Somaliland’s Political Landscape: Crisis Averted (Again)

Michael Walls reviews recent political developments in Somaliland. Heated dispute over an extension to the President’s term and the dates of upcoming elections recently reached crisis point before an eleventh hour resolution relieved the tension. In the heat of the process, though, it was violent protests and the unchallenged passage of an inflated national budget that perhaps provide the more serious causes for concern than a political environment that has once again proven its resilience in the face of crisis.

Perhaps the most encouraging feature of the Somaliland political arena is that, while crises occur with alarming regularity, they tend to end with the resolution of the main points and the avoidance of anything really serious. That pattern has been very much in evidence in recent months.

It is instructive to review the sequence of events briefly, with a logical starting point being the conclusion of the Kulmiye party congress at the end of March. Many observers, including those within the other parties, had expressed pessimism as to the prospects for a successful Congress. It had, after all, taken months to agree the voting weights allocated to each set of clan delegations, and even when an agreement had been struck, many remained dissatisfied. It was therefore something of a surprise to observers when the Congress ended on a high note, and although it is conjecture to say so, it seems to have worried a government counting on failure.

Initial delight on the part of the Kulmiye leadership and members, however, was dented with the subsequent disillusion of many Habar Yoonis delegates with the final allocation of officeholders, and what had initially appeared to be a remarkable success was somewhat diminished as a result.

The end of the Congress and the political machinations involved marked the beginning of a period of frantic efforts to agree a course of action with the 15 May expiry of the President’s term in office looming.

To the relief of many of those involved, an intensive round of talks in early April relatively quickly generated an agreement that local body elections would be held in October 2008, while the presidential election would take place on 31st December. Plans were made for a formal session to be held on 9 April where all of the actors involved would sign the agreement, and a delegation of donors from the Democratisation Steering Committee (including amongst others, the European Commission) flew into Hargeisa the day prior to join in the celebrations. However, on 10 April, the day following the ceremony, the party was abruptly cut short when the upper house or Guurti announced that the agreed dates could not stand, citing security concerns in Sanaag and Sool and because they did not allow six months between each election. Instead, the Guurti announced that they were extending the term of the President by one year, effectively creating a new deadline of 15 May 2009 by which presidential elections would have to be held. The donor delegation was incensed, releasing a statement that in turn garnered an angry response from the Government.

Again, the country was confronted with a crisis: opposition politicians and some members of the media declared that they would not recognise the President as such once his 15 May 2008 term had passed, and the situation seemed to have reached boiling point.

A public disconcerted by renewed political uncertainty as well as the steep rises in food prices that were hitting people globally was getting impatient. The level of tension was vividly underlined when, on 27 April violent protests erupted in several parts of Hargeisa in response to the unexpected creation of a new administrative district in the capital; a part of a package of new regions and districts announced by the President.

The level of invective being traded publicly and privately was ratcheted up in the first fortnight of May and it was difficult to envisage a solution before the critical date of 15 May. With no progress evident, on 10 May, the Donor Committee announced that funding for the elections was suspended pending a resolution of the issues, while funds for voter registration were cancelled altogether and would be redeployed elsewhere.

The Speaker of the House of Representatives stepped in and attempted to mediate, but had to announce to the House that his efforts had failed. Then on the evening of Wednesday 14 May, the Minister of Finance apparently visited the homes of the two opposition leaders to invite them to talks with the President. They needed little encouragement, and talks were convened that very evening. This was enough to avert the immediate crisis, and within a week, a new agreement had been reached. Local elections would be held by mid-December, with presidential elections scheduled for mid-March 2009. There remained a number of details to be finalised, but once again, the country had reached a point just short of serious crisis before a resolution was found.

With a new sense of cooperation in place, on 30 May the 2008 budget was passed with barely a murmur by the House of Representatives for a substantially increased total of US$51 million. There is a good deal of disagreement over whether the new income level can be achieved, and it is to be wondered at that the House Budget Committee apparently raised no formal objection to the huge percentage increase in military spending or to the affordability of the whole package. Perhaps this is the downside of the spirit of conciliation that existed at the time!

On 3 June, the President announced that a final accord had indeed been reached, including agreement that local elections would be delayed, with presidential elections to precede the local poll, and to occur before 6 April 2009. Kulmiye had long called for the presidential vote to take place before the local body one, and the President confirmed that he saw this as a concession to the opposition. The hope is that the new timetable will allow the voter registration process to be completed before elections, although the terms of the accord also specified that the non-completion of voter registration would not be an acceptable basis on which to delay the presidential vote. Of the main points, the final was the creation of a cross-party ‘technical committee’ to oversee electoral preparations and to improve inter-party communications. The accord was signed in a major ceremony in Maansoor Hotel on 10 June.

At the date of writing, there has been steady if slow progress in implementing the June agreement. The donors have reinstated their financial support for both the voter registration process and the elections (a significant step: the reinstatement of the cancelled voter registration funding requiring a higher-level decision and the identification of new funds), and an international consortium has been retained to provide the IT equipment and services needed for voter registration. On 23 July, the President announced that voter registration would commence on 14 October, and would run until the end of the year, with finalisation of the voter register itself taking place in January 2009. A date of 29 March 2009 has been agreed for the presidential election, and a joint mission of government, Electoral Commission and political parties has travelled to Sool and Sanaag to assess areas in which security would allow registration and voting to take place.

There are, of course, many challenges that still need to be addressed. The technical committee called for in the June agreement is yet to be appointed (even though initial nominations were named in the agreement itself), while the Herculean task of appointing the almost 4,800 staff needed to run the registration process has barely begun. In addition, public unrest apparently remains. In an echo of the riots that erupted in April over the announcement of new regions and districts, a July decision to withdraw water-drilling machinery also caused disruption in the capital. The equipment was to be removed before the conclusion of a job in much the same area of Hargeisa as that in which the new district was created, and transferred to Gabiley for urgent drilling work there. That also triggered a riot in the capital and on this occasion two people died.

All-in-all, there is cause for guarded optimism that the presidential election can take place by the deadline of 6 April 2009. As has been the case so often in the past, the commitment of individuals to discussion and negotiation was finally successful in averting a full-scale crisis. That is to be commended, and perhaps in a polity as young as Somaliland, it is inevitable that the process of reaching agreement on what are becoming the institutions that govern a vibrant democracy will appear fragile at times. In time, it is to be hoped that the sense of heightened crisis that so often seems to precede the very necessary breakthroughs might become unnecessary. The effective functioning of a constructive but critical opposition, capable of holding a responsible government to account will take longer to evolve. It should never be the case that a budget is passed with such apparently careless ease, let alone one that assumes such an enormous increase in income.

No political process is likely to be (or should be) characterised by a sense of bonhomie and goodwill: democracies rest on lively contestation and heated debate, over budgets, elections and extensions, and everything else. The point is only that the sense of crisis and fragility that characterises the process at the moment may, with time, luck, goodwill and hard work, become less necessary as politicians and Somalilanders at home and abroad become more used to the process of running a representative democracy in a contemporary nation-state. It is not an easy process, and it is not one for which any template can be applied easily or effectively. The progress that has been made since 1991 remains astonishing, and is a credit to all those involved, and we at Somaliland Focus (UK) remain committed to supporting it in whatever ways we can.

5 August 2008