The International Republican Institute recently held a discussion on “Democratic Governance in Africa: Does it Exist and is it Delivering?” The overwhelming answer is yes, and in fact, Africa is the only region in the world that has been experiencing modest improvements in democratic governance.
The state of democracy in Africa is painfully far from perfect, and the international media loves to cover these imperfections, but there are many positive events and trends to shed light on as well. With South Sudan’s recent birth as an independent nation, perhaps the light will turn next to Somaliland.
Many people are unaware that this northwestern region of Somalia has functioned autonomously from chaotic Somalia since 1991, when it voted to secede after the downfall of the oppressive and violent Siad Barre regime. Unrecognized by the international community as a legitimate state, Somaliland has quietly, and on its own, transitioned out of civil war and into a constitutionally-based, functioning democracy.
Unable to receive international aid from organizations like the IMF and World Bank because of its international status, Somaliland had to depend on its own resources to raise revenue for development. That meant building up a tax base and, according to Stanford’s Nicholas Eubank, becoming accountable to the citizens so that the taxation system would function properly. Eubank explains that the collection of these local tax revenues bred a much more responsive government tuned in to the needs of its people, a government that was not squandering large amounts of aid pouring in from outside its borders like so many other African countries.
Comparing peace-building efforts in Somalia to those of its secessionist region illuminates another sharp contrast. Billions have been spent on stabilizing Somalia, but living conditions and domestic and international animosities have only worsened over the years. Somalia is an utterly failed state. In Somaliland, a unique strategy emerged in which traditional processes of discussion and consultation played a central role. All clans were represented in peace conferences, and this inclusive dialogue became the foundation for a democratic government.
Today, Somaliland boasts a hybrid government with a president and parliament, but also an Upper House of Elders, which assures that all clans have a voice. While western democratic ideas of branches of government and checks and balances have been incorporated into Somaliland’s governmental structure, so too have domestic values of clan leadership. This fusion has seen several successful democratic elections, both for the presidency and in parliament. In the 2010 election an opposition candidate, Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo, won the presidency.
In addition to Somaliland’s stable democracy, a strong national identity has emerged as well. This identity is rooted in its democratic values, its internal problem-solving capabilities, its ability to overcome and, of course, its local culture. Somaliland still faces an uphill battle in terms of economic, social and political development, but the commendable progress that has occurred, and the grit of the people to succeed, whether or not the international community acknowledges Somaliland as sovereign nation, provides a solid foundation for the future.
Over the past twenty years Somaliland has overcome incredible odds. It serves as a testament that building viable democratic institutions is possible, and perhaps most aptly done when local culture can combine with shared wisdom from outsiders, including Westerners, to create a distinctly African democracy that values the needs and desires of its citizens. Governance in Somaliland is far from perfect, and each country faces its own unique issues, but the evolution of Somaliland’s hybrid democratic structures provides a solid example to the developing world of how democracy building can work.