The presidential election in Somaliland – the nation that doesn’t officially exist – takes place on Monday, after a two year delay.
The vote in the would-be independent republic were originally scheduled for July 2015, when President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud’s five-year term expired.
But the vote didn’t happen then, delayed by technical difficulties. Nor did it happen the year after, although this time the hold-up wasn’t necessarily Somaliland’s fault. Western diplomats pushed hard to avoid Somaliland holding elections at the same time as Somalia proper, nervous that the contrast between an orderly, peaceful and relatively comprehensive ballot in Somaliland would reflect poorly on Somalia, where voting was limited to just 14 025 “electors” representing clans.
In any other country in Africa, these delays would have provoked howls of condemnation from outside observers – and serious internal instability. Just look at what’s happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There, President Joseph Kabila has pushed elections back to December 2018, citing technical concerns, but few see this as anything other than a blatant attempt to remain in power beyond his constitutional term limit.
But Somaliland is not just any other country. Technically, it’s a not a country at all. Despite declaring its independence from Somalia in 1991, that declaration has never been formally recognised by the international community. Nonetheless, the territory considers itself entirely autonomous from the government in Mogadishu, and governs itself accordingly. It has its own constitution, its own currency, its own flag – all the trappings of a nation state.
Remarkably, despite – or, some analysts argue, because of – the lack of international recognition, Somaliland has thrived relative to Somalia proper. Most importantly, it has remained peaceful, almost entirely avoiding the conflict and instability that plagues south and central Somalia. This has allowed for consistent economic growth, and allowed its democracy the time and space to slowly mature.
In 2010, Somaliland became the first territory in the region to unseat an incumbent through elections that were widely considered free, fair and credible. Opposition leader Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud – universally known by his nickname ‘Silanyo’, meaning ‘skinny lizard’ for his lanky stature as a youth – assumed power. He now steps down after just one term in office, albeit a term that lasted seven rather than the constitutionally-mandated five years.
Favourite to succeed him is Musa Bihi, the candidate of the ruling Kulmiye Party, who commands substantial support from within Somaliland’s byzantine clan structure. His main competition is Abdirahman Mohamed Abdullahi, who is more commonly known as ‘Irro’, or ‘grey’, referring to the colour of his hair before he lost most of it. Irro represents the opposition Waddani Party, but his message of change has been undermined by perceptions that he is too close to the government in Mogadishu – and therefore not fully supportive of full independence for Somaliland.
The elections will be among the most technologically sophisticated on the African continent, incorporating iris-based voter registration, and will be overseen by international observers. If it all goes according to plan – and, at this stage, there’s no reason why it wouldn’t – the poll will serve as role model for the rest of the region; and, more importantly from Somaliland’s perspective, yet another reason for the international community to take Somaliland’s claim for independence seriously.
“There is more at stake than just the result,” said Bashir Ali in African Arguments. “If Somaliland can hold credible, peaceful elections for a third time, the international community will be forced to sit up and take notice. When compared to the ongoing election fiasco in Kenya and the non-election which took place in Somalia – not to mention the situation in the likes of Ethiopia, Eritrea and the two Sudans – Somaliland can use this poll to further leverage its position as a democratic outpost in an ever-volatile neighbourhood.”