As Somalia continues to sleepwalk its way along the path of failed statehood, one region of the country - Somaliland, has been working hard to break this cycle, albeit by advocating an actual political break with the moribund central government. Having unilaterally declared independence in 1991, Somaliland has led an alternate existence within the ostensible (and increasingly frail) borders of Somalia. As the latter has sunk into dysfunction and violence, Somaliland has prided itself on the creation of a peaceful, fledgling democracy.
November 13th marks Somaliland’s third presidential election, the successful completion of which the government hopes will bolster its chances at international recognition. While the region has been lauded by the international community, it has so far failed to garner the kind of recognition it truly desires, that of official statehood. “Many governments have said we’ll be second to recognize you,” notes former government trade advisor Sharmarke Jama: “the challenge is convincing someone to be first.”
Somaliland stuck in a bad neighbourhood
Cobbled together from former British and Italian colonies, Somalia has long lacked a coherent national identity, and it is against this 'Frankensteinian' existence that Somaliland chafes. Consequently, all eyes are on today’s election, itself a bundle of contradictions. Overseen by international observers and partially funded by the UK and EU, Somaliland’s election is taking place in one of the poorest places on Earth, yet it is the first in the world to use iris-based biometric voter registration.
Somaliland’s elections are expected to be free and fair, two characteristics that distinguish it from other regional governments. While initially delayed due to the effects of a severe drought which has killed 75 percent of the nation’s cattle - its main export - the Somaliland can still point to the even more delayed, and hamstrung elections in Somalia. Indeed, less than 15,000 people were (due to security and logistical concerns) even eligible to vote in Somalia’s election: this hardly constitutes a popular mandate, the core source of legitimacy for any government.
Moreover, the recent election fiasco in Kenya further bolsters the Somaliland’s profile, undermining arguments against recognizing the region’s right to self-determination. The problem for Somaliland is that despite being the best-run government in the region (admittedly a low bar to begin with), it falls victim to international efforts to prop up the central Somali government. While receiving praise and support from the international community, Somaliland is simultaneously hamstrung by pressure on Somalia’s various autonomous regions to commit to the central government’s stabilization plan.
Consequently, significant hopes are riding on the successful conclusion of today’s election, as all parties voice firm support for the creation of an independent nation. Buoyed by several large investments from Middle Eastern countries, including port modernization and a military base, Somaliland is hoping to grow its economy in order to stabilize government revenue.
This effort faces significant headwinds due the lack of international recognition, but the government is banking of regional pragmatism overcoming diplomatic formalities, as it works with neighbouring countries such as landlocked Ethiopia to develop infrastructure, for instance by offering the latter access to the sea. De facto recognition from one’s neighbours is a key prerequisite for Somaliland, one that it has effectively managed to obtain.
Border disputes and fake news threaten vote
That being said, not all of Somaliland’s neighbours are friendly. The central government in Mogadishu is hardly well disposed to Somaliland’s efforts to secede, and the quirks of Somali political devolution means that Somaliland faces two adversaries on its eastern border: the central government and Puntland. Puntland is an autonomous region of Somalia which has its own armed forces and is embroiled in an ongoing border dispute with Somaliland. Both regions, legally part of the same country, are involved in a border dispute with the central government hovering on the sidelines; a truly bizarre circumstance.
Locals living in the disputed Sanaag region have stated that a clash between Somaliland and Puntland is likely, and presidential candidate Musa Bihi Abdi has warned Puntland against any military interference in Somaliland’s election. At least five soldiers were killed in border clashes between the two polities in July 2016.
Worries over external threats have also led the government to implement a social media blackout from election day until results are announced. This is not expected until at least November 17th. Fears over the destabilizing impact of fake news from foreign and local sources have led the regime to shut down over a dozen popular sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and Snapchat. This move has hampered the work of the country’s fledgling start-up and tech scene, with such service outages yet another hurdle for businesses in an unrecognised country.
Moreover, this move is just the latest social media clampdown in Africa; one that does little to reinforce the image Somaliland is trying to cultivate, namely that of an open democracy. That being said, credit must be given to outgoing President Ahmed Mohamed “Silanyo” Mohamoud who decreed that state media give fair and equal coverage to all candidates and parties, an important element complimenting Somaliland’s first televised, town-hall style presidential debate. Moreover, Silanyo has also prohibited government officials from using state resources for campaigning purposes.
Somaliland Votes 2017: The contenders
While the government may be wary of social media, various political parties have embraced it, with the Justice and Welfare Party (UCID) creating its own app targeted at engaging youth voters. The app is an initiative of the larger-than-life Faisal Ali Warabe, who has contested every election since 2003. Despite being the political outsider, Warabe and his socialist party are the only force with a real identity, as demonstrated by his focus on tackling inequality and poverty.
Warabe has also been praised for his efforts to not play to tribal loyalties nor court elders in order to garner support. Excising tribalism from electioneering is key to creating a healthy polity, as well as avoiding the kinds of sectarian violence that have run rampant after many an (oft disputed) election in Africa. Indeed, the threat of tribalism was one of the reasons behind the social media blackout, with the government citing the threat of “inciteful” and “tribalistic” information.
Unfortunately, both of the major parties contesting the election have resorted to tribal appeals to rally support. The power of tribal bloc voting is also suspected be behind the decision of President Silanyo to step down after only one term. Specifically, it is rumoured that Musa Bihi Abdi agreed to lend the support of his powerful Habar Awal clan to Silanyo’s campaign on the condition that he step down to make way for Bihi after one term. If this is the case it further undermines Somaliland’s democratic credentials. Both men co-founded the ruling Kulmiye Party in the early 2000s, with former military man Bihi representing the party in Somaliland’s 2017 elections.
Bihi’s chief competitor is Waddani Party leader Abdirahman Mohamed “Irro” Abdullahi. Speaker of the House from 2005 to 2017, Irro is presenting the Waddani Party as the party for change, seeking to capitalize on the complaints about cronyism and slow economic growth which have dogged the Kulmiye Party. Conversely, Irro’s detractors argue he is too close to the central government, as many of the party’s senior leadership are former Mogadishu-based politicians.
The problem for both parties is that they have little to distinguish themselves, as both support independence and make vague statements about economic growth and combating poverty. This largely reduces the vote to a contest of personalities, itself not entirely beneficial to a multi-party democracy, but nevertheless understandable given the evolution of the state’s nascent democracy. Despite these shortcomings, perhaps the highest praise that can be heaped upon Somaliland’s election is that remains too close to call: a refreshing set of circumstances compared to the often forgone conclusions of many elections in Africa.
Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times, Huffington Post and Qrius. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.