Somaliland: Pulling Back From the Brink

Somaliland is facing consequential party and presidential elections in 2024. While past elections have been hailed both locally and internationally as a cornerstone of the country’s nascent democracy, a recent dispute over the timing of elections and concerns over the possibility of political violence threaten Somaliland’s much-heralded stability.

This commentary sets out to examine the recent political crisis in Somaliland, which gradually transitioned from political disagreements over elections to episodes of political violence that have called into question Somaliland’s stability. The political violence is underpinned by the gradual erosion of consensus-based solutions to political disputes among the ruling elite. In the place of this consensual approach, new informal political norms have emerged as a legacy of the contentious 2017 presidential polls that have further entrenched the political deadlock.

As the third wave of democratisation was sweeping through the African continent in the 1990s, Somaliland quietly pursued a multiparty system embedded in local context and culture. The evolution and the subsequent development of Somaliland political parties were a way of preventing clan and regional division. However, they were less the embrace of new principles than a novel expression of traditional clan identity. The country has held nine elections (three presidential, two parliamentary and four local council elections), solidifying the democratic gains and fostering the public participation of citizens, civil society and political actors. The ruling party, Kulmiye, is facing a strong challenge from two opposition parties: Wadani and Ucid.

The dispute centres around the term extension granted to Somaliland’s president, Musa Bihi, and the need for an electoral roadmap that is acceptable to all political stakeholders. Under the country’s constitution, Somaliland’s three political parties are required to renew their licence every 10 years; the licences of the three current political parties expired in December 2022 and a number of political associations will compete in a popular vote to replace these parties. The opposition parties see the replacement of political parties as an attempt by the government to weaken their position prior to the presidential elections, especially since some of the registered political associations draw their supporters from the same constituencies as the opposition parties. The government, on the other hand, has adopted the language of the rule of law to solidify its position, arguing that the opening of political associations will give the people a chance to choose their political parties.

Eroding the political culture of consensus

The recent electoral crisis reflects both continuity and change in Somaliland’s electoral politics. The democratic process in Somaliland has always been plagued by delays that have incited controversy after controversy, something which is in part an inevitable part of the democratic learning process. The fact that since Somaliland’s democratic transition each president has afforded himself a term extension has transformed this measure, which typically should be reserved for exceptional situations, into an informal norm. (This is, in fact, a sentiment pro-government people share to justify the two-year extension the Guurti has given President Bihi.) Somaliland’s first democratically elected president, Dahir Rayale, added two years to his 2008 term limit, with his successor, Ahmed Silanyo, granting himself the same license in 2015. Indeed, all told, there have been 29 delays in the local council, parliamentary and presidential elections since Somaliland adopted party politics in 2002.

In the first two instances, political volatility increased, but a negotiated consensus among the political stakeholders was eventually reached, which avoided further escalation. However, over time, electoral disputes have become increasingly controversial and partisan as the stakes are raised, pushing opposition politicians to adopt a zero-sum game approach to oppose the incumbent’s clinging onto power, in some instances by resisting these decisions violently.

For its part, the government has increased its dominance over the other branches of government. For instance, the country’s presidential system gives the executive significant powers to appoint key figures, such as members of the judicial commission, and to override certain decisions made by parliament. Somaliland’s House of Elders (or Guurti), which, as a legislative body, has the power to sanction term extensions, has used this power to its advantage, trading presidential extensions for protection against limits to their own terms in office. This close relationship has often resulted in the Guurti extending presidential terms at the expense of the opposition parties. Most recently, on 1 October 2022, the House of Elders extended President Bihi’s term for two years, overruling the announcement by the National Electoral Commission (NEC), which had called for elections to be held within nine months.

Despite Somaliland’s successful electoral record, past experience has not resulted in resilient formal institutions that can mediate inter-party disputes. Laws stipulating the formation and recognition of political associations, and the processes for selecting the Guurti and NEC, have not yet been adopted. This has resulted in the inability of state institutions, particularly the judiciary, to adjudicate and resolve electoral disputes. Instead, disputes have been solved by pragmatic, consensus-based means whereby parties concede their positions for the sake of maintaining stability and democratic order, often mediated by traditional elders and independent politicians. These processes have continued with the support of international partners, who have provided funding for voter registration and other technical aspects of conducting elections.

