Blogs from election observers

The individual voices of Somaliland Focus and the observation teams to Somaliland’s  elections, and those they encounter along the way

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

Swerves on the road (11 June 2013, Progressio)

In November 2012 Somaliland took another step along its democratic journey by holding district and council elections again. This path is rarely straight-forward as the report by the International Election Observer (IEO) mission, released today, highlights. The report launch, taking place at University College London, is accompanied by a panel discussion and photo exhibition by Kate Stanworth who accompanied the IEOs.

At the invitation of Somaliland’s National Electoral Commission Progressio and the Development Planning Unit of University College London led a team of 50 International Election Observers (IEO), following previous observer missions in 2002, 2005 and 2010.

With 2,368 candidates contesting 379 positions and the age of candidacy lowered to 26, the IEOs were pleased to see so many young people and women running for office and campaigning.

Out of 140 female candidates who ran in the elections, 10 were elected and whilst this may not sound like a lot it is more than double the amount elected in the last round of council and district elections in 2002 – representing a good improvement for the acknowledgement of equality and women’s rights in Somaliland.

Whilst the observers felt the voting process was free they could not be confident that it was, at all times, fair. This was despite the best efforts of polling station staff who the IEOs congratulate on their professionalism and efficiency.

The IEOs’ main concerns on election day itself were over the real potential for multiple voting –mainly due to indelible ink not being a sufficient safeguard against fraud.

Another significant problem contributing to the issue of multiple voting was that people were not registered to vote at any one particular polling station. This meant that if someone cleaned the ink from their finger after visiting one polling station then they were able to visit another and vote again.

In their report the IEOs therefore encourage Somaliland to adopt a robust system of voter registration, so that future elections can be approached effectively and with confidence.

A reduced IEO team stayed in Somaliland throughout December whilst the votes were counted and results announced. This process was not without its problems with allegations of missing ballot papers, and credible grievances about the voting process by some of the political associations. A lot was at stake because, under Somaliland law, these elections would also decide which three of the seven contesting parties/associations would qualify to take part in future presidential and parliamentary elections.

By 26 December some smaller political associations had merged with each other or with larger ones and all but one of the seven contesting parties/associations were prepared to accept the outcome of the elections. Regrettably this did not occur without some violent conflict in parts of Somaliland resulting in several deaths.

At a formal ceremony attended by most of the parties, it was declared that Kulmiye, Waddani and UCID had received the highest proportion of votes overall, and had therefore each qualified to take up one of the three positions as a political party registered to contest presidential and parliamentary elections over the coming decade.

Progressio’s Dr Steve Kibble, the mission’s joint co-ordinator and chair of the panel discussion at the report launch, said: “the road to democracy is never easy. Our report is, we hope, a fair reflection of the process with its ‘swerves’ as well as its forward strides. We look forward to further engagement with the people of Somaliland in all the facets of building a stable, progressive democracy that reflects the views and aspirations of all citizens.”

Some Reflections on the Recent Elections in Somaliland

By Stephanie Butcher

(from Issue 53 of the Journal of the Anglo-Somali Society, March 2013,

Like the author of the preceding article, Stephanie Butcher was one of the international observers of the elections in Somaliland on 28 November 2012. She is currently based in London, where she works with the Development Planning Unit, University College London – a postgraduate department focused on socially just and sustainable development in cities of the Global South. Though she has previously worked in various East African countries, this visit to Somaliland was her first.

Travelling to Hargeisa is to enter another world. It is not just the physical distinctions of the place—dry scrubland desert, stony dust roads, spindly trees, prickly cacti, and sun-bleached rubbish— so old and pale and covered in its own layer of dirt it looks the colour of the road itself. Nor is it simply the romantic imagery—women in gentle draping layers, the eerie cadence of the call to prayers, boxy-store stalls adorned with bright images of their wares. To enter Hargeisa is to leave behind, inexorably, the series of misperceptions that too often surround this region, and to come away with the understanding that its unique socio-political shape and history offer new conceptions of citizenship and democracy.

The November 2012 local elections were lauded as another step in the process towards institutionalising mechanisms to safeguard accountability. Despite the persistent lack of recognition of Somaliland on the international stage, past elections have widely been hailed by international observers as ‘mostly free and fair’, an impressive record in a wider region beset by election violence, coercion, or manipulation. In comparison Somaliland appears a veritable oasis, and Hargeisa a quietly thriving capital city.

