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|Uncertain Times in Somaliland|
Tension in the Wake of Disputed Election Results
1 May 2003
The tranquil and festive atmosphere in which Somaliland held presidential elections on 14 April has been shattered. On the afternoon of 19 April, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) announced that the UDUB candidate, the incumbent president Dahir Kahin Rayaale, had won. His margin of victory was said to be a mere 80 votes and the result was immediately called into question, triggering disturbances in two of the towns where the main opposition party, KULMIYE, had done particularly well-Burao and Gebiley. Since then, there have been beatings, arrests and detentions of opposition supporters; a ban on peaceful protests; expansion of the network of informants; a clampdown on the press and dismissals from the army and police force of some suspected opposition sympathisers. Peace and stability are treasured by a people who have made enormous progress in overcoming a history of conflict, human rights abuses and oppression. But the aftermath of the elections has revealed the precarious balance between a hopeful future and a painful past in Somaliland and public anxiety is mounting.
The fact that KULMIYE was widely tipped to win, and the perception, rightly or wrongly, that political pressure had been exerted on the NEC on the very day the results were announced, initially led to suspicion and political tension. Matters came to a head on 24 April when KULMIYE organised a press conference attended, amongst others, by the chairman of the NEC, Ahmed Haji Ali, "Adami", traditional and religious leaders and elders. Citing copies of the election figures signed by the chairman himself on 22 April, KULMIYE pointed out basic errors and discrepancies in the arithmetic, throwing grave doubt on the accuracy of the NEC ruling. Specifically, KULMIYE argued that 156 votes cast in its favor in Burao and Gar-Adag had not been taken into account in the ruling, putting it ahead of UDUB by 76 votes.
Subsequently, it has become apparent that the NEC calculations are confused and unreliable on several counts. Insisting that it does not have the authority to amend the results, the NEC has argued that it is for the Supreme Court to deliver a verdict, should the parties choose to go to court. The refusal by the NEC to acknowledge, either publicly or privately, its evident mistakes has deepened the political malaise in the country.
KULMIYE has rejected the NEC findings. In response to the NEC’s claim that the responsibility for resolving the matter now lies with the Supreme Court, it has argued that a weak judiciary dominated by government appointees cannot deliver justice. In the interim, there is intense pressure from its rank and file to forge ahead with the formation of a separate government. To date, KULMIYE’s leadership has stated its commitment to a peaceful resolution of the crisis. But there is no guarantee that they will be able to control the widespread anger among its supporters, many of them experienced former fighters.
Overwhelmingly, in the campaigning for these presidential elections, during the voting and in the previous parliamentary elections Somalilanders, regardless of background or political allegiances, demonstrated their commitment to the democratic process. The outcome has been very unfortunate for all concerned and Somaliland’s young democracy is now facing its harshest test. A resolution of the current impasse will require humility and leadership, which have so far been lacking. The alternative is that all the people of Somaliland, and its substantial Diaspora, will be the losers.
The National Electoral Commission: Getting its Sums Wrong
The NEC has not faced an easy task. Organising the first free local government and presidential elections within four months of each other, after a political hiatus of 35 years, was bound to be a monumental task. With the whole country new to the business of holding elections, it would be wrong to underestimate the formidable obstacles faced by the Commission, in terms of experience, technical know-how, human and financial resources, pressure and complaints from all political quarters, weak international assistance and heightened public expectations. All of this may help to explain its failure to prevent and correct certain shortcomings both before voting and on polling day, and it sheds light on the delay in announcing the result. But it cannot justify the embarrassing, and politically explosive reality that the Commission got its arithmetic wrong. Close scrutiny of the numbers issued on 19 April, reveals many errors.
When the preliminary results signed by the NEC for Burao district are added up, they do indeed show that 156 votes are missing from the KULMIYE count. In the meantime, African Rights has obtained a copy of the election results for Burao district disseminated by the UDUB district office in Burao, whose figures are different from the Burao district election results signed by the chairman. But even those figures contain errors.
The claims presented by KULMIYE have led to counter-claims by UDUB, as well as complaints from people whose votes were cancelled because of electoral irregularities. UDUB first responded by saying that they lost more than 10,000 votes following a decision by the NEC to annul the relevant ballot boxes. In a press conference held on 30 April, again before an audience that included religious and traditional leaders UDUB sought to challenge and disprove the calculations presented by KULMIYE on the 24th regarding Burao.
In the days since the result was declared, a succession of flaws have come to light. For instance, when asked about the allegations aired by KULMIYE in an interview with African Rights on 27 April, one of the Commissioners commented: "We have also become aware of an error with regard to the Sanaag region which gives more votes to UDUB." In private the Commission does not claim that the figures it released on the 19th are totally accurate, yet in public it has aggressively denied wrongdoing, stating: "Those who want to complain can go to court." But a multiplicity of miscalculations - some favoring UDUB, others KULMIYE - cannot, as the Commission seems to believe, create a balance of political misfortune. Rather they undermine the political system as a whole, leaving ordinary Somalilanders perplexed about whether and how their vote was counted.
