EDITORIAL: Three cheers for Bihi on Somaliland's election outcome
EDITORIAL | It is not every day we talk about good things done by Muse Bihi Abdi, a retired air force pilot and today’s President of the breakaway region of Somaliland, located north of Somalia.
In a constant struggle to have his region recognized as an independent country, perhaps this bid has placed him in a continual clash with federal supporters of a united Somalia, overshadowing his leadership prowess.
This week, however, we would like to praise him for a rare kind of leadership. Somaliland, unlike the rest of Somalia, has managed to run a successful local and parliamentary election, moving one step ahead of the rest in rest so volatile you can never predict things.
Preliminary election observation reports indicate these polls were credible, accessible, and fair, allowing contenders to concede defeat and congratulate winners freely. One of the most prominent features was Bihi’s gesture of hosting the incoming and outgoing Mayors of Hargeisa. These were men from opposing political parties, and their decision to appear in public for a handover gesture is something we should all encourage in a nascent democracy.
Elections, they say, are everything that happens before, during, and after elections. For Somaliland, this had been problematic, delaying the polls by more than five years. The last such election had been held more than a decade ago, meaning existing representatives had overstayed their welcome so much it was no longer possible to determine if they represented the people’s wishes.
With such delayed timing, various scenarios could happen, as we have seen elsewhere in Africa. One is that a restive population could easily pick up arms and start fighting. The second is that authorities can easily embolden themselves and crush dissent. The third one is a descent into lawlessness, which can eventually be good ground for extremism to prosper. All these three combined can make the place ungovernable, wiping out any notion we had imagined about the stability of Somaliland.
Perhaps Bihi had this mind when he chose to encourage transparency and concessions in the elections. Or maybe he wanted to earn his legacy and use it as a marketing ticket for his re-election once presidential elections are due. We want to assume these were attendant benefits rather than his primary target.
For Somaliland, this was a significant step in their strengthening democracy. In a region where clans still play an essential role, even the elected Mayor was still viewed as a person from a minority clan, not his political party Wadani, a rival of the ruling Kulmiye.
But the election showed us that political parties could strengthen beyond clans in the wider Somalia. Somaliland has managed to front three competing parties of Kulmiye, Wadani, and Ucidi, who follow each other in popularity. This election showed that once a free and level playing field is established, the opposition and the ruling parties have an equal chance of winning seats.
We give our three cheers to Bihi for holding elections successfully. We think this has been a safety valve for his administration to work in an environment without agitation from the public. But we call on him to continue reforms. Somaliland ran these elections better than the rest of Somalia because they had a better prepared electoral body. Despite meager resources, political will is a more extensive foundation for electoral bodies to work correctly than financial support.
Indeed, some of the problems that forced Somaliland to delay their parliamentary elections for so long were the agitations between political parties where political leaders differed on the mode of elections. Thankfully, Somaliland law had some provisions to lean on: an agency created by statute and working within a specific legal framework.
These are missing in Somalia as a whole: A legal regime that will shield the electoral body from frequent manipulation and interference as well as being a body run by competent personnel which everyone else has confidence in. It is not everything when regions establish this, but it helps prevent the collapse of institutions.
Somaliland still has a long way to go. It needs to nurture an environment where women and all other minorities and disadvantaged people can be elected without fear. Out of 82 representatives to parliament, none is a woman. We see this as a blot on Somaliland, but we would want to imagine no deliberate policy to curtail women from fronting their candidature.
Societies that allow a diverse pool of leaders are usually more prosperous and stable. Evidence is all over the world. It doesn’t mean we should impose any system on Somaliland, however. All we can do is continue encouraging the Somaliland leadership to work on reforms continuously. It could be a lesson for the other parts of Somalia.