Beyond The Tunnel: The Democratic Practice in Somaliland and its Future



Somaliland has been practicing democracy in various different forms for the last fifteen years. It can be said that the first phase of democratic practice in Somaliland was based on clan  con sensus. The different clans resident in the coun try selected, according to their own  methodo logy, includes the elders who would represent them in the several nation al conferences that were held for different purposes such as peace and reconciliation, the political future destiny of the country, or appointing further representatives in future working bodies like the Guurti, the House of Representatives, and members of the Government.

Certainly, the system in this phase was not fully democratic. All the clans were not  represent ed. Some, like the Gaboo ye and other minority clans, slipped through the net without  delibera te intention to block them out. Needless to say the patriarchal process totally excluded  wom en. Even some of the clans who were represented may not have been fully satisfied with the system either because they wanted a larger share or the internal distribution of the share  it self was considered unfair, and obviously the population at large had no voting rights.

Yet, it could not be called a despotic system. It was not a military dictatorship ala Siad Barre. The Somali National Move ment (SNM) did not behave as a one-party dictatorship, as happened with many armed liberation movements after atta ining power; nor was it organized as such. The system also was not a majority clan denying others their rights, as so m any have falsely accused the Isaaq of doing. This false accusation was exposed by the 1993 Boramo  conference where the Samaroon, who were not SNM supporters, played the honorable role of the me diating host.

Despite these anomalies the system in this phase can still be described as democratic because it somehow provided a channel for public opinion to be expressed. In difficult circumstances, the people of Somaliland tapped into the tradition al culture of the nomadic system-what the anthropologist I. M.Lewis called pastoral democracy. Most people did not se e the imposition of the nomadic system on a modern state as a viable alternative in the long run. They saw it for what it was, a transitional phase.

Today, we can safely say that we have passed that phase with a good grade. A constitution has been drafted, debated and approved in a referendum. Local, presidential , and  parliament ary elections have taken place. These elections wer e not without their faults and defects  wh ether in the planning or execution stages. But, considering our conditions: meager resources, a country whose cities, physical and social infrastructure had been destroyed by a protracted war; a sizeable section of the educated able young people spread abroad in the Diaspora; and just emerging from the most recent armed civil conflict. Considering these conditions, we have indeed done well. Many countries, which did not suff er these traumas, and which receive more assistance than we do, are unable to accomplish as much. This has been att ested to by  objec tive foreign observers.

But, this is no reason to rest on our laurels. This second phase is also transitional and  incompl ete (I will have more to say about the Guurti later on). Some of us maybe as proud of these  achievements as to forget the shortcomings and dangers ahead. Others may brood on the  de fects to the point of gloomy hopelessness. Both these tendencies have to be avoided. The  gl ass is both half-empty and half-full. What is required is a sober summing up of our situation: where we are, how we arrived here, and a vision of the f untrue we hope for, and how to get there. This is a task facing us all, collectively and individually. Allow me to make my modest  co ntribution to that endeavor.

One relevant question is why was it possible for the people of Somaliland to reconcile, lick  th eir wounds and go forwa rd while the brothers in Somalia got enmeshed in a vicious cycle of unending fratricide? I do not claim to have satisfacto ry answers. Several points, however, co me to mind. For one thing the dominance of foreign players in the affairs of So malia, and the lack of it in Somaliland, could be a factor. How many foreign players have an axe to grind and are totally altruistic? It is an ABC of politics that every power primarily pursues its own  intere st. Diplomatic arrangements, agree ments and political solutions are in a sense, the result of these interactive interests. But, when foreign players do not have a national entity, no  matt er how poorly organized , as their bargaining counterpart, but instead are facing a mel ee of factions, clans, warlords (call them what you will) competing for their favor, it is difficult to see a viable national solution as a result of such a process. Even the UN has its own implicitly built-in bureaucratic agenda that has to be con fronted by an entity representing the national interest. In such exceptional circumstance the absence of foreign playe rs, at least for a short while, is a blessing.

