SONSAF’s ‘gatekeeper’ role “can dilute the independence of civil society as observers,” says International Election Observers
Independent international team observing Somaliland’s May 312021 parliamentary and local council elections launches final report.
The report in pages 56 and 57 the role of civil society organizations in elections. The observers found that SONAF plays gatekeeper role for “the Somaliland Government, NEC and some international donors,” which “can dilute the independence of civil society as observers and monitors of the political process. It can also act as a barrier to the emergence and acceptance of new voices in civil society.”
Here is the section covering the civil society in verbatim:
Civil society is Somaliland is active and organized. It has coalesced around the Somaliland Non-State Actors’ Forum, SONSAF, which acts as a coordination and collaboration mechanism. NEC views SONSAF as a trusted partner and regular interlocutor. It is clear that working as part of and through SONSAF has given individual civil society organisations (CSOs) access to international acknowledgement and financial support.
It is, however, also the case that the institutionalisation of civil society through SONSAF, and the use of SONSAF as a ‘gatekeeper’ of civil society by the Somaliland Government, NEC and some international donors, can dilute the independence of civil society as observers and monitors of the political process. It can also act as a barrier to the emergence and acceptance of new voices in civil society.
The mission met with a variety of SONSAF members active in the areas of promotion of a free media, women’s rights, the rights of people with disabilities and the interests of members of minority clans. We also interacted with SONSAF members who looked at political and electoral developments more broadly. All such interlocutors participate in SONSAF’s electoral specific work to some extent.
For these elections, civil society election observation, an important safeguard in any electoral process, was not effective. SONSAF were the sole organisation accredited by NEC for election observation, although others had expressed interest in observing but were not permitted to do so. This included the Centre for Policy Analysis (CPA), who sought and were denied accreditation for 600 observers. The effect of this denial was to limit the diversity of reporting and overall reduce scrutiny on election day.
SONSAF set out, with EU support, to provide 200 voting observers and 700 trained conflict observers, although the distinction between the two was not evident in polling stations amongst those observers encountered by the mission or in discussions prior to election day. Efficacy would be significantly enhanced if each were treated as a distinct and independent project with clear and separate terms of reference and implementation. Two hundred national voting observers, if that is the correct figure, would not provide effective coverage of 2,709 polling stations.
While the CPA’s unaccredited observers, who were trained to observe the election, were denied access to polling stations and remained outside them, SONSAF conflict observers, who would have been better deployed observing the general atmosphere and the queues where conflict did occur, were instead inside polling stations where they did not have visibility of outside conditions.
Nevertheless, it was encouraging to see the inclusion of women, people with disabilities and members of minority clans in national observation/conflict monitoring efforts. The mainstreaming of such participation in the largest national observation effort represents good international practice.
Various CSOs engaged in voter information and education efforts, using NEC materials and with financial support from a variety of international donors. When the mission was able to see these efforts on the ground, they appeared to be wellmeaning but also insufficient in terms of availability and content.
Various CSOs set up their own election monitoring and data collection efforts, most notably the SONSAF Election Situation Room and the Nagaad Women’s Situation Room.113 In the case of the SONSAF Situation Room, this functioned more as an Elections Operations Room, bringing together the different parts of Government such as the security forces and NEC to receive and respond to incidents. The SONSAF situation room was also used as a media centre and VIP reception centre. This underlines how intermingled CSOs are with institutions in Somaliland. It is more usual practice that such an effort is led by either the election authorities or the relevant Government entities, not by civil society. While on the face of it, the Women’s Situation Room appeared a more traditional civil society monitoring effort, it too sought to bring together NEC and Government organs to respond to incidents, rather than focus on impartial observing and providing neutral citizens’ advice. The Women’s Situation Room’s own summary report114 indicates that in most of the calls received by them “callers wanted information on voting procedures and centres”, calls that NEC should have handled.
• Civil society should consider the compatibility of seeking to act as both impartial national electoral observers and as partners and service-delivery agents of the Somaliland authorities.
• Donors should ensure that the programmes they fund are clearly defined.
• NEC should accept accreditation from suitably qualified non-partisan civil society organisations