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Somaliland: democracy in the making

Somaliland: democracy in the making

Ambassador Kaysar A. Mohamed is a young politician in the government of the self-proclaimed independent region of Somaliland. He is currently serving as vice minister of foreign affairs where presenting Somaliland’s case for recognition is the mainstay. Recently, Somaliland is preparing to hold presidential elections which were pushed from its original schedule in 2015. Hence, while on business in Addis, Ambassador A. Mohamed took a moment to sit down with Asrat Seyoum of The Report for a brief interview. Excerpts:

The Reporter: In the 2001 constitutional referendum conducted in Somaliland, the country installed a new multiparty democratic system where the number of the legal political parties was limited to three. So, can you walk me through the justification for this arrangement?

Kaysar A. Mohamed: As you have indicated it was in 2001 that we held our first constitutional referendum, which was passed with 87 percent support. This constitution was also a testament to the unwavering support that the majority of Somalilanders have for continued independence of their country. In this constitution we have also decided to limit the number of legally registered parties to three because we have had a bad experience with unlimited number of political parties. As you know, in the 1960s that is before the Siad Barre coup d'état of October 1969, we have had a democratic system. This was the time after Somaliland’s independence and its subsequent willful unification with Somalia in the interest of forming the Greater Somalia.

In that brief democratic period we had experienced great problems with the clans forming their own political parties. So now, based on our experience, although anyone is entitled to form a political party, we have decided that legally registered national parties should be limited to three. This will be decided based on democratic votes; the three parties which have managed to get the most votes in the local election will secure a place to become a national party. However, the number of political organizations which will be entitled to take part in the local election is not limited. I think, the last local election was conducted in 2012 and in that election some 14 political organizations contested in the election to secure a spot at the national level. The rest of the political organizations will then be forced to join the three to have meaningful role at the national level. Currently, we have three national parties namely UCID a.k.a. For Justice and Development Party, Kulmiye and Wadani. The three parties have fielded their candidates for the upcoming presidential election.

What happens to the three national parties during local elections? Do they have to fight for their spot at the national level every time?

Yes, including the incumbent, all parties will have to take part in the local election to gain position as a national political actor. The incumbent will have to ensure its continued survival at local elections if the party is to remain as a national party.

The other issue with Somaliland elections is the campaign financing. As you may know, the combined budget of individual election campaigns in the local elections of 2012 was as high as 50 million dollars. This covers considerable portion of the country’s national budget. What legal control mechanisms have you enacted to correct this issue?

By principle, there is no limitation on the political parties to seek financial backing from its members, the Somaliland community or the diaspora. With the exception of soliciting financial backing from foreign country, there is no restriction. It is really up to the parties/organizations on how they mobilize their support and members. As far as financial backing is concerned, it is believed that the bulk of the support would come from Somaliland communities. So as long as they mobilize it from Somaliland communities they are free to mobilize as much as they can.

But there are concerns of financial means influencing election outcomes and some commentators are even going to the extent of alluding that votes are being sold. Is it not worrisome?

I don’t think that is a real concern at this point; not to that extent anyways. We also know that the business community always supports political candidates whether openly or behind the scene. That is common. It is more like elections in democratic systems like the United States. As you know, in the US, if you have money you can stand for elections. Regardless, it is a concern for the government. But, you have to understand that as a government, it is really difficult to deal with this concern. First of all, you need to have specific laws to limit campaign financing and it will definitely be something that we will work out. You also have to understand that we have come a very long way when you see out history. Somaliland started out in 1991 and so far we have managed to mold a democratic state. So, it will take time to straighten out everything this early in our history.

In regards to the upcoming elections, it is understood that the original timeline for the November 13 elections was back in 2015. And that has been postponed. Can tell us what promoted the postponement and walk us through the preparation thus far?

The main reason why we had to postpone the elections was because of the drought in 2015 which affected most of the six Somaliland administrative regions. It was in fact the commitment of the government to keep up with the original schedule. However, a consensus among the opposition and ruling party as well as the Somaliland people forced the government and the electoral commission to push the timetable. Currently, we have finished the voter registration process and issuing voter cards. As you may know, we have decided to implement a modern state-of-the-art biometric registration system based on iris recognition. I think it is the first time in Africa. Furthermore, the electoral commission has completed many tasks such as the legal framework, voter registration, and distribution of voter cards, declaration of polling day, which is 13th of November, and also the nomination of candidates. Now, we have reached the final stages of the campaign period. Two weeks ago, we also conducted our first live televised presidential debate. I think the debate as well is not common in Africa or our region; so we are very proud of our democracy. I also feel that this election would open a lot of doors for Somaliland.

