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Somaliland’s Political Crisis: Democracy Threatened or a Failure of Leadership
By Ahmed M.I. Egal
The recent agreement signed between the government and the two opposition parties, with representatives of the international donors as observers, has defused the political crisis in Somaliland which was caused by the debacle of the botched voter registration drive and the resultant repeated delays of the long overdue Presidential elections. To be sure, Somaliland has dodged the proverbial bullet and it is now incumbent on all elements of the Somaliland polity to ensure that such a crisis does not recur. However, what bears clear and dispassionate examination, now that the crisis is over and the signatories have begun to implement the six points outlined in the said agreement, are the origins and nature of the crisis and what corrective actions need to taken to ensure that this sorry episode in our political history is not repeated. In this connection there have been a spate of articles written about the causes of and solution to the crisis in Somaliland, many of which are the usual rants of close-minded clan and political partisans. However, there have also been some thoughtful and scholarly analyses that merit close study.
Michael Walls, Chair of Somaliland Focus (UK) and the Anglo-Somali Society and lecturer at the Development Planning Unit of University College London, has clearly elucidated the sequence of events that lead to the repeated postponements of the Presidential elections in a scholarly paper published by Chatham House. Mr. Walls argues that the crisis occasioned by the botched voter registration process was not only a political one of a dispute between the government and the opposition parties, but also a constitutional crisis since the Somaliland Constitution simply fails to “…identify[ing] the prescribed course of action should an election not be held for reasons other than ‘stability and security’…”. The constitutional dilemma was further exacerbated by the fact that the Somaliland Constitution contains no provision for the accession of a President (and thus an Executive) except through a valid election. Thus, opposition calls for the President to step down in favor of a ‘Unity Government’ lead by the Chairman of the Guurti, Mr. Saleebaan Maxamuud Aadan (“Gaal”) were unconstitutional and ultra vires.
I heartily applaud Mr. Wall’s clear and objective description of the events leading up to the crisis, and endorse his recommendations that Somaliland’s political actors embrace their peoples’ culture of consultation and negotiation to resolve their political problems, and that the international community must do more to support Somaliland’s successful experiment in establishing a functioning, indigenous democracy in the planet’s toughest neighborhood. However, I would take issue with Mr. Walls regarding whether the crisis had a constitutional component. The fact that the Somaliland Constitution does not address what should happen if “an election not be held for reasons other than ‘stability and security’…” is neither surprising nor significant in my view. Certainly, the wording of this article in the constitution needs to be clarified and strengthened to refer specifically to instances where it would be very difficult or impossible to effectively undertake an election, e.g. war, riots, insurrection etc. Indeed, we can say that the constitution as a whole needs to be revisited in several areas in order to clarify, strengthen and even amend some of its articles, after all, it was never intended as a tablet set in stone when it was adopted, but rather as the skeleton that needs to be fleshed out over time through laws passed by the legislature. However, in this particular instance, we are concerned with delays caused by problems encountered during the first ever voter registration process, and I can think of no constitution of a democratic country that envisages what steps should be taken in such an eventuality. In fact, I cannot think of any constitution that prescribes a course of action in the event that an election cannot be held for reasons other than ‘stability and security’.
The fact of the matter is that the delay of the Presidential elections, and the political crisis caused thereby, is due essentially to the inability of the National Election Commission (NEC) to properly and effectively complete the voter registration process. Mr. Walls addresses this point well in his paper and points out that a variety of factors contributed to this debacle, including mismanagement and incompetence of some Commission members, massive fraud in the registrations themselves and the addition of new facial recognition software midway through the exercise in an attempt to counter the massive fraud evident in the initial exercise. Overlying these factors outlined by Mr. Walls, but diplomatically not mentioned in his paper, is the carefully orchestrated politicization of the NEC itself by the political parties in an effort to secure electoral advantage. It was in this atmosphere of incompetence, fraud and poisonous political polarization that relations between the NEC and the INGO employed to assist in completion of the voter registration process, Interpeace, broke down irretrievably.
My friend, Bashir Goth, a Somaliland journalist with a deserved reputation for objectivity and research rigor in his writings, has also weighed in to credit Somaliland’s “foreign friends and a watchful media” with saving Somaliland from itself. Mr. Goth states that it was the people of Somalia, through business leaders, clan elders and other civil society leaders, which showed wisdom and sought to rein in the political leaders and their acolytes. However, my friend is simply wrong to go on to conclude that these efforts did not succeed and that the intervention of foreign aid donors was required to avoid a descent into chaos. In fact, the tension had already been dissipated and the political leaders had backed away from their brinkmanship, after having been read the riot act in very clear terms by their people, when the Guurti adopted the six-point proposal floated by the representatives of the foreign donors. To be sure, the intervention of the foreign donors was both crucial and timely as it demonstrated to all parties that Somaliland’s peace and stability is greatly admired and valued by the international community. Further, it made crystal clear to all parties that any efforts to undermine the said peace and stability for personal political gain would be met with international opprobrium and condemnation. It is not my intention to minimize the importance of this intervention, merely to suggest that it provided welcome foreign legitimacy to the irresistible domestic, public impetus for compromise and calm reflection.