This past November the city came alive at the advent of the election season. Campaigning by the seven contesting political associations was divided between the seven days of the week, allowing supporters of the near 2,500 candidates to mobilise on their allocated day. The centre of town filled with colourful rallies of music and dance, and roads were congested with cars of chanting youths hanging sideways out of windows, or perched precariously on the roofs. Indeed, youth held a special role in this election, as hard lobbying from the Somaliland National Youth Organization (SONYO) successfully lowered the age of candidates permitted to contest the election from 35 to 25. Also present in greater numbers were women, representing over 130 candidates—a considerable increase from the 5 in the previous council elections. From all sides came a similar sense of a celebration, underlining the sentiment that election-time represents a moment for a somewhat conservative society to loosen its strictures.

Given this repeated enthusiasm and success, it is perhaps no surprise that the Somaliland political system has often been explored for its innovative melding of traditional structures and more Western-style institutions. As a member of the election observation team, there was a strong emphasis on examining the mechanisms of the electoral process; the ability for voters to gain access to polling stations, levels of police intimidation, voter confidentiality and knowledge of the electoral process, and the gender balance of voters. Together these elements create a technical portrait of the election, examining the freedom and ability with which Somalilanders can express their voice at the polling station. Yet beyond the observation of multiple voting (widespread cleansing of little fingers by removing indelible ink), police intimidation (sometimes boisterous handling of queues, for example), or knowledge and training of polling staff (overwhelmingly impressive), observing this election raised deeper questions on the democratic system itself.

Unique in this election was the transition from seven political associations to the elected top-three, a move designed to encourage the formation of broad-based coalitions engaging a wide spectrum of the population. Such a decision stems from the desire to move incrementally beyond the hold of clan politics, drawing new forms of political allegiances in time. While in some ways clan-based mobilisation does not appear to differ widely from any other constituent-building mechanism, there is a also a clear sense that this does not always serve to generate a national cohesion. Certainly this past election demonstrated the logic of this move – campaigning still displayed clan- and personality-based mobilisation, and the various parties had not yet developed clear or distinct ideological platforms.

At the same time, it is clear that more traditional societal structures will continue to play a significant role. This was evidenced most recently, for example, in regard to the widespread voter-education programme. The use of numbers (rather than symbols) to indicate the different candidates, the move from a closed to an open ballot system, and the fact that votes counted for both an individual and a party, created clear concerns in the election lead-up relating to the ability of the population to successfully understand the ballot paper and select their candidate. In response various civil society actors, with the support of international donors, launched several educational campaigns throughout Somaliland. Yet operating in parallel to this were the also highly successful informal education systems, championed by clans. Here, traditional elders worked to ensure that their constituency was informed of the procedure by which to vote for their own candidate of choice; on polling day this often manifested as small handmade cards held by voters, displaying the particular number to be selected. What this example indicates is a clear pattern of interaction, adoption, and transformation of these different systems.

Such a synergy has thus far typified the Somaliland system, perhaps most obviously in the incorporation of the Guurti, or council of elders, into the formal governance system. As Somaliland continues to move forward, it will remain of great import to watch how this system of modern institution-building inlaid with traditional structures stimulates an active, accountable, and inclusive system. While Somaliland has thus far held impressive success in the peaceful transition of power, there remains room for civil society organisations to develop deeper discussions on the role and function of democracy – particularly for groups that may hold distinct interests beyond the division of clan, such as women, the elderly, or the disabled. Somaliland has already demonstrated a long-term commitment to institutionalising a unique system of governance, and offers valuable lessons for the future – even as it highlights important questions. Future elections, movements, and associations will reveal the extent to which this system develops; but for now, it is enough to declare the occurrence of another successful democratic shift.

A Day in the Life of an Election Observer: 28 November 2012

By Howard Knight

(from Issue 53 of the Journal of the Anglo-Somali Society, March 2013,

The local government elections in Somaliland passed off largely peacefully and successfully when 2368 candidates contested 379 positions in the six regions. The candidates represented 7 different parties and associations and included 140 women. The polling stations were witnessed by 50 international observers, from 17 countries, who were co-ordinated by Dr. Steve Kibble of Progressio, Dr. Michael Walls of the Development Planning Unit, University College London, and Somaliland Focus (UK). Howard Knight was also an observer during the 2010 Presidential election and recorded his experiences on page 41 of Issue 48 of the Journal.

Alarm goes off at 3.20am. Ring Francesco (my Italian Observer Team Partner) to make sure he is up, then shower and dress and get to the Hotel Reception for 3.50am. Some cornflakes and coffee have been organised. So, it is a quick breakfast and away. First we drive to Hargeisa centre to pick up Abdirisak (from Somalia South Central) and Said (from Puntland) who are studying both the election and of our work as International Election Observers. As we collect them, we note the queues which have already formed outside a number of polling stations. We leave in two 4x4s. Driver Omar, Francesco, Abdi, Said and I in one vehicle and a driver and our two Special Police Unit officers, complete with their rifles, in the second.

