Somaliland is a paradox. A self-proclaimed independent territory of Somalia in 1991, it is not recognised as sovereign by any UN member country. Its economy is one of the weakest in the world, and public authorities fail to reduce social inequalities.
However, far from the civil war hitting neighbouring Somalia, Somaliland has pacified its territory and ensured several fundamental freedoms, those of the press and speech in particular. Better still, it has one of the most democratic electoral systems on the African continent; an article published in The Economist even consecrated Somaliland as the ‘strongest democracy in East Africa’. A miracle enabled by an original political system that may experience its greatest fulfilment with the parliamentary and municipal elections scheduled for 31 May 2021.
A State by Default
The existence of Somaliland is, in a way, the result of a failure: the unsuccessful reunification of the Somali peoples.
During colonial times, the horn of Africa was controlled by two states. Italy dominated the East Coast, establishing an extraordinarily authoritarian and segregationist power in the region. The North, current Somaliland, was dominated in a more minimalist way by Great Britain.
On 25 June 1960, Italian Somalia gained independence. It was followed, a week later, by British Somalia. Immediately, the two new states united to form one. By this decision, they drew the wrath of international organisations, which are, for the most part, unfavourable to questioning post-colonial borders so as not to complicate the continent’s pacification. However, the Somali political elites quickly established a single political power, and the rest of the world recognised Somalia as a unified state after a few years.
Nevertheless, the project of a reunified Somalia quickly crumbled. The political powers failed to unite these two regions divorced by history, now built around different political and social cultures. In a context of increasing political tensions, conflicts between northern and southern clans became recurrent. The country’s democratisation failed, and an authoritarian government was established in 1969.
The spark which put a definitive end to united Somalia came at the end of the 1970s. The dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, who still dreamt of a united territory of the Somali people, began launching attacks on Ethiopia. The war was quickly lost, causing the Greater Somalia project to collapse. The South vehemently singled out the northern clans; several massacres happened, and looting was recurrent. The dictatorship tolerated these abuses, sometimes even supporting them, and restricted the political powers of the northern clans. After some time, a massive rebellion broke out in the North, thereby inaugurating a civil war.
In 1991, after a decade of conflict, the Somali state, unable to ensure control of its territory, collapsed—without any belligerent succeeding in ensuring its succession. The North took the opportunity to proclaim its independence on 18 May 1991, based on borders that are relatively similar to those of the former colonial powers.
The region emerges bloodless from the Somali civil conflict, with five per cent of its population having died and more than half of the survivors displaced. The economy had collapsed, and large segments of the people did not benefit from any public service. Moreover, most African states, which were still unfavourable to questioning borders and saw the emergence of such a state as a danger to the region’s stability, did not recognise the country.
In this context, the first months of Somaliland’s existence were just as chaotic as on the eve of independence. However, as Somalia got bogged down in a never-ending conflict, the lull returned quickly to the North. In 1993, the political situation was more or less stabilised in Somaliland, at least enough for an indirect presidential election to occur. The new government managed to take control of the territory and established a partially democratic presidential regime. The latter was reinforced by a new democratic constitution in 2000 and by the formal approval of independence by referendum a year later, with 97% voting in favour.
Clans, Parties and Liberal Democracy
Initially rickety, Somalilander democracy seems much more solid today than at the beginning of the century. In 2010 and later in 2017, the country experienced two peaceful presidential alternations in office, an unprecedented achievement for the region. A miracle partly based on a particular political system: for the historian Gérald Prunier, “Somaliland incorporated its old clan conflict management mechanisms into British common law to achieve a new form of democracy”.
Somaliland has a bicameral presidential political system, which combines three electoral modalities :
- The President is elected by universal, single-round ballot for a four-year term.
- The House of Representatives, which will be elected on 31 May, comprises 82 deputies elected by multi-member proportional representation for five-year terms.
- The House of Elders is a de facto non-elected assembly of traditional tribal leaders. It is responsible for revising the bills passed by the House of Representatives.
