Is Somaliland One of Africa's Most Vibrant Democracies?

07/03/2010 04:17 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Nicole Stremlau Program in Comparative Media Law and Policy, University of Oxford

This week Somalia marked its 50th anniversary of independence from colonial rule. It could not have been celebrated more differently in the north and in the south of the country.

In Mogadishu, the Transitional Federal Government used the occasion to launch a major offensive against the Al Qaeda affiliated groups, Al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam, that control much of south Somalia.

Meanwhile, Somalis across the northwestern region of Somaliland have been celebrating a new phase in their political history. And they have every right to be proud. The National Electoral Commission announced that the opposition leader, Ahmed Silanyo, of the Kulumiye party won the recently held Presidential elections with 49.6 percent of the vote in a competition that is widely regarded as having been free and fair. This was a significant margin over the previous election in 2003 where the incumbent, President Riyaale Kahin, won by a mere 80 votes. Conceding victory with narrow margins, and the peaceful transfer of power to an opposition party, are rare in Africa. It is even more remarkable that this has been achieved by Somaliland, which aspires for independence from the south but has not been internationally recognized.

Somalilanders have struggled to get to this point. The recent elections were due to have taken place in 2008 but were been delayed several times. The delays were result of several problems including the voter registration process and attacks in the capital city of Hargeysa by Al Shabaab.

Since Somaliland declared independence from the south in 1991, Somalilanders have been striving to construct the workings of a state from scratch and security has been at the centre of this. There was an intense demobilization and disarmament process that was led by the very fighters of the Somali National Movement (SNM), the group that once called on their neighbors to take up arms. Over the past decade, Somaliland has succeeded in achieving a level of peace that is the envy of the south. There are schools, Somaliland passports, Somaliland currency and police officers in crisp white uniforms directing traffic in the cities.

An independent and self-reliant spirit has driven this progress and peace. With little international support, Somaliland has excelled at crafting locally designed and agreed peace processes on a timetable and with a structure that is theirs rather than donor governments'.

No doubt, Somalilanders are going to try to use this opportunity to press supporters and allies for international recognition. But perhaps the greatest opportunity is in the lessons it holds for the south. Somaliland has achieved what it has by relying on their strong traditions- customary law, local wisdom and respect. With leadership originally from Somaliland, Al Shabaab is going to remain a security threat and a difficult problem for any leader. Above all, Silanyo was elected to protect Somaliland's peace and security. As a former leader of the liberation movement, the SNM, he offers a new position to engage with the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu and the armed factions. And where the international community has been ineffective in the south, Somaliland has proved effective in the north. Perhaps this represents a unique opportunity for Somaliland to take a leading role in the region leading by example and engaging where possible. This would be significant but it will require efforts from both Mogadishu and Hargeysa.