Somaliland’s young people are embracing democracy as the way forward to a better future for their country and its people, writes Progressio development worker Stephen Mwalo

The year 2010 will go down in the Somaliland chronicles as a milestone in the consolidation of democratic rule in Somaliland. After being postponed three times, to ensure that the climate was right and systems in place for peaceful, free and fair elections to go ahead, Somalilanders – including women, young people, those with disabilities, the elderly, minorities, all and sundry – went to the polls on 26 June 2010 to elect their president.

The opposition candidate won the elections – garnering over 49% of the votes cast, with the former ruling party candidate coming second, with over 33% of the votes cast. In third place was another opposition candidate who bagged close to 18% of the total votes cast.

Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo was sworn in on 27 July 2010 as the new president of Somaliland, taking the reins from Dahir Rayale Kahin, who showed dignity, leadership and statesmanship, which individuals like Laurent Gbagbo should emulate to save Africa from being bedevilled by endless crises, conflicts, injustices and poverty.

Lessons for Africa

What lessons has the world, Africa and Somaliland learnt from the election?

There is little to show that the Somaliland experience of peaceful transfer of political power has been documented and replicated in other contexts. The election report due to be published on 18 May by Progressio (in collaboration with the Development Planning Unit at University College London and Somaliland Focus UK who together coordinated the team of International Election Observers) should be shared widely, and actions undertaken to entrench the practice.

Conflicts in Africa are one of the root causes of poverty and injustice in Africa. One major root cause of Africa’s conflict is the lack of respect for the people’s voices on election dates.

Out of the elections conducted in Africa in 2010, Somaliland was notable in witnessing a peaceful transfer of power from the incumbent to the opposition. Somaliland leadership and people carried themselves with exemplary decorum and tolerance during the campaign periods and the election took place in an environment of generally predictable tranquillity and stability, despite UN agencies and many INGOs closing offices and relocating their staff to Nairobi. Somaliland did audaciously entrench democratic principles and values. Somaliland clearly and explicitly exhibited that it is possible in Africa for the incumbent to graciously hand over the reins of power to the hitherto opposition, and for the incoming president to be magnanimous to his vanquished opponent and commit to work together.

Somaliland youth respond

Somaliland youth are learning fast and are remarkably following in the footsteps of their leaders!

On 27 December 2010, exactly five months after the inauguration of President Silanyo, Somaliland youth showed their readiness to take on the mantle and their maturity for leadership, tolerance and statesmanship.
The Somaliland national anthem marked the opening of the fifth General Assembly of the Somaliland National Youth Organisation (SONYO), an umbrella group for youth organisations in Somaliland. Over a hundred youth delegates representing the six regions of the country gathered inside a beautifully arranged hall to elect SONYO’s new 13-member board, to lead the organisation for the coming two years.

With their ID cards hanging around their necks, delegates were seated on the left side of the hall. On the right side were the observers from the different stakeholders and friends of SONYO who were invited to keep an eye on the proceedings of the meeting. In front of these two groups was a panel of guests graced by the country’s vice-president. This was the first time a government official of that rank had attended a SONYO General Assembly.

Holding leaders accountable

As the highest decision-making organ of the umbrella group, the General Assembly reviewed the performance and activities of SONYO for the past two years, with delegates raising a plethora of questions which made the out-going board/council squirm when answering back. I believe that if the young generation is prepared to hold their organisational leaders accountable for their assigned responsibilities, there is a bright future for Somaliland.

One of the most exciting sessions of the General Assembly was the review of the umbrella group’s constitution. Just like a country’s responsible legislature, the delegates discussed, revised and amended the constitution.
Subsequent to the constitutional review, the meeting reached its most emotive session: the election of the new council members. Besides the fierce campaigning that could be felt outside the meeting hall during the breaks, the delegates consulted with their favourite candidates with due respect and tolerance.

The election process ran late into the night until 11pm and the output was the election of the new council members to represent the youth in the six regions of Somaliland in the management and leadership of SONYO.

Electing a new leader

To follow after the elections of the regional representatives was the election of the chairperson. This presented a real test for the delegates since they had to surmount their clan enclaves, regional stereotypical biases and gender discriminative stances to elect a progressive and competent leader.

A total of three candidates expressed interest in the post. In full view of the observers, candidates cast their votes and calmly waited for the counting and tallying process. After vote counting and tallying, the chairperson of the election committee announced that Mr Ahmed Abdi Wacays had been elected as the new chairperson of the new council with an extremely narrow margin victory of 58 votes against his rival Ahmed Abokor, who garnered 57 votes.

In the spirit and foot-steps of former Somaliland president Dahir Riyale Kahin, Ahmed Abokor conceded defeat and congratulated his winning rival. In the full view of local TV cameras, Mr Ahmed Abokor said: “As the defeated candidate, I sincerely congratulate Ahmed Wacays on his election as the new chairperson and commit to collaborate with him for a better future of SONYO and Somaliland youth.”

Moving forward

As Somaliland turns 20 [the 20th anniversary of Somaliland’s self-declared independence is on 18 May], Somalilanders have ample reasons to celebrate their autonomy, self-determination, and progress. The existing hard-earned peace and stability presents an opportunity for significant recovery and development initiatives to take root. The support of the international community is critical, and efforts should be made to move beyond the rhetorics of “greater engagement” to the reality of “full recognition and acknowledgement of Somaliland”.

Somaliland people, and specifically the youth (making up over 70% of the population), need to jealously and covetously guard the democratic achievements. For youth to meaningfully contribute to this process, administrative and legislative reforms are imperative.

Stephen Mwalo is a Progressio development worker with SONYO.

Somaliland: Change and continuity: Report by International Election Observers on the June 2010 presidential elections in Somaliland by Michael Walls and Steve Kibble is published by Progressio on 18 May.