Somaliland: Promises and Perspectives
The recent Somaliland presidential election represents a singular achievement not seen in the Horn of Africa sub-region for over forty years. The last time an incumbent president gracefully conceded defeat through a democratic electoral process was in 1968, when president Aden Abdulle Osman of Somalia lost to Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke. He went into the history books as the first president in post-colonial Africa to transfer power peacefully to an opposition leader. It is an event with special meaning for me personally; I earned my first pay check in that election as a paid student volunteer assigned to the polling station at Agabar, about 40 miles west of Hargeisa. It would be another 42 years before another fellow Somali followed suit under very different circumstances.
The sight of outgoing president Dahir Riyale Kahin and incoming president Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud sharing the podium at the inauguration was an iconic moment that history will record for posterity. The combination of grace in defeat and magnanimity in victory evident at this event is something all Somalilanders should be proud of. It is one of those portraits that give real meaning to the old dictum, “a picture is worth a thousand words”.
Outgoing president Dahir Riyale Kahin said it best when he declared, “the election is over, the people have spoken, and we have a new government. I congratulate President-elect Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud and Vice President-elect Abdirahman Abdillahi. I pledge my support to the new government, and wish them success in the difficult job ahead. And I urge all Somalilanders to get out of campaign mode and file behind the new government for the good of our country and our people”. Whatever his administration’s shortcomings during his tenure, and there were many, his graceful and dignified exit earned him a place in history.
Memo to the New Government
The UDUB party was put in power by a Borama-Hargeisa-Berbera triangle of clan coalitions. The UDUB party calculated this was a firewall of unbeatable clan coalitions that would guarantee electoral success for years to come. It did not turn out that way. Over the years, cracks developed in that coalition and your Kulmiye party was able to successfully exploit those cracks. You have been able to put the government’s feet to the fire, shining light on its shortcomings, real or imagined, at every opportunity. You have been able to articulate a different vision; as an opposition party out of power, you were able to draw a stark contrast between your vision for good governance and the prevailing conditions under the incumbent government. The result was a well-organized grass-roots campaign that delivered a sizable electoral mandate for your party.
What to do with that mandate?
The goal of an election campaign is to win. Making promises in the heat of a campaign is the easy part. Delivering on those promises under the difficult circumstances Somaliland continues to face on many fronts is the hard part. Political parties that over promise and under deliver risk defeat at the next election. It is an inevitable cycle the fortunes of political parties must go through as the wheel of democracy turns through time.
The challenge facing you now is to deliver on your promises. You face an electorate that has not yet transitioned from clan to constituency politics. While each clan expresses public support for a smaller, more effective government, each still wants to get maximum advantage for their clan in the new dispensation. It is a zero-sum game that is difficult to navigate. Add Somaliland’s lack of access to international funding and investment sources; throw in its limited internal resources for development. All these, and some more, add up to a difficult task ahead.
These realities make one thing clear; the need to prioritize. How do you spend your political capital and the limited financial resources available in order to get the biggest bang for your buck at the shortest time possible and make a noticeable difference in the lives of the people? Your success in governing will not be measured by whether you have satisfied every clan’s demands for ministerial posts. It will be measured by whether or not you make a difference in the lives of ordinary Somalilanders who are struggling with their daily survival. Here is a non-exhaustive list of priorities for your consideration:
• Creation of more employment opportunities through focused economic development.
• Improvement of the dismal infrastructure that makes many important parts of the country inaccessible.
• Improvement in education where every child of school age has access to public education.
• Better administration of justice based on the rule of law applicable to all equally.
• Encouragement of a free but responsible press, including private ownership of TV and radio stations with appropriate oversight and safeguards of the public airwaves.
• Decriminalization of dissent
• Opening of political space for more participation by civic groups and re-invigoration of the multi-party system.
• Smaller but more effective pool of public employees, hired on the basis of their competence and suitability for the position rather than their clan affiliation; and a living wage for these employees that enables them to feed their families so they can concentrate on serving the people.
• Continued good relations with neighboring countries in the region
• Maintaining and strengthening the peace and stability established and nurtured over the past 19 years.
• And last but not least, look forward not backward; do not waste energy and resources tearing down and blaming the previous administration. The sooner you get out of election mode and into governing mode the better.
Peace, democracy, and economic development constitute the three legs of the Somaliland stool. Peace and democracy has certainly been established and strengthened by previous administrations. It is the third leg, economic development, which continues to be wobbly. Fifty years after independence, many families are unable to provide one square meal a day for their families. Without economic progress, peace and democracy would not be sustainable (it is only in the perverted context of the situation in Mogadishu as a backdrop that not butchering your neighbors is regarded as a high achievement). Creating an environment conducive to public and private investment that creates employment opportunities will go a long way in improving economic conditions.
Memo to the Electorate
In a democratic society, elections produce winners and losers, and leave a residue of resentment between contestants and clans. But after a while, these feelings must wear off and give way to people coming together for the common good. As the outgoing president said, the election is over. The people have spoken and made their choice. At a minimum, the new government deserves to be given a chance to earn your respect and tackle the common problems facing the country.
It is evident that many clans feel they did not get their fair share of elective offices and ministerial posts. While some power-sharing allocations seem obvious in their inequity, others are not easily discernible. The only way to get an objective method of allocation of elective seats is to conduct a scientific, internationally observed census that could be the basis for a system of proportional representation. This will put to rest the never-ending, often chauvinistic, inter-clan arguments about relative numerical strength and optimum representation.
Getting a few more ministers for your clan who are unlikely to make a difference in the lives of your community is not as important as getting the new administration build roads, schools and clinics in your neighborhood. So, determine what is really important for your community and press the new administration to fulfill your community’s pressing economic, social, educational, and healthcare needs.
Memo to the Somaliland Diaspora
Your involvement in Somaliland affairs from afar has been a doubled-edged sword. While many of you have and continue to play a constructive role, building businesses, providing humanitarian aid, and contributing to local community development projects, many others have specialized in tearing communities apart. You have access to technology that enables you to reach tens of thousands of your fellow brothers and sisters back home in real time. That is a huge capacity that could be a force for good. You have the opportunity to create vehicles for creative and critical thinking. Use it wisely and responsibly. Use that capacity to constructive ends that move your respective communities and clans back home to a higher plane. And never play to the fears and prejudices of your clan or sub-clan in pursuit of attention and grandeur. It is time all Somaliland media re-evaluate their role and responsibility to their communities back home.
The least you can do is to not make the situation any worse. As is often said, do not say anything unless you can improve on the silence.
Yussuf Aden Kalib