Debunking “Democracy” In Somaliland

Modern democracy has been called the “rule by the people, for the people” and, as it is widely accepted, implies freedoms and rights for the people to assemble, participate, speak and choose their own leaders.

This system involves consent of the governed, rights and freedoms protected by law and equality before the law. It also requires state institutions, accountability and security that safeguard and facilitate those rights and freedoms.

For western countries, democracy elevated to the rank of sacred pedestal has become another tool to put pressure on African countries and keep them in perpetual dependence as long as it fulfills their interests.

In most African nations, and particularly in disarticulated Somalia, democracy is conflated with elections, multiparty system or as a sign of political maturity. Myths about democracy abound everywhere, however.

Understanding Somaliland

In northern Somali regions, or Somaliland, which organized early after the central government collapse in 1991, there is a persistent belief that people from the North have inherent democratic values which doesn’t exist in the South (from Bari to Lower Jubba).

A colonial propagandist once called it “pastoral democracy” to put this twin deficit clan based system in equal footing with the western model of good governance and open society. Of course, this myth doesn’t do justice to the truth about what Somali culture whether in Borama, Burao, Bosaso, Beledweyn or Barawe.

The Somali Xeer-based system was used for centuries to manage people and resources until the colonial system relegated it to an inferior level, thus destabilizing the harmony that existed in the region.

When former president Mohamed Siyad Barre fled the country in turmoil in January 1991 and the central government collapsed, the Somali National Movement (SNM) rebel militia made Hargeisa the political centre of the newly secessionist northern regions.

After the self-proclamation of the “Republic of Somaliland” whose territory is supposed to encompass the former “British Somaliland” area, the “central clan”, a term used to designate the clan where the whole system revolves, namely the Isaq clan, made sure a semblance of agreement is obtained from other clans residing in that region.

Out of the five northern Somali regions (Sool, Sanaag, Togdheer, Waqooyi Galbeed and Awdal), the “central clan” are the majority in two regions (Togdheer and Northwest) which are located in the middle of the northern regions map.

Following the power vacuum left by the fall of the central government and their access to abandoned arms depots, SNM militiamen carried out a murderous chain of massacres against clans that did not support their rebellion.

To stop the cycle of reprisals and the continuation of violence, the SNM called on all other clans to strike a deal and meet in Burao in May 1991 where, unexpectedly, the secession of the northern regions was announced.

Clan supremacy-based democracy

The significance of the centrality and dominance of the “Central clan” is not more about the number of its population (no census has ever been done or planned) or their location but has more to do with its political organization which stems from its militancy against the Barre regime.  

The primacy of the “central clan” transcended successive Somaliland presidents and was protected by the Hargeisa elite. The system was initiated by the SNM and Mohamed Ibrahim Igal, the first Somaliland president, who had a rocky relationship with militant SNM, didn’t oppose it, as himself was a privileged member of that clan.

His vice-president and successor, Dahir Rayale Kahin, who came from Awdal, benefitted from tensions within the Central clan to cling to power and did not touch the system he inherited. He was finally ousted by the SNM old guard once they found common ground.

If we compare to other “democratic” societies, Somaliland would be closely related to other exclusionary democracies like Israel, South Africa under Apartheid and even the Ancient Greece.

The exclusivist ideology of the SNM that President Igal wanted to dilute resurfaced more militant than ever during the campaign to remove Kahin from the presidency. We could compare it to the hateful campaign the Union of Presidential Candidates unleashed on President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo the last few months.

Among the terms used against President Kahin was he was “foreign” to the Hargeisa region, he was from a “lesser caste”, he didn’t participate in the “jihad” against Siyad Barre, he was a “dictator” like his former boss in reference of his position as the head of the National Security Service (NSS) in the Barre regime. Hateful rhetoric and the use of the media as a propaganda machine were common to remove him.

Somaliland clan-supremacy democracy is not the kind of democratic system that will bring Somalis together but rather a step for the next civil war. The monopoly of the “central clan” in Hargeisa, as in the duopoly in the federal, will only weaken the Somali nation and corrupt those who feel entitled to lead the general population.

Somaliland political parties

In 2010, when the SNM old guard, united under the Kulmiye party led by Ahmed Silanyo, unseated president Kahin, the first action the new president did was to undermine Kahin’s UDUB party until he replaced it by the Wadani party to Hargeisa’s jubilation.

UDUB party’s appeal to politicians from diverse backgrounds and especially Rayale Kahin influence in Hargeisa politics were unbearable to Silanyo and his Kulmiye party. He conceived the idea of temporarily opening the closed multiparty system to pluck UDUB of its promising leaders who formed their own parties for the 2011 municipal elections.

Some will say democracy is about multiparty system. In Somaliland, only three political parties, hailing from the same dominant clan, are allowed. Numerous demands and protests to allow other parties to register and stand for election have fallen on deaf ears.

Serious or not, the current president, Musa Bihi, reportedly considered letting other parties run for the next elections, but the other two political parties refused. Imagine that.

The difference of the three official parties is more on the form than on the substance but also more on sub-clans’ politics and access to more cash for their corrupt leaders. All candidates MUST be registered under either of these parties, whether or not they agree with their platform as no independent candidate is allowed.

It is a cruel fate to see candidates from Awdal, Sol and Sanag running for Faysal Ali Warabe’s party known to regularly badmouth their communities.

Not so free or fair elections

As in any half-baked democracy, voters suppression reigns supreme in Somaliland. For example, in areas the Central clan wants a certain outcome, especially in Sol, Sanag and Awdal, riding are redrawn at will after each elections, ballots stuffing are widespread, ballot boxes are placed in hard to access rural areas which leave in a country where infrastructure is inexistent and people live on meagre resources.

