2010 election blog

You can read election observer blogs from the 2010 Somaliland presidential elections below.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this blog are individual ones, and may not represent the official view of Somaliland Focus or the international election observation mission

Howard Knight, IEO team member

Immediately outside the Hotel Mansoor there are eight pomegranate trees. At dusk I had watched hundreds of small birds land in the trees to roost overnight. There would then be all sorts of squabbles breaking out for the next hour as they sorted themselves out. Eventually they would settle down; but then it was time for the three cats to arrive.

The cats would quietly stalk up to the trees, disturb the birds, and then retreat – and then come back and do it again and again and again. Each time, all the birds would fly up, before dropping down to squabble and roost again. After about an hour of this, the cats would disappear for about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, the birds would have properly settled and roosted for the night – and all would be quiet.

Then, the cats would return. Two would position themselves below the big windows of the hotel, just a few feet from the pomegranate trees. Then, the third cat would suddenly leap into the tree nearest the window. All hell would break loose as the birds flew in all directions – some inevitably straight into the hotel windows, where they would knock themselves out and fall to the ground just where the cats were sitting. The rest, as they say, is history. This great drama used to take place every night, but you wouldn’t know unless you sat outside to watch, braving the mosquitoes.

And, then there was Act 2. After the cats had collected their dinner, it was time for the large owl to have a turn. It would sit on the hotel roof and survey the menu and swoop down. As panic set in, the owl would make its choice for the night.”

Ed “The Mole” Hobey, IEO logistics co-ordinator
“I must admit that my first thought on landing in Hargeisa was “what have I got myself into?” I had spent the past few weeks trying to explain to my ever-worrying mum the difference between Somalia and Somaliland. I had reassured her that – after years of civil war and human rights abuses – in 1991, Somaliland had unilaterally declared independence and had broken from greater Somalia. I had gone into great detail about how Somaliland had managed to remain relatively stable as an autonomous region, even as Somalia slipped further into chaos.
Having been buffeted about in a tiny European Commission propeller plane from Nairobi and landing on a desolate and dusty airstrip with armed men around the airport, I began to wonder whether or not my mum had been right all along.
These doubts were soon quashed. Driving through Hargeisa to our hotel, we saw poverty but also a population going about its everyday life, doing remarkably ordinary things; free from the threat of conflict and the scourges of the south, the piracy and the warring militias. There were the signs of a state fulfilling at least some of its functions, a police force, children coming out of schools and roads. There was also a palpable excitement in the air, and this was because of the upcoming Presidential election.
I really got a sense of the complexities involved in holding the election when we met the National Electoral Commission on one of our first days in Hargeisa. The new commissioners were only appointed in September 2009 and told they had to arrange an election involving an electorate of a million and a half people across a thousand polling stations. And to be fair, they did a superb job of cleaning up the list of voters and supplying new voter registration cards. It was an incredible effort.
The joint coordinators were in place three weeks before the election. We managed to speak to the three presidential candidates. One rule they had agreed to was separate days for each party to campaign on. This meant that each day was marked by Hargeisa being painted in the different colours of each party. The campaigning we observed was peaceful and enthusiastic, with many young people taking part – especially young women, normally bound by tight social constraints.
There were actually programmes on Radio Hargeisa encouraging women to take part, as a step to getting further political and human rights.
Most students finished their exams during the campaigns so were able to get involved, and there was definitely a carnival atmosphere. A lesson that UK politicians could learn from is that as soon as speakers turned to negative campaigning and insulting the other parties, even the most packed rallies would lose interest and quickly disperse. A nice visual representation of what puts people off politics.
The rest of the 60-strong international team turned up in the days before the election, and they were truly international – we had people from 3 continents and 16 countries. This made organising briefings difficult, as people had World Cup matches that they really couldn’t afford to miss!
We also had plenty of observers from the Somali diaspora which meant that they could travel to some of the more dangerous places where ‘mzungos’ (white people) might have been too conspicuous.
The briefings covered what observing actually entails: you’re there to report on what you see, not to intervene. We showed them ballot papers and copies of the thrilling read which is Somali electoral law. We also told them about the ink that voters would have to dip their little fingers in, as evidence they had voted and to stop multiple voting. This ink was amazing. It lasts for a week and is so strong that it can survive bleach. Although your finger might not. Needless to say, it’s banned in the UK, and had to be imported from China.
We did have security concerns – al Shabaab, the al Qaeda related group who were responsible for the suicide bombings in Uganda, came out a few days before the election and said that Somalilanders should not vote or would face the consequences. We would also hear conflicting rumours and reports about terrorist cells being arrested and exchanges of gunfire with the police. Almost perversely, we saw this as positive. To us, it meant that, if local communities were reporting suspicious activity to the police, there was a real public commitment to holding these elections.
The delays and postponements had not led to a frustrated and disinterested electorate, but one that was determined that this time it would be different – and which did, in fact, turn out in huge numbers.
The election day itself was manic; it started at 4am when it was a case of matching up the international observers with their domestic counterparts, their vehicles and their armed guards. It was chaos.
The polling stations were equally busy; queues had formed overnight, with 300- 400 people in line before they even opened. Polling centres often had more than one polling station, each with more than one entrance. Which one you went into was determined alphabetically. But Somaliland is a mostly illiterate society, and polling station staff often didn’t inform people of where they were meant to be. So you might reach the front of the queue after three or four hours, only to be told you should be at another polling station two kilometres further down the road. Unsurprisingly arguments and scuffles broke out fairly regularly. We had reports of the security personnel having to fire their rifles into the air to restore calm. In one case, the guard forgot that they were inside a polling station, rather than outside, and shot into the ceiling. Plaster fell down and general panic ensued for a few more minutes at least.
We gave our observers fairly comprehensive check lists to complete, asking them to look at a whole range of things: were the security seals on the ballots boxes in place; were the numbers of the seals the same as at the start of the day; were the security numbers on the ballot papers being recorded. And then we asked them to observe how people were voting, was it done in secrecy, were ID cards and little fingers being checked. They were expected to watch a polling station counting the ballot papers in the evening, with a separate form to fill in. All in all, a very time consuming process. That our teams observed twenty or so separate polling stations each, and we were able to visit 35% of polling stations across the country, was testament to their hard work.
We released our initial findings at a press conference, that we considered the elections to have been free, fair and an expression of the will of the Somaliland people. While there were problems in some cases, these were often limited to individual polling stations or regions, and the result of the inexperience of polling station staff rather than anything more sinister. Overall, important standards like secret voting and voting without harassment and intimidation were easily met. Problems such as staff in dark and dingy polling stations resorting to the light from their mobile phones during the counting of the ballot papers will be addressed in time.
I hope the future for Somaliland is bright; there is a new president with a large mandate, and hopefully the smooth running of the election will make the international community sit up and pay attention. International recognition would be such a large step, it would encourage trade regionally and help Somaliland attract foreign investment. But there is still this concern, that if Somaliland gets recognition, every other nation with secessionist sentiments will ask, well why not us?
I think what I’ll take away from this experience is that the peaceful election and transition of power was achieved through sheer popular will. And that this is an example of solidarity and passion – something we speak of at Progressio – in action.”

