In May 1991, Somaliland emerged as a self-declared independent state in the aftermath of the failure and subsequent collapse of Siyad Barre’s Somalia. Although ethnically and linguistically Somalilanders are undifferentiated from their counterparts in southern Somalia,
the northwestern region of Somalia has achieved an important distinction: while Somalia remains fundamentally anarchic, with no substantial national government to speak of, Somaliland is conversely peaceful, democratic, and remarkably safe by comparison. The de facto state held successful national elections in 2003 (presidential), 2005 (parliamentary), and again in 2010 (presidential). International Election Observers (IEOs), along with Domestic Observers (DOs), participated in monitoring each of these processes, concluding that elections were substantially free and fair. Nevertheless, Somaliland remains internationally unrecognized and is considered under international law to be a province of non-functioning Somalia.
On November 28, 2012, Somalilanders once again went to the polls to participate in district level elections. Representing seven political parties, nearly 2,400 candidates – including 140 women – contested 379 positions across the country. In addition to selecting district-level policymakers, the elections carried national significance: of the seven competing parties, the three that received the most votes became the only three political parties legally capable of contesting elections in Somaliland for the next decade.
I participated as a member of the 50-person IEO team deployed in Somaliland to observe the polling process across the country. Observers from 17 countries were assembled in 25 two-person teams and, on election day, visited roughly 20% of Somaliland’s 1,700 polling places. The following is a personal account of my experience on election day, 28 November 2012, deployed around Salaxley, Somaliland.
A cloud of dirt and dust marks the wake of our 4×4 as we speed through Hargeisa’s empty streets at 4:30am. It’s early morning on election day: roads are closed to all non-official traffic. We travel through Hargeisa, over the Maroodi-Jeex bridge that spans a bone-dry river, and through the town’s low-lying sprawl. We’re headed south and the driver knows the way by heart, because there are no signs. After turning at an inconspicuous side street, navigating off the road to travel around a crumbled building, we turn into what appears to me empty Somali bush. The tarmac ends abruptly, and the road – undifferentiated from the surrounding expanse of dirt and bush – becomes rough, twisting sharply left and right suddenly as the driver navigates divots and thorny shrubs.
We are headed to Salaxley, a town southeast of Hargeisa toward the Ethiopian border. The drive for the next two hours is haunting: a full moon still low on the horizon casts a cool blue light over a landscape that looks, with little exaggeration, as if it might as well be the surface of the moon. There is no opportunity to relax, let alone sleep. Our car is flying across the landscape, a second vehicle loaded with two Special Protection Unit (SPU) gunmen variously speeding alongside or behind us. The bumps are jarring as the driver reacts to the onslaught of obstacles in front of us, slamming on the breaks at several points to avoid the worst of them in dramatic fashion. Cool air rushes in through the windows, welcome in anticipation of the sun that is now creeping into the scene. Today will be hot and dry. Like most other days here.
Before entering Salaxley, we pass through a makeshift security checkpoint, the third since we departed Hargeisa. This one is typical: a tattered rope tied between two cement blocks blocking the road. It’s early and still cool, so the guard is sitting by a fire. He walks over, AK-47 slung casually over his shoulder, to peer into the windows. Our red “international observer” hats and official National Election Commission (NEC) identity cards are sufficient, and the rope is lowered.
Salaxley looks, inevitably, like a thousand other small Somali towns. The wide dirt strip running through the center of town is merely a continuation of the wide dirt landscape in which the town is situated. There is no vegetation anywhere in sight, save for the low scrub bushes and the occasional Acacia tree. To me, the location of the town seems utterly random: why here? It may as well be situated at any other location in a twenty-mile radius as far as I can tell. But, surely some reason exists. I know little of life here, and to me simple survival in this harsh landscape overwhelms comprehension. The town is comprised of a collection of makeshift buildings and shelters, stretching for perhaps 300 or 400 meters alongside the road. There are several small shops, perhaps just three or four shelves selling a few items, dotted into faded mud-brick buildings. At least one dirt-floored ‘restaurant’ is constructed of sticks, metal sheeting, plastic, and other found materials. ‘Baasto’ is on the menu.
