I must admit that my first thought on landing in Hargeisa was “what have I got myself into?” I had spent the past few weeks trying to explain to my ever-worrying mum the difference between Somalia and Somaliland. I had reassured her that - after years of civil war and human rights abuses - in 1991, Somaliland had unilaterally declared independence and had broken from greater Somalia. I had gone into great detail about how Somaliland had managed to remain relatively stable as an autonomous region, even as Somalia slipped further into chaos.

Having been buffeted about in a tiny European Commission propeller plane from Nairobi and landing on a desolate and dusty airstrip with armed men around the airport, I began to wonder whether or not my mum had been right all along.

These doubts were soon quashed. Driving through Hargeisa to our hotel, we saw poverty but also a population going about its everyday life, doing remarkably ordinary things; free from the threat of conflict and the scourges of the south, the piracy and the warring militias. There were the signs of a state fulfilling at least some of its functions, a police force, children coming out of schools and roads. There was also a palpable excitement in the air, and this was because of the upcoming Presidential election.

I really got a sense of the complexities involved in holding the election when we met the National Electoral Commission on one of our first days in Hargeisa. The new commissioners were only appointed in September 2009 and told they had to arrange an election involving an electorate of a million and a half people across a thousand polling stations. And to be fair, they did a superb job of cleaning up the list of voters and supplying new voter registration cards. It was an incredible effort.

The joint coordinators were in place three weeks before the election. We managed to speak to the three presidential candidates. One rule they had agreed to was separate days for each party to campaign on. This meant that each day was marked by Hargeisa being painted in the different colours of each party. The campaigning we observed was peaceful and enthusiastic, with many young people taking part - especially young women, normally bound by tight social constraints. There were actually programmes on Radio Hargeisa encouraging women to take part, as a step to getting further political and human rights.

Most students finished their exams during the campaigns so were able to get involved, and there was definitely a carnival atmosphere. A lesson that UK politicians could learn from is that as soon as speakers turned to negative campaigning and insulting the other parties, even the most packed rallies would lose interest and quickly disperse. A nice visual representation of what puts people off politics.

The rest of the 60-strong international team turned up in the days before the election, and they were truly international - we had people from 3 continents and 16 countries. This made organising briefings difficult, as people had World Cup matches that they really couldn’t afford to miss!

We also had plenty of observers from the Somali diaspora which meant that they could travel to some of the more dangerous places where ‘mzungos’ (white people) might have been too conspicuous.

The briefings covered what observing actually entails: you’re there to report on what you see, not to intervene. We showed them ballot papers and copies of the thrilling read which is Somali electoral law. We also told them about the ink that voters would have to dip their little fingers in, as evidence they had voted and to stop multiple voting. This ink was amazing. It lasts for a week and is so strong that it can survive bleach. Although your finger might not. Needless to say, it’s banned in the UK, and had to be imported from China.

We did have security concerns - al Shabaab, the al Qaeda related group who were responsible for the suicide bombings in Uganda, came out a few days before the election and said that Somalilanders should not vote or would face the consequences. We would also hear conflicting rumours and reports about terrorist cells being arrested and exchanges of gunfire with the police. Almost perversely, we saw this as positive. To us, it meant that, if local communities were reporting suspicious activity to the police, there was a real public commitment to holding these elections.

The delays and postponements had not led to a frustrated and disinterested electorate, but one that was determined that this time it would be different - and which did, in fact, turn out in huge numbers.

The election day itself was manic; it started at 4am when it was a case of matching up the international observers with their domestic counterparts, their vehicles and their armed guards. It was chaos.

The polling stations were equally busy; queues had formed overnight, with 300- 400 people in line before they even opened. Polling centres often had more than one polling station, each with more than one entrance. Which one you went into was determined alphabetically. But Somaliland is a mostly illiterate society, and polling station staff often didn’t inform people of where they were meant to be. So you might reach the front of the queue after three or four hours, only to be told you should be at another polling station two kilometres further down the road. Unsurprisingly arguments and scuffles broke out fairly regularly. We had reports of the security personnel having to fire their rifles into the air to restore calm. In one case, the guard forgot that they were inside a polling station, rather than outside, and shot into the ceiling. Plaster fell down and general panic ensued for a few more minutes at least.

We gave our observers fairly comprehensive check lists to complete, asking them to look at a whole range of things: were the security seals on the ballots boxes in place; were the numbers of the seals the same as at the start of the day; were the security numbers on the ballot papers being recorded. And then we asked them to observe how people were voting, was it done in secrecy, were ID cards and little fingers being checked. They were expected to watch a polling station counting the ballot papers in the evening, with a separate form to fill in. All in all, a very time consuming process. That our teams observed twenty or so separate polling stations each, and we were able to visit 35% of polling stations across the country, was testament to their hard work.

We released our initial findings at a press conference, that we considered the elections to have been free, fair and an expression of the will of the Somaliland people. While there were problems in some cases, these were often limited to individual polling stations or regions, and the result of the inexperience of polling station staff rather than anything more sinister. Overall, important standards like secret voting and voting without harassment and intimidation were easily met. Problems such as staff in dark and dingy polling stations resorting to the light from their mobile phones during the counting of the ballot papers will be addressed in time.

I hope the future for Somaliland is bright; there is a new president with a large mandate, and hopefully the smooth running of the election will make the international community sit up and pay attention. International recognition would be such a large step, it would encourage trade regionally and help Somaliland attract foreign investment. But there is still this concern, that if Somaliland gets recognition, every other nation with secessionist sentiments will ask, well why not us?

I think what I’ll take away from this experience is that the peaceful election and transition of power was achieved through sheer popular will. And that this is an example of solidarity and passion – something we speak of at Progressio – in action.

Ed Hobey has been working with the Progressio advocacy team and played a key role as logistical coordinator in the international election observation team in Somaliland.

Photo: A woman holds her ID card in the queue outside a polling station (photo © Claudia Simoes/Progressio)