The 2017 presidential elections: Unhealed wounds

Somaliland’s electoral system combines clan identity politics and party politics, with elections revolving around an intricate interplay of clan calculations, alliances, and political grievances. During the most recent presidential elections, held on 13 November 2017, both the ruling party Kulmiye and the main opposition party Waddani departed from the more moderate, flexible and subtle politics of clan that had defined previous eras, instead instrumentalising tribal sentiment in ways that were highly divisive and polarising. For example, with the two main parties split along a rough opposition between the Habar Awal and Garhajis sub-clans of Somaliland’s main Isaaq clan, both presidential candidates chose to exacerbate and harden these clan divisions through divisive rhetoric that revived memories of previous bouts of inter-clan conflict in the 1990s. For the Garhajis, this election came to symbolise an attempt to solidify the political and economic exclusion that had led to violent conflicts in the past.

Following polls that were largely peaceful, Waddani rejected the results announced by the NEC over allegations of electoral fraud and manipulation, even as the third, more marginal party, UCID, accepted them. While Waddani’s opposition leader would later accept the results “for the country’s sake’’, this challenge to the integrity of the voting process would have far-reaching repercussions. The first signs of disquiet came in the immediate aftermath of the elections, where the controversy over the outcome resulted in protests in the capital, Hargeisa, as well as in the country’s second-largest city, Burao. Later, in August 2018, a group of army officers based in Somaliland’s eastern Sanaag region mutinied against the Bihi government on the grounds of a perceived lack of equality and justice in governmental power-sharing arrangements, as well as accusations that the 2017 elections had been rigged. The rebellion, led by the mercurial Colonel Caare, ended in January 2020 after clan elders intervened and brokered a deal between defecting forces and the government.

In Somaliland, elections do not end with the announcement of a winner – political contestation carries over into the leader’s selection of his cabinet. In fact, for most of its history as a state, both the victors and the defeated negotiate an inclusive cabinet that represents all clan constituencies of the country. In July 2018, opposition constituencies from the Garhajis, angered by newly elected President Bihi’s breach of these informal procedures, met in the Ga’an Libah mountains where they set out a list of grievances and established a clan committee to pursue their resolution. The committee later played a significant role in mobilising clan opposition against the government. As will be discussed below, sentiments of exclusion were also shared by the clans in other regions, with violent consequences.

The 2017 election has haunted Bihi’s presidency ever since. He spent the bulk of his time in office firefighting various disputes, from disagreements over the subsequent electoral roadmap to political polarisation of clan relations. This has paved the way for the decline of consensus-based politics in Somaliland, and increased recourse to political violence.

Limits of traditional dispute resolution mechanisms

The recent electoral disputes demonstrate the limitations of consensus-based politics in Somaliland. For, when political ends are not achieved through consensus-based channels, there is no legal or bureaucratic mechanism of appeal to fall back on, and political violence becomes the only recourse. As state power has increased as a result of state development, Somaliland’s rulers have increasingly strayed from the path of dialogue and repeatedly used excessive force, resulting in the opposition taking a hard stance on all issues of contention.

This failure of consensus and move towards violence has currently reached the level of a political crisis, which has been compounded by several factors. First, thanks to an accumulation of inter-party disagreements, the tumultuous relationship between the government and the opposition has reached a point of no return, with each party viewing the other with suspicion and hostility. Moreover, the actors who used to drive the consensus-based settlements in the past (traditional elders and business leaders) have proven unsuccessful in brokering an agreement, with the government calling into question their very authority. Furthermore, the election dispute has increasingly become an existential issue for political elites. In the current dispute between the government and opposition parties, the former is apprehensive about facing a powerful opposition during elections, particularly after the latter won decisively in the 2021 parliamentary elections. For the opposition parties, there is concern that the government might use the legal and legislative instruments it controls to weaken or disqualify them.

While there has been sporadic violence related to elections in Somaliland in the past, what Somaliland has faced in the past few years is unique in its scale. For example, in August 2022, after stakeholder-wide negotiations over elections broke down, protests erupted in cities across Somaliland. The government’s response to these protests, which involved the excessive use of force to dismantle the gatherings and which led to the death of six people, prompted criticism from both opposition politicians and international and local human rights groups. In response, in July 2023, members of the Garhajis clan, who were disproportionately targeted by the government’s heavy-handed interventions, formed a militia in the Ga’an Libah mountains and demanded the resignation of the incumbent president. When the president chose to deal with this mobilisation by use of force rather than negotiation, tensions only escalated, with an ambush by the clan militia on Somaliland police forces leading to dozens of police deaths, an act of violence of unprecedented proportions.