But, we are not here to eat (though we will return for that purpose hours later). The first polling station of the day, No. 419, is located on the edge of town. Situated in a tiny crumbling building, two lines – one for men, one for women – are already forming outside. It’s 6:30am, and polls open in 30 minutes. My partner Nada and I loop our NEC credentials around our necks and don the bright red ‘international observer’ hats; hers goes over a headscarf gracefully encircling her face. As we step out of our vehicle, eyes are on us. But, the faces we see are excited and predominantly friendly. Our presence means that the world is watching Somaliland, even in the tiny town of Salaxley, seemingly a place removed from the hum of our increasingly connected world.
Glancing around at the building, I notice a party flag flying next to the door. Xaqsoor’s (pronounced similarly to ‘hack-saw’) colors are yellow and white, but they should not be raised here. The campaign period is over; Somaliland election laws dictate that polling stations must be free of campaign materials on election day. But, perhaps nobody got the memo. The crowd outside the door parts for us, and the policeman at the door – military fatigues, black boots, blue beret, and a well-used automatic rifle over one shoulder – glances quickly at our cards before allowing us to enter. Inside, there is barely enough room to move.
The polling station staff includes four people: a chairman, secretary, and two ‘scrutineers’ responsible for inspecting and applying the all-important ‘indelible’ ink, which will in theory serve as a sufficient replacement for a national voter registry. Ideally, the first scrutineer greets voters by inspecting the little finger of their left hand for ink. If no ink is found the voter steps in to the polling station chair and secretary, where one records by hand the voter’s name and approximate age in a record book containing a hand-written log of every ballot number. If the voter is under 16 years of age, judged according to appearance because few people have any kind of official identity document, a ballot is issued. If the voter appears too young, the chair and secretary can question the person to determine their age. In a dispute, someone from the community – perhaps an elder, or just a neighbor – can be consulted.
Once the ballot is issued, a makeshift voting booth is located in the corner behind a white sheet, strung up with string to a nearby bench. The ballot box, a clear plastic bin sealed with plastic ties on the corners, is on the floor in the middle of the room, within sight of all. In theory, the process is sound, democratic, and transparent. In practice, the challenges of making this system work well in Somaliland – or, probably, any place facing the particular constellation of issues that Somaliland faces – are significant. Our experiences over the day will reveal as much.
In addition to the polling station staff, agents for each party – Kulmiye, UCID, Rays, Waddani, Dalsan, Umadda, and Xaqsoor – are seated along the walls of the room, the goal of increased transparency clearly in mind. No one without official credentials, with the exception of voters, should be inside the polling station at any time. In particular, men with guns should remain outdoors. But that rule, too, we found lacking in practice.
In total, that means at least eleven people should be inside the station at all times, in addition to the requisite voting materials. The ballots are large and complicated, essentially 11×14 sheets of paper. With all the necessary tables, chairs, and benches to accommodate these people, and most stations little more than a twelve-foot by twelve-foot room, space is limited.
Nada and I enter the first station and stand in the only available corner, still about 15-minutes until the polls open. The noise, chaos, and excitement outside is mounting while the polling station staff, mostly young university students and a mix of men and women, prepare the materials for what will be a very long day. When the voting finally begins, order is maintained for a time. Voters enter, have their fingers inspected, register in the logbook, and cast their ballot. At least, this is how it is supposed to work.
Virtually all of Somaliland is extremely rural and illiteracy is high – close to 80% in 2001 – so in these elections candidates and parties are identified by numbers according to the assumption that most people possess basic numeracy (an assumption rooted in the rise of cell phones, which are extremely popular and widely used across Africa, and patterns of day-to-day economic activity). However, even this system of numeracy is not understood by all and a high proportion of voters enter with small printed cards indicating their intended vote. When the card is presented to the chair, the ballot is filled out on behalf of the voter, confirmed by each party agent, and set into the ballot box. When so many voters use these cards, however, voter confidentiality becomes an important consideration; in our observations, probably close to 50% of all votes ended up visible to everyone in the room. Given the situation, this is a difficult issue to overcome.
