Somaliland standing in line
The un-recognized but de facto independent Republic of Somaliland goes to the polls today in what should be – for all its flaws and uncertainties – the most fair and well-administered election that this nation in the north of the Horn of Africa has ever seen. This election could bring about the peaceful transfer of power to a new Somaliland president, reaffirm a mandate for the incumbent UDUB party, prove inconclusive and divisive, or lead to a full-scale destabilization of the peace built up over Somaliland’s near two decades of political separation from the south. The list of variables goes on and no-one really knows how this election will play out over the rest of the day of voting and through the counting and confirmation process. What is clear however, from the hundreds of people queuing for hours in the hot sun, is that there is a passionate desire to facilitate and participate in the election. For change or continuity, this election is providing an opportunity for the people of the breakaway Republic to exercise what they see as their inalienable right to participatory self-determination and illustrates once again the profound differences which exist between the political processes playing out in the Mogadishu-centred (and international recognized) southern ‘Somalia’ and the northern Somaliland state.
The Somali passion for the ballot box was illustrated to me by the president of the university of Hargeisa (whose students are playing an important roll in election administration and logistics) who recounted to me a conversation he had had in the past with an electoral official in neighboring Ethiopia. The Ethiopian official explained that elections in his country were faced with two problems – a problem of the majority (the ethnically diverse Ethiopian population at large) and a problem of the minority (the ethnic Somalis of eastern Ethiopia). The problem of the majority was that so few people trusted the electoral system or even believed that they had a genuine right to vote. Given a cultural-political experience of hierarchical state power and repression from the centre many people to this day remain wary about voicing an opinion about any possible change in government. This problem of the majority had to be overcome by the Ethiopian electoral authorities who had to convince people that they actually had a vote. What was the problem of the minority, the Ethiopian Somalis? To convince them that they only had one vote…
Speaking to people here it often seems as though the ballot box is conceived of as a right, a duty and also a kind of comptetion. It’s not uncommon, for example, for people to show off proudly how many electoral ID cards they’ve managed to obtain and how many votes they anticipate on being able to cast. The Ethiopian anecdote illustrates how perceptions of the state, governance and popular participation are shaped by the histories and environments of different locations and the contrast between most of Ethiopia and Somalia/Somaliland is striking. Up until the closing stages of colonialism and independence in the 1960s there was nothing even resembling a centralized state governing the far flung Somali people. The state that was formed on top of the pastoral and politically egalitarian society crumbled under the weight of its own contradictions and left a bitter legacy of violence and repression from which the north has been able to partially move on. A new form of micro-level state-formation is taking place in Somaliland, largely beneath the radar of official inter-state relations and patronage, and the election happening today is a reaffirmation of this ongoing process. Whatever the result, this long-delayed election is undoubtedly the most important which has taken place in Somaliland and the people of this young Republic will be awaiting in anticipation of the next stage of the competition. For today though, the roads are closed (to prevent large-scale clan mobilization and multiple voting), and the market is bizarrely quiet – everyone’s standing in line.