By 8 a.m. on a recent day, thousands of people were packed into Burao’s sandy town square, with little boys climbing high into the trees to get a peek at the politicians.
“We’re going to end corruption!” one of the politicians boomed, holding several microphones at once. “We’re going to bring dignity back to the people!”
The boys cheered wildly. Wispy militiamen punched bony fists in the air. The politicians’ messages were hardly original. But in this corner of Africa, a free and open political rally — led, no less, by opposition leaders who could actually win — is an anomaly apparently worthy of celebration.
The crowd that day helped tell a strange truth: that one of the most democratic countries in the Horn of Africa is not really a country at all. It is Somaliland, the northwestern corner of Somalia, which, since the disintegration of the Somali state in 1991, has been on a quixotic mission for recognition as its own separate nation.
While so much of Somalia is plagued by relentless violence, this little-known slice of the Somali puzzle is peaceful and organized enough to hold national elections this week, with more than one million registered voters. The campaigns are passionate but fair, say the few Western observers here. The roads are full of battered old Toyotas blasting out slogans from staticky megaphones lashed to the roofs.
Somalilanders have pulled off peaceful national elections three times now — the last presidential election in 2003 was decided by a wafer-thin margin, around 80 votes at the time of counting, yet there was no violence. Each successful election feeds the hope here that one day the world will reward Somaliland with international recognition for carving a functioning, democratic space out of one of the most chaotic countries in the world.
But this presidential election, scheduled for Saturday, will be one of the biggest tests yet for Somaliland’s budding democracy.
The government seems unpopular, partly because Somaliland is still desperately poor, a place where even in the biggest towns, like Burao or the capital, Hargeisa, countless people dwell in bubble-shaped huts made out of cardboard scraps and flattened oil drums. Most independent observers predict the leading opposition party, Kulmiye, which means something akin to the one who brings people together, will get the most votes.
But that does not mean the opposition will necessarily win.
In many cases in Africa — Ethiopia in 2005, Kenya in 2007, Zimbabwe in 2008 — right when the opposition appeared poised to win elections, the government seemed to fiddle with the results, forcibly holding onto to power and sometimes provoking widespread unrest in the process.
“There’s probably not going to be many problems with the voting itself, but the day after,” said Roble Mohamed, the former editor in chief of one of Somaliland’s top Web sites. “That is the question.”
Many people here worry that if Somaliland’s governing party, UDUB, tries to illegitimately hold onto power, the well-armed populace (this is still part of Somalia, after all) will rise up and Somaliland’s nearly two decades of peace could disappear in a cloud of gun smoke.
“I know this happens in Africa but it won’t happen in Somaliland,” promised Said Adani Moge, a spokesman for Somaliland’s government. “If we lose, we’ll give up power. The most important thing is peace.”
Easily said, infrequently done. Peaceful transfers of power are a rarity in this neighborhood. In April, Sudan held its first national elections in more than 20 years (the last change of power was a military coup), but the voting was widely considered superficial because of widespread intimidation beforehand and the withdrawal of several leading opposition parties from the presidential race.
Last month’s vote in Ethiopia, in which the governing party and its allies won more than 99 percent of the parliamentary seats, was also tainted by what human rights groups called a campaign of government repression, including the manipulation of American food aid to literally starve out the opposition.
Then there is little Eritrea, along the Red Sea, which has not held a presidential election since the early 1990s, when it won independence. And Djibouti, home to a large American military base, where the president recently pushed to have the Constitution changed so that he can run again.
South-central Somalia, where a very weak transitional government is struggling to fend off radical Islamist insurgents, is so dangerous that residents must risk Islamist insurgents’ wrath to watch the World Cup; never mind holding a vote.
So in this volatile region, Somaliland has become a demonstration of the possible, sustaining a one-person, one-vote democracy in a poor, conflict-torn place that gets very little help. While the government in south-central Somalia, which barely controls any territory, receives millions of dollars in direct support from the United Nations and the United States, the Somaliland government, “doesn’t get a penny,” Mr. Said said.
Because Somaliland is not recognized as an independent country, it is very difficult for the government here to secure international loans, even though it has become a regional model for conflict resolution and democratic-institution building — buzzwords among Western donors.
In many respects, Somaliland is already its own country, with its own currency, its own army and navy, its own borders and its own national identity, as evidenced by the countless Somaliland T-shirts and flags everywhere you look. Part of this stems from its distinct colonial history, having been ruled, relatively indirectly, by the British, while the rest of Somalia was colonized by the Italians, who set up a European administration.
Italian colonization supplanted local elders, which may have been one reason why much of Somalia plunged into clan-driven chaos after 1991, while Somaliland succeeded in reconciling its clans.
Clan is not the prevailing issue in this election. The three presidential candidates (Somaliland’s election code says only three political parties can compete, and they take turns campaigning from day to day) are from different clans or sub-clans. Yet, many voters do not seem to care.
In the middle of miles and miles of thorn bush, stand two huts, about 100 feet apart, one with a green and yellow Kulmiye flag flapping from a stick flagpole, the other with a solid green UDUB flag.
Haboon Roble, a shy, 20-year-old, explained that she liked UDUB because “they’re good. They hold up the house.”
But about 100 feet away, her uncle, Abdi Rahman Roble, shook his head.
“This government hasn’t done anything for farmers,” he complained. “We can’t even get plastic sheets to catch the rain.”
He said he was voting for Kulmiye.
“But I don’t tell anyone how to vote,” Mr. Abdi Rahman said. “That’s their choice.”
And like the other adults in the family, he proudly showed off his new plastic voter card, which he usually keeps hidden in a special place in his hut, along with other valuables.