We remain at the first polling station for thirty minutes before departing, filling out checklists and writing comments as we go. This is just the first station of the day: we have a list of twenty-five polling stations to visit in the next eleven hours. Unfortunately, what we do not have is a map, nor are there any road signs at all – roads themselves apparently missing – outside of the capital. This is a giant challenge in the planning process, considering that most of the polling stations are many miles apart over rough roads. Although our driver is able to identify several towns from the list, most are unknown to all. Even the Mayor of Salaxley, who we were finally forced to approach for help, couldn’t help us locate every station.
As we attempt to establish some sort of route, we in the meantime visit two additional polling stations within a few minutes drive of Salaxley proper. When we arrive at the next station – ‘Salaxley B’ – the scene is somewhat different. Many more people, much more chaos. There are two ballot boxes at this station and four lines (two each for men and women). The closest line appears to be verging on a riot. Everyone is yelling, and two men begin swinging at each other with wooden canes. Inevitably, everyone must be involved and the pushing and shouting mounts swiftly. Our own SPU agent appears to enjoy this environment and, bolstered by his own military fatigues and rifle, immediately enters the fray. He grabs a man by the collar and shoves him out of the crowd. Someone begins blowing a whistle, which seems to be an alert of sorts. Nada and I hang back, looking toward our vehicle and considering the risk of continuing to watch from the fringe. Interestingly, the second set of lines, not even a hundred feet away but leading toward a different polling room, appear totally unfazed by the nearby chaos and instead everyone stands patiently waiting. We enter the second room, bolstered by the peaceful and quiet queue out front.
As we enter, the first thing that is immediately apparent is that the second ‘scrutineer’ – the one who is supposed to be applying indelible ink – is clearly not doing so. This was uncommon over the course of the day, but perhaps it was influenced by the chaos outside. The next voter enters, and it is clear to me that he cannot possibly be older than 12 or 13. Certainly not old enough to drive in any country! Thankfully, Nada is able to translate to me as the young man spins his story: to my surprise, the chair waves the boy on to cast his ballot. Later as we are leaving the station, I notice an entire row of young boys queuing to vote, some probably only 10-years old. But before we leave, another interesting event occurs: Nada and I watch as our SPU agent walks calmly into the station, rifle over one shoulder, registers for a ballot, casts his vote, and walks out, neatly walking right past the station where he is supposed to have his finger marked. This is all fine, except we watched him do the same thing 15-minutes prior at the first polling station! I realize quickly that this process is infinitely more complicated than I ever could have anticipated.
The drive from Salaxley to the next station is long, and it is now hot. The driver has asked around and identified what is supposed to be the next closest station. As we leave the town behind and head off into the bush, I am perplexed at how the driver can possibly know where we are going. Every direction appears as more of the same, and as the drive bumps along and the sun rises higher in the sky, all I can think is that my half empty water bottle will not last very long if the vehicle breaks down. My well-watered self would not last one afternoon in this bone-dry environment. I share this sentiment with Nada, which she finds quite funny: we agree that she would hands down out-survive me because of her Somali blood.
Panoramic views fly by our windows, but the drive seems never-ending. It is only 8:30am, but we’ve been up since 3:30 and on the road since 4am. This will be a long day. Fortunately, Nada and I find much to talk and laugh about. We are, at the outset, very different people, raised in utterly different places, accustomed to divergent cultural practices, and holding dear wildly different ideas about faith. But what we quickly discover is that none of these impede our ability to connect, and indeed, we do. Talking passes the time and makes light of the fact that we’re completely disconnected from the rest of the world, hours from anything familiar.
Although the polling stations become more rural, farther and farther apart, we notice the same patterns repeatedly. One of the first things we realize is that the supposedly ‘indelible’ ink, the primary bulwark against multiple voting, is hardly indelible at all. In some cases, the ink is simply insufficiently applied. In the afternoon, it is clear that many people, particularly men, are reluctant to have their fingers inked. Some men attempt to wriggle away from a ‘full dip,’ in which case the scrutineer must be extra-assertive in grabbing the voter’s wrist and jamming the finger into the ink container. But when the scrutineer is a woman, which was often the case, this task is more difficult.
