EDITORIAL | It’s not every day that we talk about the good things done by Muse Bihi Abdi, a retired air force pilot and now president of the separatist region of Somaliland, located in the north. from Somalia.
In a constant struggle for his region to be recognized as an independent country, this candidacy may have placed him in constant conflict with federal supporters of a united Somalia, eclipsing his own leadership prowess.
This week, however, we would like to congratulate him on rare leadership. Somaliland, unlike the rest of Somalia, has managed to hold successful local and parliamentary elections, getting ahead of the rest of the country, so volatile you can never predict.
Preliminary election observation reports indicate that these polls were credible, free and fair, allowing candidates to freely admit defeat and congratulate the winners. One of the most striking features was Bihi’s gesture to welcome incoming and outgoing mayors of Hargeisa. These were men from opposing political parties and their decision to show up in public for a handover gesture is something we should all be encouraging in a fledgling democracy.
Elections, they say, are all that happens before, during and after elections. For Somaliland, this had been problematic, delaying the elections by more than five years. The last such ballots took place more than ten years ago, which meant that the existing representatives were so past their welcome that it was no longer possible to determine whether they really represented the wishes of the people.
With such a delayed schedule, various scenarios could arise, as we have seen elsewhere in Africa. One is that a restless population could easily pick up arms and start fighting. The second is that the authorities can easily embolden themselves and crush dissent. The third is a descent into anarchy, which can eventually be a good ground for extremism to flourish. All three of these combined can make the place ungovernable, erasing any notion we had imagined about the stability of Somaliland.
Perhaps Bihi had that spirit when he chose to encourage transparency and concessions in elections. Or maybe he wanted to earn his legacy and use it as a marketing ticket for his re-election once the presidential elections are due. We want to assume that this was related benefits, rather than its primary target.
For Somaliland, this was an important step in strengthening democracy. In a region where clans still play an important role, even the elected mayor was still seen as a person from a minority clan, and not his political party Wadani, a rival to the Kulmiye power.
But the election showed us that political parties can grow stronger beyond clans across Somalia. North Western of Somaliahas managed to face three competing parties of Kulmiye, Wadani and Ucidi which follow each other in popularity. This election showed that once a free and level playing field is established, the opposition and ruling parties have an equal chance of winning seats.
We give our three cheers to Bihi, for having successfully organized the elections. We believe this has been a safety valve for his administration to work in an environment without public agitation. But we call on him to continue the reforms. North Western of Somaliahandled these elections better than Somalia as a whole because it had a better prepared electorate. Despite scarce resources, it seems that political will is a more important basis for the proper functioning of electoral bodies, than mere financial support.
It is true that some of the problems that forced North Western of Somaliato delay its parliamentary elections for so long were due to turmoil between political parties where political leaders differed over the mode of elections. Fortunately, Somaliland’s law had provisions to build on: an agency created by law that had to work within a certain legal framework.
These are lacking across Somalia: a legal regime that will protect the electoral body from frequent manipulation and interference, as well as a body headed by competent staff that everyone trusts. It is not all when the regions establish it, but it helps prevent the collapse of institutions.
North Western of Somaliastill has a long way to go. It must foster an environment where women and all other minorities and disadvantaged people can be elected without fear. Out of 82 representatives in parliament, none is a woman. We see this as a stain on Somaliland, but we would like to imagine that there was no deliberate policy to prevent women from running for office.
Companies that enable a diverse pool of leaders are generally more prosperous and more stable. The evidence is everywhere. This does not mean, however, that we should impose any kind of system on Somaliland. All we can do is continue to encourage the leadership of North Western of Somaliato continuously work on reforms. This could be a lesson for Somalia.