Secondly, the different colonial experiences may have some relevance. Every colonial  experie nce has a stunting effect on the psyche, personality and structure of the colonized society. But, there may be a difference of degree and not of kind here. The tendency of British  imperi alism to employ what it called indirect rule may have had a different effect on the structure of society from the practice of Italian fascism. There is no doubt that the employment of  commu nity eld ers by the colonial authorities as tool of their rule had a distorting nature. Yet, we can now see with hindsight, the co-opted elders not only kept some semblance of their leadership, but also formed buffer strata between the colonial auth orities and their people. It was  throu gh their mediation that the colonial authorities could gauge the impact of their intended laws and measure on the society-and the level of acceptance or resistance-and therefore had an opportunity to modify such rules and measures. In that role the elders performed some  prote ction-no matter how partial-for their people, their culture, religion and their way of doing things. That is why the later emergent groups in urban areas-such as businessmen, school graduates, and politicians-could not totally replace the moral authority of the traditional clan elders. Contrast this with the practice of Italian fascism-and the later Italian rule under the UN Trusteeship which ignored and undermined the traditional leadership. Is it any wonder that, after the failure of the post-colonial state, the people of Somaliland had something to fall back on while those in Somalia ran amok?

Finally, and I think this is the most important, the third factor accounting for the difference is the experience gained by SNM during the liberation struggle. Thirteen years ago, I presented a paper at a Somali Studies Association entitled “Li ght at the End of the Tunnel: Some  Reflecti ons on the Experience of the Somali National Movement.” Without repeating what I said then, let me emphasize a few points relevant to our discussion here. I predicted then that  Somalil and will with some ups and downs of course, accomplish the tasks of reconciliation, reconstru ction and the movement forward toward democratic governance. The basis of my argument was that the qualities required for the accomplishment of such tasks namely compromise  thr ough dialogue, power-sharing, self-reliance and resilience during adversity-had alr eady been tested and practiced by the SNM during the liberation struggle. It was a matter of extending the gained exp erience to the level of Somaliland.

We, in SNM, have been accused on various occasions by both some supporters and opponents of just riding the wave of the armed struggle without a guiding vision. I must admit that I  ne ver understood that accusation. Were the accusers looking for some kind of ideological brand or so-called charismatic leadership shining over the rest of the movement? Were thy  disappo inted by the apparent weak discipline among the ranks and the porous nature of SNM?

Let me remind you, lest it is forgotten, that we were struggling for a democratic rule against a venal dictatorship and the stupidity of so-called charismatic leadership. The regime has impo sed a borrowed ideology on the people and we had no intention of repeating that suffocating terror. The weak discipline itself was the price one has to pay for democr atic dialogue. All dec isions-from top to bottom and in the branches abroad-were made according to the rules of democ ratic discussion and majority voting. Hence the porous nature of our organization. Imagine the situation if a movem ent with a particular ideology and ruling with an iron first to ok power in Somaliland in 1991. The result would have been one of two situations: either SNM imposing its own kind of dictatorship, or in case we failed to do so, a free-for-all chaotic confl ict as happened in the South (Somalia). I am glad to say that we knew better.

Another point which I want to underline here is the political role of the Guurti. In some  discus sions of this topic one gets the feeling that the Guurti suddenly mushroomed in 1992, or rose to the occasion after the so called failure of SNM to rule . Aside from the moot point whether a two-year period is sufficient enough time for judging failure or success, let me make an  imp ortant reminder in history. The political role of the Guurti is one of the most fruitful  experimen tations of SNM. Some crucial questions presented themselves early on in the struggle: First, how to deal with the issue of clanism during the nation-building in the future; Secondly, how to spread the intended democratic practice beyond the SNM committees and its activists to the supporting population at large. We all recall that during the struggle for independence  fr om colonial rule our clan heritage (called then tribalism) was viewed as a backward  anachro nism to be cleansed from the structures, laws and norms of the modern stat-to-be. How a long surviving cultural institution can be suddenly discarded while alternative substitutes performing its useful functions have not yet evolved was not asked (if understood at all). An imported political and legal superstructure was therefore superimposed on the traditional substructure, to which the people ascribed in their behavior, attitudes and loyalty. We all know what that gave birth to: a society with a split personality which again gave birth to the Siad Barre dictatorship.

