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Somaliland: A Democratic State In East Africa Or A Tinderbox Waiting To Explode?
By Dalmar Kaahin, Ottawa, Canada
For the citizens of Somaliland, the presidential election of 2003 was more an exercise of their democratic rights. It was the beginning of a new hope for a nation ravaged by a brutal war, a wave of terror carried out by Gen. Siyad Barre—the ruthless dictator who ruled former Somalia (Southern Somalia and Somaliland) with iron fist—from 1969 to 1990. But that hope almost turned to despair. After the UDUB party leader Mr. Dahir Rayale Kahin—the incumbent candidate—was elected to lead the nation for a five-year term, the leader of the opposition party KULMIYE, Mr. Ahmed Mohamed Sillanyo—the contender—quickly accused Mr. Kahin of rigging the election and misusing public funds for campaign purposes, an accusation denied by UDUB.
On the other hand, another contender Mr. Faysal Ali Warabe, the leader of the second opposition party UCID took a neutral stance on the election dispute and simply accepted the defeat of his party.
However, the supporters of UDUB and KULMIYE parties remained defiant but peaceful, for two weeks. And two weeks of trading accusations back and forth in public and through the Media, kept the infant nation of Somaliland on its toes. As apprehensive as ever, many of its citizens wondered whether their leaders would sort out their differences peacefully, or maybe another mass exodus to a familiar place—Harta Sheikh, a refugee camp across the border into Ethiopia, wasn’t just a déjà vu but an inevitable reality looming on the horizon. (In late 80s, many Somalilanders escaped Gen. Barre's relentless ground attacks and aerial bombardments against civilians and fled to Harti Sheikh). Looking back the election of 2003, as it seemed, the nation was a hair’s breadth away from a civil war. Many citizens asked themselves: would Mr. Sillanyo destroy the very country that he librated? Or would Mr. Kahin engulf the country that he helped to pacify after the war of liberation in a violent firestorm and crush the nascent democracy that he himself introduced?
Luckily, as always, the wise men and women of the North— Somaliland—did what they know the best: through negotiation and diplomacy, they mediated Mr. Kahin and Mr. Sillanyo. And as the Somaliland tradition dictates while sitting under the shade of a tree, they drew a line in the sand and warned both leaders not to sabotage Somaliland’s democratic process. They successfully convinced Mr. Sillanyo to swallow his pride and for the sake of his country accept the results of the election. As expected, Mr. Sillanyo took the high road and chose not to engulf the nation that he liberated and established, in a devastating civil war. Prayers were answered. Citizens felt relieved. Furthermore, without the usual protests and riots which often follow the typical African election, Somalilanders chose to press ahead—once again.
And despite Somaliland’s nearly failed election, remarkably no violence was reported in the country. And the election dispute was settled much quicker than expected. The outcome was phenomenal. Amazingly, the International observers described the election as largely free, fair, and transparent, unlike many elections in Africa. Also, the International community did more than observing the election. It mainly financed the last election and will pay 75% of the upcoming election’s budget, in August 2008 as well.
Similarly, Somaliland Diasporas poured thousands of dollars of campaign money into Somaliland to support their respective candidates. Also, the Diasporas made thousands of phone calls back to Somaliland and provided both an invaluable and destructive advices to Somaliland leaders. In some cases, the election disputes were incited by some irresponsible Diasporas who put forward the interests of their leader or their tribes before anything else.
In any event, the nation was spared from anarchy in its first presidential election. And much of its election success was due to the fact that Somaliland is a homogenous society. Unlike many East African countries such as, the Ethiopian and Kenyan societies who are heterogeneous people, with different ethnics, cultures, religions and languages, the Somaliland people belong to one family. In fact, the same goes for the Somali people in general. For Somaliland society, however, with its strong culture and respect for elders, diffusing election crises was a painstaking process but it was not too intricate to resolve it. That was then—2003. Now, a mind-boggling question is: despite Somaliland’s past election success stories, is the nation’s upcoming election, in August 2008, another tinderbox waiting to explode, in East Africa?
Before one dwells on the answer to the preceding question, one needs to take a glance at the miseries that dubious elections brought to the Horn of Africa. For instance, the Ethiopian election in 2005 was marked by violent protests, and 200 people lost their lives. Furthermore, nearly 60, 000 people were arrested. Next, the Djibouti “election”, in 2005, in which Mr. Ummar Geele was the incumbent as well as the contender, one-man poll (the typical African “democratic” election) was barely spared from election related violence. Lastly, the recent Kenyan election supposed to be peaceful; however, it has been anything but peaceful. It has been marred by violence and riots—and an impending civil war looms on the horizon.
Now, many Somalilanders wonder whether the mayhem followed the elections in Ethiopia and in Kenya could be avoided in the upcoming presidential election of Somaliland. Will the Somaliland leaders use the failed elections of Ethiopia and Kenya as a warning to avoid plunging the country into chaos and anarchy? Do we have leaders with foresights to see that a failed election will lead to a failed state? These are questions that only Somaliland leaders can answer. However, without a doubt, if the 2008 presidential election doesn’t go smoothly—that will be the end of Somaliland existence as a nation! Kiss goodbye to Somaliland!
That is, although Somaliland has the advantage of being a homogenous society over many East Africa nations, and there are thousands of conflict-resolution experts who are trained and ready to handle any conflict in the country, but unlike Ethiopia and Kenya, Somaliland is not recognized; and due to its meager yearly budge of $40 million, if chaos ensues the upcoming presidential election there will be no such a thing called quick economic recovery in Somaliland—undoubtedly its economy, which is already fragile and vulnerable due to the embargo imposed on its livestock, will crumple a lot faster than ice melts in a hot desert. (In an effort to force Somaliland to have another shotgun marriage with Somalia, Arab countries banned buying Somaliland’s livestock—an economic holocaust.)