It was common to watch voters pull a rag from their pocket immediately after having their fingers inked in order to quickly wipe the ink away before it set. Outside the stations, another phenomenon is observed: typically on the side or behind the polling station, an informal ‘de-inking’ station is set up where voters can use bleach or other substances to try and remove the ink, or otherwise apply some kind of oil prior to voting in order to prevent the ink from sticking. Unfortunately, the voting stations we visited had no way to deal with this ambitious behavior, and therefore a great deal of responsibility fell on the scrutineers to both wipe fingers before applying ink, and to be vigorous in its application. Where scrutineers were typically the least trained members of the polling station staff, this process was not always effective.
Multiple voting was further facilitated by the use of trucks – probably organized by particular party organizations – to transport voters between polling stations. This activity was of course banned, with all roads inside Somaliland officially closed to vehicles without special National Election Commission plates. Because most polling stations in rural areas are separated by great distance, the intent of this rule is perfectly clear and if enforced would probably have a significant impact on reducing instances of multiple voting. However, the police and security forces lacked any real capacity to enforce this rule, particularly in rural areas. After standing around for fifteen minutes in a practically deserted polling station in the afternoon, we hear a commotion outside: looking out the window, I see a cargo truck packed with young men pulling into the station. As the truck comes to a dust-enshrouded halt, these newly materialized voters jump to the ground and queue up at the station, which has now changed from a lazy rural outpost to a frenzied mess of activity. Nada and I observe person after person turned away after having their fingers inspected. This is a good sign considering that unquestionably every one of these voters has already cast a ballot somewhere else. Nevertheless, at least half are allowed to vote. In a unique cultural twist, many suspect voters are asked to swear to god that they have not already voted – ‘wallah.’ In the Somali context, where the nation is effectively 100% Muslim, this is a surprisingly effective tactic! Caught red handed but unwilling to sacrifice their faith, disdained voters refuse to say the words and walk out defeated.
From my impression of the November 2012 elections, multiple voting did not necessarily violate the integrity of the process in a way that would call into question the democratic nature of the outcome. Although the tenet of one-person one-vote seems a basic principle of the electoral process, the most important observation we made is that the phenomenon of multiple voting appeared to have a completely different meaning and significance in the Somaliland context. This is apparent in two ways: first, from the perspective of voters, who seemed not to be fully aware that voting more than once was in any way a bad thing. At one point in the days following the election, I was engaged in a brief conversation with a Somali man who, after learning my nationality, asked me if I voted for Barack Obama (who is naturally quite popular across Africa). After I answered in the affirmative, the man asked with total seriousness, “how many times?” When I told him “just once,” he enthusiastically proclaimed that he had been able to vote five times for his candidate of choice! In fact, I had similar exchanges with a number of voters after asking them if they had voted, and all proudly and unabashedly indicated the number of times they had voted – usually more than once. In this sense, multiple voting can be viewed practically as an outgrowth of enthusiasm for the democratic process: this is indeed a positive takeaway from a phenomenon that might otherwise be viewed as fundamentally undemocratic.
The second important consideration is that multiple voting, widespread as it was, did not appear – at least in any obvious way – to be dominated by one or a few parties. Rather, it seemed to be widely distributed, ‘cheating’ indeed but, as one other international observer put it, ‘equal opportunity cheating.’ So although in these elections there were no doubt more votes cast than individuals who voted, it still seems highly likely that the outcome of the election represents the general will of the people, which is ultimately the most important goal of any democratic process. (Although it should be noted that the results are currently disputed by representatives of several parties that did not meet the threshold for becoming official parties; these groups claim that multiple voting was in fact orchestrated by the party currently in power [Kulmiye]. No international observers that I spoke to made this assertion, nor did any make note of one-party dominated multiple voting.) Moreover, we did not witness more blatant forms of cheating such as ballot stuffing (although one IEO did report a ballot box being seized by the police). In this sense, the primary testament to Somaliland’s democracy is that the population remains enthusiastic about the process. Although the process did break down in several ways – the not so indelible ink being the most important – the break down happened within the confines of a democratic system and, significantly, did not challenge this system in any fundamental way. While the process was imperfect, the outcome nevertheless represents further consolidation of a democratic norm.
