HARGEISA (Somalialndpress) — Since the resolution at the end of September of the crisis related to the much delayed Presidential elections in Somaliland, there have appeared various analysts, by Somalis and non-Somalis alike, of the causes and effects of this crisis and the likely impact it will have on Somaliland’s future. These include descriptive summaries of events with personal opinions tacked on as conclusions, e.g. Markus Hoehne’s treatise entitled “The current election crisis in Somaliland: outcome of a failed ‘experiment’?” . By contrast, the report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), “Somaliland: A Way out of the Electoral Crisis” is a good example of a well researched, scholarly analysis that not only provides a detailed exposition of the events that lead up to the crisis, but also an objective analysis of these events which leads naturally to a coherent and cogent set of recommendations.
At the other end of the spectrum are the pseudo-intellectual rants of the Samatar brothers, published on various Somali sites, which portend the imminent collapse of Somaliland’s polity into the anarchy and chaos which has bedevilled Somalia for so many years. However, the one thing that they all agree upon is that Somaliland’s democracy is young and fragile, and thus needs to be carefully nurtured. It is this common premise that bears closer examination since it is patently untrue. Before we commence our discourse, it is useful to define some basic terms in the interests of clarity and also in order to set the parameters of the discussion within the context of political theory.
The first term that needs to be defined is “democracy”, since this concept lies at the very heart of the issue under discussion. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines democracy as “a: government by the people; especially : rule of the majority b: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections”. The important point to note here is the phrase “…usually involving periodically held free elections…”. Free elections are not, in and of themselves, a necessary pre-condition for a democratic system of government, although they usually comprise an important element of such a system. Indeed, the socio-political structure of traditional Somali, pastoral society is extremely democratic, yet there are no elections in this structure and no provision for any electoral process.
The Somali pastoral, clan system is based upon direct participation by each adult male in the major decisions of the clan, or sub-clan, (e.g. whether to go to war or to resolve disputes with other clans/sub-clans through dialogue and negotiation). One of the foremost academic experts on the history, culture and politics of Somaliland, Ioan M. Lewis, in his seminal work characterised pastoral, Somali society as “…democratic to the point of anarchy…” . He had observed the direct, participatory nature of the system of social and political governance in Somali, pastoral society whereby important issues are openly debated in mass, town-hall type meetings and the majority view prevails and becomes binding upon all clan/sub-clan members after all viewpoints are thoroughly aired and discussed. This indigenous, participatory democracy has neither formal institutions nor any formal office holders (Somaliland Sultanships are purely ceremonial with no formal powers), yet it not only works, but has thrived and commanded the allegiance of its people for centuries, if not millennia.
The central feature of a democratic system of government is that power is vested in the people and they exercise this power either directly, or through freely chosen representatives which act in their name and on their behalf. This central concept of democratic governance has been enunciated, perhaps most famously, by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address as “… government of the people, by the people, for the people…”. In fact, this precise and pithy exposition of a democratic system of government has become the popular definition of democracy. This leads to the critically important concept of “political consent”, i.e. the consent of the people to submit to the authority of government.
In a democratic system the people consent to governmental authority because that very authority derives from the people freely choosing their leaders through periodically held elections. In traditional, pastoral, Somali society, clan elders are not elected but chosen through an evolutionary, dynamic, almost osmotic, process whereby those clan members that are perceived by their kinsmen as wise, reflective, decent and honourable emerge as spokesmen and socio-political leaders whose opinions and judgments are widely respected and followed. This may be viewed as a social equivalent of the Darwinian evolutionary principle of ‘survival of the fittest’, except that it may be characterised as ‘emergence of the wise and honourable’.
The 2009 Election Crisis in the Context of Somaliland’s Democracy
Thus, the success of the people of Somaliland in establishing a functioning, democratic system of government in the wake of a prolonged, devastating civil war against a tribally based, military dictatorship that had ruled for over two decades, is not surprising. It is certainly true that there were some armed clan conflicts after the historic Borama Conference in 1993 that established both the institutional and philosophical framework for Somaliland’s system of democratic governance. However, it is also true that those conflicts comprised initial teething troubles as the nation re-established its representative, democratic socio-political heritage. In addition, those conflicts took place against a background of a society in transition from a savage and long civil war, with armed, clan militias roaming the countryside under the leadership of an officer cadre that felt that their status as heroes of the Liberation War entitled them to rule the country. In fact, those conflicts, while costly in human lives lost and property destroyed, provided an essential lesson in political maturity since they painfully demonstrated to ordinary Somalilanders the social and human cost of anarchy. This is evidenced in the fall from grace, in terms of public esteem and adoration, of the officer cadre heroes of the Liberation War that played such a prominent role in the clan wars.