It has been a chilly (about 14ºC) night in Hargeisa and we set off in the dark through thick mist patches towards Gebiley (town and region) where we are going to observe. The roads are mainly deserted as only vehicles approved by the National Election Commission (we have special NEC registration plates on the cars), police and security forces are meant to travel between districts on Election Day. Unsurprisingly, the speeding lorries carrying urgent supplies of khat seem to be exempt from this decree.

Our routes are mainly many kilometres of sandy tracks, avoiding deep ruts and difficult dry river-crossings, termite hills, and slow-moving tortoises. As we approach each checkpoint (either a barrier or a rope or chain across the road, manned by soldiers) our Police Unit car overtakes to lead and smooth the way.

Checkpoints are always slightly disconcerting, as a motley crew of soldiers, in a motley assortment of fatigues, carrying a motley assortment of weapons, emerge to confirm that we are allowed through. At one checkpoint, one of the soldiers, carrying a larger and even older-than-normal gun, with fatigues that have seen better days, ambles over to our car wearing carpet slippers.

I decide to get as far as possible towards the Ethiopian border before we choose a polling station where we will observe the unpacking of the ballot materials and the station’s opening to the voters. There are two problems. First, the drivers and police want to stop to have some breakfast. I insist on 5 minutes and a takeaway, but settle for 10 minutes. Then, the driver of our second car, with the police on board, is saying that we cannot go where I want because we do not have permission and he has only been authorised to travel to Gebiley (the town). Several phone-calls are made before he is convinced that we are allowed to travel everywhere within the Gebiley electoral region. The delays have stopped us getting as far as I wanted.

However, at 6.30am we find a polling station just off the main road (sic) and are met by a surprised, but welcoming, staff. Each polling station has a staff of four – the Chair (who controls the arrangements and the issue of the ballot papers), the Secretary (who writes down the name of each voter – there is no register for this election, for reasons far too complex to go into here), the Junior Scrutineer (who is meant to wipe any ‘oil’ off the fingers of potential voters and check that they have not got ink on the left little finger – showing that they have already voted), and the Senior Scrutineer (who requires each voter to stick their left little finger in some – supposedly – indelible ink).

For the first time in Somaliland, the polling station staff have come from outside the area. They are overwhelmingly young (which brings its own problems) and educated. Moreover, their training has been last-minute and limited; they had travelled to the area of their polling station the previous evening and were expected to arrive for work before 6am.

Polling stations vary considerably. The best use a classroom in a school. The worst we come across is a dark room with one desk (holding the ballot papers and the register) and two chairs. The net curtain, which arrived with all the materials to provide a semblance of voter confidentiality, cannot be put up because there is nothing to hang it from (not even nails, hammered in with a rock, as we see elsewhere). But, it would be pointless anyway because there is nothing on which to rest the A3 ballot papers (125 candidates from 7 parties in an open list system) anyway. The Senior and Junior Scrutineers and the 7 Party Agent observers all have to stand or sit on the floor. Here, most voters  are illiterate and required the assistance of the Chair to vote anyway. But those who can read and write have to mark their ballot papers by resting them against the wall. So much for confidentiality.

Outside the polling stations, usually one or two police officers try to keep the peace. There are meant to be two lines of voters – one male and one female – but, in many places, the police fight (often literally, using a thin or thick stick or by firing a gun into the air) to prevent hordes at the doors. The best police officers do quite well, including turfing out of the queues those who were obviously under 16 years old. The worst polling station queues – usually those ‘managed’ by soldiers rather than the police – are just a chaotic nightmare. On a number of occasions we get locked into polling stations whilst the police tried to re-establish control outside.

The ink – on your little left finger, demonstrating that you have already voted – is meant to be the strongest ever used, according to the Interpeace representatives who have been responsible for the election logistics. It should be capable of being identified for 14 days after your whole finger has been dipped, they say. In the environs of every polling station there are people busily removing the ink from the fingers of some who have already voted, using lemon juice, bleach and other substances. Despite the assiduous attempts of many Junior Scrutineers, there is absolutely no consistent way of identifying those who have already voted by trying to identify an inked finger.

I watch, from a distance, outside one rural polling station as a young woman busily rubs the little fingers of those who have just voted, as well as her own finger, with a cloth dipped in lemon juice. After a while, I wander over and ask her what she is doing. She stumbles at first, than says, “Well, me and my friends all dyed our hair last night and we’re trying to get the dye off our fingers so it isn’t confused as ink”. Brilliant! And way, way beyond the bounds of religious and cultural norms for me to suggest that she removes her headscarf to prove it. I burst out laughing and she finds it impossible to avoid the guilty smile. She is then quickly steered away from further questions by a group of older women. Similarly incredulous are the stories that, ‘I did some henna motifs on my arms last night, and the henna has remained.’ Just on your left little finger? Yeah, right! The hard truth is that the ink safeguard has massively failed.

