Somaliland's perplexing limbo

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HARGEISA, Somaliland — This month in a country that doesn’t exist an election is due to be held to choose a government that will not be recognized. This is not a hypothetical puzzle, it is the actual state of Somaliland.

Somalia is the world's most glaring example of a failed state: For the past 18 years Somalia has not had a functioning government and has been marked by widespread violence and chaos.

Just a few hundred miles to the north, Somaliland has maintained peace and democracy since it declared its independence from Somalia in 1991. Yet Somaliland has not been recognized by any country in the world and it struggles in a legal limbo.

Somaliland's achievements are impressive. Since it broke away from Somalia, Somaliland has disarmed militias, reconciled warring parties, rebuilt ruined cities, established a government, written a constitution, held two elections considered broadly democratic by observers and gradually become a rare example of peace and stability in the Horn of Africa, a precarious region marked by authoritarian regimes.

Somaliland's record of peace and stability puts the likes of Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea to shame but with a presidential election postponed for 17 months now expected to be held at the end of September, the fragile post-war democracy in this self-declared chunk of semi-desert in northwest Somalia is facing its biggest challenge yet. In an interview in his Hargeisa office, President Dahir Rayale Kahin told GlobalPost: “I am committed that this election will go ahead on 27th September, under any circumstances. We will not continue to postpone the election anymore.”

But that’s the problem. The seven-strong electoral commission is widely criticized for failing to adequately prepare the ground for the elections. Their biggest failure was to allow what many observers saw as widespread fraud in the voter registration process.

“The voter register was supposed to prevent fraud but the registration itself was fraudulent!” explained one frustrated civil society activist.

In July, Somaliland’s government threw out Interpeace, a donor-funded peace-building organization, which was trying to clean up the electoral roll in preparation for the elections. In response the two opposition parties — Somaliland’s limited democracy allows only three parties in a bid to avoid the kind of atomized clan politics that dominates in Somalia — said they would boycott the campaign period and even the vote itself.

This latest electoral turmoil follows a series of delays that have brought Somaliland to the brink of constitutional crisis time and again. At the same time human rights groups have warned of a growing authoritarianism in President Kahin’s governing UDUB party.

“Somaliland now faces a moment of real danger," warned an outspoken report published in July by Human Rights Watch. "The president may be intending to prolong his mandate without elections for as long as possible, and his administration risks doing lasting damage to Somaliland’s emerging democratic system in the process.”

The report highlighted harassment of journalists, extra-judicial sentencing and oppression of political opposition.

All this is bad news for Somalilanders who live in grinding poverty, surviving largely on remittances sent from relatives abroad, because the lack of legal recognition means the country cannot benefit from full engagement with major donor nations like the U.S. or international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

The delays to the election have disappointed Somaliland’s foreign minister Abdullahi Duale who called them “regrettable” but he was still adamant that his country should be judged by its broader achievements.

“Somaliland has played a leading role in the regional geopolitical democratization process,” argued Duale. “We have fought terrorism, we have fought piracy, in fact we have been the good guys in a very rough neighbourhood. Somaliland is a de facto state. All we are lacking is recognition,” he said.

The contrast with Somalia — where there is no functioning government and no hope of any kind of national election — is stark. By the time President Mohamed Siyad Barre fled the Somali capital back in 1991 he was disparaged as the Mayor of Mogadishu since his control didn’t extend beyond the city limits. The former coup leader left behind him a pillaged economy, a state in ruins and a power vacuum at the top that has been filled ever since by warring clan-based and religious militias.

In Somalia, the insurgents who had coalesced to fight Barre turned on one another the moment he was gone but in Somaliland the rebel Somali National Movement plotted a different course. Employing traditional methods of dispute resolution and reconciliation that had been left more or less intact by Britain’s very hands-off colonial approach in Somaliland, a traumatized society was rebuilt from the bottom up through a series of grassroots peace conferences held over several years.

This local ownership of the state-building process is the key to Somaliland's success, but in Somalia — despite the years of international support to shore up a series of governments with little or no support on the ground — it has never happened.

Tristan McConnell traveled to Somaliland on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis
Reporting.