Somaliland elections: Everything is fine (except when it is not)

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Steve Kibble and other members of the core International Election Observer team update us on preparations for Somalilands local electionsBy Progressio ground staff – Somalilanders are great optimists and at our many meetings we are being constantly assured that everything in the electoral process is going to be OK. Sometimes we look at each other and ask ‘It’s quiet Carruthers?’ ‘Yes… too quiet’. But largely speaking even the opposition associations/parties are happy. Except… up in Toghdeer region not far from the Ethiopian border there are some problems, unsurprisingly enough related to clan (dis)advantage.

So we left the hothouse of Hargeisa and headed to the coast and up the mountains to find out what the problem was. Given we are all non-Londoners, we thought this was a good opportunity anyway to get the view from outside Hargeisa – since capital cities generally take little notice of what happens elsewhere.

Giant tortoises

So after the ritual search for our armed protection unit and a little negotiation, we went through the scrubland, desert and savannah, reminiscent of being high up of the fynbos (natural shrubland) of the Western Cape. Rocky terrain, camels and goats among the still green trees, but also baboons, ground squirrels, warthogs, dikdiks and the odd raptor above. Giant tortoises crossed the road – best to treat them as a roundabout.

As we left Hargeisa the blue plastic bags flowering in the acacias lessened. The termite mounds were impressive, the thin tall ones resembling cloaked statues and the big ones, Moores or Hepworths in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, although the latter rarely have acacias growing out of them. The lunarscapes of the desert would have had Sergio Leone frantically whistling up his camera crew.

Frontier town

We called in on the regional electoral commission in the coastal town of Berbera where the temperature was down to a pleasant autumnal 36 degrees (high summer sees 45-50) and again all was fine – including a good meal of fish accompanied by a chorus of local cats (bit off if you don’t like light opera while eating).

Burao, spelt Burao, has the feel of a frontier town (Dodge City? Gretna Green?) despite being 100 miles from the Somalia border, as it is where two historically opposed clans meet – depending on whose mythology you trust. But then again as in most places, this rivalry is overlaid by the Diaspora experience – the hotel keeper was a Blades supporter from Sheffield, his deputy was from Tottenham and the governor of the region was a long time Brummie (bloke from Birmingham to our international readers).

Clan interests

Given that sub clan interests and desire for unity trumps all, there had been complaints from one (Habr Younis) that the western, southern and northern parts of the city only had around 80 polling stations while the other clan in the east – Habr Jeclo – had around 150.

The reason for this was simple and based on returns from the 2010 presidential election. In that contest the incumbent from Somaliland’s west was being challenged by the eventual winner ‘Silanyo’, who is Habr Jeclo, and another contender in whom Habr Younis had an equal lack of interest. Therefore they didn’t bother turning out to vote. NEC (Somaliland National Electoral Commission) relying on the computer-generated figures from last time therefore gave them fewer stations. Technically correct of course, but seasoned hands reckon better safe than sorry – always better to consult the parties, elders etc and head off a problem.

Anyway we sat under a tree (possibly giving us the spurious air of wise elders) and listened to the complaints of the relevant parties (not all turned up and some came mob-handed). We promised to forward their concerns while rejecting the idea that we should rectify this problem directly. Meetings are going on in Hargeisa on this issue as we write, with important folk flying in to try and solve it. Several solutions occur to us, but we will see what compromises emerge from the no doubt lengthy discussions. Anyone with a deep interest in this exciting interface between psephological science and clan dynamics can get in touch with Michael for further details no doubt.

Code of conduct

Now (Thursday 15 November) back in Hargeisa it is the Islamic New Year’s Day of 1434 and a public holiday although naturally meetings continue. As well as the Burao issue, we are tracking a number of issues. One is implementation of the code of conduct that all the parties signed (and one immediately denounced). Second, accusations that the governing party is using state resources for party purposes – something they vigorously deny. Party campaigning in public places has been suspended for the middle two of the four campaign weeks. This means that the colourful convoys with young women endangering life and limb by leaning out of bus windows waving flags, and young men doing the same from the tops of the buses, has at least diminished if not entirely disappeared. Big blow for photographers everywhere…

The naughty step

We are also enquiring about the effectiveness of voter education programmes as well as training for polling station and party agent staff – there are lots of initiatives including those run by Progressio partners like the women’s network NAGAAD and the NGO coordinating body SONSAF, but it’s a bit of a fitful picture overall.

The yellow weaver birds and red-chested finches are out in force in the Maansoor Hotel garden, although the giant tortoises of beloved memory have gone. The tame-ish gazelles are still in evidence. One with sawn-off horns (in retrospect that should have been a clue) took a shine to Steph – if you interpret that as running up from behind and prodding her with his horns. After a few occurrences we saw he had been put in the naughty step – the fenced off bit of the garden. The coordination team has now been joined by media mogul Conrad, number cruncher Aly and photographer Kate.

10 days to go…

Next week a learned exegesis on how the seven political parties get whittled down to the three allowed for in the constitution, plus what the UN is doing, how the Burao problem sorted itself out and much more. 10 days to go…

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