Somaliland: We call on the President

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Blogs from election observers

The individual voices of Somaliland Focus and the observation teams to Somaliland’s elections, and those they encounter alonThe president Dr Ahmed M Silanyo has mostly concentrated on develoment activities during electioneeringg the way

The team on the ground: the authorised versions

As the full team assembles to observe the district and council elections on November 28th 2012, catch up with Steve Kibble and Michael Wall’s dispatches from Hargeisa.

Those eager to read how the current seven political associations and parties become three constitutional ones will have to curb their enthusiasm for the moment.

First the Burao issue highlighted last week seems to have got sorted by the provision of 89,000 extra ballot papers and the introduction of a two-stream system inside polling stations in western Burao i.e. doubling the number of ballot boxes in certain polling stations. We wait to see from forthcoming observations how this will work. With the way the sexes divide (four queues, plus seven party agents, six polling staff, domestic and international observers) it could get as right crowded and hot as a broken down summer Tube train (for international readers – an archaic form of underground London transport).

Meanwhile the setpiece of our trip was a small IEO delegation calling on the president and three ministers at the presidential palace. Once we had kitted out one of the team with a spare tie, we were able to put forward concerns – mostly those raised by political parties, such as arrests of their candidates, allegations that candidates were being paid to withdraw their candidacies. We were also keen to track down the Presidential Decree calling on political parties not to have civil servants campaigning or to use state resources for political party/ association purposes. We duly received a copy along with assurances it was being followed.The President, ministers and leaders of the governing Kulmiye party vigorously denied allegations of use of state funds on this and other occasions. Some of this dispute revolves around the nature of a civil servant. Ministers and political appointees are generally allowed to campaign, whereas civil servants are not. The most significant controversy has surrounded the head of the Aids Commission (SOLNAC) campaigning for the governing party. Government members argued he was a political appointee, others seeing him as a non-political appointment. On candidate arrests, according to the government one of these instances was an intra-clan battle over which candidate had clan support, which led one to use intemperate language (possibly anti-religious). They claim that other arrests have been due to violations of the Code of Conduct, including campaigning on unauthorised days. The meeting was cordial and the President promised to address our concerns that the way the three political parties were voted for should be much more transparent and more widely understood.

Which segues neatly into Law 14, Article 6, rather a mundane title for something which could provoke a bit of bother. This is the mechanism that determines which of the seven political associations/parties has successfully won the right to become one of the three constitutionally-mandated political parties for the next ten years. The chosen seven out of fifteen that originally applied have to contest all regions (although not all districts) and the system has a deliberately inbuilt rural bias. Hargeisa/Maroodi Jeex region with nearly half of all seats (175) would otherwise dominate. Any association/party that gets 20% or more in a region is eligible to become one of the three political parties (depending on other regional results). The winner, if there are several with 20% or more in each region, is the one with the highest percentage. That party is awarded a rank score of 1 in that region, with each party ranked/scored in order. This count is then repeated through the next five regions. The party/association with the lowest aggregate score is deemed to be the top qualifying party, and those with the next two lowest scores take the second and third spots available. Problems, of course, could arise if parties get unequal support across regions but build up large numbers of votes in toto. In that case, it is conceivable they may complain at missing the cut in spite of receiving large numbers of votes. It is also quite likely that at least the third-placed party (maybe all?) will struggle to get 20% in all regions. The Supreme Court is on standby to rule on such issues (or at least it has been advised to be so by an outside negotiator). While the electoral provisions are reasonably clear, it is quite likely that they are not widely understood by the public – a situation not helped by the division of labour between the electoral commission and the Registration and Approval Committee which announces the three party winners. Glad that’s clear then.

According to our vox pop in the streets, circumspectly talking to voters, there is a high degree of awareness of the election – difficult to avoid as public campaigning has restarted with its usual exuberance, especially from young women (readers with long memories will remember Blog 1 on this). There also appears a high degree of party/ association recognition. We were struck by a youngish lad volunteering the information ‘I’m going to vote for the woman candidate’ – perhaps the attempts to create a women/ youth coalition are paying off?

The parties sport different colours which bear some relationship to clan allegiance. Some stand out more than the others that rely on the more religious colour of green. Waddani looks like an Orangeman’s sash, Xaqsoor (pronounced like a useful item in your toolbox) is yellow and white like the Papal flag (how are we doing on a swerve through religious tolerance here?). RAYS pronounced ‘rice’ looks like the Spanish flag and by comparison Umadda has a sideways-on Indonesian one. In the interests of impartiality we also mention here Kulmiye, the governing party, DALSAN and New Ucid – the latter sporting an emblem -of a sheep being weighed, as used in licensed premises named ‘The Fleece’ (though not widely seen in Hargeisa).