These violent clashes have fed an increasing cycle of contestation, victimhood and retribution, which is exacerbated by several factors. While the deployment of the police force at moments of political crisis has been used by successive Somaliland administrations, under Bihi’s leadership, the highly polarised environment makes it harder to cool down tensions through mediation, as each act is fed into an increasingly existential narrative of competition. This has all been exacerbated by the proliferation of social media throughout the society, with widely shared images and narratives triggering extreme responses from all sides.

For Somaliland, holding democratic elections and demonstrating viability as a self-governing entity are vital elements in the country’s quest for international recognition. This helps explain why political stakeholders continue to appeal to international legitimacy and engagement, even as internal challenges become more intractable. Somaliland’s successive elections since 2002 have been regularly monitored and often funded by governments such as the United Kingdom and the United States, and also by the European Union, granting them disproportionate legitimacy in a region where the holding of elections is not a given. Using the leverage provided to the governance, security and humanitarian sectors, international partners have at times exerted influence over the political process by pressing parties to come together to defuse tensions.

More recently, however, politicians and analysts have warned of increased disengagement among Western partners in terms of diplomatic mediation and project funding, caused by dissatisfaction with recurrent election delays, regular political deadlock and the increase in political violence. The recent conflict in the eastern region of Las Anod, where the Somaliland military has fought against a minority clan-based separatist movement, has been especially damaging to the government’s reputation. Following the assassination of a local Somaliland politician (a routine occurrence orchestrated in Las Anod targeting Somaliland government officials and local politicians), protests demanding justice for the murder spiralled into clan mobilisation and conflict when the police inflicted casualties while dispersing crowds in December 2022. While, on the hand, this disengagement serves to voice concerns over the direction in which Somaliland is headed, at the same time, the absence of substantial Western-funded projects means international partners have less leverage to push parties towards consensus.

The new electoral roadmap: a potential opening of hope?

President Bihi’s August 2022 decision to extend his term not only created inter-party division, it also left the entire social fabric paralysed and fragmented and bleeding into the Somaliland army’s morale and cohesion – although this was not evident at the time. The ramifications of this lack of cohesion became clear on 25 August last year when the clan militias that the Somaliland army had been fighting in the eastern region of Las Anod took advantage of the country’s internal strife to launch an offensive, expanding territorial control and declaring the formation of a breakaway state. This challenge to Somaliland’s territorial integrity served as a wake-up call to Somaliland’s political elite, leading to resounding calls to defuse the political and interclan crisis between the government and the Garhajis.

A group of clan elders not associated with either rival camp organised themselves into a mediation committee and then engaged with the stakeholders to resolve their political differences. This resulted in several recommendations related to both the electoral timeline and the demobilisation of the Ga’an Libah militia that were eventually accepted by most stakeholders. According to the recommendations, presidential elections will be held in November 2024 and new political associations other than Somaliland’s three official parties will be afforded the opportunity to compete to replace their established counterparts. This is contrary to the political roadmap put forward by the NEC, which stipulated that these two elements would occur separately. This solution, endorsed by the president and passed by the parliament, puts an end to one of the most controversial and divisive political disputes in Somaliland’s history.

Moving forward, political actors – particularly the government and political parties – should work together in implementing the technical steps required by the political process, while also taking into account the concerns of those constituencies that feel marginalised by the existing political settlement, such as the western minority region of Awdal. It is the right time for international partners to put their weight behind the new agreement and seize the moment to support civil society and political actors in holding peaceful and fair elections.

Somalilanders have placed their hope in this new political agreement as a means of putting their country back on the right track. The stakes could not be higher, as its success seems to be the last hope in demonstrating that the peaceful means by which Somalilanders have long conducted their politics still have influence, legitimacy and efficacy. If the arrangement fails, it could send a message to other disgruntled political actors that the use of political violence remains the only means by which to achieve the desired political outcomes.

Other reforms will also be needed. An overhaul of the Upper House or Guurti is long overdue to both replace the current members and further refine the legal regime governing its roles and responsibilities to focus more on core strengths such as working with traditional authorities in peace and security, and less on heavily politicised issues such as term extensions. It will also involve developing relevant electoral laws that are less ambiguous, and developing mechanisms for strengthening civil society and parliament to better keep the executive’s powers in check.

Elections will always be pivotal to Somaliland’s democratic credentials, and restoring resilience to the country’s unique consensus-based politics will be a part of this. However, for Somaliland to progress through the next elections and the likely contentious post-electoral environment, broader legal and institutional changes will need to be made.