Reconstruction and Democratisation in Somaliland


An examination, by Dr Steve Kibble of Progressio, in association with his colleague Dr Adan Abokor, of the issues facing Somaliland in its unique process of democratisation, considering the contrast between traditional clan systems and westernised democratic ideals. It provides an assessment of the impact that the international community and those within Somaliland are having on the process. It makes recommendations for improvement in the future and highlights the obstacles that Somalilanders face in their drive for reconstruction, noting the indicators of a relapse into authoritarianism that threaten to undermine Somaliland democratisation.

Malign external intervention has characterised the Horn of Africa – as in the rest of Africa, leaving a legacy of instability, non-rational borders, and weak and skewed states. Somaliland might be said to be poised between ‘traditional’ structures arising from clan society and the ideas emanating from civil society (often influenced by time spent in the diaspora) on more Western forms of democratisation.

Successes and Challenges for Somaliland.
Somaliland’s model of development has had some success and for some is the first indigenous modern African form of government with a fusion of traditional forms of organisation within a democratising framework containing an emphasis on self-reliance as a legitimate post-colonial option for Africa.

However there are major challenges with this mix of clan system and democratisation. Additionally lack of international recognition means that Somaliland has not been able to access multilateral donor development assistance or the support of international financial institutions, over the past decade.

Another problem that illustrates different views on identity as well as affecting stability and recognition questions is Somaliland’s eastern border. Since 1998, Somaliland’s authority over eastern Sanaag and Sool regions has been contested by the autonomous Puntland State of Somalia – illustrating a territorial clash between different identities

However, Michael Walls, the chair of Somaliland Focus UK, thought that Somaliland political stability was greater than many superficial observations might suggest. ‘The government is often heavy-handed but ultimately accedes to Somali norms of discussion and negotiated compromise. Everything is not rosy, but constitutional crises acknowledged, the Somaliland system is more robust than many believe.’

Women’s position
Equal participation in politics, remains a distant possibility for women as long as the dominant patriarchal social frameworks under which they live continue to work to maintain the status quo. Civil society in Somaliland outside clan structures is, though, beginning to assert itself, not least through women’s groups which began with attempts to use their outsider status precisely as mediators in conflict. There has been substantial growth in both women’s groups and their understanding of the situation facing them.

The idea of set quotas / reserved seats for women in parliament is being increasingly vociferously raised. This is felt to be one of the best ways to increase women’s representation and increase their participation and profile overall. Given that the 2005 election was the first parliamentary election in 36 years (and the first time women were democratically elected to a Somali Parliament), Somaliland has some claim to be making progress on representation of women.

The recognition issue is a key litmus test for Somalilanders. In 1999, the then President Egal argued that democratisation would facilitate international recognition. In May 1999, the Hargeisa government approved a plan to move from the clan-based system to a multi-party political system -providing the proposed parties were not based on tribal or religious lines and drew support
from all regions. In 2001 a referendum on the new constitution was conducted in Somaliland. In December 2002 and April 2003, the local government district councils and the presidential elections, and the 2005 parliamentary elections were held respectively in a reasonably free and fair manner.

For Somaliland leaders, everything is subsumed under the desire for recognition – seen very much as all or nothing and as though recognition was the solution for all problems. Equally there is the strong determination not to go back into Somalia. At the same time the inheritance of the postcolonial state structure (and indeed personnel) means that the temptation is often to solve problems through authoritarian solutions such as the gaoling of Qaran politicians and also of journalists from the independent media for exposing corruption at Presidential level.

International support and role:
Diplomats including those advising Somaliland worry that it is not taking opportunities from recent crises, including engaging more proactively with major international institutions. At a recent presidential press conference, the President reiterated the dogmatic view ‘that Somaliland is independent from Somalia and there is no need for dialogue with TFG and that the only dialogue Somaliland could have with the South in the future is about mutual interest like two neighbouring countries.’

Civil society and people-people initiatives
Civil society is active in areas of social services and democratisation, playing an important role in the last three elections through their contribution to civic education, local electoral observation and especially through women’s NGOs. There are, however, few international organisations working directly with women’s groups, human rights and research organisations. What is needed is funding agencies which respond to local NGO needs as nascent organisations. A relationship of mutual respect between international and local NGOs is also key.

The role of the diaspora
The issue of diaspora funding is ambiguous. On the one hand it can be seen as providing both investment and good people-people initiatives and can be very productive (e.g. Amoud University). On the other hand it does not seem to nurture either a good relationship with the government or ensure that governments have to be accountable to tax payers as well as voters for policy etc. The Hargeisa government does not have to be accountable to its own citizens, if outsiders are relied upon for funding key elements of policy.

Having staged three elections, the commitment of the Somaliland people and the political elite to a democratic form of politics cannot easily be questioned or ignored. To do so would make a mockery of the West’s commitment to support democracy. To ignore what has been achieved in a democratic Islamic country would also send the wrong message to Somalia and to
countries in the region and the Middle East.

The government is in the paradoxical position of having had to go its own way given the lack of international recognition, but its poverty and lack of resources means that it is in fact very dependent on the outside – both in terms of economic support and how the outside community views events in (wider) Somalia. Creative engagement on sensitively overcoming such dependence between those living in Somaliland including the government and those outside (diaspora or friends) will remain key for many years.