Somaliland, a self-proclaimed republic in the north-west of Somalia, is experiencing an election crisis because of a disagreement over when the presidential election will take place. The current president’s term expired on November 13, 2022, but a presidential election did not follow.
Somaliland opposition parties accused President Musa Bihi Abdi of trying to delay the upcoming election in order to stay in power beyond his mandate, and vowed not to recognize his office once his mandate expires on November 13. The opposition called for timely elections and urged their supporters to take to the streets and reject what they called an attempt to undermine the constitution.
In August 2022, anti-government demonstrations erupted in several cities across Somaliland, pitting security forces against pro-opposition demonstrators. Five civilians were killed, hundreds injured and scores arrested. The two main opposition parties (Waddani and the Justice and Welfare party) decried the excessive force employed by the police against unarmed civilians, while Somaliland Deputy Police Commander Abdi Hassan Mire accused the demonstrators of being armed with knives, catapults, clubs and other weapons, which he said led to dozens of injured security personnel.
A month later, the matter became further complicated when the Somaliland electoral commission declared that it could not conduct the presidential election on time because of technical and financial constraints. It had previously said the election would be conducted within nine months. Opposition parties welcomed that time frame, which was supposed to have begun upon the expiration of the president’s term, but that has not yet happened.
Last October, the upper house of Somaliland (Guurti or House of Elders) extended the presidential term by two years, meaning the election will now take place in 2024. The upper house also extended their own term to five years, as their mandate expires at the same time as that of the president. Seventy-two members of parliament voted; only one objected.
The political stalemate drags on and so far, no agreement has been reached. President Bihi of the Kulmiye ruling party met Somaliland’s two opposition party chiefs — Abdirahman Abdullahi (Irro) of the Waddani party, and Faisal Ali Hussein of the UCID party — to reach a consensus on the election calendar. However, the meeting only further exacerbated political tensions, with the UCID party chief accusing the president of trying to achieve individual political goals at the expense of the opposition demands.
The main bone of contention is the sequencing of the presidential and party elections. The current administration insists that the licensing of political parties should predate the presidential election, and says that the nine qualified political associations (as per the national political parties’ registration commission requirements) will have the same opportunity to contest for licensing as the three political parties whose 10-year mandate expired in December 2022. Only three parties will come out of this exercise, at which point the public will vote for the party of their choice.
The reason for this direct election is that local and parliamentary elections were conducted in 2021. The top three political parties will then have achieved their licensing requirements for the next 10 years, as stipulated by the amended Somaliland party election law. This will allow them to contest the presidential election. In contrast, the only two existing opposition parties in Somaliland are pushing for the presidential election to come before the registration of political parties.
Ever since the first universal suffrage poll was conducted in 2002, just three parties have dominated Somaliland’s political scene. The sitting president wants to expand the political space so that many parties can compete — a position that non-licensed political associations support. So far, nine political associations have fulfilled the conditions of eligibility for party registration. One of the requirements is that each political party must have 1,000 endorsements from each of the country’s six regions.
The Somaliland electoral body recently filed an application with the Supreme Court to give legal interpretation on the sequence of the election. The court rejected the application, stating that the commission has the legal powers to set the election timeline. On July 17, the electoral body issued a new election timeline, in which the party election will take place on December 28, 2023, and the presidential election will happen just about a year later, on November 13, 2024. In a decree, President Bihi agreed to the new timeline.
Opposition parties argue that the whole process is against the law. According to them, the amended legislation has no legal basis because of the president’s failure to sign it into law. [Supporting link needed] According to the opposition, the 21-day time frame allotted to sign the amended bill lapsed, thereby making the previous legislation applicable.
The battle went to the country’s Supreme Court which, in its ruling of January 16, 2022, affirmed the legality of the original law. However, the court backed a clause from the amended law that enables the direct election of new political parties. The opposition welcomed the ruling, as it did not accept the proposed government amendment to the law. Nevertheless, the government proceeded with the amendment and officially opened the registration of political parties.
In a joint press release, Somaliland’s international partners including Austria, Belgium, Demark, Ethiopia, European Union Delegation, Finland, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom welcomed the new election timetable and urged all stakeholders — including the parliament — to move forward with political consensus as the foundation for political stability, and encouraged them to swiftly resolve the outstanding technical, funding, political and legal gaps as set out by the national electoral commission.
Meanwhile, civilians who oppose the current president staying in office took up arms to pressure him to vacate and hold the election. Self-proclaimed anti-injustice militias (dulmi diid) have mobilized around the Ga`n Libah mountain in the country’s Sahel region. In an ambush on a police convoy on August 11, nine policemen lost their lives, and 17 were injured. At the public funeral on August 13 for the fallen policemen, which politicians across the political spectrum attended, President Bihi promised to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Somaliland, widely considered one of East Africa’s strongest democracies, has been a beacon of peace and stability in a region dominated by conflict and political instability. Since 1991, the country has enjoyed relative peace; since 2002, citizens have had the right to have their voices heard in consecutive one-man, one-vote elections. This delayed election may well undermine the gains made toward a democratic path.