Somaliland appears to be the new model for democratization in Africa. The country rose out of the ashes of a violent civil war and created a vibrant democracy that integrated Western institutions with the traditional clan system. It created a functioning economy based on trade with local partners. The state is capable of taxing its people and paying its civil servants. It established a military and created health and education sectors to provide for the people of Somaliland. The nation appears to be thriving, despite the lack of international recognition and aid. However, recent events have raised questions about the democratic consolidation of Somaliland.
Article 22 of the Somaliland constitution states that every citizen has the right to be elected to public office and Article 36 states that all rights in the constitution are to be enjoyed equally by men and women. Despite these provisions, women are still being excluded from the political arena. There are 164 members in the Somaliland parliament and only one of them is a woman. In an attempt to rectify the underrepresentation of women, women’s rights activists attempted to change the law to include a 20% quota for women in parliament, but the request was blocked by the House of Elders. The upper house is made up of traditional leaders from the clans and sub-clans in Somaliland, which tend to be dominated by men. This makes it difficult for women to advance in political parties and also prevents them from changing their political situation. Another issue that raised questions about Somaliland’s democracy was the recent banning of London-based Universal TV after a program made defamatory remarks about President Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud Silanyo. This is in direct violation of Article 32 of the constitution, which states that the media is independent and protected under freedom of expression. This is not the first television station to be punished, nor is it the first attempt by the government to censor media. Journalists in Somaliland are often threatened, harassed, and arbitrarily detained for taking a hard stance on the government.
Despite missteps like these, the nation appears to be committed to its democracy. Somaliland has three strong political parties, it has experienced two presidential elections and one set of parliamentary elections that occurred without violence, it has seen a peaceful transfer of executive power to an opposition party, and it has begun to provide goods and services to Somaliland citizens. All citizens are able to vote and great strides are taken toward making sure everyone has the means to be heard. Somaliland’s hybrid democracy is competitive and inclusive, but cannot be fully consolidated until it has an independent media. It also cannot be truly representative until women have an active voice in the decision-making process; simply having the right to vote is not enough. Are these issues signs of backsliding or simply part of the process of democratization?
Democratic consolidation is not an easy process and most countries end up backsliding toward authoritarianism at least once. Despite the occasional authoritarian tactics, I do not believe this to be the case in Somaliland. The democracy is robust and strongly supported by the people who worked to create it. Somalilanders fought too hard for their freedom and their representative government to let authoritarianism reemerge. If the government continues to censor the media, the people will deal with it by democratically electing a new leader. As for the issue of women, women’s representation in government has been a problem for democratic consolidation all over the world. Even the United States did not officially let women vote until 1920, over 100 years after the establishment of a democratic system. The integration of women is going to require patience and pressure on the government, especially the House of Elders. If women can pressure the government into adopting a quota law, it would go a long way toward institutionalizing the right of women to be elected to public office. Overall, I believe the democratic consolidation in Somaliland is on the right track and, although there are missteps that need to be addressed, I see no reason to fear backsliding at this time.