Similarly, large groups of (mainly) young men decided that multiple-voting is a new Olympic sport. The challenge is to see how many different polling stations you can vote at throughout the day. In some cases, they are clearly assisted – either by Party agents or particular candidates who have laid on lorries to transport them from one polling station to the next. At one school venue – which has already run out of ballot papers by 3pm, perhaps because of multiple-voting – I watch at least 40 young men jump off a lorry and run into the courtyard. I recognise the leaders because they had been particularly boisterous at a polling station we had visited earlier. When I challenge they plead innocence, but with the look of a shoplifter caught with bulging pockets.

Somaliland has previously held elections without a register – the last in 2005 – but then the ‘elders’ (local clan and sub-clan leaders) sat outside the polling stations to prevent multiple-voting. This time they do not. It is impossible to know how much multiple and under-age (16) voting will distort the election outcomes. Suffice to say that observers see very few instances of the Party Agents disqualifying any voter, which indicates that they may all ‘be at it’ and cancelling each other out.

Despite there being nothing in the law or guidance about polling stations closing for lunch or prayers, nearly every one shuts down for one or two hours. So, we have lunch (goat and rice) at a roadside restaurant. Meanwhile, voters continued to queue in the blazing sunshine, whilst holding pieces of cardboard above their heads to deflect the sun’s hottest rays. At the very least, their commitment is in sharp contrast to the voters in the three UK by-elections held the same week.

Polling stations should be open until 18.00. Many are, in some areas. You have to be in the queue by 6pm to be allowed to vote. However, in our area, many had run out of ballot-papers, or voters, much earlier. When we arrive at our chosen polling station at 5.30pm to observe the close of poll and count, we discover that it had closed thirty minutes earlier and the counting process is underway.

The count is interminable, tedious, tiring and, of course, essential. This is a single election with two outcomes. Voters put their mark against 1 of 175 candidates from each Party. If you place your mark carelessly, so that there can be no certainty about which candidate you are voting for, it can still be counted as a Party vote to determine which parties will be entitled to contest future parliamentary and presidential elections over then next 10 years.

The guidance from the National Election Commission did specify how the votes should be counted (Party first, candidate second) and recorded, but gave no guidance about the way in which you might logistically set out to achieve this, including the layout of the room. Good process and layout guidance would have reduced the time taken significantly, as well as avoiding the numerous errors that creep in, which is inevitable given that this is taking place 12 hours after staff and Party agents started the day.

It is hard to stay awake, let alone concentrate – despite the cake, water and a few boiled sweets I have brought – in a hot, dimly-lit room, as we wade through over 500 ballot papers to determine both Party and individual candidate counts. The candidate count for one Party had to be repeated when the Party Agent said, “That can’t be right. Candidate x has got no votes, but I voted for him in this polling station”.

Eventually, by about 9pm, the count is finished. All the relevant numbers and signatures are recorded on the results’ sheet, and all the materials packed back into the ballot box and sealed so that it can go to the District HQ. We are meant to follow it there and watch the handover, but Said is feeling a little unwell – obviously not good camel milk – and we are all absolutely exhausted. I call it a night and we set off back to Hargeisa. That is, after we find our drivers, who I suspect have been chewing khat in a local outlet. We arrive back at about 10.45pm. It has been a very long, hot and challenging day.

I collect and collate all our reports – one for opening the polling stations and one for closing them, the count process itself, and one for every station we had visited – deposit them and head for bed.

I reflect on the fact that some observer teams had spent 20 hours just reaching the areas where they had to observe and now face their return journeys. I envy them the wonderful landscapes and wildlife they will have seen en route, but not the jolting exhaustion of travelling there and back with a long day’s observation in between.

I slept like a log.

The team on the ground: the authorised versions

As the full team assembles to observe the district and council elections on November 28th 2012, catch up with the team co-ordinators’ dispatches from the ground

Polling day report – Election hots up

Soldiers firing shots in the air at different polling stations and near to the airport, a lad given some cut-price dental work with a rifle butt, an unmarked car (i.e. without special electoral plates) speeding off with a ballot box that still contained the electoral materials before the particular Hargeisa station had even opened, special little bleach anti-ink scrubbing ‘stations’. These would be the headlines if we were looking for the downside of the election ‘Election Violence Mars Poll: One slightly hurt.’ Sadly, there were reports on pre-election night of an actual death in the coastal town ofLughayaas presumed Djiboutians made off with a ballot box (immediately cancelled) from a police station leading to an exchange of fire. It is, however, quite some way from theDjiboutiborder. Getting these reports as we answered the phones from HQ as observer teams checked in, we wondered to what use you would put an empty ballot box – fish tank, Lego collection, hamster cage? The one thing it is seemingly not useful for is a collection of extremely large ballot papers badly folded and stuffed in. By 12 o’clock they were as full as orphans at a bunfight. On the other hand the 2005 ballot bags had the look by that point of a fat sailor hiding inside a hammock. At one polling station then a member of the polling station staff was deputed to jump up and down on them. On this occasion the advice was to shake it about a bit, interpreted by some as poking inside the box with a stick.

