Democracy grows in

Observations on Somalia

This September in Somalia, hundreds of thousands of people are due to take part in an election. At polling stations guarded by civilian police, they will stand in orderly lines beneath a scorching sun waiting to vote for a new leader.

Much of this country continues its relentless descent into mayhem and murder. But Somaliland, a small north-western chunk, has been trying for the past 18 years to free itself of its bigger, nastier neighbour, having declared independence when Somalia’s last government, a violent military autocracy, collapsed in 1991.

After three peaceful elections, no one expects violence this September. But a series of delays, and the wholesale fraud of the donor-funded voter registration system, have cast doubt on Somaliland’s democratic progress.

In large parts of Somalia, the political vacuum left by the fleeing former president Mohamed Siad Barre was filled with an ongoing battle for power and money, organised along clan and religious lines. In Somaliland, however, an elected government filled the gap after a grass-roots reconciliation process. Overseen by clan elders and religious leaders, the militias demobilised and a modern nation state began to be established.

Today there is an elected parliament and an upper house of appointed clan elders. It is safe to walk the streets, diaspora-funded businesses are growing, and Somaliland has its own currency (though most people use US dollars). Ask anyone here and they will tell you they are Somalilanders.

Yet Somaliland remains unrecognised by any other country in the world. “Somaliland today is a de facto state. All we are lacking is recognition,” says the energetic foreign minister, Abdillahi Duale. “It’s about time the international community brought us in from the cold.” All his government gets is “a pat on the back”.

Somaliland’s claim for recognition rests on two pillars: peace and democracy, but in a destitute country shackled to the world’s pre-eminent failed state, neither is yet secure. Sporadic fighting in the east of the country kills soldiers and uproots civilians. Suicide bombings last October brought the horrors of Mogadishu to Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital.

The bombings were partly to blame for the electoral delays but do not excuse the shambles of the voter registration process. The seven-strong national electoral commission is widely viewed as incompetent. “The voter register was supposed to prevent fraud,” says one exasperated civil society activist in Hargeisa, “but the registration itself was fraudulent.” Double and triple registration produced a register so bloated that it became useless. In the last election, 675,000 people voted; four years on, the NEC has registered an unbelievable 1.3 million voters, throwing the prospect of free, fair elections – and thus Somaliland’s nascent democracy – into doubt.

Yet there is hope. Dahir Riyale Kahin, the 57-year-old president, is confident of victory over his main rival, Ahmed Mohamed “Silanyo” – but, he says: “I will run, and whether I succeed or not I will accept the results.”

So Somaliland struggles on without recognition, isolated from the international financial institutions that could transform it. The problem is partly that this stultifying semi-desert has little to offer the world. In the absence of valuable resources, it has to fall back on moral reasoning: we are stable in a tough region; we try to be a good democracy. But in global realpolitik this doesn’t count for much. The UK and US say they will recognise Somaliland as long as an African state does first, but no one in Africa wants to open the Pandora’s box of partition.

Whatever the result of these elections, Somalilanders can expect to be waiting a good while longer before the world accepts that they exist.

Tristan McConnell travelled to Somaliland with a grant from the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting