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Somaliland Faces a Tipping Point

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(World Politics Review) Amid devastated Somalia, a country mired for two decades in unforgiving conflict, Somaliland glows as an ember of hope. A moderate peace has held for 10 years in the autonomous region, reflecting a decade of efforts to expand governance, security and social institutions. Yet, despite it being a minor success in a sea of failure, regional and international organizations will not grant Somaliland status as an independent state, or give it a seat at the international roundtable.

As another transitional government in Mogadishu fractures in the face of insurgent forces, and the international community scrambles to update policy positions, Somaliland must hear the sound of opportunity knocking. With pirates plundering merchant ships in the waters off its coast, and the port of Berbera bridging the supply line between Eritrea and Islamist militants in Somalia’s south, Somaliland suddenly finds itself in a position to be a strategically important ally in the West’s battle against terrorism and piracy.

Somaliland has shown the international community that it is willing to play ball. Now it must prove it can be a reliable partner in promoting international peace and security by acting as a responsible, accountable and capable government. And the best way to do that is for Somaliland’s current president to facilitate fair and legitimate elections as soon as possible.

The region declared its independence from Somalia in 1991, after the bloody collapse of Siad Barre’s regime. Since then, a multiparty democracy has evolved under a constitution that combines traditional qabil (or clan) styles of governance with Western models.

Since then, Somaliland has held competitive and credible presidential elections in 2003 and 2005, both of which, though imperfect, were perceived by public opinion as legitimate. Following one of its parliamentary elections, Somaliland’s political system was even able to carry out a successful transfer of power to the political opposition.

Somaliland’s progress is laudable. Its nascent institutions continue to nurture elements of state infrastructure. The Somaliland currency, for instance, is stable and managed by a central bank. The region’s transportation system maintains buses that operate between four main cities, as well as other light vehicles that ensure rural villages’ access to major towns.

Among other bright spots is a strong, energetic civil society that expresses its opinions through various media forums, among which radio broadcasts and the Internet are favored. Unlike many of its neighbors, Somaliland’s 30,000-strong army has been able to maintain a basic — and rare — level of security in the region, allowing people to live relatively free from repression.

But there is still much to accomplish.

A June 2009 Human Rights Watch report, “Hostages to Peace: Threats to Human Rights and Democracy in Somaliland,” uncovered evidence that may shake the foundations of Somaliland’s current stability. The report highlighted widespread poverty and rising unemployment, as well as very limited government-provided social services. In particular, it identified the lack of access to health care and education, and a dire need for judicial reform, as cause for concern. Such critical weaknesses test the regime’s stability and make Somaliland more vulnerable to the spread of Islamist militancy from the south.

Sadly, there is little prospect for relief because Somaliland, as an autonomous entity without international recognition as a sovereign state, is isolated from international development assistance. And Somalia’s overall insecurity deters risk-averse aid organizations from operating there.

Equally disconcerting, current President Dahir Riyale Kahin and his administration have exceeded constitutional term limits and repeatedly postponed elections without any legal basis. Worse still, the Somaliland election commission, under pressure from the Riyale administration, recently canceled this September’s presidential elections, stating the current political crisis would impede any fair and democratic elections. No future election date has been set.

In response, the opposition in Somaliland’s Parliament has introduced a motion to impeach Riyale. This boiling political instability and divided government could very well undermine Somaliland’s legitimacy, and perhaps even its survival, at a most crucial time in its brief existence.

As Somaliland moves toward what may be a tipping point, the international community should stand with it as a potential partner to forestall any radical shift in the region’s political order. If the United States intends to continue its containment policy towards Somalia to prevent instability from spreading, it must nurture Somaliland’s successes and enhance its capacity to govern its territory. If Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government fails, the United States will need to engage directly with Somaliland’s governing institutions to further its own antiterrorism and counterpiracy objectives.

Somaliland could be the ace in the hole in those efforts.

In the short run, Somaliland’s armed forces need security-sector training to oppose a growing insurgency originating from the south — training that the United States could be in a position to offer. In the long run, engagement with the United States could potentially encourage the African Union and the United Nations to be more open to recognizing Somaliland’s autonomy.

But Somaliland’s tempting array of diplomatic prospects is now in the hands of the Riyale regime. For Riyale to make his mark on history, his administration must first improve human rights conditions and actively engage in consensus-building with Somaliland’s population. He must support and encourage free and fair elections, and respect their outcome by stepping down as president if need be. Instead of repressing Somaliland’s media, he must embrace it. If the Riyale administration can act responsibly today, Somaliland may prevent the spiral of instability and chaos that too often marks the history of this African neighborhood from engulfing it, and instead create a legitimate, independent state.

And if that happens, the ember of hope might just become a beacon for other successes to follow.

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