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A Question of Recognition

UN Integrated Regional Information Network, 10 July 2001

Nairobi, 10 July 2001

This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations

Part 1

The self-declared state of Somaliland, northwestern Somalia, is the second territory in the Horn of Africa in a decade to hold a referendum for full independence. Unlike the Red Sea country of Eritrea—which established internationally-recognised independence in 1993—the Somaliland bid has not only failed to meet with international approval, but has passed by with barely an international whisper.

Apart from the historical and legal differences between the two cases, the international climate has dramatically changed. After a decade of post-Cold War turmoil in Africa, the brief optimism over new democracies, new leaders and the so-called New World order has disappeared, and the international community is not willing to draw more borders and recognise more tiny states.

A region of Africa that has produced an enormous refugee population, and a recipient of some of the largest humanitarian interventions in the world, the Horn of Africa has left donor governments with little enthusiasm for its evolving political experiments.

We were the exponents of the new optimism, the new idealism, said Eritrean diplomat Temedhin Temariam of the mood when Eritrea declared independence from Ethiopia in 1991. All that idealism has gone, says Temedhin after a decade of post-Cold War falling out everywhere in the world, and the implications of continuously sliding, failing states.

Somaliland, like Eritrea, announced independence in 1991, on the basis that it was not seeking secession, but wanted to revert to the independent status it had briefly enjoyed for six days in 1960. Unlike Eritrea, it had no blessing from a central authority to go its own way. In fact, with southern Somalia suffering anarchy and famine, there was no central authority at all. Then, while the victorious Eritrean rebels rode the international tide of the early 1990s with a credible and effective administration and an internationally condoned—and supported—referendum, Somaliland struggled to survive two bouts of inter-clan conflict. Not independent enough to be noticeable, and not tragic enough to be saved, it was all but invisible to the outside world. By the time Somaliland had established itself, the international tide had turned.

The Somaliland case

It is generally accepted that the Somaliland referendum reflected a yes vote for independence, whatever the flaws. But the international community would feel there was no point in walking down that road to recognising more, smaller states in the Horn of Africa, said one Western political source.

More critically, a southern authority that vigorously opposed Somaliland independence had by October 2000 positioned itself in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. The Transitional National Government (TNG), elected in Djibouti-hosted talks in August 2000, had minimal, but sufficient, international recognition as a new central authority. The position taken by the TNG reflected the strong opposition expressed by southern Somalis, and some northern Somalis, against separatism by any Somali territory. Those opposed to the referendum point out that Somaliland is ethnically, culturally, and linguistically the same as Somalia, and contains clans who oppose separation. Economically, the critics say, it also makes little sense for a poorly resourced territory containing no more than three million people (in the absence of a census estimates range from one to three million) to be treated as a country in its own right.

When the referendum went ahead, the TNG denounced it as illegal and said it had set up a committee to study what it described as a foreign-inspired conspiracy. The self-declared autonomous region of Puntland, northeastern Somalia, also issued statements warning it was a provocation and might lead to violence.

Without any real hope for immediate international recognition, the question now is whether the referendum will make any difference. Some regional experts and humanitarian workers say it should. The Horn area is currently involved in a quasi-ethnic federal devolutionary experiment, and we ought to be offering every possible support to ensure the experiment doesn’t collapse into chaos...and provide a realistic response to the aspirations of the peoples of the region, Horn of Africa specialist Patrick Gilkes told IRIN. The success or failure of the territory also clearly has important humanitarian implications—not least because having produced a huge exodus of civilians in the late 1980s, stability and development in Somaliland has recently encouraged members of the diaspora to return home, and refugees to volunatarily abandon camps.

The referendum

Held on 31 May 2001, the Somaliland referendum was characterised by poor preparation, intimidating diaspora propaganda, and an admirable openness at the polling booths. The vote for independence was combined with the vote for a new constitution which brought in sweeping political changes by Somaliland President Muhammad Ibrahim Egal. The first article of the new constitution asserted the independent status of Somaliland, and Article Nine removes the present clan-based system by laying the basis for a new multiparty system.