In Somaliland, until recently, one person-one vote system was only theory as in fact one person could vote 10 times. One nice lady in Burao was once complaining she didn’t vote as much time as she wanted for Ahmed Silanyo compare to her neighbour who voted 8 times against him. Also, dead people or children could vote.

This year, some areas like the densely populated Borama were given three days to register for the elections. However, residents who still believe that defective democracy is better than no democracy said they had to wait up to eight hours to get their voting card.

They said National Electoral Commission workers had struggled with the biometric registration system or had no internet connection which made delay the registration and prevented many to register. In a poverty-stricken country like Somalia, people have to fetch for food instead of waiting in line for hours to assert their civic duties.

There are many voter suppression tactics used by the Hargeisa administration either to shut down polling sites because they call it “disputed site” (i.e. the Six Sites between Gabiley District-Awdal) without even trying to resolve the “dispute”.

Also, truckloads of people from Djibouti and Ethiopia are moved to area the administration wants to tamper with the outcome of the elections. There’s a lot of money involved in this huge movement of people. Once they have obtained their voters’ cards, they go back to where they were from and someone within the system make sure their ballots are casted.

In Somaliland, corruption and Hargeisa’s focus to uphold the central clan’s preeminence trump on freedom to field your own candidate or rights to vote in your place of residence.

Restrictions are put in place sometimes and in some areas you don’t even have to prove your residency, your age or “citizenship” (this last concept being inexistent in the whole Somalia). In well-established democratic societies, proofs of age, citizenship and residency are important to participate in national elections, not in Somaliland.

Regional proportional representation

Hargeisa’s house of representatives, Golaha Wakiilada, is designed in a way that the “central clan” will keep 80% of the 82 seats. The allocation of seats conveniently uses the colonial era legislative council representation model which at that time was 33 seats.

This percentage is arbitrary and doesn’t reflect the population ratio. The Central clan decided they are the majority like it or not. Attempt by other clans to change that unfair treatment was frustrated either by postponing the decision on that issue to after the 2005 legislative elections.

On that question, President Kahin convinced protesting clans, including his native Awdal region, to be patient as the election law passed in 2005 inserted a sunset clause that makes the next legislative election impossible unless a census is conducted and a true representation is reflected on the assembly.

Of the numerous concerns raised by diverse parties of the 2005 election law, only those raised by the Central clan was addressed with the February 2020 and July 2020 agreements between Kulmiye, the ruling part, and the two opposition parties, Wadani and UCID. Fair representation of northern regions communities was not part of the deal.

For that to happen a majority vote is needed and there’s no chance that it will ever happen. At one point, during the amendment of the 2005 election law, Sol, Sanag and Awdal representatives walked out of the Golaha Wakiilada proceedings in protest but the Central clan members didn’t budge as their absence wouldn’t affect the quorum and the outcome.

The matter was submitted to the President Musa Bihi’s consideration as this can only be done by executive decision but he dodged the question by petitioning the Hargeisa-based Supreme court headed by a relative who without much deliberation dismissed the 2005 ruling on the sunset clause.

Youth in Awdal, echoed by the Sol and Sanag youth, spearheaded a movement pressuring their representatives and elders to do something against their lack of representation. This momentum was cut short when once again the police state used abusive tactics by criminalizing their peaceful movement.

The Hargeisa system is not only chauvinistic in nature but it is also inauspicious to women in politics as the Central clan leadership is a boys club deeply suspicious of women overstepping their traditional roles. This is a long way from the 30% and more sought by female MPs at the federal level.

In Somaliland elections, routinely praised and funded by foreign countries, no matter how many voters (millions or just one hundred) come out in Sol, Sanag and Awdal, it will not make any difference because the number of their representative proportionality will not change.

As things stand now

Despite the fact that Somaliland has declared itself independent and boasts of its so-called democratic values, the Central Clan’s main ideologues and leaders, Musa Bihi himself leading the pack, are staunch supporters of the Union of Presidential Candidates in Mogadishu.

In addition, their lobbying effort in favor of the position of Jubaland and Puntland in pushing for a weak central government has been felt recently in Mogadishu. Hargeisa leadership had a cordial relationship with Hassan Sheikh when he was president until Farmajo’s nationalist agenda upended this honeymoon.

However, the general population in the North is attracted to the more diverse Mogadishu democracy, even if they despise the 4.5 system arrangement or the duopoly in Villa Somalia. They still believe, with a truly patriotic leader at the helm of the nation, this unequal representation could be corrected and accountability restore hope to millions of Somalis in the country.

Many in the northern regions, whether they are from the disenfranchised communities or from even the most privileged Central clan members, follow closely the news from the electoral talks in Mogadishu and are looking forward to see a united Somalia and a strong central government.

While in the federal system, a consensus is necessary to satisfy all the political stakeholders, good or bad, in Hargeisa only parties within the Central clan have to be on board and doesn’t have to convince or listen concerns arising from Awdal, Sol, Sanag communities, minorities groups or women regardless of their clan.

There’s a campaign circulating on the opposition side praising the “democracy” and “stability” in Somaliland. If there’s a democracy, it could be compared to the model used in Israel where only Jews can enjoy the benefits of it while delegitimizing the Arabs with every abuses that comes with it.

In Short, this is NOT the kind of democracy we need in a federal Somalia and any attempt to copy Somaliland’s “democracy” is doomed to failure. What we need is the Universal Suffrage so everyone knows the more we vote, the more the chance of electing the best candidate. An arbitrarily set percentage assigned to any particular clan would only set us back.