There is a need for all-inclusive consultation and support for local mediation efforts in secessionist Somaliland, which has recently experienced sporadic opposition and civil society-led protests over the indefinite postponement of national elections there.
Initially set for April 2008, national polls were pushed to July, then 27 September, before being postponed indefinitely due to the current political situation.
In July, Somaliland president Dahir Riyale Kahin announced that he and the National Election Commission had decided to discard a recently completed hi-tech biometric voters' register, allegedly over the generation of an unreliable list, and would proceed with elections without it. This prompted opposition protests.
According to Yusuf Abdi Gabobe, a veteran of the 1981-1991 Somaliland liberation war, the situation in Somaliland is alarming.
"Somaliland has experienced so many difficult situations but this is unique because it is not a matter that can be resolved traditionally. It is based on voter registration, elections, and a motion to impeach the president," Gabobe said. "For this reason, we are obliged to make wide consensus consultations to deal with the issue."
The 14 September re-opening of the House of Representatives, which had been shut days earlier after a scuffle among members of parliament, has not eased the conflict, Gabobe said. The closure sparked deadly protests in the capital, Hargeisa, on 12 September in which four people died and 22 were injured.
"The solutions must come from an all-party or stakeholder agreement. The National Election Commission, political parties, the upper and lower houses of parliament, traditional elders and civil society should be consulted; it is not an issue for one party," he said, adding that more public protests were likely.
The opposition-led house was set to debate an impeachment motion against president Riyale over the oft-postponed elections before its closure.
Somaliland is governed by an elected lower House of Representatives and an upper house comprising clan elders. The elders have twice extended president Riyale's mandate.
A Nairobi-based regional analyst who preferred anonymity told IRIN the recent violence showed that the crisis in Somaliland had changed from being "political to one of security and stability".
"It underscores the importance of political dialogue to defuse the situation," he said. "For things to improve, the rule of law must be followed. This includes the holding of credible elections based on an agreed formula."
"For any elections to be credible there must be changes in the electoral commission," he said. "In the short-term there has to be some sort of short extension for the government, but if it does not hold elections in that time, then the other option would be a caretaker government."
Nicole Stremlau, a research fellow with Oxford University's Comparative Media Law and Policy Programme, said the recent violence did “not necessarily mean that the country will erupt into civil war"... Things in Somaliland appeared to be settling down after Saturday [12 September] as the negotiations are continuing."
She said: "President Riyale believes his government should remain in power whereas the opposition argues a caretaker government should be put in place… "
Riyale's term in office expires on 29 October.
Photo: Mohammed Amin Jibril/IRIN
|A Street in Hargeisa, capital of the secessionist territory of Somaliland|
More active role for media urged
A September report on the upcoming Somaliland elections, in which Stremlau and Gabobe are among the authors, said: "Just as Somaliland’s pre-election period is proving exceptionally divisive and conflictual, there are strong indications to suggest that if the election is as close as predicted there will be challenges in the post-election period."
The report thus urges the media to be more proactive. "It [the media] can have a role in potentially exacerbating tensions and violence as well as mediating, appealing for calm and explaining the political developments to the population," Stremlau said.
"In recent years there has been little international attention on Somaliland as the focus has been on the south. But Somaliland has made significant progress and has held competitive elections in the past."
Echoing this, a July report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), warned that 18 years of progress in security and governance were threatened by the delayed elections.
"Somaliland now faces a moment of real danger. The president may be intending to prolong his mandate without elections for as long as possible, and his administration risks doing lasting damage to Somaliland’s emerging democratic system in the process," warned HRW.
HRW noted that there are also "severe limits to public willingness to openly challenge government actions for fear of threatening Somaliland’s hard-won peace and stability or damaging its chances of international recognition."
It went on: "The president and his party have successfully exploited this widespread aversion to direct confrontation to occupy a space well past the legal limits of their power but short of what would trigger real public anger. Many Somalilanders lament that they are effectively 'hostages to peace'."
According to Stremlau, the international community must support local negotiation efforts: "The Somalilanders have shown an extraordinary ability to mediate themselves. This is part of Somaliland’s success, particularly compared with the south where international involvement has further complicated and prolonged the violence."