Our 50 observers (22 of them women) started going out to the regions (all six, but not all districts given security considerations) from Monday 26th. For those not familiar with territory you might wish to move swiftly to the next section. If however you are the persevering type – we sent to Erigavo (I am using English spellings here) and Saylac on the first day. Second day after the usual hassle about who is paying the Special Protection Units (anyone but us) we sent to Borama, Burao, Aynavo, Berbera, Baki, Oodwenye – two observers with two SPUS. Often these were a mix of Somali speakers and internationals. On the third day folk went to Hargeisa, Gabiley and Salaxlay (special thanks to Conrad for overseeing the four o’clock start for the latter – Steve got the luxurious lie-in 5.30). We were pleased to be able to take four members of Puntland and (South Central)Somalia civil society about with us

Meanwhile back in Hargeisa which seemed to have some of the bigger problems… Polling centres seemed flashpoints for violence as groups jostled with each other to get into the different but adjoining stations. It must be said that some of the most vociferous were groups of young women who dispersed after the first crowd-clearing rifle shot into the air, but then came rushing back. There were reports from several places from domestic observers of the government using its own cars to transport voters. This is so far unconfirmed by internationals, but our observers have pictures of large trucks ferrying presumed voters about, although party allegiance was difficult to pin down. The phrase ‘equal opportunity cheating’ was bandied about.

A slight oddity in a scruffy downtown Hargeisa polling station was talking to a French speaking party agent (perhaps not odd given that ‘foreigners’ in Somali are all deemed French – Ferenghi). Did this (on the basis of one) bear out the allegations that the Djiboutians, Ethiopians and Puntlanders were flooding over the borders to vote? Slight problem here in that this is the rumour flying round for every election, plus the fact that the borders were sealed and there is only supposed to be electorally-related traffic on the roads. It also contrasts somewhat with threats from Puntland president Faroole that the installation of ballot boxes and polling stations in the eastern regions of Sanaag and Sool was an attack on Puntland’s sovereignty, given it also claims these as its own. Hence reports of clashes between the two political entities somewhere near the town ofXudun on election day (later reports have fingered a different militia, a separatist outfit called Khatumo).

In general our observers were able to get access to polling stations, able to enter freely and observe the process, although at least one group in Burao was refused entry to the count. As ever there were queues differentiated by sex, and oddly the only fist fight observed so far was between two youngish women trying to get into the polling station first. The winner was reportedly the one with the stick like a baseball bat. However for most observers the overwhelming impression is of the massive enthusiasm for voting even it means a somewhat volatile situation. One cannot help be struck by the contrast for voting say in Sunderland South for the European Parliamentary elections with all its attendant apathy.

As Stephanie and Steve toured Hargeisa polling stations accompanied by a national TV crew we encountered the entourage of the President coming to vote – no more than fifteen cars, two armoured personnel carriers, and pickup trucks full of soldiers. We decided not to engage with this ‘Mongolian goat rodeo’ inside the polling station although it seemed that the entire press corps of Somaliland had thought otherwise – bar one short fellow who couldn‘t get into the polling station  and had to make do with us as interviewees. Trailing around with a camera crew one is always surrounded by a six deep of circle of young lads – never girls.

We hosted and briefed an EU delegation fromNairobiin the office. The UN also came in for the elections but only after that mighty organisation was forced into a grovelling climb down, being told off by a small unrecognised state (especially not recognised by them) for addressing their letter to the ‘President of Somaliland, Republic of Somalia’. As you can imagine that went down like a leak in a lifeboat (make your own relevant comparison here).

The day after polling day (29th) we held a press conference detailing where all the observer teams had been and our 20% coverage of polling stations and warned that anything we said was preliminary and we needed to check any allegations. We noted that we would be following up on expressed concerns from observers about attempted multiple and underage voting, the over-enthusiastic policing, bussing in of voters, how the indelible ink seemed less so and other concerns (see our press release). We would of course also be handing out our positive observations that at the present time seem to far outweigh these.

We are now debriefing the returning teams and getting their detailed forms and their more off the cuff immediate impressions. We hope to come to an assessment of these elections and present to a press conference on 3rd December as most leave, bar our skeleton crew (hope Valerie doesn’t mind this description). This will be also the time we report to the National Electoral Commission (fine body of men – in all senses).

A great and tiring time had by all. Watch this space.