Despite Bashir’s expressed fears, the tribal genie was never close to being released from the bottle since this would require mass public unrest along clan lines, which not only never materialized and but was not even on the cards. In this context, we must bear in mind the Ceel Bardale conflict between the two clans that predominate in this area, which some cynical and evil activists attempted to use to incite civil unrest. Despite a hesitant and weak government response to criminal acts, including the brutal murders of innocent people, which understandably inflamed local sentiments, the clan incitement of those that wished to leverage this tragedy into widespread civil unrest failed miserably. This episode must be seen as part and parcel of the political crisis which closely followed its inception, and it is in this context that the resolute rejection of clan conflict-as-politics by the mass of ordinary people of Somaliland becomes apparent. If anything, the advent of the political crisis and its eventual resolution is a proud testament to the political maturity of the people of Somaliland, if not their political leaders, and the deep roots that their indigenous democracy has already sunk in the public consciousness.
It is incontestable that all the parties involved bear some measure of responsibility for the political crisis that engulfed Somaliland. The government must shoulder some of the blame for the NEC’s incompetence and ineffectiveness, since ultimately the government bears the responsibility for its supervision on behalf of the people of Somaliland as well as the foreign donors, i.e. the botched voter registration happened on its watch. The government should have brought the NEC’s ineffectiveness to light long before the situation deteriorated into a crisis. Further, the government’s unwillingness to countenance any consultation and collaboration with the opposition, possibly through the mediation of the Guurti and/or the clan elders, as evidenced by its unilateral and summary expulsion of the Interpeace representative, exposed its siege mentality. The responsibility of government must override the impetus to withdraw into one’s shell when under concerted attack, after all it is precisely when a crisis arises that brave and creative leadership is required – anyone can govern when the going is smooth!
The opposition parties, for their part, never showed any desire to ensure an efficient and fair registration process; rather they were focused upon futile and unconstitutional efforts to unseat the government by extra-judicial measures, some of which involved the Chairman of the Guurti – Mr. Saleeban Gaal. In addition, their insistence upon holding the elections based upon the interim voter list, which was confirmed by Interpeace as fatally flawed through massive fraud, was laughable and exposed their lack of willingness to find a just solution. The opposition parties have to learn that their role requires that they stand for some greater principle than securing the Presidency for their leaders, and that knee-jerk opposition to everything the government does or proposes is infantile and self-defeating. Having done nothing to facilitate the voter registration process, indeed having arguably delayed and frustrated the exercise at every turn, the opposition parties pursued a cynical and unconstitutional campaign to unseat the elected government by any means, all the while failing to elucidate any realistic proposal to complete a fair and open voter list.
The turning point in this drama of incompetence, corruption and self-serving partisanship came when an opposition demonstration in Hargeysa turned violent and some three people were killed in a shootout with the police. Up to that point, the machinations of the politicians jockeying for political advantage had been observed by the public with growing dismay, but some amusement. The armed confrontation between a small group of demonstrators and the police, not to mention the deaths occasioned thereby, comprised a rude awakening for the people of Somaliland. Accordingly, in response to widespread public anger and unease that their hard-won peace and stability were being threatened and compromised by the political elite the clan elders, religious leaders, civic society organizations and the Guurti swung into action. An important element of this public anger came from the SNM veterans (I’m referring here to the young foot soldiers which now had matured into middle age and not their commanders), many of whom are disabled and unemployed. These veterans publicly warned the political leaders that they would be made to pay dearly if they incited civil disturbance and destroyed the country’s peace and stability, which was the only tangible benefit accruing to them from their years of fighting.
In conclusion, it is clear that Somaliland’s democracy is neither fragile nor threatened by domestic, political trends. One must remember the armed clan conflicts of the mid-1990s which arose at a time when the Liberation War against the Siyad regime was fresh in peoples’ minds, an atmosphere of armed insurrection prevailed and clan militias roamed the country unchecked, to appreciate how far we have come. If the political elite seems to have forgotten the social and human cost of this sorry period in Somaliland’s emergence as a democratic and peaceful country, clearly the public has not. One major lesson to be gleaned from the recent political crisis in Somaliland is not that Somaliland’s unique experiment in indigenous, African democracy is fragile, but that Somaliland’s political leaders have yet to meet the standard of maturity, sacrifice and patriotism set by the people they seek to govern.
Another lesson is that the international community can no longer continue to ignore Somaliland’s legitimate claim to recognition, while paying lip service to its unique achievement in establishing a functioning, indigenous democracy with virtually no outside help. The days of holding the people of Somaliland hostage to the continued failure of Somalia to establish a modus operandi for governing itself must come to an end. The world has to realize that nice words and token aid grants are nothing more than hypocritical sops, so long as the lack of investment and commercial engagement continue to rob Somaliland’s people, particularly its youth, of the opportunity to improve their lives and develop their country. The lack of recognition and the ban on Somaliland’s livestock exports to the Arabian Peninsula have effectively turned the country into a mass prison, robbing its enterprising people of the capacity to improve their lives through their own hard work and entrepreneurship. This cavalier and callous attitude on the part of the international community is the true threat to Somaliland’s democracy, not the self-serving machinations of Somaliland’s political elite with which its people have become all too familiar. Thus, the international community, particularly the Western Powers, must ‘put up or shut up’.
Ahmed M.I. Egal
08 October 2009
 Somaliland: Democracy Threatened, Chatham House Africa Programme September 2009 AFB BN 2009/02
 Somaliland is Rescued by Foreign Friends and a Watchful Media, Bashir Goth Somaliland.org 28/9/09