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Somaliland Polls Offer Food for Thought for Horn of Africa

Ally Jamah 
Tuesday November 28, 2017 

The laudable conduct of recent presidential elections in the self-declared republic of Somaliland has offered welcome food for thought for a region and continent that continues to experience political turmoil triggered by polls of questionable credibility.

For an unrecognised state with a nascent economy and only limited access to development finance from external sources, Somaliland deserves credit for delivering elections that are relatively credible and peaceful compared to many others in region and the continent.

An influential international publication went as far as suggesting that Somaliland could be "East Africa's strongest democracy", an assertion that some people may find debatable.

Indeed, regional and international pundits have repeatedly noted the culture of credible and largely peaceful electoral processes in Somaliland after it broke away from the rest of Somalia in the early 1990s following the catastrophic state collapse of the Horn of Africa country.

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The de-facto state has held two previous presidential races in 2003 and 2010 as well as legislative polls  which have contributed to strengthening its credentials as a relative hub of stability in the Horn of Africa.

In one of the presidential polls, an incumbent lost and handed power peacefully while in another, the presidential race was so tight that the opposition candidate lost by only 80 votes out of almost half a million votes cast, with the resultant dispute resolved without an outbreak of violence. 

In the latest presidential polls this month,  the main opposition leader conceded defeat, despite raising concerns about some aspects of the election,  saying he wants to preserve the good reputation of Somaliland and its push for international recognition. 

The campaigns were conducted vigorously but peacefully by the three main political parties, and included televised debates on policy issues, even though voting was mainly along clan lines. 

Interestingly, Somaliland became the first jurisdiction globally to use iris-scanning technology for voter identification in a bid to minimise risks of multiple voting. This reflects a laudable effort and ingrained culture and commitment for fair polls.

The relative electoral and political stability in Somaliland has partly been attributed to the innovative integration of customary laws and traditions with modern state structures including having an upper house of clan elders that plays an influential role in resolving political and national disputes.

Though the electoral and political processes and practices of the breakaway state may not  be beyond reproach, they may offer some valuable and transferrable insights to the troubled region and continent at large.

A cursory look around the region shows that relatively more established states have experienced political and existential turmoil as a result of doubts on the integrity of electoral processes. 

The latest one is Kenya which has experienced a drawn-out political crisis triggered by  disputes over the credibility of elections, resulting in considerable polarisation of the country.

Similarly, polls in other countries in the region and the continent have faced varying levels of credibility deficits resulting in protests and violence including Uganda, Djibouti, Gambia and others. 

These worrying developments continue to fuel growing concerns that poor management of elections and election disputes are fast becoming an existential threat to many African states.

Somaliland drive for peaceful and credible polls may be partly a foreign policy tool to persuade the world to recognise it officially as an independent state that is not part of Somalia by extolling its alleged democratic credentials.

While international recognition has not been realised for the last three decades, it is undeniable that the unrecognised state is gradually winning the respect and admiration of many in Africa and around the world as a result of its laudable track record of credible electoral process and an innovative political system.

Hopefully, the welcome conduct of polls in Somaliland will help encourage the government of Somalia based in Mogadishu and the people to strive harder to stabilise the country's political systems and institutions and deliver the long-awaited one-man-one vote polls soon despite the existing security challenges. 

In addition, Somaliland's electoral performance offers a positive challenge to countries in the region and continent, including Kenya, where credibility of polls have faced increasing  
questions .

Somaliland already forms a good case study in regional and international circles for innovative peace building  led by clan elders from the grassroots in the early 1990s when other parts of Somalia were experiencing devastating civil war.

It may be the right time for Kenya and countries in the region to learn a thing or two from Somaliland, a unrecognised country that also has a lot to learn from others as it seeks to improve the wellbeing of its people.

Ally Jamah is a Media Practitioner and Analyst based in Nairobi [email protected]

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