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Change of leadership and further democratic progress for Somaliland

Photograph of Fiona Mangan

By Fiona Mangan, Research Student, Columbia University, New York.

On 27 July 2010 Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo was sworn in as the new President of Somaliland. He is an ageing former chairman of the Somali National Movement (SNM) who fought against repression by Siad Barre’s dictatorship. This marks an historic transition of power to the Kulmiye party and defeat for the incumbent President Riyale’s UDUB party, who have ruled since democratic transition after the region declared independence in 1991. Peaceful transfer of political power would be an achievement in any African country, but when you consider Somaliland's precarious position as an unrecognised breakaway state on Africa's horn it becomes all the more impressive.

Somaliland has been functioning as an independent and relatively stable entity since the collapse of the Somali state. While Somalia continues to make headlines for violence, humanitarian crises and pirate-infested waters, Somaliland has forged its own very separate story.

The presidential election on June 26 marks the fourth set of peaceful, democratic elections for Somaliland. This peace, however, was not assured. In advance of the elections, al-Shabaab, the southern Somali Islamist insurgency group with links to al-Qaeda, threatened to violently disrupt the elections. Although Somalilanders, politicians and organisers alike were concerned, vigilance from locals and the police helped to foil an alleged terrorist plot and ensured that no large scale violence compromised the vote. Another major concern was that Somaliland’s hard-earned stability would be jeopardised if the result were a narrow one. In Somaliland's last presidential election in 2003, Silanyo lost by a mere 80 votes. In that instance he stood aside, putting the stability of the country before his desire to rule. Many feared that the same calm would not prevail a second time round.

In the run-up to polling day, political parties staged exuberant rallies throughout the country. In a successful measure aimed at averting possible friction, the three main political parties - UDUB, Kulmiye and UCID - campaigned on different days in rotation. Each day supporters dressed in party colours took to the streets and joined fleets of buses, cars and trucks to sing, dance and shout for their candidate. Loudspeakers abounded. The election was a great excuse for a party.

While policy plans sometimes wavered on the campaign trial - one candidate adhered to the 'know your audience' strategy by allegedly making different promises depending on his crowd and location - there was a clear effort by the parties to create new political platforms. 

From the early hours of polling day people formed long queues to vote. Aside from one serious incident in the disputed eastern territories, violence was limited to minor pushing and shoving as patience grew strained in the long queues. There was also one report of bullets fired into the air by security forces to quell crowds. Generally though there was an air of excitement and polling station managers coped relatively well in often cramped and chaotic situations.

A number of smart strategies helped to assist in stemming problems on the day, including the appointment of local observers and mediators to each polling centre; a ban on transport for all but authorised vehicles; and switching polling station managers to work in areas away from their hometown, in order to reduce the potential for localised intimidation or collusion.

While the overall picture was positive, the elections have not been without problems. Primary among these were repeated delays to the election date, due to issues with the new voter ID card system and ensuing political disagreements. On polling day observers reported incidents of confusion and disorder, particularly at the beginning of the day, where numbers were high and polling station staff struggled to get to grips with the working procedures. There were also reports of inadequate checking and inking of fingers, and absence of 'help officers' who were supposed to assist confused voters with their queries. Problems of a more serious nature were

reported in the Awdal area, which runs along the western border with Ethiopia - Riyale's home region. Concerns were raised over reports of underage voting, attempts to cast multiple votes, distribution of voter ID cards in the street, and movement of unauthorised vehicles. However, the diligent efforts of polling station managers and rigorous checks did help to curb some issues of concern. 

After polling day came a lengthy count. Things suddenly grew quiet again in Somaliland's capital, Hargeisa, and political parties showed impressive restraint during the five long days of tense waiting. By day five a result seemed to have emerged. Kulmiye representatives had assumed a certain strut about town, while the ruling party were becoming less and less visible.

On results day there was a short spell of rain. A good sign in Somaliland. Cleansing. A packed hall greeted the announcement that Silanyo had won by a convincing 88,025 votes. As a festive atmosphere took hold many were aware that this was the real test. In previous days the UDUB ruling party had let slip a few rumblings of discontent and a concession speech from President Riyale was not immediately forthcoming. These concerns were short-lived. With just 33.24% of the vote compared to Kulmiye's 49.59%, it was evident that there was little point in protest. President Riyale was left with the question of what legacy he would leave – would he cling to power, as many have done before, or would he choose a more positive path? Once more Somaliland’s leadership demonstrated their ability to put state before self. Riyale duly conceded victory to Silanyo and, in doing so, paved the way for peaceful transfer of power.

Fig 1: The results were declared as follows:

Now, with President Silanyo sworn in and his cabinet named, the real work is set to begin. Yet it is worth pausing for a moment to consider the achievements to date. The elections have been hailed as 'a peaceful expression of the popular will'[1] by international observers. International diplomats and world leaders have joined in a chorus of congratulations.

Somaliland has concluded yet another successful democratic election and transfer of power to the opposition - a feat that merely a handful of African states have accomplished since independence. This latest test demonstrates the robust institutional framework and enduring democracy which is flourishing in Somaliland, unmatched in the Horn of Africa.

[1]Note. International Election Observation missions from Progressio and the International Republican Institute were invited to observe by the Somaliland National Election Commission.