Steve Kibble, Joint IEO Co-ordinator

“Given this was a presidential election there was bound to be a personal focus on the three candidates and their running mates. Indeed policy stuff was not really present and where it was it was often contradictory – as though promises made in one location would not be reported elsewhere. So one of the candidates could promise to institute sharia law in a more religious area, while advocating a near-feminist approach elsewhere. The same candidate wanted a lean state (they all said that) while advocating a big road-building, health and education programme.

In 2005 the parliamentary elections got a bit tasty as parties ignored their pledges to campaign on separate days. This time they obeyed the code of conduct and had different days. The campaign buses full of schoolkids on holiday were enthusiastically packed. Young excited women in particular leant out at alarming distances from the buses – a great opportunity to get out and about, free from the usual restrictions. Near the presidential palace a car draped with a huge flag in the green and yellow colours of Kulmiye was being driven by a young woman dressed all in black including the veil over her face – though with designer shades on top. She was bellowing slogans into a loudhailer.

If the voting age had been lowered to 10, the smallest of the three parties would have won in a landslide. In fact in the president’s home area everyone seemed to be pulling out the stops for him. Sheaves of voting cards were given out to kids who queued as patiently as the adults in the hot sun. Some were turned back but other ‘slow growing nomads’, as Somalis put it, apparently got through the system. However, given the freeness and fairness we witnessed elsewhere, this did not seem to affect our verdict on the election being an authentic expression of the will of the people.