Based on voter registration numbers, how do you think polling day turn out would be?

Around, 600,000 citizens have collected their voter cards. When you look back to previous presidential election this number is quite similar. For example, in the last presidential elections it was around 700,000 and this is usually the number that turns out to vote on polling day. Those who register are usually around one million while the 700,000 actually cast their ballot. This election is also the first time that citizens from the six regions of Somaliland managed to register to vote in the election. This is significant especially with regards to regions like Khatoum in eastern Somaliland since there were some problems in that region which is settled now.

There were also reports of irregularities like the two major parties (Kulmiye and Wadani) campaigning during voter registration which against law. How would that affect that election?

You have to understand that electoral commission is a very independent institution; they will not have any interference from the government. And hence, in relation to the said irregularities, the commission has actually investigated incidents and has fined the two parties. This is a big step when you consider where we were some years back. I think the electoral commission is doing a very amazing job.

With regards to the eastern region, we have heard reports that the problems there might be connected to interference from the Puntland government. There were also verbal exchanges with the Puntlanders. What is the issue there?

I think the Puntlanders have enough problems of their own and they don’t need to create one with Somaliland. The whole problem involves the claim of the Puntlanders that some communities in the eastern part of Somaliland have some tribal linkages to the people on their side and hence they belong to Puntland. This is unacceptable. Somaliland could not redraw its boarder all over again every time some latent claims start to reemerge. It is like me claiming some of my relatives are living in Eastern Ethiopia and hence the territory they are living in belongs to Somaliland. This is not an isolated incident. Puntlanders are used to creating such problems. Although Somaliland preference is peace with all its neighbors, they also know that we are very capable of defending our territory. 

There also reports of growing tensions and rivalry between the ruling Kulmiye and Wadani parties in recent times. There are even reports of confrontations between the two in parliament following the election of a new house chairman. Some say this casts a shadow of doubt on the upcoming elections?

That, in my opinion, was a minor issue. It was following the resignation of the house chairman, who was also head of the opposition Wadani party, to run for the presidency. Now, the house has elected a replacement in his place and including the outgoing chairman all three presidential candidates are campaigning peacefully. So, there is no issue for now. As I have mentioned, our current president was an opposition leader in 2005 presidential election and he lost the presidency by 80 votes and accepted gracefully. It was after campaigning again that he was able to win the presidency in 2010. Although he could run for a second term he decided not to leave the space for other candidates.

But going back to the issue, the house chairmanship election was contested fiercely by the candidate from Wadani and he even appealed to the Supreme Court…

Yes, that issue has now been settled. There were two candidates competing for the chairmanship to replace the outgoing chair who was also Wadani leader and candidate for the upcoming elections. One of the candidates was from Kulmiye and the other form Wadani. Eventually, the Wadani candidate had accepted that Kulmiye candidate has won the chairmanship. In the process, unfortunately, the Wadani candidate has passed and now there is only one chairman of the parliament. And the situation has resolved itself.

With all the positive aspects of Somaliland’s multiparty system in place, there are still claims that even the democratic multiparty system is infiltrated by the old clan politics. Especially, diaspora returnees, who want serve their nation, claim that clan allegiance is still a deterministic factor in Somaliland. What is your take on that?

In a lot of ways, I think that we as nation are still learning and are new to the multiparty democratic system. I am sure the new government that would come to power would look into how they can modernize our multiparty political system. Also, we are planning to hold parliamentary and local elections in two years’ time. I think before that, both the commission and the government will sit down to look for a way of modernizing our multiparty system. However, so far, we are very proud of what we were able to achieve in the past 26 years. We have respected all basic rights and political freedoms to our citizens. And I hope the international community will reward what we have achieved with more support from outside. We understand that the international community is focusing on Somalia but I feel we deserve some attention as well with regard to what we are doing in fighting terrorism, piracy and in securing our borders and keeping peace and stability. So, I think that the international community ought to give a strong consideration to a two state solution (Somalia and Somaliland republic) since the so-called dream of Greater Somalia is dead and buried.