Somaliland:The ugly face of tribalism reveals itself in the local elections.

The Somaliland local elections have been a far cry from the success that was reported in much of the media. As expected some of the Political Parties which lost out in the race were unhappy with the proceedings and the likes of Xaqsoor have accused the ruling Kulmiye Party, which won a majority, of vote rigging and influencing the National Election Commission. Their grievance was brushed off by senior Kulmiye officials as just a sour grape reaction but the Somaliland Election Commission’s acknowledgement of their key shortcomings during the election process has made their case stronger. The Election Commission of Somaliland this week conceded that electoral fraud could have taken place as it would have been difficult for them to work out whom and how many times they voted because of a lack of voter registration. More painfully for the families and public, the Commission omitted to speak about those who died or were injured in the violence that followed the election results which could easily be attributed to their incompetence.

The Somaliland local elections and the incompetence of its supposedly independent and able Election Commission could have been overlooked, albeit undemocratic and illegal, if there was a fair political settlement. There is no hiding from the fact that as a nation Somaliland is built on tribe. Many people, especially ardent Somaliland politicians, try to hide this but they are fooling no one. Somaliland has been a collection of tribal interests since 1884 when the British landed in Saylac. Tribalism is a cancer that Somalia as a whole is unable to control, manage and sideline for the greater good of long term security, peace and development.


To support the views of critics who say that Kulmiye is now a Party of one tribe over others is wrong as there is no evidence for this. It is also irresponsible to even suggest that they are playing tribal politics to divide the people. Yet it is hard to not understand the worries of the public who have taken tribe as an insurance policy against a State that is unable to meet and provide for their needs. The prevalent message in all of Somali tribalism is strength in numbers which would provide each group with the power to demand a better political, social and economical settlement for themselves and their regions. This is not uncommon in developing nations whose society is structured in such a way like Somalia but what is unacceptable is the possible consequence of inter-tribal violence where interests collide.


Aside from internal division and global national shame, inter-tribal fighting exposes the weakness of government and the overriding power of tribe over nation. It stabs the heart of what past African leaders like Kwame Nkrumah wanted to present as unity behind a cause and a belief in one equal people.  The last Kenyan elections which heralded in a coalition government after weeks of deadly violence is a recent reminder of what can happen when large tribes dispute election results and this can easily be Saylac soon if the Kulmiye government does not act quickly and continue to monitor the situation.


Saylac was once a famous city of trade and culture. This week it became the centre of a violent dispute between the two largest tribal groups that have lived in the region in unity for centuries, the Gadabuursi and Isse clans. The main issue was that the first group who had more elected councillors wanted to choose a Gadabuursi mayor but the Isse family, who also lay claim to the land, were against this. By virtue of electoral majority they were outnumbered and ought to have accepted the Gadabuursi mayoral candidate as the legitimate leader but what ought to have been settled through a simple counting exercise almost led to inter-tribal war. Worryingly for the Kulmiye Party many of the Gadabuursi claimed that the fact that the Isse lost was not accepted by key figures in the central government who wanted an Isse mayor. More damagingly, some in this same group also believed that the President of Djibouti, Ismail Omar Guelleh who himself is Isse, directly was intervening by promising to supply weapons and political support to his family in Saylac against a war with their neighbours, the Gadabuursi, right under the governments nose. Although there is no evidence of either, the rumour is enough to spark disaster in a small territory where hostilities are already unbearable and courts totally mistrusted for the same reasons the two people are fighting. This indeed is the ugliest face of tribalism and like cancer it can cripple the little peace the self-declared independent state of Somaliland enjoys today.

What should kulmiye do? 

The quick reaction of the Kulmiye government which saw key figures such as Musa Bihi, the chairman of the Party and Saylici, the Vice President, dispatched to the region is to be applauded. It proved to the region that a Hargeisa centred government cared and that the threat of a Djibouti backed war in the region was never going to materialise. Any delay in the government’s reaction could have made the Gadabuursi people feel threatened, isolated and alone in fighting a foreign backed war in their own back yard. This of course would have been disastrous for the perceived sovereignty of Somaliland and its government’s ability to defend its citizens. More damagingly for Kulmiye, a wrong move could have resurfaced the Awdal State debate which would have questioned Somaliland’s right over the Awdal territory which predominantly belongs to the Gadabuursi tribe but is shared with many others.

For now the Kulmiye intervention in Saylac and their part in the negotiations and reconciliation process has helped to bring an end to the dispute. The rightful mayor has been installed and the local Councillors have been sworn in as they were elected. But tribe, instead of being just an identification mechanism for people as ordained by God in the Islamic religion, can easily again turn into the tool of dominance, oppression and injustice in Somalia where two groups disagree. This is a dangerous state to exist in for people and a real deterrent for investors and national development.

Nationalism has yet to replace tribalism in Somalia and this is no different in the self declared independent state of Somaliland. The elusive dream of nationalism eclipsing tribal loyalties is not yet worth hoping for in the near future as it will not happen but at least in peaceful Somaliland, its affects must be limited as much as possible to ensure peace, security and development. A simple first step in every other election to come should be to register every voter and provide them with a voting and Identity card which can be electronically discontinued once they have voted. Electoral fraud laws should be enforced religiously and all culprits penalised and then named and shamed publicly regardless of their position in society. Peace, security and a sense of togetherness are more important than any of them. Secondly, a full investigation into the National Election Commissions actions in these local elections by an independent body which is able to take action against them is needed to restore faith in the institution for the future.

In the long term a comprehensive education of tribe and its uses under Islamic law ought to be taught from primary schools all the way up to the government officials. Discrimination laws must be formulated to eradicate tribal favouritism in public and private sector jobs.  More daringly the key political Party’s must be encouraged to field different tribal candidates in different tribal areas and not capitalise on the divisions themselves. The voters may not be as tribally minded as they are presented to be and may vote for a person from a different region who can best address their needs if given the opportunity.

The Somali people as a whole are new to Liberal western style democracy which is mainly based on simple numbers. Even developed nations know that this system is not always equitable but democracy is not perfect. In the current tribal driven democracy of Somalia and the self declared independent state of Somaliland, equity will demand that safeguards be built in to election results to secure and safeguard the rights of smaller tribes when it comes to resource allocation, employment and public services.

The Kulmiye government has acted swiftly to avert an enormous potential disaster in Saylac but their citizens cannot always be one election away from catastrophe. Somali Local governments are naturally tribal but city leaders ought to know that in an age of globalisation the key to city survival and prosperity is community cohesion, better infrastructure, an educated population and good living conditions for present and future residents. Division and self-destruction inspired by tribe and ignorance will bring none of these.



Liban Obsiye

@LibanObsiye (Twitter).



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