Somaliland strives to distinguish itself in troubled region
The breakaway republic hopes to become Africa's newest state, wooing international support with state-of-the-art elections. But it faces the corruption, injustice and tensions endemic to the region.
By Edmund Sanders
May 16, 2009
Reporting from Hargeisa, Somaliland — When it came time to register voters for a presidential election in Somaliland, this dirt-poor breakaway republic picked the most expensive fingerprint-identification technology available to prevent fraud.
Then it seemed everyone did their best to undermine it.
With many people using different fingers on a biometric scanning pad or other ways to fool the device, nearly twice as many as the 700,000 to 800,000 estimated eligible voters received voter cards. Under the new $8-million system, one polling station registered, astonishingly, nearly 14 times as many people as it had for a parliamentary election four years ago.
Now Somaliland's embattled election commission, aided by a European consultant, is scrambling to cull the list of voters by applying a second security layer, of facial-recognition software. If it works, the voter rolls in this relatively stable corner of northern Somalia stand to become among the most technologically vetted in the world.
The voter registration controversy says a lot about the challenges facing this Horn of Africa territory of 3.5 million people. Somaliland, after declaring its independence from Somalia in 1991, has hoped sovereignty would enable it to better protect its citizens, rebuild the economy and attract foreign assistance.
Just about everything Somaliland does -- from holding elections to chasing pirates -- seems aimed at currying international favor, portraying an image of stability and distancing itself from the chaos raging to its south. It dreams of becoming Africa's newest nation.
"It's the thing always in the back of our minds," said Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo, one of Somaliland's founding fathers and a leading opposition figure. "The only commodity we sell to the international community is that we are a stable country."
Yet as Somaliland tries to leapfrog from oppressed backwater to regional role model, it's facing the same ghosts -- corruption, injustice and ethnic tensions -- that have haunted its neighbors.
The election scheduled for September, which was intended to highlight Somaliland's democratic progress, is instead exposing institutional weaknesses and stirring domestic discontent.
Besides the voter-registration debacle, the election date has been twice postponed at the request of President Dahir Riyale Kahin. His term was extended over the objection of opposition parties, who now call his government unconstitutional.
Ethnic rivalry is on the rise as political parties court Somaliland's major clans, which yield considerable cultural and political clout in Africa. Many residents are bracing for what is expected to be a very close race. In 2003, the president was declared the winner by just 80 votes amid allegations of rigging.Civil-society leaders worry Somaliland could be headed toward the same kind of election turmoil that rocked Kenya last year after a disputed presidential vote ignited ethnic violence that left more than 1,000 people dead.
Longtime human rights activist Ibrahim Wais questioned whether Somaliland's political leaders respected democratic ideals enough to conduct a free and fair election.
"It's not a conviction with them," he said. "It's a pretense, a plaything to impress the international community."
President Kahin insisted Somaliland was on the right path to democracy and dismissed naysayers, noting that there have been three peaceful national elections since 2001.
"There's no [democratic] backsliding," he said in an interview in the reception hall of the presidential palace in Hargeisa. "A lot of people never believed elections could happen smoothly in this country."
But opposition leaders suggest they won't accept defeat as gracefully as they did in 2003.
"If I lose by the rules, I'll accept," said Silanyo, the leading presidential challenger. "If I don't, I'll fight it."
Silanyo said he wouldn't resort to violence, but others in the opposition aren't so sure. He and others accuse Kahin of clinging to power by repeatedly delaying the election. They also say that the president has hidden lucrative oil-exploration deals from parliament, arrested opposition leaders and journalists, monopolized state-owned media and bribed clan leaders and members of the Upper House.
The president denied the allegations. He blamed election delays on the faulty voter-registration system and last fall's triple suicide bombings in Hargeisa by Islamic extremists, which killed about two dozen people.
For most of the last decade, Somaliland's governance and human rights record have drawn praise, particularly compared with those of its neighbors. Somaliland boasts free speech and private newspapers. Its population voluntarily disarmed, reconciled and transitioned into an elected, civilian government.
By contrast, Somalia continues to struggle with no fully functioning government. Ethiopia has been accused of heavy-handed crackdowns against its citizens. Eritrea has no elections or free press.
"The government in Somaliland has a better human rights record than any other government in the Horn, including Kenya," said Chris Albin-Lackey, an analyst at Human Rights Watch. "But that's setting the bar pretty low."
British Somaliland, a protectorate of the crown, won independence in 1960 and merged with the Italian colony to its south to form the Republic of Somalia. Residents soon regretted unity when successive regimes marginalized, and eventually bombed, the northern areas.
Somaliland rebels helped bring about the collapse of the Siad Barre dictatorship in 1991 and promptly declared independence from Somalia. But the international community, including the United Nations and African Union, have feared recognition of Somaliland might have a domino effect by encouraging other disgruntled regions to assert self-rule.
Somaliland's leaders expressed dismay at the world's reluctance to recognize their progress and warned that they might not be able to hold the would-be nation together without more outside support.
"If, God forbid, things go haywire, it will be the fault of the international community," said Foreign Minister Abdillahi Duale. "We've done everything we are supposed to do."
The pursuit of international recognition has contributed to Somaliland's relative stability and democratic progress, experts say.
"It makes everyone behave a little better," said Ahmed Hussein Esa, a political activist in Hargeisa and director of the Institute for Practical Research and Training.
Government crackdowns are typically short-lived. Opposition groups are loath to organize mass protests or resort to violence.The drive for recognition is even fueling Somaliland's aggressive anti-piracy campaign. Hoping to receive international aid for its fledgling coast guard, which consists of just three speedboats, Somaliland has arrested 40 suspected pirates in recent months.
Many Somaliland citizens say they are committed to independence, but some accuse leaders of using the issue as an excuse to avoid addressing domestic problems.
Hargeisa is still a capital of mostly dirt roads. Unemployment runs about 90%. Remittances sent by family members living abroad keep the economy going.
"For 18 years they've been talking about recognition, recognition, recognition," said Abdulla Ali Ahmed, 26, a grocery store clerk in Hargeisa. "We need to develop the economy, improve schools and create jobs. When we do a better job with that, the rest of the world will recognize us."