The election crisis of 2009 must be seen in the context of a highly partisan political environment as the government and the opposition parties jockeyed for advantage in the voter registration process, which was mismanaged by incompetent actors, i.e. the National Election Commission (NEC) and its foreign, “expert” Interpeace. Further, the terrorist attacks in Hargeisa on 29 October 2008 which resulted in the sudden departure of the software company that was integrating the biometric data into the voter registration system also did not help. The political impasse on how and when to hold the elections, as both the government and the opposition dug in their heels over irreconcilable positions, grew ever more intractable. The events leading to this crisis and the actions of the various parties which contributed to this outcome are very well detailed in the ICG’s report mentioned above, as well as some others. However, what nearly all the various accounts and analyses of the situation (including ICG’s report) ignore is the role the people of Somaliland played in the resolution of the crisis. Instead, they focus upon the role played by the foreign actors, namely the aid donors and the Ethiopian Government, and it is true that their intervention was very important, maybe even necessary.
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However, it is also true that without the forceful intervention of civil society leaders acting in response to lobbying by ordinary people, the intervention of the foreign actors may well have come to nought. The deteriorating political situation, particularly the deaths during the opposition-lead demonstration in Hargeisa at the end of September, galvanised the people into action as the prospect of sustained, and possibly armed, conflict loomed. In Hargeisa, there was palpable and widespread public unease and anger with the political elite (on both sides of the dispute) which had allowed the situation to deteriorate to this point. Falling back on traditional avenues of political and social intermediation, ordinary Somalilanders instigated the clan elders, religious leaders and the business community (i.e. civil society leaders) as well as the Guurti to prevail upon the political leaders to tone down the rhetoric and reach a compromise.
It is important to note here that there are political actors that either have a vested interest in derailing the country’s democratic system and plunging it into the same anarchy and chaos that has bedeviled Somalia to the south, or, that are willing to foment internal conflict, armed if necessary, in order to realise their political goals, i.e. the ascent to power. The principle such actor is, of course, Al-Shabaab with its nihilistic mission of plunging the region back into Middle Ages. The thorough rejection of these so-called jihadists by the people of Somaliland is evidenced by the success of the country’s authorities in thwarting repeated attempts by Al-Shabaab to mount attacks, which is due primarily to the vigilance of the public in recognising and reporting suspicious activities and persons to the authorities.
The most recent such incident occurred on 19th December 2009, when a nomadic goat herder noticed some men laying explosives under a bridge that was to be navigated by a high level delegation of Ministers and other political leaders en route to a ceremony inaugurating a new district in Qoyta near Burao. The goat herder reported the matter to a police convoy on an advance security reconnaissance of the route, and the explosives were discovered and safely defused. However, in addition to, and separate from Al-Shabaab, there are political actors in Somaliland which have shown that they are ready to foment civil unrest, and even clan warfare, in order to create sufficient havoc to overthrow the government and instigate a seizure of power under the pretext of re-establishing order. The conflagration of a routine dispute between nomads over water rights at Ceel Bardaleh by the brutal and savage murders of innocent civilians traveling from Hargeisa to Borama was the first shot fired by these local actors which are prepared to instigate clan conflict in furtherance of their ambitions.
The carefully orchestrated subversion of the demonstrations in Hargeisa into an armed confrontation with the police was a second attempt at sowing the seeds of armed conflict in the country. The intervention of the Guurti and the clan elders, not to mention the maturity of the overwhelming majority of the concerned clans, succeeded in preventing the Ceel Bardaleh dispute turning into an ugly, armed clan war. Correspondingly, the widespread public outcry against the political manoeuvrings and recalcitrance of both the Government and the opposition regarding the election issue, quickly forced both sides to abandon their sterile impasse and lower the political temperature. The concerted pressure exerted by the foreign aid donors and the Ethiopian Government supported the groundswell of domestic frustration with their antics and compelled both sides to demonstrate a modicum of statesmanship and reach a reasonable compromise. The fact that these initial attempts at internal subversion have failed does not mean that the local instigators behind these attempts, and their foreign co-conspirators, have given up on their aims.
