Pastoralist Democracy meets Western style voting

Part 1 of 2 Somaliland’s First Presidential Election 2003

On your way into Hargeisa circa 2002.

Somaliland 2002 President Egal’s Death and prelude to the Presidential Election

Out in the wellfields for Hargeisa’s Water supply circa 2003

In the run up to the 2017 third Somaliland Presidential Elections, some stories from the making of the first one in 2003.

I flew into Burao in 1993 and was pleasantly offered a lift from the dirt airstrip into the town itself. We were saved the stress of negotiating a rental vehicle right away. Alas, the driver for the twin-cab displaying highly visible UN Agency stickers and a huge flag, all NGOs and UN seem to want a big flag on a car at the time, then demanded $100 for the trip. He pointed the AK47 at me, slipped the safety off and, almost cordially, explained if he wanted to rob us, he would have already done it so we should be thankful and pay him. We sat him down, had a cup of team and talked it through. He did not get paid, he did work for me travelling some very insecure roads. Better to ride with the devil than have him waiting round the next bend?

1993 was my first visit to Somaliland when the people were struggling to come to terms with the destruction wrought on them. Hargeisa, the capital, had been bombed and shelled to the point where few roofs remained intact. What buildings the owners could not use were given to family. Where family could not occupy, then squatters were present. Where the building was empty of people, booby traps using unexploded ordnance made sure it was not used as a toilet. The city had been comprehensively destroyed. But not the people and, just for good measure, Somalilanders were still fighting among themselves. Nevertheless peace and real reconciliation was already appearing. A peace built by the people themselves and not an endless stream of theorists telling those struggling to keep body and soul together what they should do.

In 1993, I had the pleasure to be in a leaky Presidential palace and have the then President, acknowledge my existence if not speak to this guy come to do yet another assessment and write yet another report. The last thing he needed was another report of what could (possibly) be done as the water dripped from the ceilings in the public reception rooms of the Presidential Palace. Years later I was working in the Cabinet Room where water was again dripping. It made for a story to break the way into tricky negotiations about Somaliland, Somalia, Somali.

Muhammad Haji Ibrahim Egal, known as Egal, was the second president of the self-declared Republic of Somaliland. A strong man with opinions offering obdurate leadership built on the hard won opportunity the Somali National Movement, SNM, had ground out. These are hard men backed by women of remarkable fortitude, every person principled, opinionated but always, always, seeking a positive way forward.

As the century numbers changed, I heard SNM fighters say to the next two generations — I drunk my piss so you could stand and complain about no one giving you a job. Get out and make some work. Don’t expect these foreigners to give you anything — take for yourself and your age mates.

Those early days made me feel at ease and I returned to take up living and working in a fast changing Hargeisa with the positive senses rippling out across the whole of Somaliland. Somaliland still had, has to this day, issues, but the positives far outweigh the negatives and the fantastic, constructive, attitude of the people drove change. The resilience of people and community was there to feel long before resilience was in every other sentence to do with development not delivering and humanitarian response becoming overwhelmed.

In 2002 I was asked to Egal’s funeral in Berbera, a seaport on the Gulf Aden. We stood to watch his casket off loaded from an aircraft as the gentleman returned from South Africa one last time. We had watched as the aircraft circled and kicked out a black streak across a blue and cloudless sky coming in to land at Berbera Air base. Built by the Soviet Union, 4,000 meters of concrete runway, later rented by the USA in case of emergencies for the Space Shuttle to land, epitomising how this part of the World was a pawn in wider political games. Even at 7:00 in the morning the temperature was already well past 30oC. My only black suit made for me some years before by an excellent tailor in Nairobi’s River Road area who proudly told me the material was from Manchester and definitely not a tropical blend. Now the weight of the cloth and the intervening years made the jacket a little tight under the armpits. My white shirt collar was already a little bit grimy, as my tie seems to act as a noose to collect dust. Plenty of dust during this, the long dry season, in a place where the rain was seldom; but when it came, heavy and as destructive as it was life bringing.