Aside from a tragic killing in the east of the country (where allegiances are divided between Somaliland and Puntland), the whole campaign was marked by peace and stability. The result was decisive – a relief for those who remembered the knife-edge result of the 2003 presidential elections. And the incumbent – as did the other losing candidate – accepted and acknowledged his defeat.

Our core team won praise (deservedly so) for an unstinting three or four weeks work (plus the two years waiting for the election to happen). Special mention to Ed the logistics guy, who in his first trip to Africa spent so long indoors we called him the Mole and reckoned he went on a sunbed and pressed ‘suck’.

Here’s to the next elections…”

Conrad Heine, IEO media co-ordinator

[The following was originally published on The Economist Online]

“TO QUOTE one of my more knowledgeable colleagues: “Elections are funny things. Highly technical and procedural exercises that are yet filled with emotion and rhetoric.” During Britain’s recent election, emotion ran short. In Somaliland, it is present in spades. An election in a bit of Somalia, the world’s most failed state, is something to get emotional about.The streets of Hargeisa, Somaliland’s ramshackle and dusty capital, are a carnival. I am here in the north-west of what is still officially Somalia as part of a team of international observers, invited by Somaliland’s electoral commission, for the final week of the de facto state’s presidential election, to (they hope) verify the process, and, if so, help strengthen Somaliland’s long campaign for official recognition.

Somalilanders, manacled to the profoundly failed state in the south, crave recognition, and all the advantages—such as multilateral assistance—it brings. But in the African Union (AU), they lack allies. Beyond the AU, Morocco fears what it could mean for its own claim over Western Sahara. Still, while pursuing the distant dream, Somalilanders have got on with state-building. This second presidential election (the first was in 2003, followed by a parliamentary election in 2005) is the latest stage of a democratic experiment as Athenian as it gets these days, that the world has largely failed to notice.

Many of my fellow observers—59 of us, from 16 countries, including a fair swathe of diaspora Somalilanders—believe deeply in what Somaliland is trying to do. Me, I’m also curious. This is Somalia, after all. Dinner-party conversation-starters sorted for months. But the stakes are high, with long delays in holding the poll, originally set for 2008, sharpening tensions. And there is a chill from the south, where al-Shabaab are no fans of the idea of a democratic secessionist state. Disruption of the election would be a hot ticket, an incident involving foreigners—election observers perhaps—better still.

At our first security briefing the point is underlined: “See you on YouTube, with a bag over your head”. The unearthing of an alleged suicide-bomb plot in Burco, Somaliland’s second city, in early June, and a broadcast warning from an al-Shabaab leader in Somalia of dire consequences for Somalilanders daring to vote do not exactly comfort. Still, the locals seem unworried. So we hit Hargeisa’s streets, and our spirits are immediately lifted. Somalilanders, it is clear, have not let the long wait for the poll dim their enthusiasm.

We foreigners, the non-Somali ones anyway, can only hope to absorb so much. So we fall back on the visuals. To avoid potential clashes, the three candidates take it in turns to campaign exclusively on particular days. Long trains of cars, buses and trucks, each crammed with more people—men, women and children, the young vastly outnumbering the middle-aged and the old—than the technology should rightly bear thread through the streets. Loudspeakers blare, women ululate.

One day the livery is green (President Dahir Riyale Kahin of UDUB, the ruling party, whose posters put him in a suit far wider than he is), the next green-and-yellow (Ahmed Silanyo of the Kulmiye party, loser by 80 votes to Mr Riyale in the previous presidential election), the next green-and-white (Faisal Ali Waraabe of the UCID party, a Finnish national, who, alongside his running mate, beams at us from billboards “looking like a badly dressed gay couple at a civil wedding”, a fellow observer… observes).

Women in hijab cover their heads in the colours of their allegiance; six-year-olds leap upon our bonnets waving their flags. Even the goats, ubiquitous on the streets, are bedecked in party colours. But each day, some of the faces, the people’s anyway, are the same. Could this election simply be an excuse to party?

Well, it’s a good party, and little distinguishes the candidates after all. Policy is thin on the ground, apart from a need for “development” and (even for the incumbent) “change”. Our highly unscientific straw-polling on the streets reveals an appetite for “change”. What change? “Change.” Hopes are high, but the how is a mystery. Time up for Mr Riyale, perhaps.

Like a proper election anywhere, the candidates avoid specifics, devoting their time to attacking one another. The buzz on the streets says Mr Silanyo, an aging scion of the independence movement that fought Somalia’s last military regime, will take it by a landslide. I ask a senior Kulmiye man what makes his boss the one. “A gorilla in a swimsuit could beat Riyale”, he replies. A ringing endorsement indeed.

