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Somaliland election: Polls open in de facto independent nation claimed by Somalia

It has a flag, army, a bustling capital and is holding its seventh democratic election. Yet you probably won’t find this nation on any map.

On Monday, a nation with a population of almost four million people will head to the polls, its seventh election in three decades.

Compared to its neighbours, such a regular democratic tradition has been described as “exceptional”.

Yet it’s a nation you’ll find on few maps – it has sent no teams to the Olympics, and no grand embassies crowd its capital.

A nation held up by some as a shining example to others officially, at least, does not exist.

Somaliland is out on a limb both geographically and diplomatically. It occupies a chunk of the Horn of Africa, jutting out into the Indian Ocean, and it is recognised as a nation by precisely zero United Nations members.

“Somaliland has its own flag, currency and national anthem; they have their own police force, military, they have almost all of the outward symbols of independent statehood, but they don’t have international recognition,” University of Sydney international relations expert Sarah Phillips told news.com.au.

Somaliland a ‘fascinating country’

Officially it’s an autonomous region of the Republic of Somalia, the government of which is based on Mogadishu.

But racked by its own ongoing internal conflicts, Mogadishu barely has any control over Somali’s south, let alone Somaliland in the north.

Prof Phillips, who has also authored the book When There was no Aid: War and Peace in Somaliland, has travelled to the region many times including to the bustling capital city of Hargeisa, located around 100km east of the Ethiopian border.

“A lot of people have the sense that Somaliland is going to be just another part of Somalia and they’re expecting it to have this spectre of violence hovering over it,” she said.

“But that’s really not the case. You can move around Hargeisa with a reasonable level of freedom.

“It’s a fascinating country. I can walk around Hargeisa without any problem”.

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Role of Britain and Italy

Somaliland has been effectively split from Somalia since 1991 when the brutal Somali dictator Siad Barre was toppled.

But the root cause of the separation is colonialism.

In the 19th century, Italy grabbed southern Somalia and Britain took the north.

For Italy, Somalia was a prized possession which led to much meddling in the country’s everyday life by Rome. But London, which was more concerned by its other conquests such as India, ruled its colony with a lighter touch.

“The British installed indirect rule that incorporated local customary law handled by lineage leaders,” wrote Markus Virgil Hoehne, a Somalia watcher at Germany’s University of Leipzig in the journal African Arguments.

“The Italians introduced a more direct administration that undermined local traditions and weakened elders.”

A very fleeting official independence

Britain and Italy finally relinquished control of their Somali colonies in 1960.

On June 26, British Somaliland, now rechristened simply Somaliland, became an independent nation recognised by several UN members.

For five days.

On July 1, it joined with the now independent southern part of Somalia to form the Somali Republic.

“Fairly quickly (Somaliland’s leaders) regretted that as the wall politically started to close in on them, and abuses against citizens in the north started to increase, particularly under the leadership of Barre who came in during a military coup in 1969,” said Prof Phillips.

It was a brutal time with Hargeisa practically flattened by forces from Mogadishu and tens of thousands killed.

Somaliland’s self-declared split from the rump of Somalia in 1991 initially led to more violence in the north as local clans jostled for prominence.

Somaliland forced to go it alone

But Somaliland, shunned by almost all the world, managed to find a level of peace. The region’s various clans set up a government structure, including political parties that have remained largely intact for three decades.

Prof Phillips said it was a “damning indictment” of the international community that the region left to fend of itself is arguably faring better than its southern neighbour where foreign bodies streamed in to help, potentially causing more harm in the process.

“Somaliland can’t get loans from the IMF, they can’t access weapons legally. It’s in a very structurally unusual position in the world, which I think makes it so fascinating,” she said.

Election expected to be smooth

Monday’s election will see 246 MPs elected to both houses of Somaliland’s parliament as well as more politicians to local councils.

Prof Phillips said even if the result is close, past polls suggest violence won’t be resorted to.

“Back in the 2003 election the incumbent received 80 more votes than the challenger, and that was settled peacefully,” she said.

“Then the challenger won the subsequent elections in 2010 – that’s really quite unusual for the Horn of Africa and does mark Somaliland out as being quite exceptional.”

In contrast, Somalia’s latest election date has come and gone with the president refusing to leave office.

Prof Phillips does, however, have a note of caution about Somaliland’s democracy.

“There’s problems, a number of political candidates have been arrested and there’s encroachments on the freedom of the media,” she said.

“Democracy in Somaliland is by no means perfect, but elections are fairly robustly and enthusiastically contested.”

The leadership of Somaliland hope another election, and another smooth transition between politicians, will further bolster its case for international recognition.

It points to two examples close by. Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia was recognised in 1993 while South Sudan spilt from Sudan and entered the world stage in 2011.

The sticking point is Mogadishu. It may have had little to do with the north for decades but it shows no sign of admitting it no longer controls the entire area.

“They completely do not accept, and consider treasonous, Somaliland’s proclaimed independence,” said Prof Phillips.

“(Eritrea and South Sudan) eventually – after a long and bloody process – had the capital cities of both Ethiopia and Sudan saying OK, we accept this. Mogadishu has not done that. And there’s no indication that it will.”

Hard to ignore even an unofficial country

But while it may not have a seat at the UN, the non-official existence of Somaliland is becoming hard to ignore. The nation is an important and stable regional player and a rich vein of oil may exist beneath its land.

“Non-recognition in itself is less of a problem; Somaliland shows that political order, democratic process, and a certain degree of development can be achieved without much international assistance,” said Prof Hoehne.

“What is worrying is the prospect that a future Somali government could attempt to subdue Somaliland as an unrecognised polity, which could provoke new military conflict.”

Even if stability could be restored to the region’s south, Prof Phillips said it was unlikely that Somaliland would ever willingly become one with the south again.

“In my lifetime I would be shocked to see Somaliland re-join the rest of Somalia,” she said.

“The entire national identity is built around this sort of othering of themselves from the rest of Somalia and the righteousness of their independence.

“Those five days of independence have become the stuff of legend and that’s a big part of the legal arguments on which the independence case is based.

“That is, that Somaliland is not seceding from the Republic of Somalia – they’re simply reclaiming the independence that they already legally had.”

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