It seemed the whole of Somaliland had turned out to say goodbye to the great man. No matter anyone’s opinion, and many disagreed with him and his very personality based ways, he had offered leadership and had set the leadership basis for what Somaliland has built. Whatever was to come would need to move on from personality to deliver a technocracy capable of running a country, albeit a state not recognised.

I was there as the European Union’s person and, because of having a heritage of being in Somaliland in the founding days a decade before, was ushered to join Egal’s government as we interred the gentleman. We all stood together under an uncompromising sun saying goodbye to one of the principles of independence of Somaliland from the British, a founder of Somalia, and Somaliland again. Me, a Brit, now working for the European Union standing with men and women all Somalilanders no matter what passport they carried. Colonialism disappeared, misguided nationalism gone and a new sense of freedom to achieve the rights of individual Somalilanders. I was sweating profusely dehydrated but looked around into the faces of those around me. Grown men who had lived in the bush for years, drinking their own piss, had tears in their eyes. What was it to give a little sweat to show respect not just for Egal, but to all the people who had worked to make things happen for the good of those of us who thought a hard day was getting someone else to wipe the dust off their shoes.

Riyale stepped into the Big Man’s office. Somaliland, as with the wider Somalia and then the Somali Nation, is never short of opinion. I was in a position where I was viewed as an expert simply because I knew more than those asking for my opinion. It does not make me an expert just the slightly more enlightened member of the Confederacy of Dunces. Riyale had already struck me as a technocrat, a person more at home behind the chair than sitting in it as it became the hot seat.

My very good friend with whom I always travelled for security and guidance got me to the edges of the parking. My tie had gone but the suit jacket remained as Abdi parked us up, handed me a bottle of water and said I was on my own since I was able to go places he would not be allowed. There appeared little order but Riyale came from a police background and Somalilanders were close knit society so everyone knew everyone. It was why the bombs going off in Hargeisa 2008 came as such a shock to all. I walked from the vast area where cars had not been so much parked as abandoned — I am sure the majority were unlocked and would not have been surprised to find the keys in the ignition of many. Move it if need to, just make sure can find it to get back home after saying goodbye to the Old Man.

Egal’s funeral was a state affair. Not the posturing of so many such occasions, no speeches with mentions of the ‘hand of destiny on a shoulder’ or making points for the living egos rather than thinking of the departed leader. Pure coming together as people to give thanks for what had been achieved with a hint of apprehension as to what the after Egal life would be like. Somaliland shut down for the day, it seemed almost seemed every person came to be there on the southern outskirts of Berbera.

Ushered to join Egal’s government colleagues by the Minister of Information; he was to become Riyale’s, Somaliland’s, Foreign Minister making Somaliland’s presence felt on the fringes of all diplomatic meetings concerning the delivery of the right to self determination for Somaliland. A skilled diplomat who told stories of shuttling between suites in five star hotels paid for the Kenyan regime as Barre, Aideed and Egal sought to stop the complete meltdown of Somalia to what we have witnessed the last quarter century. Continuing to this day as other forces manoeuvre in the power vacuum these oligarchs left.

We stood, those with far more memories than I welled up and felt the emotions of history and the uncertainty of the future without the strong man. Riyale swept away. We waited for best part of an hour to allow tired fingers on big guns to be well up the road before we drove back to Hargeisa. At least three more people died this day as traffic killed more quickly than old age and hard living.

I came to know Riyale as well as any outsider could get to know people in a complex setting where I was always superfluous but respected as a person and as the frontman of the biggest donor.

The elections timetable was announced because of the good work of Somalilanders establishing structures bringing pressure on personalities. The EU stepped up to build on the positives the Somalilanders had put in place. The EU was pragmatic and it can easily argued forestalled things going wrong. The UN stood by making noises about democracy, sovereignty and respecting the borders. What rubbish as they were shown up to be lacking in vision and unresponsive to the opportunity of solidifying the gains made by people.

