By:Marie-Luise Schueller and Michael Walls with contributions from Amina-Bahja Ekman, Anna Rader and Jama Musse Jama
The Somaliland voter registration process began on 16 January 2016, concluding on 26 September 2016, and was conducted by the Somaliland National Electoral Commission (NEC) in all six regions of the country.
International development agency Progressio, the Development Planning Unit (DPU) at University College London (UCL), and members of Somaliland Focus (UK), observed the process at different points during this period.
Our international election observer (IEO) mission followed previous observations by these three organisations of Somaliland’s House of Representatives election in 2005, presidential election in 2010, and local council elections in 2012.
The purpose of the 2016 mission was to inform Somalilanders and key international actors about the quality and legitimacy of the voter registration process.
The credibility of the presidential elections due to take place in 2017 will depend to a great degree on the legitimacy of the biometric
Somaliland is the first African country to undertake biometric registration based on irisrecognition software, a process expected to safeguard against multiple registrations and voter fraud.
This had been a major issue during Somaliland’s first voter registration process in 2008–10, during which different clans motivated their members to register multiple times in order to augment their numbers and political influence.
There are therefore high expectations that the current register will provide a credible voters’ list. Given common and often deliberate irregularities with voter registers in other African states, and the challenges experienced during Somaliland’s previous process, having a credible register for forthcoming elections will be a major step forward for the two decade-long process of state-building and democratisation in Somaliland – part of its quest for international recognition.
Voters we interviewed also clearly made this connection, stating that voter registration is the basis for a credible election, which is in turn important for Somaliland to achieve international recognition.
Overall, we assessed that the NEC conducted a highly successful registration process, which was largely peaceful, well
organised and effectively managed.
The work of NEC staff was characterised by goodwill and a determination to complete the registration in a professional and independent manner.
Nonetheless, challenges remain.
It is still unclear how the publication of the final voters’ list will proceed, and how the NEC will undertake regular updating of the voter register. The
major future risks, though, appear to be political rather than technical. To date, the NEC has been keenly aware of the sensitivities attached to registration data, particularly when disaggregated to district level, and has been cautious regarding the dissemination of this information. In our view, the most significant challenge ahead relates to the eventual release of that data.
The process must be handled with care, but it is also important that registration figures to the district level are released reasonably promptly so that
the discussion of electoral matters – such as the siting of polling stations and parliamentary seatallocation – can take place in an informed context.
The IEO mission
The IEO mission to observe Somaliland’s voter registration process in 2016 was formed of members from Progressio, the DPU and Somaliland Focus (UK).
Progressio is a UK charity (number 294329) which, as well as undertaking international advocacy, works by placing skilled development workers with national NGO partners.
Progressio has worked in Somaliland since 1997. Current projects support work on HIV and AIDS, women’s participation, and violence against women. After more than 75 years of operation, Progressio will be closing on 31 March 2017 due to funding limitations. Over the past 20 years, Progressio has been instrumental in helping Somaliland along the road to democratisation.
This has included building the capacity of partner organisations, election observation, and preparing and delivering conference and briefing papers, books and periodical articles. In collaboration with DPU and a team of Somaliland researchers, Progressio is currently undertaking research on Somaliland’s political settlement from a gender perspective to better understand the cultural factors which influence the exclusion of women from powerful positions in politics and the economy. This research will help inform Somaliland’s democratisation process.
The Bartlett Development Planning Unit (DPU) is an interdisciplinary unit operating within UCL. It offers taught postgraduate courses and research programmes, and undertakes consultancy work in international development. Its mission is to build the capacity of professionals and institutions to design and implement innovative, sustainable and inclusive strategies at local, national and global levels.
These seek to enable the people who are generally excluded from decision-making by poverty or by their social and cultural identity to play a full and rewarding role in their own development. Over the past years, DPU staff, particularly Michael Walls, have maintained a strong involvement in development-related interventions in the Horn of Africa, particularly in the Somali areas.
Somaliland Focus (UK) was established in 2005 to raise awareness of the democratic achievements of Somaliland. Its members are individuals with personal and/or professional interests in Somaliland, and include staff at the DPU and Progressio, as well as private members. Progressio, DPU and Somaliland Focus (UK) do not take a position on the international recognition of Somaliland, as we regard this issue as beyond our mandate. At the same time, we welcome the increased stability, security and accountability to citizens that has in part been supported by the development of democratic institutions in Somaliland.
Democracy is about more than just elections, but they remain vital.