Most of the core team is now here and we have begun briefings for the wider team on electoral process (with a walk through a mock polling station guided by a couple Aussie election experts), code of conduct for observers, radio training, security, media awareness, political context and the like. Accreditation and then deployment out to the regions comes soon.

OK five days to go. Hang on to your (election observer) hats…

16 Nov 2012: ‘Everything is fine’ (except when it is not)

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 (for those of a Voltairean persuasion ‘where are you now Dr Pangloss?’). Sometimes we look at each other and do some old colonial number ‘It’s quiet Carruthers?’ ‘Yes too damn quiet’. But largely speaking even the opposition associations/ parties are happy (well 80% as one told us). Except …up in Togdheer 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 the problem. Given we are all non-Londoners, we though it good anyway to get the view outside Hargeisa since generally capital cities take little notice of what happens elsewhere. So after the ritual search for our armed protection unit and a little negotiation, we went through the scrubland, desert and savannah, even hitting a faint feel high up of the fynbos of theWestern Cape. Rocky terrain, camels and goats in the acacia, 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 theYorkshire 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.

We called in on the regional electoral commission in the coastal town of Berbera where the temperature was down to a pleasant autumnal 36 (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 Burco, has the feel of a frontier town (Dodge City? Gretna Green?) despite being 100 miles from the Somalia border, and 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).

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 80 odd 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.

Now (Thursday 15) back in Hargeisa it is the Islamic New Year 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 all the parties signed (and one immediately denounced). Second, whether the governing party is following usual practice by using state resources for party purposes – they say No vigorously and others Yes, but with little evidence adduced so far. Party campaigning in public places has been suspended for the middle two weeks of the four weeks campaign. This means that the colourful convoys with young women endangering life and limb by leaning out of bus windows waving flags and young men similarly from the tops of the buses has at least diminished if not entirely disappeared. Big downer for photographers everywhere. We are also enquiring about the effectiveness of voter education programmes and training for polling station and party agent staff – bit of a fitful picture, but lots of initiatives, including by Progressio partners like the women’s network NAGAAD and the NGO coordinating body SONSAF.

The yellow weaver birds and redchested finches are out in force in the Maansoor garden, although the giant tortoises of beloved memory have gone (‘NO guv not part of our diet’). The tameish 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 implanting his horns in a soft spot. After a few such excursions 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.

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. 12 days to go.

12 November 2012

After a less than promising start leaving Nairobi, Michael, Steph and Steve the pioneer arm of the International Election Observers (IEOs) arrived in Hargeisa last Saturday 3 Nov. Our hitherto reliable taxi man managed to run out of fuel en route to the airport, disappearing with a wave into the murky Nairobi dawn. He reappeared ten minutes later while we pretended it was fine on the back of a HOnda 250 carrying a jerrycan. Refuelled, off we went, passing through police checkpoints and made the plane OK – with only a ‘you are the last ones’ admonition from the EC flight check in desk. Then we boarded a twelve-seater only to turn back as the two navigation systems seemed to be having a quarrel as to which one was right. Oh well time for that cup of coffee we missed…. Resisting having something stronger despite the example of a hearty 9am German beer drinking crowd at the next table (and the prospect of a dry country), we got on a different plane and landed in Hargeisa. There we were greeted by the winner of the most offhand customs official of the year award. Catching my passport as it was slung back to me (yep the old cricket skills are still there) we were met by Abdurahman the Progressio logistics manager and taken to the old stomping ground the Maansoor Hotel. There the waiters greeted us with cries of ‘so the elections are really going to happen if Michael and Steve are here’. Prosaically we proceeded to start making appointments.

So far things are looking fine and the process despite many hiccoughs is on track. We have met the National Electoral Commission with the usual pleasantries on both sides for a fruitful relationship. There have also been donor meetings, political parties, NEC consultants, NAGAAD the women’s coalition and SONSAF the NGO coalition and Progressio partner who are running an election forum, training, providing domestic observers and the like.

There have been some stormy meetings between donors and political parties when the former refused point blank to fund the expenses of the party agents – ‘you are ruining our democracy process’, but this seems to have settled down in a v Somali way. Michael went on a security training course which provided useful tips, but also literally bonding by tieing up other members of the team or throwing them through loops in ropes. V useful if we get kidnapped by pirates.

Steve did the first of perhaps many media interviews for the state broadcaster, speaking, to Steph’s amusement, in his best international English.

20 days to the elections, many people including ministers to see, observers to organise, but as ever great commitment of Somalilanders to going another step on the democratisation road.

8 November 2012

This 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!

Source: Somaliland Focus

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this blog are individual ones, and may not represent the official view of Somaliland Focus or the international election observation mission

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