Somaliland votes for Stability – Personal Observation

Nov 13, 2017, from an independent observer

 

The elections today in Somaliland were remarkably peaceful and orderly. Observers hardly remarked any irregularity. Participation rates seem to be high. In and around Hargeisa an estimated 80-90% of registered voters cast their vote. Queues were orderly and polling staff, party observers and police appeared to fulfill their tasks professionally.

It is widely expected that the ruling Kulmiye party, whose current President Silanyo is stepping down, will win the popular vote, but the main opposition party, Wadani, could come a close second. The other party in this constitutionally-fixed three party system, UCID, will certainly come last. The results are expected to be announced around November 17 or 18; until then, social media is cut off.

 

No clashes with Puntland

The anticipated disturbances caused by Puntland or anti-Somaliland clan militia in the disputed areas of East Somaliland[1] did not take place. Despite the order given on November 7 by Puntland’s parliament to its government to disrupt the elections, and the subsequent deployment of troops and battle wagons in the contested zone, Puntland did not interfere today. Puntland did use its security forces to disrupt Somaliland’s National Electoral Commission (NEC) distribution of the new biometric voter cards in July, and has repeatedly warned that it would not allow elections to take place in the areas it considers as belonging to Puntland, so their inaction came as a surprise.

The quick and discrete visit two days ago, on November 11, of President Silanyo to Ethiopia may provide an explanation. It is conjectured he appealed to the Ethiopian authorities to bear pressure on Puntland to desist. Ethiopia is the guardian of the security apparatuses of both Somaliland and Puntland, notably controlling the ammunition supply to them (Somalia is still under UN arms embargo and cannot freely source its own arms).

It also seems that the Warsangeli Sultan, who commands the absolute loyalty of his clan, let both Puntland and Mogadishu know that he would not tolerate destabilization. Warsangeli elders in Badhan, which has administration offices of both Puntland and Somaliland, reportedly stated today that their people should participate in both Somaliland and Puntland politics if they want to.

The other, larger clan in the disputed area is the Dhulbahante, centered on Sool. Puntland had deployed battle wagons and troops not far from the regional capital Laas Caanood, and also sent forces to the outskirts of Taleex, a historic town close to Puntland’s borders. But these troops are Dhulbahante and it was widely assumed they would not shed the blood of their clan brothers. Puntland is not popular enough among the Dhulbahante to send non-local security forces there.

Dhulbahante set up ‘Khatumo state’, their own administration, with the goal to establish a federal state within Somalia.  For several reasons that has proven impossible, and now Khatumo has effectively integrated Somaliland with a power-sharing arrangement, putting end to years of low-intensity armed conflict which made the Dhulbahante area largely off-bounds.

A Khatumo splinter group was established by Dhulbahante rejecting this deal. This splinter group twice carjacked NGO vehicles this summer, and used one of them (converted into a ‘technical’ with a machine gun on the roof) to mount an attack on electoral officials distributing voter cards in Sool this summer. One or two violent incidents by this group to disrupt the elections were expected today, however they also kept quiet. This may either indicate subservience to Puntland, or the grip of traditional Dhulbahante elders, who decided there would be no violence today.

International observers today ventured into Dhulbahante areas that until shortly were considered off-limits for foreigners, because they are linked to the Somaliland government or simply because they drive nice vehicles that clan militia desire. The concerted effort by the government in Hargeisa to co-opt part of the Dhulbahante and enforce peace (through deals brokered by clan elders, not security forces) among clans whose long conflict has destabilized the area seems to have paid off. It may also be that Somaliland, after 25 years of stability and growth, has more to offer them than Puntland or Mogadishu.

The sketchy reports received so far from Eastern Somaliland indicate a good voter turnout. But many people in these areas had not bothered to register to vote in the first place, and it is not clear whether polling was also successful in remote areas.

 

Expectations

Wherever we went today, we encountered elated Somalilanders, simply happy at the good conduct of the elections. The biometric voter cards, the running of more than 1800 polling stations, the law and order in which the polling took place are all taken as evidence of their sociopolitical maturity. Truly, the Somalilanders today voted for stability. Compared to the violence and political upheaval in surrounding countries of the Horn of Africa, Somaliland has indeed again proven it is a stable, peaceful country. Now they want to be recognized and foreign investment to flow into their dry country poor in natural resources (the main income generator is livestock, exported alive to the Gulf).

I was often asked today whether the international community will now finally recognize the independence of Somaliland[2]. It would seem that for many Somalilanders, the internationally imposed ritual of elections is seen as a test that they now have conclusively passed. As inhabitants of an unrecognized country, they cannot travel, open international accounts etc. They may have learnt to deal with the impracticalities (acquiring a Somali or other identity), but recognition remains a question of pride for most, and better access to global resources and power for the business and other elites.

 

Disaffected Youth

Now we must turn to the large part of the potential electorate who didn’t register to vote. The total population of Somaliland may be estimated at 3 million. Half of them may be considered under 16 (voting age), leaving 1.5 million eligible voters. Of these less than half – 704,000 – have a voter card. Considerable efforts, supervised by international organizations, were deployed to ensure that all eligible people did get a good chance to register during the voter registration of 2016-17. This means that more than half of the eligible electorate did not bother.

This half is composed of two groups: clans (or sub-clans) who feel they have no stake in the Isaaq-dominated government (the Dhulbahante and Warsangeli described before, and the Essa on the country’s border with Djibouti); and the youth.

Many youngsters I spoke to – they are of the educated, English-speaking kind, so maybe not representative of their age group, but of future leaders – told me they had no desire to participate in the elections. The main critique is that the government is clan-based. Clan elders successfully set up and consolidated this country, and the social peace among the clans is proof that they still play an important role. But the young generation of Somalilanders, who did not live through the war, feel it is time for the clans to relinquish their grip on government and make place for young professionals.

Over the past decade the frugal lifestyle of the erstwhile leaders of the country, mostly ex-combatants of the Somali National Movement with a socialist bent, has been replaced by the ostentatious display of wealth of the new business elite and their political protégés, as well as their clan members more generally who have preferential access to civil service jobs and the corridors of power. Corruption is growing in scale, and deals such as that made with Dubai Ports World to develop Berbera Port with a 422 million USD investment and a 30-year lease, are assumed to only benefit those now in power.

The Wadani opposition party tried to capitalize on this discontent by mobilizing the youth with slogans like ‘change’. Given the political record of its leaders, mostly part of the establishment, it is unlikely to deliver on this promise even if it wins.

Somaliland’s youth has been described as ‘politically apathic’; indeed, they did not put up a large showing today. These elections consecrated the (still tenuous) hold over power of the current ruling elites, but they provide no answer to the question: how will Somaliland effectuate the necessary transition from clan-dominated to post-clan politics?


[1] Eastern Somaliland is inhabited by the Warsangeli and the Dhulbahante, two powerful tribes that belong to the Harti Confederation, as do the Majerteen who rule almost all of Puntland. The more powerful Majerteen consider themselves to lead the Harti confederation and thus claim the Eastern part of Somaliland. Somaliland’s claim to the region rests on the 1960 borders of British Somaliland. As a Dhulbahante once jokingly told me, ‘Puntland wants our people and Somaliland our land’.

[2] I didn’t have the heart to point out that previous successful elections had no such effect, and that to garner external attention, elections must be violent or fraudulent. Peaceful elections in a small country will pass unnoticed.

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