The Republic of Somaliland is recognised as an autonomous region in Somalia’s northwestern region. Since it broke away from Somalia in 1991, it has held five successful elections.
Such an electoral record, despite extensions and delays in almost every case, is enviable by regional standards. And as a result, Somaliland has garnered significant donor support.
The November 13 polls followed the same script. Although they were twice delayed, only minor irregularities were reported by the international observer mission. These included vote buying and lack of secrecy during voting.
Unlike previous elections, however, the 2017 presidential contest marked the highest stakes yet, that revealed deep cracks in the country’s revered consensus politics.
Election day itself proceeded peacefully. 78.85% of the 704,089 registered voters who had collected their cards participated in the election. And for the first time elections were held in parts of Sool and Togdheer. These are the insecure border regions that are disputed between Somaliland and Puntland (now a member state of the Federal Government of Somalia).
Yet, the process was marred by incendiary party rhetoric and violent protests before and after the elections. The protests were largely youth-led, with a number of casualties reported.
Both parties seemed unable to contain their supporters, or instil popular confidence in the process. Voters were deeply divided along clan and party lines.
The electoral commission’s four-day social media ban and delay in releasing provisional results (nearly a week after the polls) provided ample room for rumour mongering and confusion.
By election night both the main opposition party – Waddani – and the ruling Kulmiye party were celebrating a win. False results circulated on Whatsapp the next day suggesting a win for Kulmiye. Waddani reacted quickly by challenging the impartiality of the process.
Seemingly emboldened by the Kenya example, the opposition party claimed that Kulmiye had circulated fake ballot papers. It threatened to suspend cooperation with the election commission. No formal complaint was filed at the Supreme Court but Waddani had succeeded in bringing opposition supporters to the streets in unprecedented numbers.
The final announcement of results on November 21 confirmed that Kulmiye’s Muse Bihi Abdi had won by a margin of nearly 80,000 votes. Back in 2003, the incumbent Ahmed ‘Silanyo’ Mohamoud had conceded defeat to a much smaller margin of 83 votes. As such, it looked like Waddani’s hands were tied.
Behind-the-scenes, former statesmen and other impartial stakeholders stepped in to calm the storm and convince Waddani to concede defeat quietly.
The concession speech came on November 22, a day after the announcement of results. Opposition candidate Abdirahman Cirro called for national unity, but Somaliland’s fragile political fabric had already been put through the wringer.
Heightened election tensions were made worse by the political inexperience of the two presidential candidates who both employed deeply polarising rhetoric. This was an unprecedented and risky combination for the country’s conservative political system.
The personal attacks between Kulmiye’s Muse Bihi Abdi and Waddani’s Abdirahman Cirro hinged both campaigns on their personalities, Somaliland’s civil war grievances, and clan divisions.
Muse Bihi harped on his war record, at one time saying “We won’t accept a candidate who has never fired a gun, and is afraid to hold one.”
This suggested that the political transition could turn violent. Widespread concerns were vocalised by locals and Somalilanders in the diaspora alike.
Fierce competition was also fuelled by large amounts of money. Both parties pushed ahead with early campaigns despite the threat of hefty fines from the election commission. Payouts to constituencies, including money for drought relief, contributed to what many estimate may be the costliest election since the local council elections in 2012.
Somaliland’s enhanced regional standing certainly heightened the ambitions of both presidential candidates, and contributed to the high costs of the elections. Its strategic positioning in the Gulf of Aden, where Saudi Arabia is leading an offensive against Yemen, secured Somaliland massive port investment.
The USD$442 million deal signed with UAE company, DP World, in September 2017 came with additional commitments to development in Somaliland, as well as plans for a military base at Somaliland’s Berbera port.
The deal, however, is also highly politicised and dogged by corruption allegations. It closely aligns Somaliland with the UAE in the unfolding Gulf crisis and disrupts other regional alliances with Djibouti and Ethiopia. It also places Somaliland at odds with Somalia which is maintaining a neutral stance in the conflict.
Challenges that lie ahead
Musa Bihi may be the leader best-placed to steer the country away from further fragmentation and political instability. But his ability to do so will depend, in part, on his regional tenacity and commitment to conciliatory politics at home.
During the electoral process, and laudably so, the opposition galvanised momentum around righting Somaliland’s political imbalances. These include widespread corruption and nepotism that is aided by weak institutions and a political environment that stifles criticism.
Tackling these issues head on will require appointing a new cabinet void of corrupt state officials, but also a strong commitment to reforming Somaliland’s outdated political system. This means prepping legislation for holding parliamentary elections in 2019, but also opening up the political space and pursuing genuine power-sharing.
Cementing regional trade links and pursuing talks with Somalia will no doubt keep the new president busy. But these elections have revealed the desperate need to look inward, heal the nation and foster national cohesion.