The postponement of a vote set for mid-December to 2022 and increasing crackdowns on free speech pose a risk to Somaliland, an internationally endorsed autonomous region of Somalia that straddles the borders of Ethiopia and Djibouti.
Some analysts see Somaliland as East Africa’s strongest democracy, located at a strategic intersection and key to the development of the Horn of Africa.
The most recent postponement of the parliamentary vote to 2022 has triggered political infighting and discontent on the part of the opposition and among young people who say they feel excluded. The majority of Somaliland’s population are under 35.
A disenfranchised generation
“We are having a whole generation unable to elect their own representatives, because everyone who is under the age of 30 was not eligible to vote in 2005 when our parliament was elected,” says Guleid Ahmed Jama, a lawyer and political analyst. “There is a detachment between the elected officials and the majority of the people in the city, who are suffering because of unemployment and other social issues.”
Somaliland, home to over 4.5 million people, declared independence from Somalia in 1991. The move came after years of dictatorship and bloody conflict under Somali President Mohamed Siad Barre. The region’s fight to be recognized as an independent state has been hindered by diplomatic issues between the international community and Somalia. Somaliland, meanwhile, functions as a sovereign entity, with its own constitution, institutions and permanent population.
While presidential elections have been held on a regular basis, the upper and lower houses of parliament have been in place for 14 and 22 years respectively. The elections for the lower house scheduled for this year were put off until 2022, officially because parties disagreed on who should run the new National Election Commission.
However, many people argue that the unwillingness of Somaliland parliamentarians to relinquish power is behind the repeated deferral of the vote. Local councils have also been operating without a mandate since April.
“The problem is, even if this [issue oo the election commission] is solved, the issue related to disputes on election and postponement of elections will not be resolved,” says Guleid Ahmed Jama. “This requires addressing the root cause of the problem, which relates to the rule of law and the place of the judiciary. The electoral law and the electoral commission need to be reformed in order to conform with democratic principles.”
The main opposition Waddani party has accused Kulmiye, the ruling party of President Musa Bihi Abdi, of appointing biased members to the National Election Commission. To protest this and the delay of elections, Waddani called for a rally at the party’s headquarters in the capital, Hargeisa. On November 18, Waddani’s secretary-general and spokesman were arrested, then released one week later.
“Taking them to prison was illegal because we are in the opposition and we have the right to criticize the government normally, like in any democracy in the world,” said Waddani chairman Abdirahman Mohamed Abdillahi, also known as Irro.
The ruling party denies clamping down on the opposition, which it blames for the postponed elections.
“Kulmiye party was ready and prepared to hold the elections on time, but the Somaliland system requires all three political parties to agree to hold the elections,” said Ahmed Abdi Hussien, its deputy chairperson. “It was very unfortunate that the Waddani party refused … to agree with the nominations made by our party, although we have not interfered with their nominations. This caused the extension of the time for the current sitting parliament.”
Somaliland is ruled by three national parties, a number limited by the constitution in order to discourage clan-based and sub-clan parties and competition, which have led to tensions in the past. Such alliances, however, still play an important part in the region’s politics. Disagreements between sub-clans have led to tensions within the ruling party itself.
While Kulmiye deputy chairman, Ahmed Abdi Hussien, insists that the clan system is “almost disappearing” from politics and especially among young people, those dynamics still come into play during elections.
“Certainly the percentage of youth is huge, but that doesn’t mean that they have much political weight. Sadly, they don’t organize around their own political demands,” says Rakiya Omaar, a human rights activist and director of Horizon Institute. The NGO works in the justice sector to promote human rights and institution building. “Unless they divorce themselves from political parties, which are very much along clan lines, I don’t think a lot will change,” she said.
Despite the political squabbles, Somaliland is still considered as a model of internal stability and peace in the Horn of Africa, and one with strong institutions. But human rights organizations say democracy might be threatened by an increase in arrests and arbitrary detention of journalists and opposition figures. Only a few weeks ago, the chief editor of privately owned Horn Cable TV was arrested by the police, and the station was forcibly closed.
“We have seen that media outlets and other individuals who are critical of the government, particularly those who talk about corruption cases, have been targeted, arrested and had their media outlets closed down. It is a violation of freedom of expression,” says Abdullahi Hassan, Amnesty International’s Somalia researcher. “I’m really afraid that the country might descend into worrying kinds of chaos if this current pattern continues.”
This trend, combined with a poor economic situation worsened by its non-recognition as an independent state, makes Somaliland vulnerable to outside threats, says Guleid Ahmed Jama.” If democracy is not strengthened, the instability in Somalia, where al-Shabab and other militants operate, can threaten Somaliland. “I believe the president should take more responsibility … and should ensure elections happen earlier than 2022,” he insists.
But Rakiya Omaar is confident that the willingness of the Somaliland population to safeguard peace will play a significant role in maintaining the country’s stability. That stability is Somaliland’s most treasured asset and it’s what makes people have red lines beyond which they won’t go, she says: “Without stability, we wouldn’t be talking about political integration or economic success or anything else.”