Somalia: The Victory of Politics over Principle
By Ahmed M.I. Egal
The Success of the Silanyo Government & the Compromise of Somaliland
Recently the Somaliland Government held a three-day ‘Cabinet Seminar’ to discuss and assess its achievements and failures during the two and a half years it has been in power. At the end of the meeting, various Ministerial spokesmen advised the public and the press that the government had concluded that they had fulfilled 70% of their program and election promises to the public that had chosen them by a wide margin. While it is good management policy for any organization, be it public or private sector, to continually assess and evaluate its achievements and progress, it is equally a poor manager or organization that grades his or its own performance and seeks to have said grade publicly endorsed. Grading the performance of people and organisations is usually undertaken by third parties and is measured against peers and peer groups, established standards or market norms. In this way one can derive some assurance that the grading process is impartial, objective and is benchmarked against credible and established standards and norms.
The widespread response of the Somaliland public and media to the government’s self-ascribed grade has been incredulity and amazement. Various well known political commentators have responded with comments ranging from ‘istaaq furullah’ to grading the government’s achievements at 10% of their promises. What is clear is that many people, indeed some say the majority of the Somaliland public, have a much less positive view of the government’s performance at the halfway point of its first term. It is clear that the government’s ill-conceived and self-serving attempt at inflating its achievements and scoring a propaganda coup with the public has badly misfired, as anyone with a scintilla of sense could have predicted. However, it is important to undertake an evaluation of the government’s record and the overall thrust of its leadership at this half way point of its term of office, if for no other reason than to determine the direction in which it is steering the country’s destiny. That is the aim of this paper.
The single most important domestic policy initiative undertaken by the Silanyo government is to enable the establishment of new political parties to contest the upcoming local government elections and subsequent legislative and Presidential elections. Concurrent with this decision, the government mounted a carefully orchestrated campaign to dismantle the existing two opposition political parties of UDUB and UCID. This strategy was a master stroke of political chicanery that completely eliminated organised political opposition to the government, since the established parties became enmeshed in internecine, internal splits and conflicts, while other opposition forces became entirely focused upon the establishment of new political parties.
Thus, during the last two years we have witnessed the acrimonious split of UCID into two factions with the faction opposed to the leader and founder, Faisal Ali ‘Warabe’, splitting to form the new WADANI Party, while UDUB also splintered into two factions aligned with ex-President Riyalle and ex-VP Ahmed Yassin Yusuf respectively and, in the process, succeeding in being disqualified by the Election Commission from taking part in the upcoming municipal elections. There is clear and compelling evidence that the split of UCID was orchestrated by the Silanyo government, and that the government sponsored and contributed to financing the establishment of WADANI. The government’s role in the implosion of UDUB is much less clear, and it is entirely possible that the self-destruction of the erstwhile ruling party is solely the result of its own making – certainly, the self-serving egotism and childishness of its leadership in dealing with conflicts that arose between them evidences the fact that they were perfectly capable of destroying the party without any external help.
We have also witnessed the proliferation of new political parties as each and every aspirant for the Presidency established a political party to fulfill his or her dream. These parties have no definitive ideologies or political programs, but instead are merely the necessary institutional vehicles for the political ambitions of their respective progenitors/Presidential candidates. Over the last two years the country has been engaged in one long orgy of political campaigning for Presidential elections that are still two and a half years off, even as the government consolidated its grip on power through savage repression of the press and individual voices of dissent such as Boqor Buur Madow. It is noteworthy that the Chairman of the Somaliland Journalists Association (SOLJA) publicly stated some months ago that this government has arrested and imprisoned more journalists in its first two years in power than the Riyalle government during its entire eight years. This is the track record of a party that promised to protect the freedom and independence of the press as a central plank of its election manifesto.
In the meantime, those elements of the Silanyo government that were perceived as independent political voices or as competent technocrats, e.g. Mohamed Hashi Elmi (ex-Minister of Finance), Mahdi Gaboose (ex-Minister of Interior), Boobe Yusuf Ducale (ex-Minister of Information), have been summarily ditched, often ignominiously. The government has been masterful in manipulating the often naked and unseemly ambition of the political class in Somaliland for executive and political office to distract attention from its accumulation of power through silencing of dissent and emasculation of the independent press. In this context it is relevant to point out the numerous Cabinet reshuffles that President Silanyo has undertaken. It is a simple fact of life that the desperate hope for a Cabinet appointment will motivate aspirants to not only mute any dissent they may feel, but indeed to defend the government loudly and vociferously against any opposition in order to demonstrate their loyalty and fitness for consideration.
Chinese mining company connected to President Silanyo’s family uses shovels and wheelbarrows to construct Hargeisa’s airport after failing to find experts to operate construction equipment. Small batch work is performed and still remains closed.