To avoid a repetition of such a farcical tragedy obviously required an ability to bridge the modern and traditional. I.e. utilizing the best aspects of heritage while adopting to the new. How to minimize the negative aspects of the heritage is a continuous generational struggle. Therefore SNM, representing the nucleus of a modern political institution, and clan leadership had somehow to be brought together in a formal relationship-informal cooperation at the level of the local fighting unit was a must, anyway. First steps at formal organization of the Guurti in 1983 and again in 1985(I chaired the attempt in 1985) did not prove to be permanent, primarily because the effective clan leaders were inside the country, while we were guests in Ethiopia. This gap was filled in 1988 when a substantial majority of the populations of Hargeisa, Burao and Berbera crossed the border as refugees after the destruction of those cities by the regime during the full confrontation between it and the SNM forces. In that year, the elders of the supporting population held a conference in the village of Aderrosh and autonomously organized themselves in the present form of the Guurti . From then on the Guurti Committee attended, as observers, the meetings of the Central Committee of SNM, and vice versa. Thus began the formal co-existence and co-operation of the two sides of the struggle: the modern and the traditional. Finally at the Congress of SNM in 1990 the Guurti was promulgated a constitutional body. And this was the basis of our present bicameral parliament.

But, history moves in zigzags. The actual realization of the vision after Liberation took a somewhat different path. The traditional side of the duality swallowed the modern side. This appears understandable considering the infancy of the modern side, the long-rooted skill of traditional leadership in conflict resolution, and the inevitable appearance of points of conflict in a destroyed post-war society. Thirteen years ago, I argued that this dominance of the traditional side is not a sin if meets the requirement of peaceful conflict resolution. I also predicted that, since dependence on traditional leadership is only a partial solution and is not a substitute for a mature political evolution, the modern aspect of the duality will be revived in due time.

That is how we arrived where we are today. We have certainly come out of the tunnel, but we are not out of the woo ds yet. This is therefore another occasion to roughly outline a vision that will help guide our actions in the future. Let me say clearly that there is nothing original in what follows because they represent our aspirations. Many of the follow ing points have been made elsewhere by many others. But ,it is useful to reiterate them in a summary way at this stag e of our development. That we are on the road of building a ‘democratic ‘ society is our consensus. But, what do we me an by that?

Let us get some preliminaries out of the way. These days it is very common to present democracy as a value of weste rn civilization and proselytize it as such. Some of us, therefore, reject it and thereby throw the baby out with the bath water. On the contrary, democracy is a human experimentation and arises out of the human condition. Thus while its forms and expressions may vary according to time and place the essential content points to the same need of jus tice and participation in decision-making. We have seen how our nomadic culture had an essential democratic content. The same is true of sedentary African traditions. We must remember that the phenomenon of a single all powerful dictator relying on military or a one-party machine is a post-colonial product. The typical African chief could ignore the advice of the tribal council only at his own peril.

Moreover, there is the other tendency of juxtaposing Islam and democracy as opposing tenants. We Muslims know be tter. We know that the achievement of justice (Al-‘Adala) and decision-making in common (shuura) are important com ponents of Islam. Let us remember a moment in the ‘sirat’ of the prophet (peace be upon him) when the Muslims were defeated the prophet (PBUH) himself was wounded. It was a moment of frustration, confusion and despondency. The following verse of the Quran was then revealed.

And by the Mercy of Allah, you dealt with them gently. And had you been sever and harsh-hearted, they would have broken away from about you; so pass over their faults and ask Allah’s Forgiveness for them; and consults them in the affairs. Then when you have taken a decision, put your trust in Allah, certainly Allah loves those who put their trust in Him.” (Al ‘Imran 159)

Here we have in a nutshell the essentials of democratic governance: tolerance, magnanimity, dialogue, consistency, aft er the dialogue, in the rule of Law. The practical application of these principles is subject to ‘Al-Ijtihad’—which is the pr ocess of research and experimentation subject to time and place.

