Life as an election observer
TO QUOTE one of my more knowledgeable colleagues: "Elections are funny things. Highly technical and procedural exercises that are yet filled with emotion and rhetoric." During Britain's recent election, emotion ran short. In Somaliland, it is present in spades. An election in a bit of Somalia, the world's most failed state, is something to get emotional about.
The streets of Hargeisa, Somaliland's ramshackle and dusty capital, are a carnival. I am here in the north-west of what is still officially Somalia as part of a team of international observers, invited by Somaliland's electoral commission, for the final week of the de facto state's presidential election, to (they hope) verify the process, and, if so, help strengthen Somaliland's long campaign for official recognition.
Somalilanders, manacled to the profoundly failed state in the south, crave recognition, and all the advantages—such as multilateral assistance—it brings. But in the African Union, they lack allies, with the likes of Morocco fearful of what it could mean for their own claim over Western Sahara. Still, while pursuing the distant dream, Somalilanders have got on with state-building. This second presidential election (the first was in 2003, followed by a parliamentary election in 2005) is the latest stage of a democratic experiment as Athenian as it gets these days, that the world has largely failed to notice.
Many of my fellow observers—59 of us, from 16 countries, including a fair swathe of diaspora Somalilanders—believe deeply in what Somaliland is trying to do. Me, I'm also curious. This is Somalia, after all. Dinner-party conversation-starters sorted for months. But the stakes are high, with long delays in holding the poll, originally set for 2008, sharpening tensions. And there is a chill from the south, where al-Shabaab are no fans of the idea of a democratic secessionist state. Disruption of the election would be a hot ticket, an incident involving foreigners—election observers perhaps—better still.
At our first security briefing the point is underlined: "See you on YouTube, with a bag over your head". On that jocular note, we hit Hargeisa's streets. Our spirits lift immediately. Somalilanders, it is clear, have not let the long wait for the poll dim their enthusiasm.
We foreigners, the non-Somali ones anyway, can only hope to absorb so much. So we fall back on the visuals. To avoid potential clashes, the three candidates take it in turns to campaign exclusively on particular days. Long trains of cars, buses and trucks, each crammed with more people—men, women and children, the young vastly outnumbering the middle-aged and the old—than the technology should rightly bear thread through the streets. Loudspeakers blare, women ululate.
One day the livery is green (President Dahir Riyale Kahin of UDUB, the ruling party, whose posters put him in a suit far wider than he is), the next yellow (Ahmed Silanyo of the Kulmiye party, loser by 80 votes to Mr Riyale in the previous presidential election), the next green-and-white (Faisal Ali Waraabe of the UCID party, a Finnish national, who, alongside his running mate, beams at us from billboards "looking like a badly dressed gay couple at a civil wedding", a fellow observer… observes).
Women in hijab cover their heads in the colours of their allegiance; six-year-olds leap upon our bonnets waving their flags. Even the goats, ubiquitous on the streets, are bedecked in party colours. But each day, some of the faces, the people's anyway, are the same. Could this election simply be an excuse to party?
Well, it's a good party, and little distinguishes the candidates after all. Policy is thin on the ground, apart from a need for "development" and (even for the incumbent) "change". Our highly unscientific straw-polling on the streets reveals an appetite for "change". What change? "Change." Hopes are high, but the how is a mystery. Time up for Mr Riyale, perhaps.
Like a proper election anywhere, the candidates avoid specifics, devoting their time to attacking one another. The buzz on the streets says Mr Silanyo, an aging scion of the independence movement that fought Somalia's last military regime, will take it by a landslide. I ask a senior Kulmiye man what makes his boss the one. "A gorilla in a swimsuit could beat Riyale", he replies. A ringing endorsement indeed.
The main fears concern the result, and the potential for violence which could be unleashed by a narrow one, with most Somalilanders less concerned (we grasp for comfort) at the potential for al-Shabaab disturbance. When we ask them, each candidate pledges to respect the result, whatever it is. But what else would they say at this stage?
Polling day arrives, with no serious violence, and we are still alive. Our teams (with armed guards) are dispatched to all six of Somaliland's far-flung regions, with the diaspora members sent to the tenser ones. Here is where the technical and procedural part kicks in. For this vote, Somaliland is trying out a new voter-ID system, and the potential for fraud and confusion is thought to be high. If that happens, we expect no shortage of the wrong sort of emotion.
In the meantime, it is the more positive emotion that dominates. From the crack of dawn, and even the night before, mostly good-natured queues (men and women separately, with far more of the latter, it appears) form outside the polling stations in schools, houses, tents, halls and government buildings throughout the land. I find myself blinking at the unruly crowds: should we really be here? This is Somalia, after all.
But voting proceeds smoothly, if slowly at first, with the young polling station staff (mostly students from Somaliland's few universities) managing mainly to avoid becoming overwhelmed. For in the queues and even in the stations, the party atmosphere continues, with emotion occasionally swimming over as the sun beats down, and the lines drag.
On the phones at our Hargeisa base, some worrying reports creep in. At one station, stones have been thrown on the roof, shots fired into the air. False alarm: simply Somaliland-style crowd control. In the wild east, where some clans are no fans of Somaliland, there are more serious reports: ballot boxes have been blocked and a female electoral commission staffer (first worryingly described as an "election observer" in reports) shot dead. We telephone our teams there, tell them to keep to the towns. But, thankfully, it is the only serious violence of the day. Could this really be Somalia?
In Mr Riyale's home region, alongside the Ethiopian border, observers encounter crowds of children in queues, then crowds of people handing out voter cards. "Vote early, vote often" seems to be the name of the game. But we are observers, not monitors. We note it down: one for the final report.
Life as an election observer