A VOTE FOR CHANGE: Somaliland’s Two Decades Old Electoral Democracy

Woman casts her ballot in Somaliland municipal elections, Nov. 28, 2012. Credit: Kate Stanworth Woman casts her ballot in Somaliland municipal elections, Nov. 28, 2012. Credit: Kate Stanworth
Woman casts her ballot in Somaliland municipal elections, Nov. 28, 2012. Credit: Kate Stanworth Woman casts her ballot in Somaliland municipal elections, Nov. 28, 2012. Credit: Kate Stanworth

By: Academy for Peace and Development



May 2021 marks an important milestone in modern Somaliland history. It will now be 30 years since the country established its de facto statehood and reached its unilateral dissolution from Somalia. In just the past three decades, an impressive amount of work has been achieved. In this short time and with limited support from traditional and non-traditional donors, the country has managed to demobilize clan militias, form a new unified government, facilitate a free market economy, manage radical ultra-conservative political Islam, hold a national referendum for its constitution and transition from being a clan-based electoral system to a multi-party system. There is indeed much to celebrate and much to reflect on this election year. It will now be twenty years since the Somaliland Referendum established the first one-person-one-vote in the country since the late 1960s. This historic event coincides with the upcoming parliamentary and local elections (the 7th elections). This year, Somaliland is not only celebrating past accomplishments but also paying close attention to the future. The current elections are highly important as they are directly tied to the future of the electoral process of the country.


Since 2002, Somaliland has held six popular elections: two locals, one parliamentary, and three presidential elections. All of which were deemed credible, free, fair and peaceful (APD, 2015). The current parliamentary and local elections, which are to be held on the 31st of May are of significant importance in reaffirming Somaliland’s locally-driven electoral democracy. Somaliland is currently the only country in the Horn of Africa expected to hold another successful election. This, in a region that has unfortunately been plagued with despots and problematic rulers who are known to rig elections to their benefit. Given the importance the upcoming elections hold in the history and the future of Somaliland, this research will seek to explore several issue areas that currently affect the electoral system of the country and play a role in the upcoming May elections.


This report will pay close attention to the following areas: First, the delayed parliamentary elections. Second, new voter access to the regions of Sool (Las-Anod, Xudan and Talex) and eastern Sanaag (Badhan, Laas-Qoray and Dhahar). Third, the dominant role of informal institutions and informal players in the selection of candidates. Fourth, the declining role of western donors in funding the 2021 Somaliland elections. Fifth, the nonexistent role women play in a highly polarized, clan-based society. In light of this, this report proposes a new way of dealing with the women quota system. Despite delays, the technical complexity of the electoral process, and the high cost of elections, this report conveys that Somaliland’s electoral democracy with its traditional characteristics is still resilient and sustainable for now.


  1. Background


In 1991, Somaliland restored sovereignty after a three-decade-long civilian and armed struggle that put an end to one of Africa’s 20th century most brutal dictatorships- the Siad Barre regime (Drysdale, 1994). The former British Somaliland protectorate which merged with the former UN Trust Territory of Somalia in 1960 established the Somali Republic. Ever since the reinstatement of Somaliland, state-building has been a rather indigenous, inclusive, bottom-up, and locally-owned process that is exceptional in the Horn of Africa and the wider African continent (APD, 2015).


In 1993, Borame (the capital of Awdal region) hosted the most significant National Reconciliation Conference. It was here that delegates adopted the country’s first National Charter-a framework agreement endorsed by key stakeholders which gave rise to Somaliland’s three-decade-long political stability, social cohesion, and de facto statehood (Lewis, 2008). In 1997, Somaliland hosted another crucial reconciliation conference in Hargeisa, which brought an end to the civil war and built upon the successes of the Borame conference (APD, 2010). In the later years of the 20th century, the Somaliland government introduced more inclusive policies to strengthen the country’s unity in the form of ‘clan-based power-sharing arrangements.’ In doing so, the Somaliland government created new political and social institutions. From these arrangements emerged a decentralized governance system with three branches (executive, legislative, and judicial) that would check and balance each other, political associations that would compete to become national political parties and hold local, parliamentary, and presidential elections. These also established peaceful transfer of power from one administration to another and an independent press-though they have been subject to unlawful arrest and intimidation-meets intimation and arrest from the government- that would critically take part in safeguarding the freedom of the press, but most importantly, hold the government accountable.


It is important to note that much of Somaliland’s democratization process was spearheaded by informal players- clan elders, intellectuals, the private sector, and aspiring political leaders. Hence, Somaliland’s democracy was instituted while drafting the country’s constitution in 2001. The International Republican Institute (IRI), a Washington DC-based organization, sent a delegation to Somaliland to observe the first popular referendum vote. IRI released a report which praised the Egal government for conducting a rather successful referendum with no violence and fraud in a country that had not witnessed an election in over four decades. Additionally, the report stated the following: “Based on these observations, the Institute concludes that, on the whole, the constitutional referendum held on May 31, 2001, was conducted fairly, freely, and openly, and largely adhered to the election procedures set down by the Somaliland parliament and in accordance with internationally accepted standards.” (IRI, 2001). The Constitution was ratified with around 97 percent of public approval in 2001 (Somaliland Laws, 2005).