Only three political parties can participate in presidential and legislative elections. These are determined according to the results of the municipal elections, which take place once every ten years: the three parties which receive at least 20% of the vote in every constituency of the country (or, failing that, those which receive the most votes nationwide) enjoy national electoral accreditation. This system aims for parties to unite at the national level to reduce political tribalism.
Undoubtedly, democratic life in Somaliland is far from ideal. Publis powers regularly postpone elections due to organisational or economic difficulties: the current House of Representatives has not been renewed for sixteen years, and the Chamber of Elders does not have a strict renewal procedure. Additionally, suspicions of corruption regularly hang over elected officials, although these denunciations are less recurrent than in the past. Nevertheless, Somaliland is still moving in the direction of increasing liberal democratisation. The country is even a pioneer in this matter: during the 2017 presidential election, the authorities successfully used an iris recognition biometric system to avoid double votes. A world first.
Social-Liberalism Versus Conservative Socialism
On 31 May, the 700,000 Somaliland voters will elect new deputies and municipal representatives. These elections will be supervised by an independent entity and not by members appointed by the President, a first in the country’s history.
The front runner is Kulmiye (liberal), the party of President Muse Bihi Abi. The movement currently has a relative majority of seats in the House of Representatives and has won every national election since 2005.
Kulmiye is favourable to establishing a market economy (and is moreover an observer of the Liberal International). However, faced with the emergence of private monopolies and growing inequalities, the party has recently shifted its economic program to the left. For example, Kulmiye’s manifesto defends the nationalisation of a few companies in essential sectors of the economy and an extension of the social assistance systems, financed by tax increases on large fortunes.
The opposition increasingly attacks the party for its lack of commitment to the consolidation of fundamental freedoms and for its reluctance to reform the country’s legal system, copied mainly from the Somali model at the country’s independence and slightly transformed since then.
The main opposition to Kulmiye is undoubtedly Waddani (centre-left|conservative), a populist party that emerged in recent years. The party is a big tent for opponents of the government.
Economically, it is much more to the left: it defends establishing a universal healthcare system and wants to double the educational resources. Waddani supports public investment as a way to revive economic growth. Institutionally, the party describes itself as “a spokesperson for minorities and fundamental freedoms.” For example, it made the inclusion of women in society a watchword of its manifesto; it defends a quorum of 30% of women in Parliament. The party also supports greater decentralisation.
Nonetheless, Waddani differs from classical left-wing movements in several ways. It claims the Islamic moral and cultural heritage and intends to give it a more important place in the education system and laws. The party also defends an economic and diplomatic policy much more nationalist than Kulmiye and promises to increase funding dedicated to the army.
The third party allowed to participate in the legislative election is the UCID (centre-left). The party, an observer of the Socialist International, defends a traditional social democratic policy. However, it is unlikely that the party will play an essential role in this election: it only won four per cent of the vote in the 2017 presidential election.
Surprisingly, the debates bear little on the objective of international recognition of Somaliland’s independence. De facto, the country is already recognised as such: the Somalilander government has established diplomatic and economic relations with many states, and the Somalian government no longer tries to impose its control on Somaliland. Moreover, the few advantages that legal recognition of the country’s sovereignty would provide, such as obtaining loans from the IMF, no longer justify the centrality of this issue in the eyes of the population.
The 31 May elections appear to be a turning point for Somaliland. If the elections are successful functionally, the country’s democracy will be strongly consolidated after fifteen years of electoral stammering. Conversely, a failure would likely end the country’s chances of international recognition, at least in the short term.
More than Somaliland alone, these polls could be the first line of a new page in East African politics; the country’s two giant neighbours, Ethiopia and Somalia, are expected to renew their legislatures too later this year, again after several postponements. A joint success of these three elections, although unlikely, could revitalise hopes for democratisation in the region, dried up by the difficulties of recent years.
This article was quoted in Theorising Somali Society. Hope, Transformation and Development, written by Abdulkadir Osman Farah and Mohamed A. Eno and published in 2022.