Somaliland: Preparing for local elections

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people waiting to vote in the 2010 presidential electionsThis feels a little like one of those heist movies where the old team gathers for ‘one last job’.

As always when the election period approaches the romantic memories outweigh the recollection of the sheer hard work of it all for the international election facilitators; roaming the country (or being stuck in Hargeisa for the core team), gathering on the balcony of the Maansoor hotel at the end of the long days, checking out the endless queues of men and women (always separated, in line with Somaliland practice) and looking at countless inky fingers – an inky finger is proof of having voted.

It is striking to see the young women so often cooped up hanging out of bus windows waving the different party flags.

Our job is to check whether every Somalilander is getting a fair chance to cast their vote, and take note of any problems. For example, we are on the lookout for police officers hanging about inside the polling stations (which by law they shouldn’t be), or any rough police handling of crowds queuing up to vote.

Another memory that comes flooding back is of the special protection units provided by the government to look after the teams of observers: I have sometimes found them more alarming than the terrorists they are there to deter – swivelling round with their AKs to fire off at the odd gazelle without warning!

In fact most of the work is mundane; checking out that all the conditions are there for a free and fair election, talking to the political parties, government, security forces, media (state and private), any other monitoring outfits and especially our partners who are often domestic observers. We take it in turns to give interviews to the press that normally involve patient explanations of this not being Somalia but Somaliland (without necessarily calling for recognition).

There is always a great team feel and now that so many of us have been in this line of work for what seems like forever a sense of respect and trust that everyone knows what to do and just gets on with it. This year we have a new admin coordinator, Stephanie Butcher, taking the place of the estimable “Ed the Mole”, a former volunteer with Progressio that I pinched off the then environmental advocacy coordinator to help with the last election round. We are confident Stephanie will live up to the phenomenal work rate of Ed (who is now on the core team). We are a pretty international bunch, and usually gender balanced too, with lots of diaspora members. The last time we gathered was for the Presidential elections of 2010 which coincided with the World Cup so country colours appeared at the right matches (don’t talk about the England vs Germany game!)

Possibly the most arduous bit is – unsurprisingly – producing a verdict on whether the elections were free and fair, and producing the interim report for the National Electoral Commission. This takes a huge amount of number crunching of the data coming in from the polling stations. Fortunately Aly, a Canadian, is spot on at this – cheers Aly!

The first observers head off for Nairobi at the end of October, chat to donors and policy people and then go on to Hargeisa to make all the preparations. The rest of the international observers fly in as the election date gets closer.

Here we go again for one last heist!

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The writer who looks forward to being an International Election Observer at the coming elections in Somaliland: is Progressio’s Policy and Advocacy Co-ordinator for Africa, the Middle East and Asia. He will be part of an International Election Observer group helping to facilitate the local elections in Somaliland on 28 November 2012, at the invitation of the Somaliland National Election Commission (NEC). Steve undertook a pre-election assessment earlier this year, and assisted with observing the Presidential elections in 2010, which were judged “free and fair”.

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