Some said how could Somaliland have a President? It was not recognised as a country, not a de jure State. As my European Commission boss said — He had a President; for his gun club back in Belgium. Addressed him as Mr President. Does not mean he infringed any recognition issues. Somaliland was recognised as a geographic entity and people had a sense of identity (Many will argue not strong enough among some but certainly good enough to make a difference). Somalilanders recognised their rights and recognised they wanted to engage in the electoral process to keep moving positively and not wait for the ponderous manner of key multinational bodies. Somalilanders felt outsiders seemed to be looking after themselves before looking after Somalilanders who were working to forestall problems not market the consequences of another humanitarian crisis borne of conflict.

A gentleman had come and, single-handedly, written the proposal for the EU to support the election. To stop it from either being a fast or such a sham it would undermine everything Somalilanders had thus far achieved. What an amazing person writing and editing, editing and writing to ensure Brussels bureaucrats and Somalilanders could tick the necessary boxes. Process supporting outcome? To be determined in May 2003. History must not just vindicate but authenticate this gentleman’s vision and work.

We had two experts come in, become part of the independent Electoral Commission and from March my days started to focus on calming these two gentlemen as they faced an enormous task. Their frustrations were inversely proportional to the finances and time they had available. They did an amazing job training up people, getting past political allegiances seeing plans continually being tampered with by people who were thinking short-term.

The daily briefings with the Electoral Commission were an education for me as we quietly sought to make things happen in the face of tremendous pressures inside Somaliland among the rival groups, candidates and the clan allegiances they sought to manipulate. Outside, in the wider region, the openness of the electoral process was eyed as showing up all the neighbours who professed to be accountable. We were still some months away from Kenya having President Kibaki step up, President Musveni was a mere sixty year old thinking twenty years forward. South Sudan did not exist and I recall secret police knowing my moves in Ethiopia. Eritrea and Djibouti?

The members of this first electoral commission stood up to the pressures placed on them, answered questions from all sides as they wanted something all could be proud of and not simply another African sham. I felt proud to be supporting, in my own small way, such people of principle.

Somaliland had moved on — under their own power they stepped up and supported the peace dividends they had built. There were still manifest faults of political leaders not accountable to the wider population. However, real ownership by people proud of what they had done and were now doing. As far as we, the EU, could, the support we proffered went through Somaliland institutions and was, mainly, led out by Somalilanders.

Somalilanders had made their peace; set themselves up building on principles instilled through generations of people — with a bit of British colonial influence. They mocked those who had grown indolent on self-indulgent introspection as they flew in and out — Egal was remembered again for kicking out such people who thrived on the chaos Somalilanders now worked to remove from their political processes. It took me back to when I first arrived in Somaliland and Egal had thrown out the UN and then to his funeral when an official asked why only the EU and Paul Crook had been noted in official communiqués. The answer? Simple, because the EU is doing things and Paul Crook is with us in making things happen. Made me proud to be part of both Somaliland and the EU. They both work, sometimes perversely but always the positives outweigh the negatives.

We moved on. Riyale accepted the need to have the election; the pressure placed on him by Somalilanders was intense. You do not drink your own piss to lie down and be run over by polite words and prevarication. We all knew it would be open to manipulation. The election was going to be a flawed process but involved people open to learn. It is easy for some to criticise now; many of those denigrating the work done by Somaliland People are cosseted in the comfort of the superficiality brought on naturally as a dividend of hard work previously done. It is a consequence of the cycles we pass through.

Let us take a moment to reflect on the sacrifices made by others so we know why some of us now take for granted what were luxuries and now seen as necessities. No room for complacency and people must be prepared to push for the next developments so no one has to drink their own piss ever again.

These were, still are, hard, chiselled, people building something standing the tests of time.

A Hargeisa school 1993 — How far the Somalilanders have come and still they push on

Second part on the Election Day itself to come next week

There are, quite literally, hundreds of academic and pseudo and quasi-academic books and papers about Somalia and Somaliland. As with so many periods of time and geographic places, opinion runs better than fact. However, a few names stand out as worth reading. The stalwarts I M Lewis and John Drysdale stand out. Dr Bulhan’s work is of repute. Mark Bradbury, Mary Harper and Michael Walls have contributed more recently.