Without any international support for the referendum—except private financing from the Somaliland diaspora—there were doubts up to early May that the referendum could even go ahead. In Somaliland, there was some concern that there could be voter confusion over the link between independence and the new constitution—although the overwhelming approach to the vote was that it was one for independence. Even the staunchest Somaliland supporters were critical of poor preparation by the administration, which left voter education and distribution of electoral material to the last minute. Abdiqadir Haji Isma’il Jirde, vice-chairman of the National Referendum Commission and vice-chairman of the House of Representatives, said voter education had been carried out through street plays, the media and public address systems; but on the eve of the vote he expressed nervousness to IRIN that the voter turnout could be as low as 40 percent. A number of reasons were given by observers for this anticipated low participation, including insufficient preparations in outlying areas, the high rate (estimated at about 70 percent) of illiteracy, economic depression, and difficult seasonal conditions for the predominantly nomadic population.

On the day, however, there was a high turnout in the Hargeysa-Berbera corridor, inhabited by Egal’s Isaq clan. Long queues of people voted throughout the day, and there were celebrations held in Hargeysa. The Isaq dominate the administration, subject to sub-clan political divisions and influence.

International observer teams from the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa and the US-based Initiative and Referendum Institute (IRI) monitored the vote in many areas, and returned with positive comments about the openness of the vote, the general lack of intimidation, and the freedom of voters to openly debate or demonstrate their choice of vote.

However, there were no observers in Sool, in the northeast, one of two Somaliland regions bordering Puntland, where cross-border clan affiliations had led to some pre-election fighting and insecurity. There were contradictory reports of how—if at all—voting had taken place in various districts in Sool and Sanag. These contradictions have not been resolved, despite claims by the administration that both districts contributed overwhelmingly to endorsing the vote. Regional observers and humanitarian representatives have said the indications are that only one district in Sool voted, under tense circumstances, and no-one was able to vote in border town of Las Anood.

On a trip to Boroma, in the northwest—where the Dulbahante clan is considered to represent pro-unification sentiment—IRIN witnessed voting in outlying areas of the Awdal Region, but also a beefed up military presence and some armed manning of polling stations. In Boroma itself there was a good turnout, and lively debate between yes and no voters in the teashops and marketplaces. This was despite the fact in the run-up to the referendum, two of the official cars had been stoned in Boroma, there was an anti-referendum demonstration, and at least 20 people had been arrested.

The day after the referendum, ballot boxes were transported to counting centres with reasonable efficiency, and dedicated teams of counters stood up well to spot checks by monitors. However, the counting system depended heavily on faith; voting papers were not distinguished by yes or no marks, but the identical papers were simply deposited by voters either in the white ha (yes) box, or the black maya (no) box. Any demand for a recount would have been effectively impossible.

The Somaliland administration later announced a 97 percent vote in favour of independence and the new constitution.

Whatever the irregularities, there was probably about a 70 percent pro-independence vote, in a referendum that was, overall, well handled by a territory with no democratic history, said one Western observer familiar with Somalia and Somaliland. According to this source, the Somaliland authorities would have done themselves more favours by being more honest, instead of declaring extremely high figures. Similarly, rash statements about violence and foreign conspiracies put out by the TNG and Puntland reinforced the apparent insecurities of the other authorities, added the source.

For many Somalis, however, the referendum details are essentially irrelevant, ­ because they considered the whole exercise illegal. Critics said that what Egal really wanted to do was use a movement of genuine popular sentiment about independence as a vehicle to push through a major political restructuring. He had long delayed both holding the referendum and submitting the constitution, and chose to do so in May because it was part of a personal strategy to prolong power, critics say. It also put the nascent authority in the south in an awkward position.

The internal politics

It was the clan-based system which saw Egal elected and Somaliland come into existence. Under the old system, Egal was definitely out. Under the new constitution, his survival may be questionable, but possible. By divesting the clan elders of constitutional power he has reshaped the political landscape, observed political sources in Hargeysa. After serving two terms, Egal faced certain removal by clan elders.