23 November 2012: We call on the President

Those eager to read how the current seven political associations and parties become three constitutional ones will have to curb their enthusiasm for the moment. First the Burao issue highlighted last week seems to have got sorted by the provision of 89,000 extra ballot papers and the introduction of a two-stream system inside polling stations in western Burao i.e. doubling the number of ballot boxes in certain polling stations. We wait to see from forthcoming observations how this will work. With the way the sexes divide (four queues, plus seven party agents, six polling staff, domestic and international observers) it could get as right crowded and hot as a broken down summer Tube train (for international readers – an archaic form of underground London transport).

Meanwhile the setpiece of our trip was a small IEO delegation calling on the president and three ministers at the presidential palace. Once we had kitted out one of the team with a spare tie, we were able to put forward concerns – mostly those raised by political parties, such as arrests of their candidates, allegations that candidates were being paid to withdraw their candidacies. We were also keen to track down the Presidential Decree calling on political parties not to have civil servants campaigning or to use state resources for political party/ association purposes. We duly received a copy along with assurances it was being followed.The President, ministers and leaders of the governing Kulmiye party vigorously denied allegations of use of state funds on this and other occasions. Some of this dispute revolves around the nature of a civil servant. Ministers and political appointees are generally allowed to campaign, whereas civil servants are not. The most significant controversy has surrounded the head of the Aids Commission (SOLNAC) campaigning for the governing party. Government members argued he was a political appointee, others seeing him as a non-political appointment. On candidate arrests, according to the government one of these instances was an intra-clan battle over which candidate had clan support, which led one to use intemperate language (possibly anti-religious). They claim that other arrests have been due to violations of the Code of Conduct, including campaigning on unauthorised days. The meeting was cordial and the President promised to address our concerns that the way the three political parties were voted for should be much more transparent and more widely understood.

Which segues neatly into Law 14, Article 6, rather a mundane title for something which could provoke a bit of bother. This is the mechanism that determines which of the seven political associations/parties has successfully won the right to become one of the three constitutionally-mandated political parties for the next ten years. The chosen seven out of fifteen that originally applied have to contest all regions (although not all districts) and the system has a deliberately inbuilt rural bias. Hargeisa/Maroodi Jeex region with nearly half of all seats (175) would otherwise dominate. Any association/party that gets 20% or more in a region is eligible to become one of the three political parties (depending on other regional results). The winner, if there are several with 20% or more in each region, is the one with the highest percentage. That party is awarded a rank score of 1 in that region, with each party ranked/scored in order. This count is then repeated through the next five regions. The party/association with the lowest aggregate score is deemed to be the top qualifying party, and those with the next two lowest scores take the second and third spots available. Problems, of course, could arise if parties get unequal support across regions but build up large numbers of votes in toto. In that case, it is conceivable they may complain at missing the cut in spite of receiving large numbers of votes. It is also quite likely that at least the third-placed party (maybe all?) will struggle to get 20% in all regions. The Supreme Court is on standby to rule on such issues (or at least it has been advised to be so by an outside negotiator). While the electoral provisions are reasonably clear, it is quite likely that they are not widely understood by the public – a situation not helped by the division of labour between the electoral commission and the Registration and Approval Committee which announces the three party winners. Glad that’s clear then.

According to our vox pop in the streets, circumspectly talking to voters, there is a high degree of awareness of the election – difficult to avoid as public campaigning has restarted with its usual exuberance, especially from young women (readers with long memories will remember Blog 1 on this). There also appears a high degree of party/ association recognition. We were struck by a youngish lad volunteering the information ‘I’m going to vote for the woman candidate’ – perhaps the attempts to create a women/ youth coalition are paying off?

The parties sport different colours which bear some relationship to clan allegiance. Some stand out more than the others that rely on the more religious colour of green. Waddani looks like an Orangeman’s sash, Xaqsoor (pronounced like a useful item in your toolbox) is yellow and white like the Papal flag (how are we doing on a swerve through religious tolerance here?). RAYS pronounced ‘rice’ looks like the Spanish flag and by comparison Umadda has a sideways-on Indonesian one. In the interests of impartiality we also mention here Kulmiye, the governing party, DALSAN and New Ucid – the latter sporting an emblem -of a sheep being weighed, as used in licensed premises named ‘The Fleece’ (though not widely seen in Hargeisa).

Most of the core team is now here and we have begun briefings for the wider team on electoral process (with a walk through a mock polling station guided by a couple Aussie election experts), code of conduct for observers, radio training, security, media awareness, political context and the like. Accreditation and then deployment out to the regions comes soon.

