fundamental difference exists in the logistics of organizing ‘free and fair’ registration for elections in a place like Somaliland where an accurate census has never been carried out. Democracy here is an unenviable task to be sure. The process is slow, painful and expensive – especially taking into account the biometric voter recognition and registration kit being currently rolled out in the hope of preventing voter fraud amongst a highly mobile population through porous regional and international borders. Money well spent? On one hand one can consider the unambiguous good of an at least partially transparent and participatory electoral system for the national psyche (as well as helping tick the boxes for democratic good governance of international donor priority lists).  On the other hand it sometimes seems somewhat absurd to talk about effective and fair participatory democracy when considering the basic infrastructural deficiencies which still plague even the capital city: when it rains here it is often impossible to get from one side of the city to the other due to flooding, stranded vehicles and a lack of functioning or complete road bridges. Maybe a new government is what is required to push such infrastructural projects like Hargeisa’s second bridge out of the stagnation which has cost a great deal of money for so few visible results. Or perhaps the substitution of one group of elites for another will make little difference in these ongoing processes of shady political dealings, contracts for cronies and uneven development.
    There’s another peculiarity here which overshadows the whole electoral process. This is the international community’s involvement (through organizations like Interpeace) in a national election for a nation that they do not recognize as being independent or sovereign. Whether this matters at a practical level – given Somaliland’s development since 1991 without external recognition – is unclear, though it certainly does throw into light the territory’s anomalous context and the contractions which exist between the funding priorities and diplomatic geopolitics played out by the international community in the Horn of Africa.
    Regardless, the timeframe is set and the clock is ticking. The danger remains however that given the level of external assistance anything that goes wrong with the registration or electoral management process (and what could possibily go wrong with biometric voter registration technology for a largely nomadic population in a harsh and dusty climate?) could well be used by the Rayaale government as a pretext for once again delaying the ballot and throwing Somaliland back into democratic limbo. That is, if that isn’t where it is already.

By Pete Chonka

Pete Chonka has recently completed a MSc course in comparative politics at the School of Oriental and African Stuides in London, and is off to Somaliland to work on his Somali skills and get to grips with this unique, dynamic (but internationally unrecognized) Republic. Through his studies Pete has spent time in numerous parts of East Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East learning languages (Mandarin), writing and taking lots of pictures. See his photo journal at http://petechonka.wordpress.com

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