The new constitution allows for three political parties, which must gain support from four of the six Somaliland regions to qualify as an official party. It covers political and legal rights, the separation of powers, and elections. Somaliland is divided into a legislative, an executive, and a judicial system. The president and the vice-president have a five-year term of office, and are elected by secret ballot in a general election. The two chambers of parliament will also be elected, with members of the Council of Representatives elected every five years, and members of the Council of Elders every six years.

Clans will need to form workable coalitions. Abdiqadir Haji Isma’il Jirde pointed out the main impact will be that the tribal militias and clan organisations would not qualify as national parties... Now everything is clan-based and controlled, but this new open system belongs to party legitimacy, democratic participation, freedom of expression. It gives Egal a chance to be re-elected as head of a new, coalition political party.

The origins of Somaliland

Egal was elected at a traditional conference of elders at Boroma in 1993, two years after independence had been unilaterally declared by the Somali National Movement (SNM). At the time, the SNM was the most cohesive and powerful force in Somaliland. The Isaq-based northern rebel movement, had successfully waged civil war against former President Muhammad Siyad Barre’s government, and was instrumental in the collapse of his regime in 1991. But it was seen by many as fighting for a clan-based fiefdom. When independence was unilaterally declared on 18 May 1991, Somaliland was a deserted and destroyed territory: hundreds of thousands of civilians had fled across the borders of neighbouring Ethiopian and Djibouti to escape the war.

It was a shaky start. By 1993, Somaliland had used traditional mechanisms of clan conflict resolution with some success, but poor leadership and civil strife in the early years meant it appeared at times to be tilting dangerously towards the route the south had taken. Before Egal came to power, Hargeysa was basically a one-street, one-hotel town where gunfire at night marked out the boundaries of sub-clans. Few took the bid for independence seriously ¬≠- including Somaliland’s first president, Abdulrahman Tur.

On a broader level, the Boroma inter-clan conference proved to be the first major Somali breakthrough for peace and reconciliation since 1991. However, the focus of the international community by that time was firmly fixed on the south, where a military-led humanitarian intervention by the US and the UN was visibly failing to find solutions. If Somaliland had not declared the intention of independence, the Boroma conference would have been a celebrated occasion for progress and peace, some observers claim. As it was, the peace and reconciliation conference was shunned by an international community that wanted to be seen as having no part in separatism.

This set a pattern of international isolation, which has continued. Supporters of Somaliland independence have criticised the UN for focusing on the unity is sacred policy, and the irreversibility of colonial boundaries, in line with the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) policy. The UN was unnecessarily provocative in its policy to Somaliland by not listening to what was actually going on, said one established regional expert. A senior UN source admitted that the lack of attention to Somaliland by UNOSOM (UN Operation in Somalia) in the early 1990s contributed to this separatist philosophy.

Somalilanders thought they had a real chance to get recognition under their newly elected leader. President Egal was a respected elder statesman, who had been prime minister at the time British-ruled Somaliland gained independence in 1960. Premier for six days, he led Somaliland into a voluntary union with the Italian-ruled south, when the south gained independence on 2 July 1960.

He is now in the extraordinary position of demanding recognition for an independent territory on the basis that his decision to join the south had been wrong. According to the Somaliland case, inequalities and abuse by the south (Link to the IRIN WebSpecial ’A Decent Burial: Somalis yearn for justice’ www.reliefweb.int/IRIN/webspecials/somalijustice/index.phtml) meant that Somaliland had the right to abandon the union, and revert to its original status. Whether Egal is personally convinced of this, or whether he ultimately hoped for a powerful position in a confederated state has never been clear (see IRIN interview with Muhammad Ibrahim Egal http://www.reliefweb.int/IRIN/cea/countrystories/somalia/20010528.phtml). There has always been suspicion among the hardline Somaliland separatists—¬≠particularly the SNM—that his ambitions really lay with a united Somalia. Although Egal had cleverly managed to sideline and break the hold of the SNM by 1996, this suspicion gained popular currency. His position has been weakened by his failure—among other factors, like the weakness of an administration confined primarily to Hargeysa—to gain international recognition.

(See Part 2) [Unavailable to publisher]