The main fears concern the result, and the potential for violence which could be unleashed by a narrow one, with most Somalilanders less concerned (we grasp for comfort) at the potential for al-Shabaab disturbance. When we ask them, each candidate pledges to respect the result, whatever it is. But what else would they say at this stage?

Polling day arrives, with no serious violence, and we are still alive. Our teams (with armed guards) are dispatched to all six of Somaliland’s far-flung regions, with the diaspora members sent to the tenser ones. Here is where the technical and procedural part kicks in. For this vote, Somaliland is trying out a new voter-ID system, and the potential for fraud and confusion is thought to be high. If that happens, we expect no shortage of the wrong sort of emotion.

In the meantime, it is the more positive emotion that dominates. From the crack of dawn, and even the night before, mostly good-natured queues (men and women separately, with far more of the latter, it appears) form outside the polling stations in schools, houses, tents, halls and government buildings throughout the land. I find myself blinking at the unruly crowds: should we really be here? This is Somalia, after all.

But voting proceeds smoothly, if slowly at first, with the young polling station staff (mostly students from Somaliland’s few universities) managing mainly to avoid becoming overwhelmed. For in the queues and even in the stations, the party atmosphere continues, with emotion occasionally swimming over as the sun beats down, and the lines drag.

On the phones at our Hargeisa base, some worrying reports creep in. At one station, stones have been thrown on the roof, shots fired into the air. False alarm: simply Somaliland-style crowd control. In the wild east, where some clans are no fans of Somaliland, there are more serious reports: ballot boxes have been blocked and a female electoral commission staffer (first worryingly described as an “election observer” in reports) shot dead. We telephone our teams there, tell them to keep to the towns. But, thankfully, it is the only serious violence of the day. Could this really be Somalia?

In Mr Riyale’s home region, alongside the Ethiopian border, observers encounter crowds of children in queues, then crowds of people handing out voter cards. “Vote early, vote often” seems to be the name of the game. But we are observers, not monitors. We note it down: one for the final report.

And to the aftermath. Back in our digs—our gilded cage—at the Hotel Man Soor, Hargeisa’s finest, all safe and sound, we congratulate ourselves on our bravery, swap war stories, and await the result. And wait. And wait. Five days later, we are still waiting, as the arcane system of Somaliland-style vote-counting goes on. But we note, alongside us in the Man Soor’s carparks, lobbies and dining areas, crowds of smiling Kulmiye operatives, slapping eachother on the back, shaking hands, deep in discussion, doing deals.

The word is that a provisional result, and a peaceful change, is imminent. In Somalia—this is still Somalia—that is something worth getting emotional about. And worth noticing too.”

Cecilia Milesi, Argentine Citizen, IEO Member

“I just feel delighted of being part of this historical moment for Somaliland and the region. Since I start studying this country, I fell nothing but admiration for Somaliland’s pragmatism, courage and creativity to form a unique political system which combines indigenous and western models towards state and institutional building. It is an intercultural exercise that should be an example for the Global South including Latin America. During these days sharing with the IEO team and members, my admiration just grew stronger: so many stories of audacity and willingness to create something different from oppression, exclusion and injustice. I really hope every Somalilander continue owning this process promoting change and they can achieve a better quality of life. The presidential election is an important tipping point. I hope Latin America and Somaliland – African political and civil society leaders can exchange and learn together so to propose new political and economical models to the world”

Yusuf Ali, British Somali scholar living in the UK, IEO Member:

“My last time in Somaliland was ten years ago when I was involved with the establishment of the University of Hargeisa. Today, I am very happy to found out that the university has grown as a fully functioning institution. I was impressed by the orderly executed campaign and the political maturity of Somaliland political parties.

With regards to the Hargeisa city, I am surprised to witness it tremendous expansion, including the number of vehicles, however, running along very poor roads.

On the younger generation, I must say that the youth is eager and committed to help the development process of Somaliland, furthermore, they are keen to study and progress although there is very high unemployment rate which need to be urgently addressed by the government.

If I have the chance to return again in five years, I would like to see public and private effective institutions addressing the development of the country’s infrastructure which need to be developed to the highest standards (electricity, water system, roads), and, finally, I would like to see the Somaliland people and government to utilize their coastline and fully harness the rich marine resources”.