OK five days to go. Hang on to your (election observer) hats…

16 Nov 2012: ‘Everything is fine’ (except when it is not)

Somalilanders are great optimists and at our many meetings we are being constantly assured that everything in the electoral process is going to be OK (for those of a Voltairean persuasion ‘where are you now Dr Pangloss?’). Sometimes we look at each other and do some old colonial number ‘It’s quiet Carruthers?’ ‘Yes too damn quiet’. But largely speaking even the opposition associations/ parties are happy (well 80% as one told us). Except …up in Togdheer region not far from the Ethiopian border there are some problems, unsurprisingly enough related to clan (dis)advantage.

So we left the hothouse of Hargeisa and headed to the coast and up the mountains to find out the problem. Given we are all non-Londoners, we though it good anyway to get the view outside Hargeisa since generally capital cities take little notice of what happens elsewhere. So after the ritual search for our armed protection unit and a little negotiation, we went through the scrubland, desert and savannah, even hitting a faint feel high up of the fynbos of theWestern Cape. Rocky terrain, camels and goats in the acacia, but also baboons, ground squirrels, warthogs, dikdiks and the odd raptor above. Giant tortoises crossed the road – best to treat them as a roundabout. As we left Hargeisa the blue plastic bags flowering in the acacias lessened. The termite mounds were impressive, the thin tall ones resembling cloaked statues and the big ones, Moores or Hepworths in theYorkshire Sculpture Park, although the latter rarely have acacias growing out of them. The lunarscapes of the desert would have had Sergio Leone frantically whistling up his camera crew.

We called in on the regional electoral commission in the coastal town of Berbera where the temperature was down to a pleasant autumnal 36 (high summer sees 45-50) and again all was fine – including a good meal of fish accompanied by a chorus of local Cats – bit off if you don’t like light opera while eating.

Burao, spelt Burco, has the feel of a frontier town (Dodge City? Gretna Green?) despite being 100 miles from the Somalia border, and it is where two historically opposed clans meet – depending on whose mythology you trust. But then again as in most places, this rivalry is overlaid by the diaspora experience – the hotel keeper was a Blades supporter from Sheffield, his deputy was from Tottenham and the governor of the region was a long time Brummie (bloke from Birmingham to our international readers).

Given that sub clan interests and desire for unity trumps all, there had been complaints from one (Habr Younis) that the western, southern and northern parts of the city only had 80 odd polling stations while the other clan in the east – Habr Jeclo – had around 150. The reason for this was simple and based on returns from the 2010 presidential election. In that contest the incumbent from Somaliland’s west was being challenged by the eventual winner ‘Silanyo’ who is Habr Jeclo and another contender in whom Habr Younis had an equal lack of interest. Therefore they didn’t bother turning out to vote.  NEC (Somaliland National Electoral Commission) relying on the computer-generated figures from last time therefore gave them fewer stations. Technically correct of course, but seasoned hands reckon better safe than sorry – always better to consult the parties, elders etc and head off a problem. Anyway we sat under a tree (possibly giving us the spurious air of wise elders) and listened to the complaints of the relevant parties (not all turned up and some came mob-handed). We promised to forward their concerns while rejecting the idea that we should rectify this problem directly. Meetings are going on in Hargeisa on this issue as we write with important folk flying in to try and solve it. Several solutions occur to us, but we will see what compromises emerge from the no doubt lengthy discussions. Anyone with a deep interest in this exciting interface between psephological science and clan dynamics can get in touch with Michael for further details no doubt.

Now (Thursday 15) back in Hargeisa it is the Islamic New Year of 1434 and a public holiday although naturally meetings continue. As well as the Burao issue, we are tracking a number of issues. One is implementation of the code of conduct all the parties signed (and one immediately denounced). Second, whether the governing party is following usual practice by using state resources for party purposes – they say No vigorously and others Yes, but with little evidence adduced so far. Party campaigning in public places has been suspended for the middle two weeks of the four weeks campaign. This  means that the colourful convoys with young women endangering life and limb by leaning out of bus windows waving flags and young men similarly from the tops of the buses has at least diminished if not entirely disappeared. Big downer for photographers everywhere. We are also enquiring about the effectiveness of voter education programmes and training for polling station and party agent staff – bit of a fitful picture, but lots of initiatives, including by Progressio partners like the women’s network NAGAAD and the NGO coordinating body SONSAF.

The yellow weaver birds and redchested finches are out in force in the Maansoor garden, although the giant tortoises of beloved memory have gone (‘NO guv not part of our diet’). The tameish gazelles are still in evidence. One with sawn-off horns (in retrospect that should have been a clue) took a shine to Steph – if you interpret that as running up from behind and implanting his horns in a soft spot. After a few such excursions we saw he had been put in the naughty step – the fenced off bit of the garden. The coordination team has now been joined by media mogul Conrad, number cruncher Aly and photographer Kate.