Seeking to explain the various discrepancies, the Commission has argued that the results of 19 April only reflected its preliminary findings and that the regional offices of the Commission had until the 21st to hand over their final findings. Nevertheless, it insists that the final figures do not change the fact that UDUB still won by 80 votes. "The total is the same always", in the words of the Chairman - an argument that is difficult to sustain.
A Complicating Factor: The Perception of Undue Political Influence
Responding to public impatience, the Chairman of the Commission announced on Radio Hargeisa on the evening of Thursday 17 April that the results would be announced either on Friday the 18th, or Saturday the 19th at the latest. On Friday evening, African Rights, along with many others, received an invitation from the Commission to attend the announcement of the results at 9:00 a.m. on the morning of the 19th. It is reasonable to assume that the results had been prepared by the time the invitations were sent out. Yet when the press and others assembled at the offices of the NEC on the morning of the 19th, delays and confusion seemed to be the order of the day. Questions were raised when the Commission received a visit from the leaders of the Guurti, the council of elders, accompanied by the speaker and deputy speaker of parliament. They had, according to the NEC, come to convey complaints from UDUB about the electoral process. They came back a second time to deliver a hand-written request that the announcement be delayed by 48 hours. In the end, this was turned down and the result became known at about 4:15 p.m. It has since been admitted by members of the NEC that the leaders of the Guurti had also visited them on Friday night with a similar message.
These public visits to the Commission on the very morning it was due to announce the winner of the elections invited criticism. Many in Somaliland believe that the elders sought to ensure a victory for the party of the government, an accusation that the Commission and elders both reject. The elders say they went as guardians of the peace, to defuse tension and to calm political nerves.
Without doubt, the Guurti have made a critical difference to the establishment and maintenance of peace throughout Somaliland. In the turbulent period between 1992-1995, it was the leadership and determination shown by elders that secured the peace reigning in Somaliland today. But while many elders retain their independence, the Guurti as an institution has increasingly become more an adjunct of the government and is no longer seen as a politically neutral arbiter capable or willing to challenge government policies even when they undermine justice and threaten the peace. In this context, the visibility of the elders at the NEC on the morning of the 19th, including the presence of some who have been outspoken in their support of the government and of UDUB, raised many questions about their motives and the nature of their intervention. The Guurti has no role in the electoral process. If their concern is peace, it is difficult to understand why it did nothing to support the Commission in its criticism of government electoral practices before polling day. Equally, as yet the Guurti has said nothing about the beatings, including those of women and children, and other punitive measures which have occurred since the end of the elections.
Recourse to the Judiciary : A Question of Confidence
There is considerable popular awareness of inadequacies in the justice system in Somaliland. Shukri Haji Bandere of the NEC expressed her faith in the Supreme Court in forthright terms: "We are confident that they will reach the proper decision." But it is unlikely most people will share her confidence; examples of political manipulation or basic failures in the administration of justice are, unfortunately, all too common and well-known. The resolute manner in which the Minister of the Interior, Ismail Adan Osman, has expressed his belief that it will confirm the decision of the NEC has only served to reinforce scepticism that the Supreme Court will be fair in its deliberations. He told the press: "The correct decision reached by the Commission is the one which will be pronounced by the court. KULMIYE should come to terms with this and offer congratulations."
Which Way Out?
The NEC must urgently respond with courage and transparency, admitting all errors, reviewing its calculations carefully and providing the correct figures. This is an essential first step towards averting crisis. More generally there is need for local and international recognition of the seriousness of the problem and close monitoring of the situation. Individuals and groups, whatever their political leanings, should collectively demand that all the political parties now work for a peaceful solution. Whether immediately or in the long term, unless the flaws in this election are openly admitted they are likely to have serious and damaging consequences for all in Somaliland. It will be extremely difficult to establish a credible and stable government in the context of a negligible lead, based upon figures that are not merely controversial but plainly inaccurate.
It remains to be seen what can be achieved if the matter is taken to the Supreme Court; at a minimum it will be necessary to educate the public about the process, the time frame, and to provide public assurances about the independence of the judiciary. UDUB’s own complaints about the process suggest that it should be willing to consider various political options and work with all the concerned parties to establish a mutually acceptable process for resolving the dispute. This might include a recount monitored by independent domestic and international election observers; or even scheduling a rerun of the elections with the formation of an interim caretaker government. In the meantime, reports of post-election violence in various parts of the country are disturbing. African Rights is monitoring these and plans to publish its findings. Regardless of any developments in the political arena, there should be no further attempts by the government to restrict basic freedoms or to suppress the right to support the opposition.
African Rights (UK)