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Somaliland: Democratisation and Its Discontents


Recent developments have made the choice faced by the international community considerably clearer: develop pragmatic responses to Somaliland’s demand for self-determination or continue to insist upon the increasingly abstract notion of the unity and territorial integrity of the Somali Republic – a course of action almost certain to open a new chapter in the Somali civil war.

Somaliland’s presidential election of 14 April 2003 was a milestone in the self-declared, unrecognised republic’s process of democratisation. Nearly half a million voters cast ballots in one of the closest polls ever conducted in the region: when the last votes had been counted and the results announced on 19 April, the incumbent president, Dahir Rayale Kahin, had won by only 80 votes.

A former British protectorate in the Horn of Africa, Somaliland declared its independence from the rest of the Somali Republic in May 1991, following the collapse of the military regime in Mogadishu. Although unrecognised by any country, Somaliland has followed a very different trajectory from the rest of the “failed state” of Somalia, embarking on a process of internally driven political, economic and social reconstruction. Somaliland’s democratic transition began in May 2001 with a plebiscite on a new constitution that introduced a multiparty electoral system, and continued in December 2002 with local elections that were widely described as open and transparent. The final stage of the process – legislative elections – is scheduled to take place by early 2005.

The electoral process has met with widespread approval from domestic and international observers alike, but has not been without problems. The enlistment of government resources and personnel in support of the ruling party’s campaign, the disqualification of numerous ballot boxes due to procedural errors, reports of government harassment and intimidation of opposition supporters in the aftermath of the election, and the opposition’s initial refusal to accept defeat all marred an otherwise promising democratic exercise.

The next phase of the democratic transition will be the most critical: until opposition parties are able to contest parliamentary seats, Somaliland will function as a de facto one party state. Somaliland’s international partners can play a key role in assisting the National Electoral Commission to convene legislative elections with the least possible delay, while ensuring a level playing field. Constitutional and judicial reforms may also be required to ensure the integrity of the democratic process over the long-term.

Somaliland’s increasingly credible claims to statehood present the international community with a thorny diplomatic dilemma at a time when southern Somali leaders are meeting under the auspices of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) with the aim of establishing a new Somali government. Recognition of Somaliland, although under consideration by a growing number of African and Western governments, is still vigorously resisted by many members of both the African Union (AU) and the Arab League on the grounds that the unity and territorial integrity of member states is sacrosanct. Furthermore, the creation of a new Somali government emerging from the IGAD process that claims jurisdiction over Somaliland threatens to open a new phase in the Somali conflict.

Diplomatic hopes for a negotiated settlement between Somaliland and a future Somali government, however, are unlikely to bear fruit. A hypothetical dialogue on Somali unity would have to overcome mutually exclusive preconditions for talks, divergent visions of what a reunited Somali state might look like and incompatible institutional arrangements. Failing a negotiated settlement, any attempt to coerce Somaliland back to the Somali fold would entail a bitter and probably futile conflict. The question now confronting the international community is no longer whether Somaliland should be recognised as an independent state, but whether there remain any viable alternatives.


To the Somaliland Government:

  1. Demonstrate a genuine commitment to pluralism by releasing remaining political detainees and reinstating any government employees dismissed from their jobs for political reasons.

  2. Withdraw the proposed press law and invite the independent media to assist in drafting legislation more conducive to the development of independent yet responsible media.

  3. Conclude the formal transition to a multiparty political system with the least possible delay, by setting the date of parliamentary elections within less than twelve months.

  4. Introduce legislation providing for reasonable subsidies to all official political parties on an equitable basis.

  5. Demonstrate a commitment to human rights by investigating past abuses, taking corrective action against those responsible and introducing new measures to strengthen the protection of human rights.

  6. Initiate an independent review of the constitution, with particular attention to the three-party ceiling.

  7. Undertake a comprehensive review of the electoral law, based on lessons learned.

  8. Introduce legislation to strengthen the electoral process, including penalties for infractions of the electoral law.

  9. Commission an independent judicial review, with a view to introducing reforms strengthening both the capacity of the judiciary and its independence from political influence.

To Donor Governments:

  1. Provide party building training and financial assistance to all three official parties in order to prepare them for legislative elections.

  2. Offer technical and financial assistance to the National Electoral Commission in order to remedy problems encountered during local and presidential elections, and to assist in the design and implementation of an appropriate voter registration system.

  3. Assist the government with other reforms intended to advance the process of democratisation.

  4. Increase support for social and economic development in order to enhance the 'peace dividend' and preclude public disillusionment with the democratisation process.

  5. Explore options for providing Somaliland with access to direct bilateral and multilateral financial assistance pending a resolution of the territory's legal status.

To the United Nations, African Union and IGAD:

  1. Adopt a more open-minded approach to the question of Somaliland's ultimate status, in particular by:

    1. dispatching fact-finding missions to assess the current situation and to recommend policy options, with leadership taken by either the AU's Peace and Security Council or the presidential troika (currently South Africa, Mozambique and Zambia) in view of the serious divisions within IGAD;

    2. taking Somaliland's demands under formal consideration, including a legal review of the territory's case vis-a-vis the current AU charter; and

    3. granting Somaliland observer status pending a final decision on its international status.

Nairobi/Brussels, 28 July 2003

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