To quote one of my more knowledgeable colleagues: “Elections are funny things. Highly technical and procedural exercises that are yet filled with emotion and rhetoric.” During Britain’s recent election, emotion ran short. In Somaliland, it is present in spades. An election in a bit of Somalia is something to get emotional about.
Many of my fellow observers—59 of us, from 16 countries, including a fair swathe of diaspora Somalilanders—believe deeply in what Somaliland is trying to do. Me, I’m also curious. This is (officially) Somalia, after all. Dinner-party conversation-starters sorted for months. But there is a chill from the south, where al-Shabaab are no fans of the idea of a democratic secessionist state. Disruption of the election would be a hot ticket, an incident involving foreigners—election observers perhaps—better still.
At our first security briefing the point is underlined: “See you on YouTube, with a bag over your head”. The unearthing of an alleged suicide-bomb plot and a broadcast warning from an al-Shabaab leader do not exactly comfort. Still, the locals seem unworried. So we hit Hargeisa’s streets, and our spirits are immediately lifted.
We foreigners, the non-Somali ones anyway, can only hope to absorb so much. So we fall back on the visuals. To avoid potential clashes, the three candidates take it in turns to campaign exclusively on particular days. Long trains of cars, buses and trucks, each crammed with more people—men, women and children, the young vastly outnumbering the middle-aged and the old—than the technology should rightly bear thread through the streets. Loudspeakers blare, women ululate.
One day the livery is green (President Dahir Riyale Kahin of UDUB, the ruling party, whose posters put him in a suit far wider than he is), the next green-and-yellow (Ahmed Silanyo of the Kulmiye party, loser by 80 votes to Mr Riyale in the previous presidential election), the next green-and-white (Faisal Ali Waraabe of the UCID party, a Finnish national, who, alongside his running mate, beams at us from billboards “looking like a badly dressed gay couple at a civil wedding”, a fellow observer… observes).
Women in hijab cover their heads in the colours of their allegiance; six-year-olds leap upon our bonnets waving their flags. Even the goats, ubiquitous on the streets, are bedecked in party colours. But each day, some of the faces, the people’s anyway, are the same. Could this election simply be an excuse to party?
Well, it’s a good party. Like a proper election anywhere, the candidates avoid specifics (the odd promise of sharia law aside), devoting their time to attacking one another. I ask a senior Kulmiye man what makes his boss the one. “A gorilla in a swimsuit could beat Riyale”, he replies. A ringing endorsement indeed.
Polling day arrives, and we are still alive. From the crack of dawn, and even the night before, mostly good-natured queues (men and women separately, with far more of the latter, it appears) form outside the polling stations in schools, houses, tents, halls and government buildings throughout the land.
I find myself blinking at the unruly crowds: should we really be here? This is Somalia, after all. But in the queues and even in the stations, the party atmosphere continues, with emotion occasionally swimming over as the sun beats down, and the lines drag.
On the phones at our Hargeisa base, some worrying reports creep in. In the wild east, where some clans are no fans of Somaliland, ballot boxes have been blocked and a female electoral commission staffer (first worryingly described as an “election observer” in reports) shot dead. But, thankfully, it is the only serious violence of the day. Could this really be Somalia?
In Mr Riyale’s home region, alongside the Ethiopian border, observers encounter crowds of children in queues, then crowds of people handing out voter cards. “Vote early, vote often” seems to be the name of the game. But we are observers, not monitors. We note it down: one for the final report.
And to the aftermath. Back in our digs—our gilded cage—at the Hotel Man Soor, Hargeisa’s finest, all safe and sound, we congratulate ourselves on our bravery, swap war stories, and await the result. And wait. And wait. But we note, alongside us in the carparks, lobbies and dining areas, crowds of smiling Kulmiye operatives, slapping eachother on the back, shaking hands, deep in discussion, doing deals.
Five days later, and we are present to witness history, as the Man Soor’s foyers ring with Kulmiye-flavoured joy. It’s a landslide: no room for doubt here. And even better: a graceful concession (of sorts) from the incumbent the following day. Exactly ten days later, the results are confirmed, without dispute (and tragic incidents in Kampala remind that we were perhaps lucky).
A peaceful poll and an orderly transition in a bit of Somalia. Now, that is something to get emotional about. To quote: roll on the next one. After the inevitable bumps in the road ahead.
This is an edited version of a blog which first appeared on The Economist website. It is reproduced here by kind permission of the author, Conrad Heine.
Photo: Voters in Somaliland queue to cast their ballots during June's presidential election (Photo © Claudia Simoes/Progressio)