Free elections, and a country in limbo
Somaliland’s elections have been remarkably free, even if not always completely fair (some cases of multiple voting and underage voting have been noted by election observers). Yet the world has refused to offer diplomatic recognition, seeing little strategic interest in Somaliland and fearing that its independence could trigger a flood of secession movements in other countries.
Somaliland has been “left in legal limbo – a country that does not exist,” says a report by Human Rights Watch. It has its own currency, its own visas, its own flag, and its own passports, which are sometimes accepted abroad.
The president of this unrecognized country is Ahmed Mahamoud Silanyo, a former opposition leader who won the 2010 presidential election with just under 50 per cent of the vote. He is a British-educated economist who served in the cabinet of Siad Barre in the 1970s and then helped found the Somaliland rebel movement, which he led for most of the 1980s.
He remembers the toppled dictator as a tough, hard-working man who seemed to be modernizing Somalia in his early years. “Like all dictatorships, it deteriorated,” he recalled in an interview in the presidential palace. “The power went to his head.”
It was a lesson to Somaliland, which has done everything possible to avoid the kinds of repression that devastated its cities in the 1980s. The president gives much of the credit to the House of Elders. “It represents all society, including smaller tribes and groups that wouldn’t get enough votes in an election,” he said.
“It’s the voice of reason and stability, and it plays a big role in arbitration. When we have trouble, we send our respected elders to negotiate.”
Despite the progress, the legacy of dictatorship lingers on in many corners of the government. Police have shot protesters, detained and deported Ethiopian refugees without charges, and arrested at least 30 journalists from Somaliland’s lively media sector over the past two years.
“The police culture here is still very authoritarian,” says Guleid Ahmed Jama, a lawyer who heads the Somaliland Human Rights Centre. “There’s no international pressure … so the government does whatever it likes.”
Abdi Fatah Mohamed Aidied, who runs a daily newspaper called Sahafi, was jailed for two days after his newspaper reported that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was sending a team to Somaliland. Intelligence agents demanded to know his source. He refused.
“The police are not well educated and they don’t understand the constitution,” he says. “The government orders the police to attack journalists without search warrants, and they just follow orders.”
In an even more disturbing case, a newspaper editor was attacked and injured by masked gunmen, one of whom was later identified as a policeman. “Everyone was shocked,” said Adan Abokor, a scholar and democracy activist. “It had never happened before.”
The president, Mr. Silanyo, insists that the Somaliland media are free. “If they are arrested because they are press, that’s wrong,” he said. “When it comes to my attention, we release them immediately.”
Another source of tension is the growing international recognition for the fledgling government in Mogadishu, which claims jurisdiction over the entire country, including Somaliland. The United Nations recently decided that Somaliland’s aviation sector should fall under Mogadishu’s authority – sparking a furious reaction from Somaliland and a temporary retaliatory ban on UN flights here. It was a harbinger of more potential conflict as Mogadishu pushes for greater power.
“If Mogadishu keeps claiming the right to the whole space, it could lead to a war,” says Ms. Abdi, the ActionAid director. “Our security could be on the line.”
Somalilanders see their independence as sacrosanct, even if the world ignores them. “There’s no way back,” says Khader Aden Hussein, a Hargeisa businessman and parliament member.
“Our people are determined, and you can sense it in their mood. We’re not going to reverse what’s been achieved in the past 20 years. We will exist.”