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WORLD STAGE A Forgotten Democracy In The Horn Of Africa
By Simon Scott Plummer
August 16, 2006 – Riven by armed clans and their warlords, Somalia has long been a byword for chaos. The latest twist in its turbulent story has been the capture of the capital, Mogadishu, by Islamist courts promising, like the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s, to restore national unity under sharia law.
The recently appointed leader of the Somali Supreme Islamic Courts Council, Hassan Dawer Aweys, leads one of the most radical groups, al-Ittihad al-Islami. He is challenging the authority of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which was established with UN support in 2004 but has not been strong enough to enter the capital.
Faced with this Islamist threat, Ethiopia has dispatched troops to Baidoa, where the TFG is quartered, while Eritrea has sent arms, and possibly military advisers, to the Islamists. The two countries are continuing to use Somalia as a proxy theatre for their deadlocked border war, another instance of an African country becoming the plaything of rival powers.
Contrast this imbroglio with the situation in the northwest of the country, where five regions on the Gulf of Aden have formed a functioning democracy through a constitutional referendum and elections at local, presidential and parliamentary levels.
These regions form what was once British Somaliland, a neglected protectorate that was granted independence in 1960 and promptly voted to unify with its southern neighbor, the former Italian trust territory of Somalia.
Southern dominance of the new government was soon resented in the northwest and, under Mohamed Siyad Barre, led to a full-scale civil war in which about half a million people took refuge in Ethiopia.
The ousting of Gen Barre led in 1991 to the proclamation of an independent Republic of Somaliland, which has since largely stayed clear of the turmoil, including an American intervention between 1992 and 1994, in Somalia proper.
Peace has enabled Somaliland, in the words of a 2003 report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), to "shift from the consensus-based beel system, in which every clan had its say, to a majoritarian democracy in which there would inevitably be winners and losers''.
The first stage in this extraordinary achievement was a referendum in 2001, in which two thirds of the electorate voted for a constitution that reaffirmed Somaliland's existence as an independent state and provided for multiparty elections. These took place at local level in 2002 and at presidential level the year after, the latter bringing the incumbent, Dahir Rayale Kahin, back into power by just 80 votes. Last September, elections to the House of Representatives left it under the control of two opposition parties, thus creating a unique instance in Africa of "cohabitation''.
The only gap in Somaliland's democratic transition is the reconstitution, either by election or appointment, of the upper House of Elders, or Guurti. An extension of its term by four and a half years has been agreed, though the lower house was not consulted.
Having created a de facto state, and a democratic one to boot, Somaliland has sought outside recognition, based on its separate colonial status and its brief existence as a sovereign entity in 1960.
An African Union (AU) fact-finding mission having concluded that its case was "unique and self-justified'', Somaliland applied for membership last December. However, several factors weigh against its being accepted.
First is the AU's reluctance to agree to the splitting of existing states. Second is the opposition in Somalia proper of both the TFG president, Abdillahi Yusuf, and the Islamists.
Third is the disputed territory of Puntland, part of which lies within the eastern provinces of Sanaag, Sool and Togdheer, where the Harti clans predominate.
Five years after its constitutional referendum, Somaliland finds itself without formal recognition and thus deprived of access to international financial institutions and of foreign investment.
The initiative for recognition must come from the AU, which in recent years has accepted the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia and the creation, in due course, of a new state in southern Sudan.
In the case of Somaliland, many outside powers argue that secession could hinder the attempts to bring peace to Somalia proper. But this appears a receding prospect that, in the words of a 2006 ICG report, "holds Somaliland hostage to events over which it has very little control''.
A functioning Muslim democracy in a part of Africa notorious for chaos and now a possible springboard for Islamic extremism, Somaliland deserves de jure recognition by the AU of the de facto state that it already is.
Beyond that continent, countries at the forefront of the fight against terrorism should not ignore its potential as a strategic ally. Among them, Britain, as the former colonial power, has a special responsibility to see that Somaliland's case does not go by default.
Source: The Daily Telegraph, Aug 16, 2006