After visiting approximately ten polling stations over the course of the day, we returned to Salaxley to observe the close of the polls and the counting process. As we waited around, we once again witnessed our ‘interventionist’ SPU agent involve himself in a conflagration. Over the day, we witnessed various incidents of tension and chaos outside polling stations, although this particular incident occurred on the outskirts of town and appeared to involve a dispute about whether or not someone would be allowed to get onto one of the trucks ferrying voters between towns. I watched from a distance as two men yelled at each other and soon thereafter began hitting each other. The younger man, after being accosted with a cane, boldly drew a large knife from his side and began wantonly swinging toward the other man. This inevitably drew a large crowd of loud onlookers, and our SPU agent marched into the fray gun in hand and finger-on-trigger. The crowd, led by this SPU, quickly subdued the man, tied him by the hands, forced him to his knees, and began beating him, though with some (minor) restraint. After a few minutes of this, the agent – for reasons totally unbeknownst to me – marched the man by the hands to our vehicle, stripped him of several other weapons, and somewhat to my surprise, set him on his way. The confrontation was over, our security guards and driver found it all quite funny, and that was that. Such is the way here, I suppose.
Drama and excitement behind, we returned to the station we had started at eleven hours prior to observe the close of the polls. The chaos was elevated in the last thirty minutes of voting, perhaps because voters did not understand that if they were in line by the time the polls closed at 6pm, the law mandates they must be allowed to vote. We required a security escort to push through the crowd into the tiny station, and once inside the swarm of people outside seemed likely to overrun the entire building. But, about fifteen minutes before poll closing, the ballots were exhausted. Each station had up to 1050 ballots, or two books of 525. To my total surprise, the pushing and yelling crowd outside disbursed practically instantly and in total calm when the chair indicated as much, and the scene changed in the course of five minutes from one of total chaos to quiet and seemingly worry-free. At this point, it was dark and the station was illuminated with an LED lamp, one of which had been issued to every station as part of the election materials.
The polling station chair, young as he was, appeared well trained in his knowledge of closing the polls. In a very ordered way, the man directed the re-arrangement of the room so as to facilitate counting, making sure that everyone had a seat within view of the ballot box. He cut the seals on the box, laid out a series of clearly labeled envelopes for sorting ballots, filled out the appropriate reconciliation in the station logbook. And, in no time at all, the counting commenced. One by one, ballots were drawn from the box, unfolded, displayed to everyone in the room for verification, and sorted into the appropriate party envelope. This process was two tier to accommodate district- and national-level tabulation, with the ballots first being sorted into party envelopes, and subsequently tallied for each candidate. In fact, the counting was so slow and transparent to be absolutely mind-numbing. After two hours, the bottom of the ballot box was in view, although we had not even begun the second-tier candidate tally: unfortunately as I expressed my relief, someone pointed out that this was only the first – and smaller – of two full ballot boxes! As the process continued, our security escort finally lost patience insisting that the trip back to Hargeisa should not be undertaken at too late an hour. Considering that we had no desire to stay at the Mayor’s home, which was the only available accommodation, we were forced to leave before the counting was complete. As it was, we still did not get back to the city until almost midnight.
The drive back to Hargeisa was jarring. Our driver, unsurprisingly to me, got lost at one point, adding an hour to our journey. The landscape again reminded me of nowhere on this planet, empty, stark, flat, seemingly an endless expanse of desert, bush, and dust in every direction. When we finally got to the outskirts of the city, all remained eerily quite: the roads were still closed. But the whirlwind of a day was wrapped up. Observers from around the country were reporting back, though many from more remote parts of the country still faced a multi-day journey back to Hargeisa. The reports from all regions were remarkably similar: plenty of chaos, but nothing outside the norm; high participation from women; good quality polling staff and a transparent counting process; no major reports of violence, definitely a positive feature to be underscored. And, of course, there was the ink!