In answer to the question of this piece, several key points outlined above have to be carefully considered. Firstly, the political culture of participatory democracy is not new to Somaliland, but is in fact a central feature of the country’s socio-political ethos, culture and tradition. This fact is perhaps not fully appreciated by many commentators which consider that democratic governance is a new construct in Somali political history. This would also explain the over-arching focus upon elections in the analyses of many of these commentators, while ignoring other important features of the country’s democratic system. In this context, it is important to remember that during the decade commencing from the Borama Conference in 1993 until 2003, when Somaliland held its first elections, the country had a government that was democratic in that it was representative and enjoyed the freely given consent of its people, not to mention their confidence. This representative democracy, sans elections, was achieved by adapting the indigenous, Somali, clan-based, pastoral democracy to the modern institutions of an executive Presidency, an independent judiciary and a bicameral legislature of a lower House of Representatives and the present Guurti.
Secondly, the drafting of a constitution and its ratification, along with the establishment of political parties and instituting elections for the seats in the House of Representatives, marked Somaliland’s transition from a clan-based pastoral democracy to a modern, representative nation-state. However, this does not mean that the country is qualitatively more democratic now than it was during the 1993-3003 decade. The fact is that Somaliland upgraded its traditional, pastoral political system to benefit from institutional and methodological structures of the modern, democratic state, much as one might upgrade from an older computer to a newer, more advanced model. The content of the work performed on the machines does not change although, hopefully, the efficiency and productivity of the user does. Thus, the shift from the clan-based, pastoral democracy of the pre-2003 era to the present one whereby local and national office-holders are elected doesn’t change the democratic values, if you will, of the government in terms of representation and the consent of the people to its authority, but hopefully the transparency and accessibility of the system is enhanced.
Thirdly, the determination of the ordinary citizens of Somaliland not to surrender the independence, stability and peace they have enjoyed under their home-grown system of representative government and a free society remains the powerful foundation that ensures its durability. During the election crisis, this determination trumped the machinations of both the political elite and the malevolent plots of would-be usurpers of their state institutions. The timely support of the foreign aid donors and Ethiopia in reading the riot act to the political leaders was an invaluable stick with which to compel the political elite to look beyond their narrow self-interests and see the ‘big picture’.
This desire for self determination through representative government and a free society is deeply ingrained in the people of Somaliland and formed the basis of the revolt against the Siyad Barre dictatorship and the subsequent, long War of Liberation. It is also a fundamental and enduring feature of the history and culture of Somaliland’s pastoral society, which has survived some 75 years of, an admittedly benign, British colonial rule; the perfidy of a union subverted by the calculations of regional domination; an oppressive, tribal dictatorship that declared war on its own citizens; armed, clan conflict motivated by an overweening lust for power; sustained efforts by internal and external forces to subvert the very existence of Somaliland as an independent nation including acts of terror and violence and trade embargoes; and, most recently, the inability of the political elite to look beyond their own naked ambitions.
Finally, one has to conclude that far from being fragile, Somaliland’s democracy is indeed strong and robust. It is founded in the cultural fabric of Somaliland’s pastoral society and is nourished by the determination of ordinary Somalilanders to enjoy their freedom and pursue their lives in peace. This is not to say that the institutions, constitution and political parties of Somaliland’s system of government do not require continual review and improvement, in fact they do. Nor does it mean that the political culture of Somaliland is mature and developed; in fact it needs to progress from the clan-centric nature of the pastoral system to the platform-centric focus of the party system. It is a fact that the three national parties are presently broadly organised around particular clans, and are vehicles for their respective leaders, rather than being organised around philosophies of the state and its relationship to the people it governs. Having said that, however, it is undeniable that Somaliland’s democratic system is not only robust and muscular, but its future looks bright since its fate is in very safe hands – those of the people. To the many foreign supporters and analysts of Somaliland’s re-emergence as a nation state, I can confidently say: “Don’t cry for Somaliland’s democracy”!
Ahmed M.I. Egal
24 December 2009