The primary task now is to consolidate the achievements, correct the shortcomings and move foreword. The broad vie w is to recognize the indivisible three-dimensional nature of our democracy: Somali tradition, Islamic faith, and the req uirements of a modern state. If in 1993, the swing of the pendulum shifted to the extremity of relying solely on the tra ditional side, we should now avoid the other extremity of unutilizing traditional leadership. The heavy cost of zigzags can be avoided with the help of foresight. That is why the election of the Guurti according to universal suffrage will be a step backward. The Guurti then will no longer be a Guurti , but a replication of the House of Representatives. The imple mentation of the constitutional requirement of the election of the Guurti while keeping its essence as representing traditional leadership is the critical issue before us now. This cannot be resolved through the present Guurti handling its own judgment of itself. This would be a travesty of justice. The issue should be as was our custom, resolved through debate and compromise, and then a special law passed as required by the constitution.

Resolving this, however, does not mean that our road to democratic construction is  complet ed. The meaning of democ racy is not confined to the election of bodies and persons who  wou ld rule (or misrule) us for a number of years. This is only the skeleton, which we have to clothe with flesh and breathe life into it. To be effective in the long run, that is to say constant with development and freedom, our democracy has to also be participatory and transparent. To ensure this requires , in addition to the independence of the judiciary and the media, a full decentralization , internal democra cy of the political parties and autonomous professional and non-governmental bodies. Let us look at some of these in turn.

With major decision-making in the center leads to lopsided development. This is a curse in Third Word countries. We alr eady see the beginning of that tendency in Somaliland with Hargeisa towering over the rest of the country. This is not the fault of the people of Hargeisa or a deliberate decision of the Central Government to favor Hargeisa. Uneven devel opment is a systemic matter and must be fought systemically. It would be shameful if we replicate what we rebelled ag ainst. The genuine meaning of decentralization is clear: more power, decision-making and resources have to be devolve d to the regions and localities. All persons holding positions of responsibility, aside from civil servants, have to be elect ed. This power to the regions and localities as well as their relationship with the center will have to be elaborated, after debate, in legislation. We have already taken some good steps in this direction which need to be more systemized.

The political parties, whatever their number, must also be decentralized internally democratic. While each party is entit led to have its own rules, regulations and disciplinary measures, there are general matters that need to be legislated such as: membership rights, periodic elections at all levels and rules concerning them, the relationship between the cen ter and the localities and legal procedures in case of disputes. Democracy at the party level is an essential building bloc k of democracy at the national level at large. If members of the party are not able to elect their leaders (at all levels) freely and democratically, then national elections themselves would be tantamount to a farce. This is the responsibility of all present party activists, especially the leaders. Any party that blazes the way in this field (for we all know that this is something new to us) will not only be morally unassailable, but will be building its own future capacity to rule better.

There are many other interlocking issues and factors involved in building a viable democratic society enshrined in the Isl amic faith such as the role of economic organizations, professional and other autonomous bodies, morality, and educat ion. These matters as well as foreign relations are not discussed here. Time and space do not allow me to do so. I hope others will. I simply concentrated on the dynamics of internal political development. It is clear that we are at a critical juncture. We have made good progress, despite some setbacks and gained a lot of experience. But, there is still a long way to go and many tasks ahead. I have tried to show what some of these tasks are within the context of our history, culture and faith. The  reconc iliation, peace and stability, of which we are so proud can be in danger unless they are continu ously nurtured and made permanent. This will be difficult if we are unable to deliver the goods in terms of good governance and development. I am confident that with perseverance, tolera nce and cooperation, success will be ours. And we have the opportunity to succeed. But if, Go d forbid, we fail this historical duty then future generations will ha ve to shoulder it, for life’s s truggles continue. But, then remember, history will judge us very harshly.





Professor: Ibrahim Maygag Samater