In Defence of Somaliland Democracy
“It is difficult to understand these people who democratically take part in elections and a referendum, but are then incapable of democratically accepting the will of the people” (Jose Saramago).
Since the Somaliland local elections were announced and some of the parties were disqualified, there have been proliferations of articles which are critical about the Somaliland democracy. In any democracy elections bring negative campaigning from the competing parties. However these articles have been propagated by disgruntled individuals who are associated with the disqualified parties and others with sinister agendas to exploit the tensions created in the country by the upcoming election. In African countries elections are fraught with difficulties and it is even more so in an unrecognised country with internal and external ill-wishers hopping for its downfall.
Somaliland has held a number of successful elections before and the same attempts were made to destabilise the country through an attack on its democratic institutions and on the National Electoral Commission (NEC), which were all proven unfounded. As it has been noted by numerous scholars, Somaliland combines western democracy with tradition and it is this contextualisation of Somaliland democracy that these Somali writers are failing to understand. To back up their allegations, they approach the problem from purely western perspective and ignore the context in which Somaliland democracy is embedded. Normally, local elections do not determine the national political parties but this election will establish the three national parties who will compete in the next parliamentary and general election so the stakes are very high. This short essay aims to put things in perspective.
This is just the way things have always been.
In every election time, the country appears to be moving towards fragmentation. Clans organise their own meetings, tribal leaders become more visible and vocal and the atmosphere becomes very charged. To the untrained eye or the outsiders, it looks like a country of clans with no cohesive identity who are all fighting for political influence. The government becomes shaky, susceptible to attacks and the impartiality of the NEC is questioned. In short, there seems to be crises of highest magnitude – a reverse to the politics of the camel (dominance of clan interest over the national interest).
However, this is taking place at the back drop of a societal social structure that cannot be explained by text book of unadulterated western democracy. This is because democracy is probably affected by all the forces which shape the social structure of a country, particularly it is even more so for a country that is constant refining and modernising its democratic institutions whilst accepting the limitations/constraints placed upon the system by the very nature of its society.
In modern democracies, constituencies determine the outcomes of elections and these constituencies have well marked boundaries where the number of the population of each constituency able to vote is known. There is cohesive data and a clear census on the size of each constituency, its social and dynamic groupings as well as their attitudes and their voting behaviour, which is mainly about class. Prospective candidates appeal to these social dynamic based needs of the population to win votes.
These necessary components to ease the process of the election for all those involved are absent from Somaliland social structure and indeed from that of Somalia. The population of Somaliland is heavily concentrated in the countryside where the people are populated or lay claim to different areas in accordance with their clan dominance. To complicate the problem, the population is not settled or confined into those areas in all seasons as the force of nature may cause them to move to other areas in search for water and grassing land for their herds. Because of the harsh realities in the Horn of Africa, this segregation on clan lines has been a feature of the Somali social structure for centuries. People took the same outlook of organisation to the cities and began inhibiting different areas and by definition created clan based constituencies. For Somaliland elections, this kind of social organisation gives the appearance of disjoint society for three reasons;
1. As each constituency is dominated by a certain clan, the political party gatherings therefore bears a resemblance to a clan mobilisation instead of a multitude of individuals that are bonded together by social class as it happens in the west.
2. The composition of the candidates of each constituency will mainly be selected from the clan/clans of that particular constituency.
3. The candidates will be forced to appeal to the needs of the respected clans of each constituency.
Those who are not so well-versed in those intricate relations between the electorate and the candidates can easily conclude that the system is crumbling and that tribalism is taking over the country. This form of social grouping coupled with the absence of a census is also making the job of the NEC challenging. Without proper census to know the size of each constituency, the NEC is forced to do a guess work, which is not appreciated by the clans as they are not willing to accept disadvantage in numbers, bearing in mind that the claim to a bigger number is often based on self-certified statistics. To fault the NEC or the ruling party for these short-comings in the system is unfair. Also, it is a reflection of lack of understanding about the underlining issues to conclude the democratic institutions of the country are failing. It is true that they are not robust enough to hold the government to account but Somaliland democracy is certainly thriving.
Somaliland people know the defects of the system and from the beginning they sought to remedy it by limiting the number of national political parties to three. Although it may be inevitable that the politics may be dominated by constituency clan based localities at a local level, they wanted to ensure to harmonise these constituency interests at national level through the three national parties. The idea was as each national party will have representatives from each constituency, it will give them a broad based representation in which each constituency can identify with and see its interest in these parties. This is exactly what happened in UDUB, UCID and Kulmiye. They all became truly national and representative. Anyone who suggests that any of these parties is or was tribal based is just having problem with the heads of these parties instead of looking at the actual structure/composition of these parties.
This is akin to one of these childish allegations that accuse those in authority of corruption on the bases of someone from their sub-tribe or tribe is awarded a contract. In the west, a declaration of interest is normally restricted to those who close to you but not to those who may share the same genealogy ancestry. This classification of corruption is not only insane but it is inherently unjust as it may disenfranchise not only thousands of people but hundreds of thousands from seeking business with the government once someone who shares the same sub-tribe as them becomes a president. What is needed is equal playing field with proper checks instead. This requires proper Audit Commission with full investigative powers to scrutinise, monitor and follow up allegations of corruption.
Somaliland democracy may have the appearance of tribalism at a local level but it is undoubtedly democratic. The elections are free and fair, there is no intimidation of voters and the system is resilient and evolving into mature democracy. For example, the disqualification of UDUB from the upcoming election and the subsequent politicians of the UDUB party and its supporters not to resort to rioting is a testament to the political maturity of the Somaliland politicians. Political misfortunes do happen but it is how you react to it that writes history.
A good start for a writer is first to admit what is going well for the country and the things the government is doing right. This is important as we Somalis have a habit to come up with polemical stuff that only puts blame on others or ignores the primary source of the problem. For instance, time and time again you will see writings attributing all the ills of Somalia to international interventions or to neighbouring countries. When actually these are secondary issues and the primary source of the problem is tribalism. These writers do not grasp the simple basic idea that if you had a long running feud with your neighbours and you leave all the windows of your house open with all the goods lying there, it is inevitable that you will invite unwanted guests. Similarly, if you cannot safe yourself from yourself and on top of that you manifest yourself as a threat to others through piracy, terrorism and territorial ambitions, you are opening yourself to intervention, especially at a time when you are extremely weak.
Somaliland people have always been good at identifying their problems and seeking solutions for it. So far it has worked and our democracy has been rock solid. Any writer should take into account the social structures that shape our country. These have always been there and we created a democratic system which is compatible with it. The problem of the census has already been identified by the government as the Minster of National Planning has announced that they trained people for conducting national census. Who knows these maybe in place for the future elections. The introduction of multiparty system will reduce the identity of the parties with the people, as they will struggle to create a loyalty base due to the risk factor of having a short lifespan. Nevertheless, the three national parties that will emerge will be inclusive and representative.
Those parties who decide to be part of these democratic elections must abide by the rules and accept the results when it goes against them.