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Shaky Peace After Parliamentary Fist Fight
By Matt Brown
Hargeysa, Somaliland, October 10, 2009 – The speaker of Somaliland’s parliament was happy after the session on September 26. No one punched each other during the assembly. No one pulled a gun. No one even argued.
The parliament chamber here was quiet at the beginning of the week. MPs milled around outside the shabby assembly hall with its faded white walls, powder-blue curtains and odd, incongruous fireplace in one corner. The politicians began a legislative week that brought this aspiring state away from the brink of a political crisis.
On September 8, a heated debate between MPs turned into a bout of fisticuffs, with rival politicians punching each other. One MP reportedly drew a handgun, but no shots were fired. The president ordered the police to move in and they cleared out the parliament chamber and locked the MPs out of the building.
“Before yesterday, the situation was very tense,” Abdirahman Abdillahi, the speaker of parliament, said in an interview on September 26. “Now everyone is relaxed.”
Somaliland, the north-western region of Somalia, is inherently different from the rest of the country that has perpetually been at war for the last 20 years. The country declared independence from the rest of Somalia in 1991, but has since struggled to gain international recognition despite having a stable government and functioning institutions.
Leaders here say last week’s political brawl was just a fledgling nation taking its newfound democracy for a test drive. But it could have dire consequences as Somaliland tries to convince the world that it is the torchbearer of stability in the Horn of Africa.
“Sometimes two brothers fight, but at the end of the day, they are friends,” said Abdilaziz Samaleh, an MP.
“We are glad we have opposition parties that can demonstrate an opinion. We think we are a good example for our neighbors in Africa.”
The dust-up in parliament was over a measure to impeach the president, who has repeatedly postponed the presidential election and has extended his mandate for more than a year. The latest attempt at an election was supposed to take place on September 27, but was put off for at least three months because of an inaccurate voter registration database.
Parliament last week tabled the motion to impeach the president and the council of elders, the upper house, voted to allow international election experts to fix the voter list, and the crisis was averted, for now.
Dahir Riyale Kahin, the president, and his United People’s Democratic party, are battling two vibrant opposition parties in the upcoming election, which experts say will now take place in January at the earliest. Mr. Riyale, who is seeking a second five-year term, has been praised for bringing security to the country amid a troubled region. But critics say the leader of Somaliland, a potential oil producer, is corrupt and unlawfully clinging to power.
“I have done a lot of things for this country,” Mr. Riyale said in an interview with The National at his presidential mansion in Hargeysa, the capital.
“I have brought all Somalilanders together. I want to leave a legacy for this country.”
The stiffest opposition to Mr. Riyale comes from Ahmed Mohamed Mahamoud, known as Sillanyo, a 72-year-old former Somaliland resistance fighter and leader of the Development and Solidarity party. He said that the president’s failure to lead the country to recognized independence should not be rewarded with another term.
“He has already failed,” Mr. Mahamoud said. “Why should he be able to do it again?
“He has already lost the confidence of the people.”
Somaliland has been able to avoid the fractious inter-clan fighting that plagues the rest of Somalia. Al Shabaab, a radical Islamist movement with ties to al Qa’eda that has waged a bitter war in southern Somalia for the last two years, has been largely shut out of Somaliland by security forces here.
But there are signs that Somaliland’s political instability could open a door for the insurgents.
“Any kind of disarray is going to give them an opportunity to exploit the situation,” Mr Mahamoud said. “We hope that does not happen here.”
Last year, suicide bombers in Hargeysa simultaneously attacked a United Nations building, an Ethiopian government building and the presidential compound. Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack that killed 25 and narrowly missed killing the president.
Three weeks ago, Sheik Muktar Abu Zubayr, the spiritual leader of al Shabaab, threatened Somaliland, calling the brand of democracy it practices un-Islamic and demanding implementation of Islamic law. Politicians and analysts admit that there are underground al Shabaab sympathizers in Somaliland.
“Definitely there are underground cells in Somaliland,” a Somalilander author of a book on al Shabaab said on condition of anonymity fearing reprisals. “You will never know who they are because they blend in.”
As politicians fought it out in parliament last week, a violent protest erupted on the dusty streets of Hargeysa over the delayed election. Rioters clashed with security forces and torched a car. Three people died and a dozen were injured during the battle. Politicians said it was the work of hotheaded political activists, but analysts said Islamist extremists paid disenfranchised young men to create the upheaval.
A week later, it was back to business as usual in Hargeysa. Men talked and drank strong dark tea in the shade of trees. Women sold khat, a leafy stimulant, from roadside kiosks. Donkeys pulled carts loaded with tanks of drinking water. Money changers traded sacks full of nearly worthless Somaliland shillings for a few dollars.
Despite the recent unrest, both on the streets and in parliament, Somalilanders pride themselves on being able to work out their problems through dialogue, unlike their trigger-happy brothers to the south.
On a recent hot day in central Hargeysa, Aden Ahmed, a veteran of Somaliland’s last war more than two decades ago, chatted with friends in the shadow of a fighter jet mounted on a pedestal – a monument to Somalia’s civil war. “We settle our problems around the table,” he said, “not on the battlefield.”
Source: The National, October 03. 2009