It is widely acknowledged by most independent observers and political commentators that tribalism and corruption have reached unprecedented levels during the last two and half years. It is now commonplace for clans and sub-clans to organize and hold meetings which then announce the socio-political manifesto of the said clan or sub-clan. This practice has not been seen since before 1997 when the Somaliland Constitution was ratified inaugurating the era of party politics. With respect to corruption, there have been several celebrated cases of misappropriation of funds implicating senior members of the government, not to mention cases of government contracts awarded to relations and/or associates of senior government officials under less than transparent circumstances. The contract to refurbish and expand Hargeisa Airport, which is funded by the Government of Kuwait, is one such example. The contract was awarded to a Hong Kong company which has no experience of such work and which is reportedly associated with members of the President’s family.
On the economic front, the government has proudly proclaimed greatly enhanced tax revenues through improved collection practices and procedures as well as expansion of the tax base. In addition, the volume of livestock exports to the Arabian Gulf, principally Saudi Arabia, has increased substantially with some 2 million head of sheep and goats exported during the recent Haj season alone. Aid inflows from the EU, UK and the Arab Gulf States have also increased in the last two years; thus the Silanyo government has benefited from a hugely improved fiscal position over that of its predecessor. However, this improved revenue position has not translated into significant increases in expenditure on development projects or on infrastructure development. Poverty remains endemic and is increasing as is unemployment, particularly, and most disturbingly, among the young.
Since Somaliland recovered its sovereignty in 1991, it has been a cornerstone of the country’s foreign policy that Somaliland not participate in any conferences or meetings convened to reconcile the competing factions and forces in Somalia or to establish so-called ‘governments’ for that troubled country. This policy of remaining separate from efforts to stabilize Somalia was not arrived at lightly, nor was it motivated by some juvenile pique or animosity to our brothers in the south, nor by a callous indifference to the suffering of the people of Somalia. Rather, it was a carefully considered and prudent strategy to protect the peace and stability of Somaliland and ensure that the reconciliation achieved among its people was not sacrificed to the exigencies of the foreign powers that sought to realize their territorial and security prerogatives by sponsoring successive so-called ‘governments’ for Somalia.
Since 1993 successive Somaliland governments have offered to assist in facilitating the establishment of a genuine and representative government in Somalia through a Somali-owned and grass root process focused upon national reconciliation and a post-irredentist social contract agreed between its peoples. The foreign powers that comprised the primary axis of power in the search of a solution to the ‘Somali Problem’ eschewed these overtures since they did not guarantee their perceived territorial and security interests. These foreign powers preferred to continue with the sterile process of co-opting various factions within Somalia’s competing politico-military groupings in furtherance of their particular interests. Thus, far from positioning Somaliland as a petulant refusenik to the efforts of the foreign powers to establish a legitimate government in Somalia, the policy of detachment from these efforts was both a recognition of the failure of this top-down strategy of nation-building, as well as a conscious and prudent decision to insulate the country from the anarchy that this approach bred rather than negated.
The Silanyo government came into office touting a new vision for achieving the international recognition that had resolutely eluded previous Somaliland governments. The centerpiece of this new strategy was to participate in conferences and meetings convened to discuss how to re-establish the state in Somalia, to be ‘part of the solution instead of part of the problem’ as the new Foreign Minister so tellingly and erroneously put it. Somaliland attended the Wilton Park Conference organized by the British Government in February 2011 and the subsequent Istanbul Conference organized by the Turkish Government on the same basis and standing as other regional administrations of Galmudug, Ras Kamboni and Puntland. The twin pillars of Somaliland’s legitimate, legal claim to its sovereignty, namely that on 26 June 1960 the Republic of Somaliland achieved independence from Britain and was recognized by some 35 countries, and that the 1961 Union Constitution between Somalia and Somaliland was rejected and never ratified by the people of Somaliland in a nationwide referendum thus rendering the Act of Union between the two legislatures of Somalia and Somaliland null and void, were compromised and demeaned by the hubris and ignorance (some say deliberate sabotage, but this is too fanciful to believe) of President Silanyo and his neophyte Foreign Minister.
What is undeniable is that the foreign policy of the Silanyo government has enmeshed Somaliland in the internecine politics of Somalia once again to no discernible benefit or progress. Further, having opened the Pandora’s Box of active engagement in the ongoing game of political musical chairs that comprises the establishment of ‘governments’ in Somalia, through its overt and ill-conceived support for Sheikh Sharif’s failed bid for the Presidency of the new ‘permanent’ Government of Somalia, the Silanyo government has left itself and the country vulnerable to the inevitable blowback from the failure of their overreach. The new administration in Mogadishu is determined to make the Silanyo government pay for supporting their opponent during the Presidential campaign, and it is not bound by any understandings and accommodations that the Somaliland Government may have reached with the defunct Sheikh Sharif administration. Accordingly, we now witness the assiduous courting of disgruntled and/or failed Somaliland politicians by the ‘government’ in Mogadishu through the offering of plum executive and legislative positions, even as it publicly maintains its commitment to the Somalia-Somaliland talks initiated under the previous TFG.
