A state in limbo

In the last week an internationally-sponsored agreement pertaining to Somaliland’s electoral process has been signed by the President and major opposition parties. Is delayed democracy in the de facto independent northern Somali State at last getting back on track?

The six-point agreement signed on Wednesday by President Daahir Rayaale Kaahin of the UDUB party, Ahmed Mahamed Mahmuud Siilanyo’s KULMIYE Party and Faysaal Cali Waraabe’s UCID, was facilitated largely by the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry which retains an interest in ensuring a peaceful political transition in Somaliland. The agreement reaffirms a commitment to the electoral process and the selection of a new Electoral Commission assisted by a team of ‘international experts’. The drawing up of the voter list by this new body will prove to be the most challenging aspect of the electoral process – a fact made clear by the Interpeace debacle earlier this year. The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry has released a glowing evaluation of the agreement though details on the ground as to a prospective timescale for the Committee selection, voter list creation and the election itself remains somewhat vague. A frequent charge leveled against the Somali political elite from civil society (Hargeisa is home to a large and vocal network of local non-governmental organisations) is that noble rhetoric is often a substitute for the logistical action necessary for facilitating the representative process and it remains unclear whether the intended ‘depoliticizing’ of the election date will ever be possible.

The week’s developments have also involved the British. Representative to Ethiopia, John Marshall, expressed his happiness at the signing of this ‘important’ agreement paving the way for Somaliland’s future elections. As the British government does not recognise Somaliland’s independence, diplomatic involvement is usually administered through Addis Ababa. It is a fascinating oddity of the international relations of the region that the British government can express support for the election of a Somaliland executive whilst maintaining an official recognition of united Somali sovereignty based in distant and chaotic Mogadishu. This strange state of affairs is certainly not lost on ordinary Somalilanders who often invoke Britain’s historical link with her ex-colonial territory as a plea for diplomatic assistance. Indeed, Somaliland’s very claim to legitimate independence is based on this colonial relationship: British Somaliland at independence in 1960 joined in union with Italian Somalia in the south to form what is now still portrayed on maps as the Somali nation state. A history of neglect and state violence directed against the North from the South resulted in Northern separatist intent when the centralised state crumbled in the early 1990s. This is a historical narrative which remains alive in Somaliland’s political culture through older generations who experienced the bombardment of Hargeisa by Siad Barre’s southern forces, and a younger generation which has no recollection of a united Somali state. Another international dynamic to this story continues in the United States where legal battles are ongoing to bring members of the former Somali state military to trial for war crimes perpetrated in the North.

Despite earlier dire predictions of political disintegration following President Rayaale’s successive contested extensions of office and subsequent civil unrest, a view from the streets of Hargeisa today confirms that Somaliland is somehow managing to continue along its relatively tranquil course of political development. As usual, this stands in stark contrast to the seemingly endemic violence of Somali politics in the South. Further fracturing of the self-proclaimed Islamist opposition Sheik Sharif Ahmed’s internationally recognized government continues to complicate factional politics and claim more lives.

Despite its relative stability the conundrum of Somaliland’s state of democratic and diplomatic limbo remains unresolved. Whilst it is unclear how the oddities of the unrecognised Republic’s international status will affect an (apparently) upcoming election, it is certain that these processes continue to shape Somaliland’s dynamic self-image and expectations for future political development.

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