Furthermore, unlike Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti, the International community won’t shed tears for Somaliland, even if it disappears from the face of the earth, much less rescue it. Just like Somalia, if Somaliland is pulverized to dust by either foreign forces or by local mobs, quite frankly the International community could care less. In fact, the world showed much more interest in Somalia than in Somaliland. After all, the International community poured millions of dollars into Somalia, but very little into Somaliland. In reality, Somaliland has one too many enemies, lots of sympathizers but only a handful of friends. So in the event of election crises, Somaliland will be very much left to its own devices, if it is lucky.
But at a closer look, what will be the consequences of a failed election in Somaliland, in 2008?
Undoubtedly, a failed election in Somaliland will lead to a failed state. Predictably, Somaliland will break into three feuding tribal fiefdoms.
Djibouti will arm one faction in Awdal region, close to Djibouti border. Djibouti also wants to either control the commercial port Saylac, in Awdal region, or shut it down. Additionally, Djibouti will seize the opportunity to shove Somali unity down the throats of Somaliland people. (Remember, in the 90s Djibouti was the first nation that not only rejected Somaliland’s independence but also campaigned against it.)
In the mean time, the population in the far Eastern part of Sanag and the majority of Sool regions—the second faction—will align themselves with the current Somali regime led by Abdillahi Yusuf—a hell bent warlord disguised as a president who rarely misses an opportunity to destabilize Somaliland. In fact, as if Mr. Yusuf detects an impending disaster after the 2008 Somaliland election, he reiterates his tribal rhetoric. Recently, regarding Sool conflict, he states, “the attackers of Sool regions will not be allowed to stay there; the secessionists [Somaliland] will not be allowed to break away from Somalia”. (But Mr. Yusuf himself ignited the current Sool conflict in 2003 when he attacked the region and recently he sent troops to that area. http://tinyurl.com/26dv3c) Without a doubt, Mr. Yusuf will rejoice at the sight of Somaliland's pain.
And above all, Ethiopia will, initially, attempt to rescue the current Somaliland regime and keep it in power but once the fabric of Somaliland society disintegrates, the Ethiopian regime will look after its interest. The Addis Ababa—the capital of Ethiopia—regime which is interested in using port Berbera in Somaliland will support the third faction in Togdheer, North West (includes Hargeysa, the capital), Sahil (includes port Berbera), parts of Sanag and Sool regions. Also, there is no doubt that Ethiopia will arm all three Somaliland factions in order to maintain feuding warlords in the region, just like Somalia. So is Ethiopia a “friend” or a foe? You decide. Now, whether we accept this reality or not, this is the fate that waits for Somaliland in the event that the 2008 election fails.
In short, the failed elections of Ethiopia and Kenya should be used as an early warning to avoid igniting an apocalypse in Somaliland. Undoubtedly, the Somaliland upcoming election has the potential to explode like a tinderbox.
As for Somaliland leaders, destroying the country that you have liberated or crushing the democracy you have introduced because of selfishness and greed for power won’t keep you in the presidential seat a day longer. The nation cannot afford another election scandal like the one in 2003. Somaliland barely managed to avoid an election fiasco. And no sooner have the old wounds healed than possibly another election flop approaches. Do you have what it takes to salvage the nation? We Somalilanders ask you. And now, President Kahin’s five-year term is about to end. And he has had a test of leadership, so yet another mind-boggling question is: if the 2008 election doesn’t favor him, will he hog or give up power? Will he take the high road or send the nation down the drain? Will he reinvent the wheel of horror and plunge Somaliland into a catastrophe? Or will he be remembered as the hero who rescued Somaliland? Only time will tell what will happened, but all it takes is one wrong move and Somaliland will cease to exist.
It is also the responsibility of the International community, which will pay 75% of the 2008 election budget, to unambiguously inform Somaliland government and opposition parties that the world will not recognize or deal with a regime that came to power through the backdoor—by illegal means. Additionally, the International community must warn Somali warlords led by Mr. Yusuf, Ethiopia and Djibouti not to get involved in Somaliland’s possible election fiasco.
Equally, Somaliland Diasporas must act as responsible citizens, not clan representatives. Sometimes, they may inadvertently spur violence in Somaliland by backing up the wrong politician or providing him the financial means to mobilize a political force which may eventually turn into a military wing, if push comes to shove. So for those of us who are adamant to ran the show back home while we reside in the heart of Europe, North America, Middle East and elsewhere, living good lives, having good jobs and getting good educations, need to do some rethinking because we could be part of the problem rather the solution. Surprisingly, Somaliland Diasporas could possibly play a destructive role in the upcoming election, if they try to navigate Somaliland from thousands of miles.
And above all, the Somaliland voters—the real winners or losers—should be aware that the upcoming election could be a curse or a blessing. It will be the litmus test for Somaliland. Will it burn or flourish? Clearly beyond a shadow of a doubt, having Mr. Kahin, Mr. Sillanyo or Mr. Warabe in power won’t bring the country closer to recognition. Nor will it make its people poorer or richer than they are now. But election violence and riots will bring Somaliland to its knees. As usual, only after they safely reach Harta Sheikh, many voters will ask themselves: what has happened? Therefore, upholding the interest of the state rather than the tribe’s is the only way forward. That is, we must be loyal to our country, not to our tribes. In contrast, free, fair and transparent election will certainly bring Somaliland closer to not only recognition but also an International aid could start trickling into the country. Clearly, the decisions to salvage or ruin your country are in your hands—so either build it or burn it, like Kenya.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org