It is clear that we have now entered a new phase in Somalia-Somaliland relations in which Mogadishu actively seeks the de-legitimisation of Somaliland’s independence, while remaining ostensibly committed to talks that could lead to this very outcome. In this Cold War the advantages are all on Mogadishu’s side and the Silanyo government finds itself very much on the back foot. In 1960 when Somaliland and Somalia joined to form the Somali Republic, the politicians of the Italian administered ex-UN Trust Territory were much more experienced and seasoned in the art of political discourse than their counterparts from the ex-British Protectorate to the north, given the formers’ experience of a decade of internal self-government. Notwithstanding this mismatch, the Somaliland politicians attempted to negotiate an equitable union, but were forestalled by the rampant nationalism of their populace which insisted on immediate and unconditional union. It is a sweet irony that some fifty years later, it is the people of Somaliland that are unwilling to surrender their sovereignty again, while the politicians of the Silanyo government have been out maneuvered and out-politicked by their southern counterparts.
It is clear that the record of the Silanyo government, such as it is, is characterized by the supremacy of politics over principle. In this context, principle refers to a guiding vision or set of aims designed at achieving defined political and economic goals, while politics refers to specific actions designed to result in particular, short term political outcomes. Therefore, the decision to permit the establishment of political parties coupled with the decision to foment dissent and division within the existing opposition parties was designed to eliminate organised political opposition and it was stunningly successful. The deliberate encouragement of tribalism and clan identity as the principal channel of political discourse and organization was also aimed at fracturing the opposition and compromising its effectiveness, and it was also very successful.
The principle of deepening and advancing Somaliland’s unique experiment in developing an indigenous democracy which supposedly underlay the opening of the political space to new parties has been subverted to the short term, political aims of negating any form of organized opposition. The inevitable result has been to coarsen, demean and cheapen political debate; to elevate the status of the demagogue, the tribalist pretender and the arriviste while simultaneously limiting the terms of political debate to narrow group interests. All of this serves the interests of the current government by framing national politics within the narrow parameters of tribal group-think and so distracting attention from their abject failure in pursuing the national interest; however it sounds the death knell for the success and development of Somaliland’s unique experiment in forging an indigenous, democratic system of government.
With respect to foreign affairs and Somaliland’s quest for international recognition, the determination to re-insert Somaliland into the efforts by foreign powers to establish a friendly government in Somalia receptive to their territorial, material and security interests, betrays the outlook of a government that never believed that international recognition was achievable, nor was committed to this goal. Thus, it has sought to achieve the much smaller goals of securing some modest aid monies offered by foreign powers as a bribe to compromise the country’s sovereignty, and what they perceived as ‘a seat at the table’ to determine Somalia’s future, but is in reality nothing more than an opportunity to bargain the price at which Somaliland’s political class will surrender its sovereignty again. What is truly pathetic however is that even in this endeavor of surrender; they are being easily and willfully out maneuvered.
The record of the Silanyo government to date has been characterized by the supremacy of the government’s interests over the national interest, of the primacy of base politics over grand principle. Vision and national interest have been sacrificed for the base retention of office at all costs in order to plunder not only the meager resources of an unrecognized and impoverished nation, but indeed the very hopes and dreams for which hundreds of thousands perished and even more were forced into exile. There is a palpable sense in Somaliland today of the nation having lost its way, of a loss of the dream, the unifying vision of nationhood, of the loss of mission. This is extremely dangerous and could foreshadow the gradual crumbling of the stability and representative governance we have so painstakingly crafted for ourselves. The simple, incontrovertible fact is that people instinctively sense when their political leaders surrender vision and principle for political gamesmanship and personal gain, and they react with anger and dissent.
In democratic societies they punish these leaders at the ballot box, and in authoritarian societies they overthrow regimes. This is what the so-called Arab Spring has largely been about. In Somaliland, the Silanyo government has clearly lost the trust and support of the electorate that voted it in with a landslide a mere two and a half years ago; the only unanswered question is who can rediscover, articulate and embody the vision and belief in the future of the country that this government has so emphatically abandoned. The lesson here is that the victory of politics over principle is only ever fleeting and that while governments may succeed temporarily on political gamesmanship, nations endure because they embrace, and remain loyalty to, their creed. People give their political consent to those leaders and parties that not only espouse these principles but that also actively seek to realise them. Just as it is an axiom of life that ‘truth will out’ in the end, so it is an axiom of political history that ‘vision and principle will always triumph over mere politics’.