Next week a learned exegesis on how the seven political parties get whittled down to the three allowed for in the constitution, plus what the UN is doing, how the Burao problem sorted itself out and much more. 12 days to go.

12 November 2012

After a less than promising start leaving Nairobi, Michael, Steph and Steve the pioneer arm of the International Election Observers (IEOs) arrived in Hargeisa last Saturday 3 Nov. Our hitherto reliable taxi man managed to run out of fuel en route to the airport, disappearing with a wave into the murky Nairobi dawn. He reappeared ten minutes later while we pretended it was fine on the back of a HOnda 250 carrying a jerrycan. Refuelled, off we went, passing through police checkpoints and made the plane OK  – with only a ‘you are the last ones’ admonition from the EC flight check in desk. Then we boarded a twelve-seater only to turn back as the two navigation systems seemed to be having a quarrel as to which one was right. Oh well time for that cup of coffee we missed…. Resisting having something stronger despite the example of a hearty 9am German beer drinking crowd at the next table (and the prospect of a dry country), we got on a  different plane and landed in Hargeisa. There we were greeted by the winner of the most offhand customs official of the year award.  Catching my passport as it was slung back to me (yep the old cricket skills are still there) we were met by Abdurahman the Progressio logistics manager and taken to the old stomping ground the Maansoor Hotel. There the waiters greeted us with cries of ‘so the elections are really going to happen if Michael and Steve are here’. Prosaically we proceeded to start making appointments.

So far things are looking fine and the process despite many hiccoughs is on track. We have met the National Electoral Commission with the usual pleasantries on both sides for a fruitful relationship. There have also been donor meetings, political parties, NEC consultants, NAGAAD the women’s coalition and SONSAF the NGO coalition and Progressio partner who are running an election forum, training, providing domestic observers and the like.

There have been some stormy meetings between donors and political parties when the former refused point blank to fund the expenses of the party agents – ‘you are ruining our democracy process’, but this seems to have settled down in a v Somali way. Michael went on a security training course which provided useful tips, but also literally bonding by tieing up other members of the team or throwing them through loops in ropes. V useful if we get kidnapped by pirates.

Steve did the first of perhaps many media interviews for the state broadcaster, speaking, to Steph’s amusement, in his best international English.

20 days to the elections, many people including ministers to see, observers to organise, but as ever great commitment of Somalilanders to going another step on the democratisation road.

8 November 2012

This feels a little like one of those heist movies where the old team gathers for ‘one last job’.

As always when the election period approaches the romantic memories outweigh the recollection of the sheer hard work of it all for the international election facilitators; roaming the country (or being stuck in Hargeisa for the core team), gathering on the balcony of the Maansoor hotel at the end of the long days, checking out the endless queues of men and women (always separated, in line with Somaliland practice) and looking at countless inky fingers – an inky finger is proof of having voted.  It is striking to see the young women so often cooped up hanging out of bus windows waving the different party flags.

Our job is to check whether every Somalilander is getting a fair chance to cast their vote, and take note of any problems. For example, we are on the lookout for police officers hanging about inside the polling stations (which by law they shouldn’t be), or any rough police handling of crowds queuing up to vote.

Another memory that comes flooding back is of the special protection units provided by the government to look after the teams of observers: I have sometimes found them more alarming than the terrorists they are there to deter – swivelling round with their AKs to fire off at the odd gazelle without warning!

In fact most of the work is mundane;  checking out that all the conditions are there for a free  and fair election, talking to the political parties, government, security forces, media (state and private), any other monitoring outfits and especially our partners who are often domestic observers. We take it in turns to give interviews to the press that normally involve patient explanations of this not being Somalia but Somaliland (without necessarily calling for recognition).

There is always a great team feel and now that so many of us have been in this line of work for what seems like forever a sense of respect and trust that everyone knows what to do and just gets on with  it. This year we have a new admin coordinator, Stephanie Butcher, taking the place of the estimable “Ed the Mole”, a former volunteer with Progressio that I pinched off the then environmental advocacy coordinator to help with the last election round. We are confident Stephanie will live up to the phenomenal work rate of Ed (who is now on the core team). We are a pretty international bunch, and usually gender balanced too, with lots of diaspora members. The last time we gathered was for the Presidential elections of 2010 which coincided with the World Cup so country colours appeared at the right matches (don’t talk about the England vs Germany game!)

Possibly the most arduous bit is – unsurprisingly – producing a verdict on whether the elections were free and fair, and producing the interim report for the National Electoral Commission. This takes a huge amount of number crunching of the data coming in from the polling stations. Fortunately Aly, a Canadian, is spot on at this – cheers Aly!

The first observers head off for Nairobi at the end of October, chat to donors and policy people and then go on to Hargeisa to make all the preparations. The rest of the international observers fly in as the election date gets closer.

Here we go again for one last heist!