The Somaliland government held three main objectives for finalizing the country’s Constitution. First, to legalize Somaliland’s re-assertion of independence through popular voting. Second, to lay the foundations for the Somaliland political and governance system. Third, to open-up a political space for opposition parties for the country to enjoy the freedoms of a democratic society through the formation of political parties. The Constitution ratification gave rise to the first local council elections held in 2002. These were Somaliland’s first multiparty elections since the late 1960s. During the months prior to the election date, the first political association emerged. Six associations led by various political heavyweights from different sectors of the society competed to participate in those elections. The Constitution dictates that only the three political associations, those with the most votes qualify for being the country’s national parties. This was done to avoid past mistakes, such as, in the 1960s when hundreds of clan-based political parties competed for the last major election in the former Somali Republic (APD, 2015).

  1. Methodology


This report used both quantitative and qualitative data. On the quantitative side, the report collected data from APD reports, NEC, and other relevant departments within the Somaliland government. On the qualitative side, the Key Informant Interviews (KIIs) method and Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) were employed. The main purpose of utilizing KIIs and the FGDs was to collect primary source information from a wide range of individuals, such as businesspeople, women, traditional elders, election experts, parliamentarians, and academics. Those individuals shared their deep experience and understanding of the Somaliland electoral process.


Additionally, APD researchers collected data in Hargeisa where all of the relevant authority on the Somaliland election process from mid-February to late March. During the data collection, APD researchers conducted 10 semi-structured interviews and 4 FGDs. The 10 people interviewed were members of the outgoing parliament (House of Representative and the Guurti), traditional elders, academics, women candidates, businesspeople, and election experts. On the FGDs side, the first FGD was for academics. The second one explored the issues of quota and women’s political participation. The third one was for people from different sectors within the community to know their aspirations and perspective on the upcoming elections. The last one was for the business community to know their interests from a historical perspective on Somaliland’s state-building to the elections scheduled to take place later in May 2021.

  1. Politics of Extension: Formal Rules of the Game


Since Somaliland underwent its democratization process in the early 2000s, several obstacles have surfaced in the past two decades. Scholars who study Somaliland politics and many other experts argue that Article 83 (5)1 and Article 42 (3)2 are the two biggest challenges to Somaliland’s democracy. These articles give the sole authority to the Somaliland House of Elders or Guurti to make term extensions for the President, the Vice President and the House of Representatives. This has in turn become problematic as will be explained further.


According to archival data from the Academy for Peace and Development (APD), the House of Elders, which holds the constitutional right to extend the terms of other executives, and the presidency made nearly 28 extensions for the parliament, local councils, and the executive (APD, 2015). For instance, the House of Representative’s term has been extended 9 times, the Guurti’s term has also been extended 9 times automatically because Article 19 states that the Guurti’s term expires one year after that of the House of Representatives. Moreover, there have been

presidential extensions, and local councils have been extended 3 times. These extensions have been detrimental to the country’s democratic credibility. The language in the articles dictates that such term extensions can be made under ‘dire circumstances.’ Nevertheless, there were times when there was no ‘wide war, ‘ or ‘serious famine’ or ‘earthquakes,’ but the Houses of parliament still extended their terms for political reasons. Most of those constitutional power extensions were influenced by self-motivated political interests and informal players. The majority of those extensions of the mandate of the Executive and the House were not technically-driven, but rather politically-motivated. These term extensions have severely impacted the holding of elections in the country causing unwanted delays. However, as has been previously mentioned, Somaliland will be holding elections this year.


A significant part of this report aims to explore what factors changed which led to holding the second one-person-one-vote parliamentary elections since 2005 and the local government elections since 2012. These combined parliamentary and local council elections went through several critical stages that led to them taking place in May 2021. First, after the 2017 Presidential elections, which international observers from over 60 countries deemed free and fair (International Election Observation Mission, 2018). However, the Waddani Party-the main opposition party-questioned the outcome of the elections (Hassan, 2017). Even though Waddani eventually accepted the result of the elections, they nonetheless published a position paper following the election calling for the dissolution of the National Election Commission (NEC). The party stated that they no longer trust the electoral management body to hold free and fair elections. In response to this, the government refused to ask the NEC to step down because they were serving their legal mandate and the elections have been deemed free and fair elections by local and international observers. This quagmire went on for two years and posed a threat to the very existence of the country’s sustained electoral democracy. As a consequence of this intra-party dispute over NEC, elections were postponed.


On the 27th of July, 2019, the three political parties reached an agreement with respect to the composition of the NEC. This agreement was welcomed by all sectors of Somaliland society. The Waddani party argued for a member expansion of the NEC, from 7 to 9, the ruling Kulmiye party agreed to that, but consented it was up for the parliament to decide. In late August of that year, the leadership of the parliament blocked the motion for the agreement to be debated. According to the parliament’s legal advisor, this agreement was unlawful as it violated the country’s electoral laws. For that reason, the Waddani party withdrew from the 27th of July agreement accusing the ruling party of not fulfilling their promise (Somaliland, 2019).


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